Technologies of Possibility
Digital Identity, Community, and Personal Domains
in the Classroom
Martha Burtis, University of Mary Washington
@mburtis | wrapping.marthaburtis.net
• Supports faculty in the effective and appropriate use of technology
• Consults . . .on the identification and implementation of appropriate
technology and instructional strategies to meet student learning
• [responsible for] designing effective, quality instruction for technology-
enabled learning environments
• [has a] proven track record in. . .developing quality solutions
• Provides expert advice on effective and efficient online teaching practices
• Manages relationships with external vendors involved in the production
and delivery of courses
• design, develop, and evaluate instructionally effective technology-
I read [Amanda’s paper] and burst into tears. I’ve been writing
now for 25 years or so, and have had reviews in the New York
Times, Village Voice, Boston Globe, Publisher’s Weekly, and
blurbs from famous writers and editors who say my stuff is great,
etc., but this was the first time I cried reading something
somebody wrote about my fiction. I think it has something to do
with the no-nonsense connections Amanda has made with what I
write and the way people with developmental disabilities are
perceived and relegated. It also has something to do with her
sympathetic yet strategic way of reading my story. There’s a
moral code Amanda is targeting and she finds it in my work: what
an incredible gift to me as a writer.
I want to start today by talking about what I hate about the field I work in. Generally, this discipline is known as instructional or educational or academic technology. And, in preparation for this talk, I spent sometime looking at job descriptions for people like me. I want to show you some excerpts from these descriptions and talk about what they tell us of our relationship with technology in higher education.
What do I find so off-putting about the rhetoric of my discipline? Generally speaking, when we speak about instructional technology we do it from a perspective that I would classify as the practical perspective. The language suggests that we are responsible for matching technologies to problems, and in doing so, we help teachers become more effective, efficient, and productive. And while I don’t necessarily have a problem with thinking about the ways in which technology can make us more effective, efficient, and productive I whole heartedly reject that our primary engagement with technology in the domain of teaching should be driven by practical concerns. Before I continue, I want to make a very important point. I UNDERSTAND that technology can, does, and should address practical needs and concerns. I use technology ALL THE TIME to do this -- Google (Calendar), Twitter, iPad/Kindle. I have no problem with talking about ways in which technology can improve our lives, help us to collect and track data more efficiently (and make descicions based upon that data), solve problems we have in our professional and personal lives. The problem I have is when converations about technology at our colleges and universities begins and ends with this rhetoric. I believe that the rhetoric of the practical should be contextualized and couched within a different kind of rhetoric. I will argue, in fact, that this practical rhetoric does NOT derive from the values and mission at the core of our institutions of higher education. I reject the idea that a majority of faculty, if surveyed about their practice of teaching, would describe that practice with words like effective, appropriate, or efficient. I have yet to hear a single professor tell me she is interested in delivering a “quality solution.” I suppose it is easy to dismiss this as just the rhetoric of job descriptions. They are, after all, hardly known for being masterpieces of great literature. But the thing about rhetoric is that it can and does provoke action. In this case, it provokes the hiring of people to do actual things. And the doing of those things impacts and effects the work that we do at our institutions.
Where does this rhetoric come from? Why do we talk about instructional technology in such dry, practical terms that seem divorced from the rhetoric and language of our disciplines and our teaching and dare I saw, our humanity? I have an idea. I think this language derives from outside of our institutions -- from the technology vendors that sell us their products. We have a troubled and troubling relationship with these vendors. Their job, as they see it, is to make stuff (devices, apparatuses, protocols, programs) that we need and then sell it to us. Time and time again, what I see is that they ALSO determine what that need is. How many of you have sat in on vendor demonstrations? For a new course management system or lecture capture system or screen-sharing program or interactive whiteboard? I’ve sat in on lots of these. I’ve attended conferences in which there are demonstration halls as big as professional football stadiums, FILLED with educational technology vendors hawking their wares. They describe their products as “solutions” that will “appropriately” address your “technology-enhanced” teaching needs. Their products will make you more efficient and effective. I don’t fault the vendors for using this language. This is what they do -- they write verbiage that describes their products in a way that they think will align with our needs. I fault US for falling for this. I fault US for allowing vendor-speak to dominate not only the process by which we decide how to spend our dwindling budgets but ALSO for allow it to infiltrate the way we talk about technology at our institutions, in general. We need to reject the language of the vendor. We need to develop our own language for talking about technology at our institutions. By changing the way we talk about technology, we can change the way we think about technology. By changing the way we think about technology we WILL change the way we use technology. Today, I’m going to propose some new language for and a new approach to technology in higher education. Instead of starting our conversations about technology by asking what is the problem and how can technology fix it, I’m going to propose that we open ourselves up to thinking about technology always in terms of the possible: Technologies of Possibility NOT Practicality.
