1 The Web We Need to Give Students

Audrey Watters

Student privacy has become one of the hottest issues in education, with some 170 bills proposed so far this year that would regulate it. These legislative efforts stress the need to protect students when they’re online, safeguarding their data from advertisers as well as from unscrupulous people and companies. There’s some pushback against these proposals too, with arguments that restrictions on data might hinder research or the development of learning analytics or data-driven educational software.

But almost all arguments about student privacy, whether those calling for more restrictions or fewer, fail to give students themselves a voice, let alone some assistance in deciding what to share online. Students have little agency when it comes to education technology – much like they have little agency in education itself.

The Domain of One’s Own initiative at University of Mary Washington (UMW) is helping to recast the conversation about student data. Instead of focusing on protecting and restricting students’ Web presence, UMW helps them have more control over their scholarship, data, and digital identity.

The Domains initiative enables student to build the contemporary version of what Virginia Woolf in 1929 famously demanded in A Room of One’s Own – the necessity of a personal place to write. Today, UMW and a growing number of other schools believe that students need a proprietary online space in order to be intellectually productive.

As originally conceived at the Virginia liberal arts university, the Domains initiative provides students and faculty with their own Web domain. It isn’t simply a blog or a bit of Web space and storage at the school’s dot-edu, but their own domain – the dot com (or dot net, etc) of the student’s choosing. The school facilitates the purchase of the domain; it helps with installation of WordPress and other open source software; it offers both technical and instructional support; and it hosts the site until graduation when domain ownership is transferred to the student.

And then – contrary to what happens at most schools, where a student’s work exists only inside a learning management system and cannot be accessed once the semester is over – the domain and all its content are the student’s to take with them. It is, after all, their education, their intellectual development, their work.

Intellectual productivity on the Web looks a bit different, no doubt, than it did at Woolf’s writing desk. But there remains this notion, deeply embedded in Domain of One’s Own, that it is important to have one’s own space in order to develop one’s ideas and one’s craft. It’s important that learners have control over their work – their content and their data. In a 2009 article that served as a philosophical grounding of sorts for the initiative, Gardner Campbell, then a professor at Baylor University, called for a “personal cyberinfrastructure” where students:

not only would acquire crucial technical skills for their digital lives but also would engage in work that provides richly teachable moments…. Fascinating and important innovations would emerge as students are able to shape their own cognition, learning, expression, and reflection in a digital age, in a digital medium. Students would frame, curate, share, and direct their own ‘engagement streams’ throughout the learning environment.

In developing this “personal cyberinfrastructure” through the Domain of One’s Own initiative, UMW gives students agency and control; they are the subjects of their learning, not the objects of education technology software.

Having one’s own domain means that students have much more say over what they present to the world, in terms of their public profiles, professional portfolios, and digital identities. Students have control over the look and feel of their own sites, including what’s shared publicly. This means they have some say – although not complete – over their personal data, and in turn they begin to have an understanding of the technologies that underpin the Web, including how their work and their data circulate there.

At the simplest level, a Domain of One’s Own helps students build their own digital portfolio. They can be used in a classroom setting in order for students to demonstrate their learning. These portfolios can contain text, images, video and audio recordings, giving students opportunities to express themselves in a variety of ways beyond the traditional pen-and-paper test or essay. One student uses her domain to showcase her artwork. Another chronicled her semester abroad. A third student has built a living CV, highlighting her academic research as well as her work experience.

Since UMW launched Domain of One’s Own in 2013, other schools have picked up on the program’s relevance in today’s world – including Emory University, the University of Oklahoma, and Davidson College, as well as at several high schools. Domain of One’s Own has also spun out a startup of sorts, Reclaim Hosting, that provides low-cost Web hosting and helps educators offer their students their own domains.

