On Friday, 12 August 2016, Martha Burtis gave one of two closing keynotes at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute held at the University of Mary Washington. Below is the text of her talk; the audio above is edited from the video recording of that morning’s keynotes.
I thought I’d start today by telling you a little bit about myself. While some of your faces are familiar, I don’t know most of you, and I doubt you know much about me.
I trust you know my name, and you now know from my introduction that I run the Digital Knowledge Center at the University of Mary Washington, which provides peer tutoring and consulting to our students working on digital projects and assignments. Here are a few other things I’d like to tell you about myself.
I attended this school (although at the time it was known as Mary Washington College), and I graduated from here 20 years ago this past May. I received a B.A. in English, and when I graduated I was dead set on going to graduate school, studying early modern British literature, getting a PhD, and, hopefully, eventually, teaching at a school just like this.
Instead, a couple of other things happened. The year I graduated from MWC was pretty close to the year the Web “broke big.” I discovered the Web between my junior and senior years in college (in a summer medieval literature course, of all places), and my primary use of it that following year was as a research tool for policy debate (I was on the debate team). By the time I graduated, I had been thoroughly charmed.
What I actually ended up doing in the year after I graduated was going to work at one of the finest places in the world: the Folger Shakespeare Library as a program assistant for the Folger Institute which organizes and runs seminars, workshops, and summer institutes for faculty and postdocs in early modern studies.
I spent a lot of time around mid- to late-career scholars who were fully and meaningfully employed in teaching and research positions and a lot of time around struggling graduate students who were working construction to make ends meet. And I was lucky enough in my job to be able to start doing stuff with the Web. The confluence of those two things — falling in love with the Web while falling out of love with the idea of never getting the job I wanted — took me down a different path. I ended up getting a masters degree in instructional technology from Teachers College at Columbia University.
I moved back to Virginia, and a few months after completing my thesis project and getting my degree I got a job — right back here at Mary Washington.
I was hired as an instructional technology liaison, and I worked up the hill a bit from this building supporting faculty in fine and performing arts. It was 2001, and I loved the faculty and the students, but I hated my job. At that time, I was basically providing technical support for faculty and their departments: fixing printers, setting up lab computers, and, occasionally, teaching someone something about Word or Powerpoint or Excel.
We had one tool in our instructional technology tool shed at that time: Blackboard. And faculty primarily seemed to use it to distribute digital files, email students, and post grades.
So that was my first full-time professional job in instructional technology. I wasn’t using anything that had to do with my degree. My boss at the time suggested that for professional development I consider becoming an Apple Certified Technician (this was pre-Genius days).
I did work with great people in my department, and, like I said, I loved the faculty and students and I loved, and still do love, this place.
I would like to say that lots of faculty were coming to me for help thinking through how they could use the Web to transform their classes, their teaching, and their students’ experiences — and that I was regularly inundated with bold, imaginative ideas and that I was capable and empowered enough to partner with them on these adventures. But I felt neither capable nor empowered, and the truth is, neither were they.
When I was working at the Folger and in graduate school in the late 90s the Web seemed like a place of infinite possibility, a great democratizing force, and a space in which anyone could build themselves something remarkable. Now, I was younger then, and I was, of course, naive. And the history of the Web is more complex than that, and technology nostalgia is like any other nostalgia — colored and softened by the long lens of the future.
But I do remember, for example, a tool that I played with in graduate school (this would have been spring of 2000) that allowed multiple people to leave public annotations on a Web site. And when I used it, I felt like I was connecting with people in a way that had never been done before. It felt like magic. And it didn’t work that well. The truth is bandwidth and code hadn’t caught up with our imaginations. But the Web was this powerful force that was washing over us, and we were all — in every field, in every industry, in personal and professional domains — trying to stay afloat and figure out what it meant.
It seems only reasonable to assume. No, not reasonable. It seems impossible to not assume that in the domain of education, a domain that is entirely about the creating, the building, the sharing of knowledge and learning that this new force of creation and knowledge sharing would be fully and authentically realized.
How on earth could it not be?
How could we all not see the power that this new medium was affording us and not be drawn to it, in every way?
Most importantly, how could we not, in fact, see it as our job to shape this new medium and to help the rest of the world understand what it could do? As a platform for transformational teaching? As a space for public research and dissemination of knowledge? As a place for collaboration on scales never seen before?
And yet. Blackboard.
I have a few theories.
I think the Web hit us at a critical moment in higher education where we were already struggling with doing our work less like schools and more like businesses, and the tech industry and its vendors had already begun to infiltrate us with promises of how technology could help us achieve this goal. We had already bought into student information systems (which eventually became everything information systems), and with the promise of those systems came the promise of lots of data which would allow us to become more efficient and streamlined.
