In April, faculty and staff from fifteen universities in the Atlanta region (and beyond) will attend the Domain of One’s Own Atlanta Regional Incubator hosted by Emory University’s Writing Program. Jim Groom, Tim Owens, and Martha Burtis of the University of Mary Washington and Audrey Watters of Hack Education will provide keynote addresses. Co-organizers David Morgen (Emory University) and Pete Rorabaugh (Southern Polytechnic State University) offer this theoretical context for the Domain pilots at their respective campuses and their reasoning behind building a regional, cross-institutional pedagogical network to explore digital literacies.

In a recent conversation about Twitter in my (Pete’s) ENGL 1102 class, one of my students observed that the way we were using Twitter in class was not “what Twitter is for.” It was a revelation and led to our probing the idea of digital tools and how they’re built for specific purposes. Observing that Twitter encourages short pieces of text, links, and self-promotion, the class came to the consensus that Twitter “was meant for” celebrities, advertising, and self-obsessed status updates. “Twitter is about what you ‘do,’ and not so much about what you think,” one student asserted. True or not, it was a meaningful capture of the resistance that I encounter when I introduce a class to social media in general and Twitter in particular. Everyone is familiar with memes, hoaxes, and selfies on social media; in many ways, that’s how some of us are trained to see social media. Yet, from the culture of coding we learn that any tool can be hacked and repurposed. User agency modifies the tool, changing what it can be for and unlocking its potential.

Academics exploring the values of social media, connected learning, and network-building in and beyond classrooms (concrete and digital) have been hacking these tools for years. Twitter, in particular, provides an open space that we can populate with ideas and interaction, where real-life experience can merge with research, and where collaborative thinking can germinate. In American universities most of us don’t often encounter students who are “new to the web.” We do, however, encounter plenty of students who are new to this kind of web and this kind of approach to interaction. Significantly, most students haven’t been taught to think about how the natures of knowledge, authority, composition, and learning have changed/are changing. The Internet provides digital spaces and applications that are ripe for redefinition in ways that many educational structures have not reconciled.

One of the more active exploratory approaches to digital learning comes from a collection of (mostly) Canadian scholars who have been defining “connectivism” as a learning theory (for a thorough orientation, see Stephen Downes’s Connectivism and Connected Knowledge). Connectivist educators, mostly working in variously defined departments of Education (Bonnie Stewart, Dave Cormier, Stephen Downes, George Siemens, and Alec Couros as examples), built and worked within the first MOOCs in 2008. These experimental courses (CCK08, Change11, and ETMOOC are good examples) are now known as cMOOCs to differentiate them from the corporate varieties, a distinction that’s well explained in Sir John Daniel’s “Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility.”

In 2010, Jim Groom and University of Mary Washington’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies began tinkering with ownership and student agency with Domain of One’s Own, educating students and faculty about the essential building blocks of the web and encouraging them to take an active role in the construction of their own digital identity. Domain of One’s Own, which in fall 2013 began providing all incoming first-year students at UMW with their own domains, has received attention in Wired and the Chronicle of Higher Education, for its user-centered approach to digital creation.

UMW’s Domain of One’s Own initiative offers a possible link between the experimental workings of a connectivist MOOC and an on-ground or hybrid course offered at an institution. The move toward hybridity goes both ways, and while higher education has been mostly exploring how to export a serviceable replica of face-to-face culture into online space (short answer: we can’t, and that culture has to be re-imagined in a fresh context) some of us have been interested in taking the networked values of viable online communities and dragging them across the boundary into our classrooms. Bonnie Stewart’s article “Massive + Openness = New Literacies of Participation” gestures toward the potential unintended benefits of the last several years’ worth of MOOC furor. “Even if many models of MOOC reflect attempts by elite gatekeeping institutions and corporate interests to maintain control, market dominance, and the right to determine what counts as knowledge (see “The Problem with EdX), MOOCs may nonetheless serve as a Trojan horse for the sociocultural development of participatory perspectives and literacies.” The attention that cMOOCs have brought to connected theories of knowledge provide useful grounding for the digital experimentation and critical awareness inherent in Domain of One’s Own, a project that Groom shares with Tim Owens and Martha Burtis at UMW. Domain has solved practical problems at UMW in the way that cMOOCs have revised online learning. According to Groom, Domain “provides a link between EdTech and Digital Humanities . . . and can be part of a larger re-imagining of a culture of teaching and learning.” Both projects depend on a critical  attention to what Stewart calls “participatory perspectives and literacies.”

Doug Belshaw’s The Neverending Thesis explores the soup of terms that have been used to describe user fluency in online spaces — information literacy, media literacy, print/visual literacy, and computer literacy (“The History of ‘digital literacy’”) — and also explores dual approaches to the definition of “literacy,” one in which we develop the technical skills required for “reading” and another wherein that is “post-typographical and metaphorical,” the way “a footballer might be said to ‘read’ a game” (“New Literacies”). Belshaw, along with many others (from Anna Smith to Howard Rheingold to The New London Group), have argued for a view of literacies as a plural concept that extends beyond character decoding and extends to publishing prowess, presentation skills, and the interpretation of things like memes and platforms. Belshaw writes in his Neverending Thesis that literacy is “a condition, not a threshold.”