In particular, and for the purpose of focusing my talk today, I’m going to be speaking about one specific technology of possibility, and how at my institution we’ve tried to reshape our relationship with it: The Web. The Web is the ultimate technology of possibility, if we allow ourselves to think about it through the right lens and with the right language. All too often, when I hear instructional technologists and faculty (and even administrators) talk about the Web, they are concerned with how it will help them complete a particular task they have. When we talk about “online learning,” for example, we’re really talking about how we can use the Web as a platform for delivery of content. And we want to know what the best tools are that are out there to help us with that delivery. How can we package up a course and use the Web as the mechanism for sharing that package? I am suggesting that we stop approaching the Web as primarily a practical tool for getting something done -- or delivering content. I am suggesting, instead, that we attempt to understand it as a technology of possibility -- in which we can explore and expand our disciplines, enact and define our identities, and connect with and participate in new communities and in a new culture. Fundamentally, I see my role in the University as someone who helps faculty and students think about how technologies of possibility are changing their lives and their understanding of their roles in the world. I don’t see my role as someone who primarily teaches faculty how to use clickers. I’m not saying that to be a anti-clicker snob. I just don’t think that’s particularly interesting or transformative negotiation of our relationship with technology. At UMW, more than an approach to technology that involves some recipe of devices, apparati, protocols, or programs, I think we approach our work in instructional technology as a philosophy. Here are some aspects of that philosophy
In 2004, my then boss, Gardner Campbell required all of the members of my division to get domain names and space on a Web host. He had come to realize that as instructional technologists, we were hamstrung by. . .technology. Other than the products or system that our institution had decided to purchase, we had very little options when it came to thinking creatively about we should or could be using technology at the institution. On campuses, our primary “technology” was the course management system -- a tool that forced faculty to work within walled spaces, discouraged students from thinking about their courses outside of technically-defined silos of content, and lacked features that encouraged real collaboration, sharing, and connection. Meanwhile, the Web was starting to change. Social media and networks were beginning to emerge. The Read-Write web or Web 2.0 was being discussed as the next wave of possibility. Blogging was taking off. Wikis were growing into enormous encyclopedias of (sometimes accurate) information. But at our institutions, we were still stuck. Gardner’s decision to have us experiment on the open Web was the first step in changing the game for us at UMW. The space was one gift of the possible that we received through this project. I should take a moment and talk about how this Web space was different from the Web space that we already had avaialable to us at UMW. Starting in the mid-nineties, UMW had provided faculty, staff, and students with "web space" in our .edu domain. The space they received, though, was very minimalist. They could host HTML documents and images, and that's really it. There was no way for them to install Web applciations or databases. The space that we began experimenting with and that our faculty grew to use, as well, involved hosting on a server that allows us to easily install open-source Web apps (connected to databases) AND is associated with personal domain names. Each of us now had a sandbox in which we could build our own experimental laboratory on the Web. We could build and destroy databases. We could install open-source Web applications like WordPress, bbPress, and MediaWiki. We could create our own little social network sites for our department of a class we were supporting. We could look at the code, make changes to it, and see what happened. The Web wasn’t a thing that we were “going to” anymore. It was a thing we were building. The other gift was the gift of an address. We each now had a domain name where we could place ourselves and where others could find us. It seemed fairly insignificant at the time, but, in the end, it was transformative. We worked in those spaces for several years, building and breaking Web environments. Sometimes those experiments were purely for fun, other times we were working with a faculty member who wanted to try out a blog or a wiki or an open discussion forum. As faculty saw what we could do in these spaces, they began to buy domain names and Web space for themselves and their departments. It started to become important to us and some of the faculty we worked with to think about framing out our identities online. And within a year or so, we began thinking about what it would mean if STUDENTS could do this.
In the fall of 2007 we took a step in this direction. We launched a blogging platform which we called UMW Blogs. We couldn’t yet give students domains and open Web space. But we could build an opening publishing platform that allowed them to work in their classes in new ways and encouraged them to think about their presence on the Web differently. UMW Blogs runs, for those of you who care, on the open-source blogging application WordPress. It allows any member of our campus community to create an account and then provision as many sites (or blogs) from that account. Faculty began to use it as a means of creating course Web sites that lived outside of the course management system. We launched the system as a grassroots initiative, inviting anybody who wanted to to use it.