The first LMSs were actually built at schools, often under the guidance of faculty. I like to imagine that those people were as charmed as I was about the affordances of the Web for teaching and learning. I want to believe their intentions were very good, but what they focused their efforts on was building systems for disseminating content. Systems with common interfaces. Systems with standard tools. Systems that could integrate with other systems to make our work more efficient, our experiences cleaner, and our teaching and learning, as a result, more sterile.
What if the early Web adopters in higher education had imagined Domain of One’s Own instead of Course in a Box? Why didn’t they?
In part this question is about why our systems use courses as a unit of measure instead of people. And the answer to that is really complex and stretches far back into the history of education, which is beyond the scope of my 25 minute co-keynote. But, suffice it to say, courses have long been the way we have measured our institutions and the way we have organized our administrative processes. We understand ourselves and what we offer to students through the unit of the course. But I would argue that with the greater adoption of administrative systems in higher education we doubled-down on that unit of measure. And with the LMS we did something even bigger.
Because even if we had decided for centuries that in our schools the course would be how we’d standardize administration of our schools, we didn’t, systematically, believe that courses themselves were standardized. We valued the notion that within one professor’s course she had the freedom to enact and explore the topic at hand using the pedagogies of her own choosing. And, by extension, presumably the tools and technologies of her own choosing.
But when the LMS goes beyond merely providing administrative and management features and instead is offering features designed (perhaps badly) to build community, share information, and collaborate with others, it is obviously influencing pedagogy.
I don’t think we acknowledge this nearly enough when we talk about the technologies we use in education. We like to think that a tool is easily defined by its basic functionality: discussion board, wiki page, synchronous chat, quiz builder. But all of these tools are of course far more complex than that. They’ve been designed and coded and engineered by companies to provide functionality in particular ways. And that design and code guides our students’ and our experiences through their use.
Imagine, if you will, if someone told you that from now on when you conduct a discussion in your classroom you are bound by a series of rules, procedures, and steps. You must follow those at all times, and, everyone else at your institution must also. From now on, every classroom discussion at your school must be conducted using these sames rules, procedures, and steps. If you don’t like them? You’ll have to wait and see if the next update to them addresses your concerns. You would probably balk at this suggestion — and you should. But rules, procedures, and steps are exactly what code defines, and when we fail to acknowledge this we fail to see the pedagogical power that technology and the LMS can have in our classroom.
So the LMS underscores and further codifies a set of beliefs and values: courses should be used as a unit of measure to more efficiently track and administer the business of higher education, and within those courses we should build standard interfaces, provide standardized features and tools, and promote, among our students, the expectation that their experiences from one course to the next will be, well, standard.
Why else did we end up with courses in boxes instead of domains of one’s own?
There are actually some pretty good practical reasons why DoOO didn’t exist in 1996. Domains cost a bundle back then, and procuring them wasn’t straight forward. But lots of schools had what we now affectionately refer to as tilde spaces.
Why didn’t we end up with a tilde space of one’s own?
Well, we actually did. Many schools, including this one, University of Mary Washington, provided students with their own tilde space where they could post HTML documents. And some faculty did use those spaces for students to publish on the Web. But as the Web evolved our institutions didn’t keep up with evolving those spaces. We didn’t add scripting or database features, and so the spaces became technically irrelevant and obsolete. And instead of putting our resources and skills into imagining what those spaces could become for teaching and learning, we began spending a lot of money on learning managements systems and other educational technologies.
So now we have a perfect storm. We’ve doubled-down on courses and the LMS, we’ve bought into the notion that what technology afforded us for teaching and learning was standardization of experience and pedagogy, and we’ve abandoned the nascent spaces that might have let us continue to explore the Web as a flexible, open, and powerful platform for teaching and learning.
And we’ve spent so many years going down this path that there are now powerful monetary investments and administrative processes and expectations pounding on our backs, pushing us further and further.
How do we make it stop?
To answer that question, I need to pick up my story. So after working at Mary Washington for about 16 months, I got married and moved out west to Montana for a few years (my husband was in graduate school there). When we decided it was time to move back east, I discovered that my old job, which had been frozen for budgetary reasons right after I moved, had just been reposted.
I applied, got the position, and in August of 2004 I moved back to Fredericksburg, into the exact same office I had vacated two years before. It was the same job but not at all. A lot had changed at Mary Washington. We were a university now and my department was under new leadership, In that first year I was back my department began experimenting with open source platforms. During that time, every member of my department (the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies or DTLT) got a domain name and open source Web hosting. We went from having one tool in the toolshed to many, many tools from which we could choose.