Clarence Fisher introduced Domains last year to his high school students at the Joseph H. Kerr School in Snow Lake, Manitoba. “The kids came in to the class with what I would call fair and average teen tech skills,” he said. “Lots of iPods, iPads, and laptops. Lots of Facebook and Instagram. But none of them had a presence online they were in control of before this.”

This observation was echoed by Bryan Jackson, who has implemented Domains at Gleneagle Secondary School in Coquitlam, British Columbia. “I wanted them to see and be aware of all of the options and the control that they are giving up when services such as Facebook are their primary web presence,” he said. By contrast, he introduced his students to open source platforms like WordPress, teaching them about Web standards like HTML and CSS.

Often when schools talk to students about their presence on the Web, they do so in terms of digital citizenship: what students need to know in order to use technology “appropriately.” Schools routinely caution students about the things they post on social media, and the tenor of this conversation – particularly as translated by the media – is often tinged with fears that students will be seen “doing bad things” or “saying bad things” that will haunt them forever.

While some schools are turning to social media monitoring firms to keep an eye on students online, rarely do schools give students the opportunity to demonstrate the good work that they do publicly. Nor do schools give students the opportunity to decide what and when and how that public, online display should look like. It’s a drawback to our digital citizenship conversations – we’re concerned about what students do online but we fail to probe the “appropriateness” of the demands on data and content that (education) technology companies increasingly make on the students in turn.

It’s one of the flaws too with how privacy conversations about education technology are usually framed. Debates about what happens to student data – who it’s shared with, for example – seldom include students’ input. These debates do not recognize the ways in which students have already developed rich social lives online and could use help, not punishment or paternalism, in understanding how to think through the data trails they’re leaving behind.

There is an understandable learning curve to helping students manage their online presence via their own domain. “At first there was a fair amount of fumbling around, Googling solutions, and trying to understand their options,” said teacher Clarence Fisher. “Within a week, the kids were able to understand what their options were and how their site was affected by changes they made. As time went on, we talked a lot more about technical issues (backup, recovery, privacy options, hosting laws in different countries, etc). But we also talked a lot more about digital citizenship, safety, control, design, etc. The kids saw the site much more as their own and their responsibility.”

The importance of giving students responsibility for their own domain cannot be overstated. This can be a way to track growth and demonstrate new learning over the course of a student’s school career – something that they themselves can reflect upon, not simply grades and assignments that are locked away in a proprietary system controlled by the school.

And if a student owns their own domain, as she moves from grade to grade and from school to school, all that information – their learning portfolio – can travel with them.

Education technology – and more broadly, the culture of education – does a terrible job with this sort of portability and interoperability. When a student moves to a new school, for example, they often have to request their transcript, a document that lists their courses and their grades. A transcript is by definition a copy of their education record. The transcript is often printed on a piece of paper with formal letterhead, perhaps with a watermark or stamp to show that it’s “official.” This lack of portability continues in much digital schoolwork too. Even if students are encouraged to create online portfolios or to use services like Google Apps for Education in order to store all their work, they don’t actually get to take that work with them when they move or graduate. (In the case of Google Apps, you can download your files. But then you’ll need to find a new place to store them.) Too often, students’ work in these systems gets deleted over the summer months as schools aren’t in the business of permanently storing student work. School district IT is not the right steward for student work: the student is.

Giving students their own digital domain is a radical act. It gives them the ability to work on the Web and with the Web, to have their scholarship be meaningful and accessible by others. It allows them to demonstrate their learning to others beyond the classroom walls. To own one’s domain gives students an understanding of how Web technologies work. It puts them in a much better position to control their work, their data, their identity online.

“I want to know where my ones and zeros are stored,” said Bryan Jackson, referring to the basic binary code in which computers ‘think.’ “And I want my students to know that that’s something they can ask about, and learn to manage for themselves.”

Citation (CCBYNCSA):

Watters, Audrey. “The Web We Need to Give Students.” Hack Education. 19 October 2015. http://hackeducation.com/2015/10/19/domains.