We also installed a plugin on UMW Blogs that allowed anyone to “map” a domain name onto a blog in the system. A few faculty took advantage of it, beginning to build out professional portfolio sites for themselves. And then a few students did, too. One of them, Rachael Wonderlin, realized she could do this on UMW Blogs and, on her own, went out and bought her domain name, mapped it on a blog in the system, and began to build a portfolio about her research in the area or gerontology. She understood the potential of this space without anyone telling her. She was one of the first students we encountered who got this, and she planted a seed in our minds that others might want to “get this” too. I cannot emphasize enough how completely unstructured and unanticipated any of this was. We didn’t go into this experiment with a set of technical requirements or objectives (that we would later want to assess). Rather, Gardner recognized that we needed a space of our own in which to explore the possible. So he gave us that. And over nine years, we’ve just continued to experiment and explore the possible. Once we began to see how students and faculty were thinking about UMW Blogs as more than just a place to build course Web sites or club Web sites -- but as a space to explore their own digital identity, we started think about what the next steps might be.
In spring of 2010, my colleague Jim Groom began teaching a class at UMW on digital storytelling (affectionately known as #ds106), and, as part of that class, he required every student to purchase a domain name and Web hosting space. Then, over the course of the semester, they used that Web space to explore digital storytelling through the creation of their own digital identity. Each student built their own site, designed it, and determined what features they wanted to add to it. That site became the platform upon which they shared the work of the class. And the work of the class was two-fold: students were exploring the genres of digital storytelling, defined through the media and means of production (images, design, video, audio, mashups, etc.) but they were also exploring a larger narrative of themselves and thinking about how they could shape and present themselves online. Most of these students had never had a personal Web site before, much less their own domain names. When Jim first started this experiment with #ds106, it seemed a bit ludicrous. How was he going to hold the hands of 25+ students as they went through the process of building out their sites (including installing Web applications) from scratch and STILL manage to cover the content and work of the course. There were SO many places where this could go wrong, and the entire endeavor seemed messy and complex. #ds106 has now been taught about 10 times in different sections by three different instructors (I’m one of them), and we continue to have students in the class build and explore their digital identity. I can say, definitively, that the complexity and messiness of this course is worth it. Whether students continue their sites when the course is over (some do, some don’t), #ds106 is a course that requires students to not just USE the Web but to OCCUPY and INHABIT the Web. On some level, they must develop an understanding of how the Web works and how they choose to present themselves in this space. The course is premised upon the notion that we all make choices about our engagement with technology, and it’s better if those are informed choices. Your digital identity doesn’t need to be wholly framed by the interface of Facebook or the features of Twitter. You can determine how findable you are, and what people discover about you when they do find you.
We are convinced at UMW that this kind of engagement with the Web is FAR more important and critical than using the Web to review lectures or participate in conversations on discussion boards in the course management system. We believe that by having students use the Web this way we are arming them to be thoughtful, reflective, critical citizens of the Web when they leave our institution. We are so convinced of this that this past fall we launched a pilot projected called “Domain of One’s Own” which provides students (also faculty and staff) with domains and Web hosting space to do with as they please. Next fall, the project goes full - live, and ever incoming student will be provided with the opportunity to purchase a domain name (on our dime) and attach it to their own slice of the Web (also paid for by us). This spring, we’re working with a group of 30 faculty on an initiative to help them better understand the potential of Domain of One’s Own. Each of them is also building out their own domain and thinking critically and deeply about their presence on the Web. We want to provide them with the information and background to talk to their students next fall about the potential of this project. It’s de jeure these days to talk about technology in higher education as giving students iPads or launching MOOCs that thousands of people can enroll in. At UMW, we’ve taken a different approach. Over the last 7-8 years we’ve built a culture of awareness about the Web as a space of possibility, and we’re interesting in teaching as many people in our community about how the Web works and how they can take control of their identity online.
Several years ago, at an event much like this one at my University, James Boyle from Duke University delivered a provocative keynote address in which he suggested that we should (particularly as academics) consider “defaulting to open” when we share our work and ourselves online. The idea is that, while our instincts may sometimes push us in the direction of locking down and privatizing our work, we should always stop and consider the possibility of openness. The Web is, by its nature, open. We have to choose to make the work we put on the Web private or closed off. And in that moment of friction that is created when we wall things off, perhaps we would be better served to consider what things could happen if we were to simply. . .not.