The tools themselves were open source applications — applications for creating Web sites in many different flavors: blogs, discussion forums, media galleries, wikis, even open source learning management systems.
In addition, we were working in a space where, if we wanted to, we could learn to build our own tools, or at the very least we could adapt the tools we had.
Suddenly, the Web felt accessible to me in a way it had never been before. I had complete control over a slice of it, and I dove into understanding how it worked. I started my own blog (as did all of my colleagues). I began experimenting with open source community building platforms as a way to connect our department since, at the time, we all worked in different buildings. We began building custom learning spaces for courses, based on partnerships with faculty.
For me, working in open source made possible all the things I had imagined back in the 90s, and it challenged all of those beliefs and values that the LMS underscored. It was possible to build learning environments that empowered students, and not necessarily to the detriment of the course. I could create learning environments in which the interfaces, tools, and features were customized to the needs of the professor and students. And there was simply no reason to assume that the experience from one course to the next needed to be standardized. Open source was infused with a different set of values and beliefs: co-construction, iteration, fast prototyping, extensibility, and, well, openness.
It was probably within three years that we began to ask the question “What if every faculty member and student had this? Their own domain name? Their own Web space to build what they want or need? What would happen and what would change?”
It took another six years before Domain of One’s Own was fully realized at UMW. During that six years though, we continued to build and experiment.
The first great experiment was UMW Blogs, our institutional blogging system which debuted in fall of 2007. In that nine years, it has had almost 13,000 users and it now contains 11,000 individual WordPress sites.
What exactly is UMW Blogs? Well, first and foremost it is WordPress, but a special flavor of WordPress. Specifically it’s WordPress MultiSite which allows us to administer a single core code instance that governs as many individual sites as we need. In other words, we only have to upgrade it in one place.
Within that system we can then make plugins and themes available to users. Themes let users change the way their site looks; plugins let them change the way it behaves. This extensibility of WordPress is why it has become, for me, a game-changer. When faculty or students have something they want to build on the Web, I can almost always figure out a way they can achieve it with WordPress.
Students have used UMW Blogs to create literary journals, survey properties around Fredericksburg, build online exhibits, connect with the authors of the works their reading, publish their poetry, develop in-depth online resources, and, of course, blog.
UMW Blogs allows us to give any member of the UMW community a WordPress site — really as many WordPress sites as they want, but we still control the underlying code. We decide what plugins and themes are available, and we’re the ones controlling when upgrades happen.
In 2011, I became part of another project that pushed our thinking even further. That spring, I was scheduled to teach a computer science class in digital storytelling alongside Jim Groom. Jim had taught the class face-to-face for two semesters, but he wanted to do something bigger that spring. He suggested we open the course up and allow anyone on the Web to participate. I gamely agreed.
Let me back up. I have to tell you something else. That section of CPSC 106 that I taught in spring 2011 was the first time I had ever taught. After years of working as an instructional technologist and Web developer at schools, I had finally gotten up the guts to teach. And, of course, the first time out of the gate, I was teaching it with Jim Groom on the open web for the whole world. This, of course, was the birth of ds106, the digital storytelling community, and I want to tell you about a few pieces of that experiment that were game-changers for me.
First, we decided that every student at UMW participating in ds106 had to get their own domain and Web hosting for the class. We knew they were going to be publishing their work on the Web, but UMW Blogs wasn’t enough. They had to fully own their own space. In fact, owning that space, building out their digital identity, and understanding the ensuing narrative would become a crucial, critical piece of the ds106 experience. This notion is one of the ideas at the heart of ds106 and DoOO.
The other thing we did in ds106 was massive syndication. Every participant, whether at UMW or elsewhere, has their individual blog syndicated into the main ds106 site where posts can be filtered and viewed by specific categories and tags. We had been experimenting with syndication for quite some time in UMW Blogs, but never on this scale, and we’d never brought together a community quite like this before. Posts from my students were interwoven with Jim’s students and with those of our open participants all over the world.
That commitment to massive syndication and massive openness became a core value of ds106. And the dynamic of having open participants in the mix with our UMW students changed the nature of how we and our students thought about teaching and learning.
My colleagues in the ds106 community from other institutions often helped my students or gave them feedback before I did. In future iterations of ds106, we’ve had our students collaborate with open participants on large projects, like producing a radio show as well as participating together in synchronous hangouts.
UMW students in ds106 come away with an understanding that there is absolutely nothing standardized about their experience. (They’re also usually really exhausted by the end of the course and probably hate us just a little.)