Before we develop agency, students and teachers must become aware. Before attending to how authorship and control work on the web (demonstrated by the language of Terms and Conditions agreements), teachers and learners may not see the importance of control of one’s own domain. However, knowing that Facebook, Twitter, and Google mine our documents and posts for their monetization potential can be eye-opening to students who have grown up labeled (or misunderstood) as “digital natives.” The companies on whose platforms we connect and through whose servers we run demonstrate varying levels of openness or exploitation, but they are companies whose primary focus is profit. They are embedded in political and economic tides (as we all are to varying degrees) that benefit from the impression that much of what we use online is “free.” Domain of One’s Own takes the approach that large corporations are not the only ones that can assert agency on the web (something many of us have known for years, but fewer have practiced) and that students who develop digital literacies begin to see the web differently, as less of a consumer space and one more useful for meaningful learning and interaction. When we have to come to terms with the conditions under which corporations own parts of our digital selves, it is often disturbing.

This awareness is one step toward empowerment.  Henry Giroux addresses such an approach in a recent article on Truthout: “Education must be considered central to any viable notion of politics. This suggests that progressives make clear how cultural apparatuses and media sources work pedagogically to produce market-driven subjects who are summoned to inhabit the values, dreams and social relations of an already established repressive social order.” With digital media though, as with the process of formal education writ large, a critique of corporate ownership cannot be useful without a pedagogy of hope. In On Critical Pedagogy Giroux writes, “while it is important to politicize the process of schooling . . . what is also needed to supplement this view is an ennobling imaginative vision that takes us beyond the given and commonplace” (39). Critical educators have navigated this space of educational empowerment for decades, and the lessons of that discourse give us the foundation from which to begin addressing digital literacies — as conditions, limits, and affordances. Just as the best college composition courses have always encouraged students beyond the narrow expectations of academic writing conventions, so too does a critically aware approach to digital literacy empower us all in our work and play online.

In the overlap between Belshaw and Giroux, educators can develop a pedagogy of critical digital literacies that both cultivates an awareness of the technological, social, and economic underpinnings of digital space and empowers students to act with agency and creativity there. Domain of One’s Own offers an ongoing experiment in conveying digital literacies in a broad, programmatic sense in much the way that “Writing Across the Curriculum” programs have made campuses aware of the broad value of interdisciplinary approaches to composition. The most frequent application of Domain involves students building and maintaining WordPress platforms on their webspaces, establishing themselves first and foremost like authors. Of course, Domain can operate on a individual classroom level in much the same way that many digitally-minded faculty have been using blogging for over a decade (the program for the 2004 Conference on College Composition and Communication reveals close to a dozen sessions related to blogging, digital literacies, and multimodal composition); but a Domain approach, or something like it, also offers departmental or program-level attention to digital literacies, interdisciplinary research opportunities, and a stronger commitment to faculty development opportunities.

And this literacy development is not just an exercise in the life of the mind. There are implications beyond the academy for these students, who can take their experiences in the classroom into the non-academic workplace. As William Pannapacker argues in “No More Digitally Challenged Liberal-Arts Majors,” graduates who can point to experience with web design, adaptability, “boot-strapping,” teamwork, and presentation skills are well-prepared with agency when leaving the university to find a job. Pannapacker writes, “Evidence of teamwork—the ability to work collaboratively on large projects with different kinds of people—is extremely important, along with time management and the skill to juggle multiple tasks. Employers also want people who can work with data and statistics and are able to make lucid arguments, using spreadsheets and visualizations, that are grounded in quantitative ways of thinking.” A critical and practical exposure to digital literacies on a broad, programmatic level, can move students towards fluency in these areas in addition to exposing them to connected learning methodologies.

Part of the power of a program like Domain of One’s Own, from Emory University’s faculty development perspective, is that I (David) encourage faculty who might otherwise be reticent to tackle this sort of teaching with technology by fostering two different learning networks for the faculty to engage with: faculty are making with their students, and so become part of a learning network with them, and faculty are part of an even larger learning network along with the others who have joined the Domain program. At Emory, I have found numerous faculty who are excited about the ways in which Domain solves pedagogical problems for them, but who don’t feel “tech savvy” enough to have tackled this sort of work on their own.

Our intention in developing the Atlanta Regional Domain of One’s Own Incubator, happening in Atlanta in February 2014, is to create an even wider network of digital collaborators and to explore multiple pedagogical applications of Domain. In engaging the Atlanta DH/D-Ped network, we’ve involved faculty whose skills are all over the tech spectrum, from digital project curators to freshly curious graduate student teaching assistants (though sometimes those descriptors refer to the same person). On both the UMW and Emory campuses, Domain grows from the ground up — students come asking for domain space out of a particular need or faculty members express interest in how to “Domain” their classes. Both schools cultivate a network of faculty partners by offering one-on-one support meetings, weekly trainings, and other forms of professional development. This month’s Incubator proposes that work on a larger scale, involving 60 faculty, staff, and graduate students from an eclectic mix of campus environments in two days of discussion and collaboration on how Domain might answer pedagogical questions for them. Domain is flexible — it’s a methodology, not a “tool” — and we’re hopeful that Domain Incubator attendees will find teaching ideas, potential collaborators, a pedagogical support structure, and Domain implementation guidance adaptable to their own campus. Ultimately, we are helping to build a regional network that is self-sustaining — a diverse collective of pedagogical hackers.

One benefit of Emory’s iteration of Domain of One’s Own as a program is that it doesn’t just reach the usual suspects who are already on board with Stewart, Belshaw, or Giroux. It attracts progressive educators who are new to digital pedagogy. Our aim for the Domain Incubator is to advance that goal in a regional sense, building learning networks for those of us who are creating and administering programs that value critical and digital literacies. We look forward to reporting back on the many great ideas that hatch from the Atlanta Domain Incubator.

Some example materials for on-going Domain classes at Emory University

[Image from becca.peterson26 on Flickr]