A domain of one's own

In the mid-2000s I made some friends in the world of higher education who were starting to think like the web and to imagine how that might transform an institution that everyone could see needed to change. One of them, Gardner Campbell, invited me to speak at the University of Mary Washington's Faculty Academy on Instructional Technologies. There I met an inspired team of thinkers and doers who were pioneering the academic use of what we now call cloud technology.

UMW isn't a wealthy school; there wasn't a big budget for IT; that was a constraint well embraced. Gardner's dream team found their way to BlueHost where, for $8/month, they could spin up web servers, wikis, and most importantly the blogs that have become central to the intellectual life of the school. Here's Jim Groom, aka Mr. Edupunk, reflecting on what UMW Blogs has become.

Me and UMW Blogs are going on 5 years this Summer, she's is the baddest of the bad and meanest and leanest of the mean and lean. She's a veritable titan of her kind, she's an educational publishing platform of the very best kind, and she's turning five. Five years ago from roughly May through August we brought together the early MistyLook themed WPMu and MediaWiki hybrid out into this wasteland of bad BlackBoard installs, and we shone a light.

A light of good publishing practices, a site for everyone regardless of his or her class status, and course spaces that actually looked good. We were already dreaming of fancy syndication, course aggregation, and a space attractive and user friendly enough that you would actually want to have a stake in it. It worked, five years later we have more than 6500 sites and 8500 users, and that number has steadily increased over these past five years. We run heavy traffic sites like UMW Bullet and EagleEye, or blogs for alumni 3 and 4 years out. We have aggregated blog posts from more than 40 UMW students who have written about their travels around the world, and some class sites that imagine a whole new use for online space discussion, tags and the community in the virtual. There are student created research sites I'd put up against any university's publicly open and shared work. Not to mention more than 35 original literary journals created by UMW students.

For UMW, the openness of BlueHost's proto-cloud was a liberating alternative to the closed learning management systems that all my ed-tech pals rail against. And it raised important questions about habits that had developed over the years. Why, for example, should a university provide its students with temporary cyberinfrastructure -- email accounts, web hosting -- that was increasingly redundant for many, and would in any case be supplanted after graduation?

In a 2007 talk at EDUCAUSE I made the case that the infrastructure was moving to the cloud where students could, and would, take care of their own services, relying on standards to interoperate with the institutions they'd serially associate with during their careers and lives.

Writing for EDUCAUSE Review in 2009, Gardner Campbell took the argument a step further. In A Personal Cyberinfrastructure he argued that learning to build and operate a personal cloud was a life skill students would need and should be taught.

As part of the first-year orientation, each student would pick a domain name. Over the course of the first year, in a set of lab seminars facilitated by instructional technologists, librarians, and faculty advisors from across the curriculum, students would build out their digital presences in an environment made of the medium of the web itself.

They would play with wikis and blogs; they would tinker and begin to assemble a platform to support their publishing, their archiving, their importing and exporting, their internal and external information connections. They would become, in myriad small but important ways, system administrators for their own digital lives. In short, students would build a personal cyberinfrastructure, one they would continue to modify and extend throughout their college career -- and beyond.

In building that personal cyberinfrastructure, students not only would acquire crucial technical skills for their digital lives but also would engage in work that provides richly teachable moments ranging from multimodal writing to information science, knowledge management, bibliographic instruction, and social networking.

Note step one of the plan: "Pick a domain name." That's the root of every personal cloud. Teaching students to stake out their own cloud namespaces, to which they'll attach a variety of services, is an excellent lesson. That's why I was delighted to hear recently, from Jim Groom, about an effort called A Domain of One's Own. (The name is, of course, a hat tip to Virginia Woolf.) There are now hundreds of UMW students, Jim tells me, who have established their own domain names and bound their blogs to them. While they remain students those blogs federate with other UMW blogs -- and with blogs elsewhere, because teaching and learning don't end at the university's border. But when these students graduate their blogs do not evaporate like discarded blue books. They live on as part of the students' own personal clouds. Nice!