Right off the bat in ds106 we knew we wanted to turn the idea of media assignments on its head. Jim, in teaching the course face-to-face, had ten to twelve specific assignments that he would have the students work through, grouping them around particular media genres or storytelling approaches.
We decided early on that we wanted to blow that model up. And in the vein of massive openness, we built an assignment bank that allowed anyone to submit an assignment idea. They provide a name, a description, an example, and a difficulty rating (one to five stars). We publish it on our assignments site.
When we teach ds106, on a weekly basis we tell people how many stars of work they need to complete. Our students get to choose which assignments to do to meet that goal. When they finish an assignment, they publish it on their own site, and, through the magic of massive syndication, we pull it onto the individual assignment page so future visitors can see how others went about completing the assignment. As of today, we have almost 1000 assignments in the assignment bank and 11 thousand submissions.
I mention ds106 here because it was such an important stop on the road to Domain of One’s Own. It validated for us that students were capable of working on the open Web, building and managing their own spaces. And it confirmed for us that we needed to make Domain of One’s Own happen on a larger scale.
In fall 2012, we began to pilot DoOO and in fall 2013 the project was fully funded. Today, any UMW student can get a domain name (for the duration of her time at UMW) and open source Web hosting alongside it. Faculty and staff also have access to the project.
I’d like to suggest four goals that are embedded in DoOO.
- Provide students with the tools and technologies to build out a digital space of their own
- Help students appreciate how digital identity is formed
- Provide students with curricular opportunities to use the Web in meaningful ways
- Push students to understand how the technologies that underpin the Web work, and how that impacts their lives
You’ll notice that only one of these goals speaks to teaching and curriculum directly. I sometimes get pushback when I talk about these other three. What does digital identity have to do with college? Why do our students need to muck around in the code? Why can’t they use commercially provided tools like WordPress.com or Wix? Don’t they already have a space of their own on Facebook? Twitter? Tumblr? Why do they need this one?
I, frankly, find these questions quite perplexing. It seems to me that the Web is the single most powerful media environment to ever exist in our history. I’ve lived through the last twenty years, and I can’t even wrap my head around the changes it has enacted on me personally, much less us culturally. For most of this time, in higher education, we have sat back on our heels, locked in our boxed courses, convincing ourselves that the Web has nothing really to do with us.
It has everything to do with us.
Here’s a thought exercise I sometimes give my students. How many times a day do you use Google to search for something? Do you even think about it? I know I don’t. I once lost my glasses and tried to Google them. I’m serious.
So you google something, and you get a page of results. How often do you stop to think about what those results mean? Where they came from? What you’re seeing and what’s being hidden from you? Who decides this? We all know there’s an algorithm behind search. Was it written on stone tablets and handed down from on high?
Here’s another thought exercise. I have a Facebook account. If I go to Facebook’s profile editor it asks me to answer lots of questions. Where do I live? Where do I work? What are my skills? What’s my favorite quote? What are my political or religious views? Why does Facebook want to know these things about me? Does it want to be my friend? Does it actually care?
Google and Facebook are cornerstones of the Web. They give us information and they take information from us. They use that information; they control it. They decide what we see, when we see it. Facebook has run experiments to try and change how we feel. Google can from one day to the next drastically alter what the entire world sees when it searches for a presidential candidate, a drug, a breaking news item.
Students drift on the Web from site to site, search engine, to social network. They pull open their phones, they snap a picture, they believe it will disappear in a few seconds. They don’t understand how any of it is built, who controls it, who codes it, who changes that code and why.
We can give them opportunities through projects like Domain of One’s Own to begin to think critically about what they’re doing online. Not through either the fear mongering they’ve experienced in high school or through Pollyannaish rhetoric about the Web being the ultimate democratizer. But rather by asking them to make things on the Web, to grapple with how those things are managed and controlled, and to consider how what they see on the Web shows up on their screens.
I want to end with a question someone asked me yesterday. Basically, this person wanted to know how to explain or sell DoOO to administrators who are concerned about what happens when it breaks. And my response was, “You tell them: Good! It broke.” And that’s kind of glib. But it’s also true.
I can guarantee that if you have a domain of your own stuff will break. It will break in some predictable, easy-to-fix ways and probably in some totally weird, tearing-your-hair out kind of ways. Your students will experience this too. And it will be frustrating and terrible. And it will not be standardized or easily consumed. It will not be easily defined or put in a box. It will be gloriously, awfully messy. And you may have to switch directions or gears, and I hope that when you do you talk to your students about what happened and why it happened — and that you work together to try and figure this out.
And I hope that your students come away from it just a bit more sure of how things are made and how things break and just a bit more curious about how to make things and how to break things.