In the five years since it launched, it’s become a core technology system for our University. Currently, we have just under 7500 sites on the system (created since it launched in 2007) and just under 10,000 user accounts. For perspective, UMW has about 250 full-time faculty and 5000 students. (We almost never delete an account or a site from the system, preferring instead to leave sites as archives of past courses and experiences and allowing alumni to continue to use the system, should they choose). Since it launched, we have had around 500 courses taught in UMW Blogs, as open educational experiences. This means that faculty and students used the system to publish some part of the work they were doing for their course. The open philosophy of UMW Blogs has fostered an attitude among our faculty and students that our educational experiences should be shared -- and that in sharing them we can benefit ourselves and others.
UMW Blogs generates a fairly impressive amount of internet traffic. The single most popular course-related page on UMW Blogs is a resource developed by a student in 2008 on the film Bonnie & Clyde . Since it was posted, it’s received 42K pageviews.
Another incredibly popular site on the system is for a course taught by Professor of Art History Marjorie Och. She teaches an upper-level seminar on Venice, in which she has students produce an online exhibit, constructed entirely out of their own research.
For those of you in the audience right now who have laptops or other internet devices available, I’d like to ask you to go the Google and enter the term “Banned Art.” Your top hit should be this site, a course site built by a professor of Philosophy at UMW. It’s incredible to me that a site devoted to sharing course materials with a small group of students at a small liberal arts institution can become a top hit on Google. For us, the popularity of these sites doesn’t matter in and off itself. We have LOTS of sites on UMW Blogs that get very little traffic and don’t show up at the top of the search results. And we would never suggest that getting hits for the sake of hits is the goal a faculty member or student should set for themselves when it comes to create a site in the system. However, there is something bewilderingly rewarding about the fact that we are making something that at UMW that is found and used by that many people. It is a lesson to our faculty and our students (and all of us) that we are capable of leaving our mark on the world (wide web). There is also something that I find satisfying as an employee at a public institution of higher education. In a time when everyone cries for greater accountability in education, I like that I can open UMW Blogs and easily demonstrate the life of the minds of our faculty and students. We share our work because we think it matters and because we think we should. I want to show you a few more examples of how faculty and students used UMW Blogs to create unique open, online resources.
UMW Professor of biology, Steve Gallik, launched this site last year which uses UMW Blogs as a platform for students to share digital images of from under the microscope. He worked with our Teaching Center to purchase some inexpensive digital cameras that can publish directly to the Web site. Students share their images and comment upon them in that space. In doing this, not only has he used the Web to enable his students to easily publish and share their work, but he and his students are creating a lasting library of images of animal tissues.
In 2009, in the midst of the global financial crisis, professor of Economics Steve Greenlaw decided to have his students investigate the economic situation as it was unfolding, and build an online resource that analyzed the causes and effects of the crisis. 13 students completed the original analysis during the spring of 2009; that summer several of them continued to work on the project by assisting Professor Greenlaw with the final editing and online presentation. Occasionally. . . when we have students and faculty
In 2007, a student in a theatre class was using her course blog to share the process of directing her first student play. On one particular post, she shared some frustrations she was having, and in particular wondered about a production choice she was struggling with. A few days after posting it, the author of the play that she was directing left a comment for her, encouraging her trust her instincts, even if her choice seemed unconventional.
A studio art professor, Rosemary Jesionowski, regularly has her students blog their reactions to the work of contemporary artists that they are learning about. Every fall, her students roundly panned the work of one of the artists, Jeff Baij. Baij stumbled across these critiques, but instead of being offended,
he incorporated them into his online bio, linking back to the students blogs themselves. This resulted in a an on-again off-again dialogue between Rosemary, her students, and Jeff. At one point, some her students even started imitating Baij’s style, making their own “Baij-like” art.
Professor Chris Foss teaches a disability literature course, in which he has his students share their papers on various works of fiction they are reading. In 2010, student Amanda Gorman, wrote a paper about a short story by Keith Banner titled The Wedding of Tom to Tom . Banner found Amanda’s pieces and wrote a post on his own blog in which he said:
Professor Chris Foss teaches a disability literature course, in which he has his students share their papers on various works of fiction they are reading. In 2010, student Amanda Gorman, wrote a paper about a short story by Keith Banner titled 2+2=5. Banner found Amanda’s pieces and wrote a post on his own blog in which he said:
In none of these examples, did the faculty or students choose to publish their work openly with the practical goal of making a profound connection or racking up hits, with a playwright, artist, or author. There was no “problem” here that UMW Blogs was designated to “solve.” Instead, these faculty recognized that there was no real reason NOT to have their students share their work. In some cases, they may have hoped that by having students share openly, they would think a bit more deeply about their voice and their audience, but, beyond that, openness was simply a quality of the Web that they chose to embrace. In doing so, they harnessed the power of openness and the myriad possibilities that it affords.
