These remarks were given at Coventry University as part of my visiting fellowship at the Disruptive Media Learning Lab
I am best known, no doubt, for my criticism of education technology. And perhaps for that reason, people perk up when I point to things that I think are interesting or innovative (and to be clear, interesting or innovative because of their progressive not regressive potential).
Often when I say that I think that the “Domain of One’s Own” initiative is one of the most important education technologies, I always hear pushback from the Twitter riffraff. “What’s so special about a website?” folks will sneer.
Well, quite a lot, I’d contend. The Web itself is pretty special – Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of a global hyperlinked information system. A system that was – ideally at least – openly available and accessible to everyone, designed for the purpose of sharing information and collaborating on knowledge-building endeavors. That purpose was not, at the outset, commercial. The technologies were not, at the outset, proprietary.
The World Wide Web just had its 28th anniversary, and Tim Berners-Lee penned an article – an “open letter” – in which he identified three major trends that he’s become increasingly worried about:
- We’ve lost control of our personal data
- It’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the Web
- Political advertising online needs transparency and understanding
These are trends that should concern us as citizens, no doubt. But they’re expressly trends that should concern us as educators.
I think we could slightly reword these trends too to identify problems with education technology as it’s often built and implemented:
- Students have lost control of their personal data
- By working in digital silos specially designed for the classroom (versus those tools that they will encounter in their personal and professional lives) students are not asked to consider how digital technologies work and/or how these technologies impact their lives
- Education technologies, particularly those that enable “algorithmic decision-making,” need transparency and understanding
(You can substitute the word “scholar” for “student” in all cases above, too, I think.)
By providing students and staff with a domain, I think we can start to address this. Students and staff can start to see how digital technologies work – those that underpin the Web and elsewhere. They can think about how these technologies shape the formation of their understanding of the world – how knowledge is formed and shared; how identity is formed and expressed. They can engage with that original purpose of the Web – sharing information and collaborating on knowledge-building endeavors – by doing meaningful work online, in the public, with other scholars. That they have a space of their own online, along with the support and the tools to think about what that can look like.
It doesn’t have to be a blog. It doesn’t have to be a series of essays presented in reverse chronological order. You don’t have to have comments. You don’t have to have analytics. You can delete things after a while. You can always make edits to what you’ve written. You can use a subdomain. (I do create a new subdomain for each project I’m working on. And while it’s discoverable – ostensibly – this work is not always linked or showcased from the “home page” of my website.) You can license things how you like. You can make some things password-protected. You can still post things elsewhere on the Internet – long rants on Facebook, photos on Instagram, mixes on Soundcloud, and so on. But you can publish stuff on your own site first, and then syndicate it to these other for-profit, ad-based venues.
I recognize that learning these technologies takes time and effort. So does learning how to navigate the VLE. Website design, I promise you – skills like HTML and CSS and Markdown – are going to look better on a CV than… well, no one boasts they can use a VLE except instructional technologists, and I don’t think the mission of Coventry is to graduate hundreds of those.
I’m pretty resistant to framing “domains” as simply a matter of “skills.” Because I think its potential is far more radical than that. This isn’t about making sure literature students “learn to code” or history students “learn to code” or medical faculty “learn to code” or chemistry faculty “learn to code.”
Rather it’s about recognizing that the World Wide Web is site for scholarly activity. It’s about recognizing that students are scholars.
Washington State University’s Mike Caulfield has laid out a different set of concerns than Tim Berners-Lee’s (although I think they overlap substantially when it comes to questions of misinformation and democracy). Mike talks about the difference between what he describes as the “garden” and the “stream.” The stream are the other threats to the Web, I’d argue – these are Twitter and Facebook most obviously. The status updates and links that rush past us, often stripped of context and meaning and certainly stripping us of any opportunity for contemplation or reflection. The garden, on the other hand, encourages just that. It does so by design.
And that’s the Web. That’s your domain. You cultivate ideas there – quite carefully, no doubt, because others might pop by for a think. But also because it’s your space for a think.