Over the past fall and the summer semesters, I’ve been participating in an exciting pilot program at my university called UMW Domains (or sometimes, “A Domain of One’s Own”). The basic idea is to give students their own domain names and some webhosting, which they can then use to construct their digital identity during their time at UMW. It’s an alternative to off-the-shelf eportfolio solutions, and it’s a powerful way to approach digital competency, with the full rhetorical stakes of identity formation. What follows isn’t intended to be a complete run down of this project. For that, read Tim Owen’s blog entry from earlier last year, or some of the coverage or mentions in Wired, Inside Higher Ed, etc. Instead, what follows is a specific reflection on my own experiences.
For several years now in my Writing through Media class, I’ve been requiring students to purchase their own domain registration, and among its pros and cons, setting up a website on a personal domain is a process that has the power to be transformative for many people. I really believe this.
Having now completed two trial runs with the UMW Domains project, I’d like to reflect on how it went, both as a way of sharing this project with whatever my audience is and also as a way for me to think about my own pedagogy.
This class I teach is “Writing through Media,” ENGL 202H, what we call a “special topics” writing seminar. (Its current version is a descendant of the ENG 1131 I taught in grad school at Florida.) For this class, I define writing broadly to include rhetorical analysis of texts in multiple media, and I ask students to work with digital tools to produce multimedia arguments. This is a course that meets two general education requirements, so it’s popular for non-majors.
The website project is a portfolio or showcase of students work through the semester, usually with a blog, and I conceive of it as a starting point for students to begin collecting and showcasing their own work to a public audience. This exposure is something new to many students, so we talk a lot about how to make responsible choices in that arena and think carefully about audience.
In the past, the domain gets established around the mid point of the semester, but with UMWDomains, I wanted to get students rolling earlier, so that by the third week, they’d all be on the same page. Despite the streamlining of the signup process by our admin, Tim Owens, most students needed some one-on-one help with me or Tim to get up and running. This one-on-one was really good, actually, but I learned some practical lessons that may help avoid some recurring challenges. I offer them here as advice to future versions of myself when I teach this again:
1: Really vet the domain names they choose. Doublecheck. Help avoid hyphens, numbers and non-permanent markers like “umw” in the name. Stress that this name may be a choice that follows them into professional life.
2: No subdomains. Many (most) students struggled with the basic workflow of where their files were when uploaded to the server. Subdomains are hard to explain to someone who is still working out what a domain actually is. So at all times recommend and demonstrate file paths and folder structures that are parallel to what they see on their computer.
5: Use files instead of directories for specific projects. Creating a webpage called “/essay.html” and including stylesheets and imagery teaches more about how webservers work and makes more sense to students than “/essay/index.html”. Also, less risk of overriting another project or a homepage.
3: Set up a domain-specific email early on. Encouraging them to use this might help underscore the identity they’re creating, as well as give them a sense of how cpanel works (or Plesk Parallels, in our case).
4: Create ways to help them find each other early and often. I did make a catch-all aggregator, but this took time and would require students to log in to read. Maybe an activity about RSS would help uptake. A class directory would be good, too, built into whatever community site or LMS we use.
These are some specific ideas. More broadly, the domain projet fit into that somewhat awkward space for this class where I’m asking students to do things digitally that they often aren’t excited about doing. Most do eventually come on board, but always a handful of holdouts will insist that an English class shouldn’t expect them to work with anything more complicated than a word processor. By expecting students to write HTML, I have ignored their insistence that “I’m really not a computer person,” because “Computers just don’t like me.”
I have to be careful to actually respect that point of view, but convince them that disengagement is not the only response to failure. At MLA this year, for example, I enjoyed hearing Kathi Inman Berens talk about her “Innoculation Theory” of failure: introduce failure early on and in a big way to help students start working more productively with it as a process of learning and even community building.
So for the domain project, I have to work harder to create a culture of productive failure, because really most student — incoming freshman — really don’t have the skills or even self-awareness to truly benefit from their own URL. And furthermore, it’s one thing to fail in the relative safety of the classroom — it’s another order of risk alltogether once you go online, as it should be.
In their final reflection papers, it was interesting to see many students echoing the admittedly utopian language I’d been using all semester to motivate them on the project. For some, they’d clearly bought into it, and I’m grateful. Many others I’m sure were telling me what they thought I wanted to hear.
My favorite reflections, though, were those students — 2 or 3 out of a total of 38 — who wrote that they’d be pulling down most of their content after the semester ended. I appreciate their honesty, first and foremost. But I also respect that the most important part of having a digital identity is choosing to have one. That’s a choice with at least two options, and for some students, for various reasons, they recognized in themselves that they aren’t yet ready to walk through that door. That’s a choice that takes maturity, and for my part, as long as they remember where that door is, I feel like maybe I’ve succeeded in teaching something important.