19 nov 2009 - 14:00
The University in the age of Google and Wikipedia. New potentials, new threats, new duties.

Who has never used Google? Who has never consulted Wikipedia? Probably not a single European academic. Almost certainly not a single European student. Search engines and free online encyclopedias are having a profound and irreversible impact on many aspects of university life. This impact is further amplified by closely linked initiatives such as the digitalization of university libraries and other printed material (Google Book Search), online visual access to the entire planet (Google Earth), the cross-referencing of scientific publications (Google Scholar), the proliferation of scientific blogs (fostered by Google Blog Search) and of lecture courses available online, and the irresistible development of efficient networks of students who exchange tips on courses and teachers as well as home assignments and exam questions.Most of us have no doubt about the great actual and potential usefulness of these developments. Yet, many are worried. Are we witnessing the privatization of the knowledge accumulated by mankind? Are we driven into ever cheaper but more superficial and less critical techniques for gathering information and assessing academic work? Are we pushing into inexistence anything that is not googleable, indeed anything that is not made salient by the operation of Google's algorithms? Doesn't Google's ability to prioritize information endow it with a tremendous and unaccountable power over what gets known and what is ignored, over what is deemed important or insignificant?

The question is not only what we need to do about these putative threats, for example by minding the design of intellectual property rights or by training our students for a critical use of what they find online. We must also ask ourselves what new positive duties emerge from the mind-blowing potential for knowledge creation and dissemination triggered by the blossoming of the web. For example, has it not become a new mission for all of us in higher education, whether students, researchers or professors, to contribute to the range, accuracy, intelligibility and user-friendliness of the information made easily accessible, worldwide and free of charge, thanks to a fast expanding variety of scientific blogs and to huge cooperative enterprises such as Wikipedia?


(click here to download programme)

Part 1: 14.00 - 15.45

  • Welcome and Introduction
    Jacques Willems (UGent, chairman of the University Foundation)
    Eric De Keuleneer (ULB, executive director of the University Foundation)
  • How does Google work? And should universities be worried?
    • Vincent Blondel (Ecole polytechnique de Louvain, UCL): Google as a search engine. (document)
    • Alain Strowel (Law Faculty, FUSL & ULg): Google as a digital library and global publisher. (document pdf) (document powerpoint)
  • Panel
    • Philippe Colombet (Google Books Europe) (document)
    • Sylvia Van Peteghem (head librarian, UGent, partner with Google Books)
    • Yvo Volman (European Commission, DG Information Society) (document)

Part 2: 16.15 - 18.00

  • How does Wikipedia work? And should universities be thrilled?
    • Yann Forget, co-founder of Wikimédia France
    • Thierry Desmedt, professor of media literacy, UCL and FUCAM
  • Submitted interpellations and reactions from the floor
  • General discussion
  • Concluding remarks
    Philippe Van Parijs, UCL, KULeuven & Harvard, coordinator of the Ethical Forum. (document)

Newspapers articles

  • Google Books onder de loep (De Standaard) (document)

Remarks and Interpellation

  • Remarks (Michel Klein, professor, HEC School of management) (document)
  • Interpellations (various authors) (document