The final story I want to tell you is also about openness but it also circles back to #ds106. You see, I only told you HALF of the story of that course earlier in this presentation. After teaching #ds106 as a face-to-face class back in 2010 (and having students purchase domain names and Web space), Jim decided a year later that he was going to open this course up to the world. Through social media, he invited everyone in his network to participate in the course starting in spring 2011. And many of those people invited everyone in their networks, as well. I should mention that this was also the spring when I started teaching ds106 -- I was a bit terrified of what would happen when the floodgates opened. What happened was something quite remarkable. Before the class had even officially started at UMW in mid-January, over 200 people had set up blogs and registered them on the course site to participate. People from all over the world were interested in joining this community and participating in the experience of the course.
At some point prior to the semester starting, one “open participant” (That’s what we took to calling them) suggested that it might be nice to be able to suggest assignment ideas for the course. Jim and I loved this idea (we were still searching for the best mix of assignments) and so I set up an assignment repository for ds106. Anyone can submit an assignment idea to the repository and anyone can do a submitted idea. If you’re a member of the community and you complete an assignment (and tag it properly) we also will show your completed work alongside of the original assignment. As of yesterday, we have over 500 submitted assignment ideas. The most popular design assignment has been completed 118 times.
In addition to submitting assignment ideas, many of our open participants stuck with the course that semester through almost every assignment. But not only did they do the assignments (for fun), they also began to mentor UMW students, critique their work and offer technical assistance or creative suggestions. As we entered the audio storytelling portion of the class, someone in the community mentioned (on Twitter, I believE) that it would be nice to have a radio station to showcase our students’ work. Within 36 hours, a colleague of ours at the University of Northern British Columbia, Grant Potter, built a Web radio station, and that spring we launched #ds106radio. This station still exists and has it’s own hardcore community of broadcasters. At any given moment, if you tune in, you can hear live shows from a colleague in Japan (who likes to broadcast while he walks into work in the morning), a set of songs from a colleague in Chicago, broadcasts from colleagues attending conferences who live-stream sessions they are delivering or attending, and, of course, radio shows produced by UMW students as part of the credit-granting course at UMW. And on Twitter, you’ll find ds106 students and participants and ds106radio broadcasters talking and interacting over what’s playing on the radio or what someone’s just published on their blog.
After we had taught #ds106 a few times as an open, online course at UMW, colleagues at other institutions began to teach #ds106-like courses at their schools. They make use of various #ds106 resources: the assignment repository, the radio station, and a site called “The Daily Create” that we launched as part of the course about a year ago -- as they see fit. It was about a year after ds106 went open and online that MOOC-steria hit. Sometimes people like to call ds106 a MOOC because, I guess, it is bigger than most courses, both in terms of the number of participants and the way it expands out from a single institution. But those of us who paticipate in #ds106 see it differently. To us #ds106 isn’t even really a course anymore. It’s a community and an ethos that has developed within that community. That ethos reflects the same notions of openness, play, experimentation, and identity that I’ve been talking to you about today. I think sometimes about what our students at UMW make of this larger “ds106” that their course is a part of. Some of them engage deeply with the community, and continue to converse and connect with open, online participants even after the course is over. Some of them don’t seem to take much notice of the larger scope of #ds106. The majority of them are somewhere in the middle; they seem to be exploring the space of the community, trying to understand what it is, timidly reaching out to open participants (and, usually getting a big response in return) to see what it’s all about. For me #d106 is THE illustration of our approach to technology at UMW. It is technology occupied by people, defined by people, and built by people. and I believe it is my job (as an instructional technologist and as a teacher) to help faculty and students understand what their role is in this system. Even if our students shut down their blogs, delete their Twitter accounts, and are never in touch again with a member of the larger #ds106 community, I want them to come away from this experience with some idea of what it means to be a citizen of a community that is wholly forged online. I want them to understand how that community is a product of some creative activity, some technical prowess, but mostly humanity. And, ultimately, to circle back to the original premise of my talk, this is what I think is missing from our language of technology: humanity. It is certainly true that we should try to understand how technology can make us more effective, efficient, and productive. It’s fine to consider ways in which technology is more or less appropriate to address a problem or question or data need we have. But my hope is that we can contextualize this practicality within a much deeper, richer, and more nuanced conversation about how technology can change our lives, our minds, and our culture. Thank you.