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Monday, July 28, 2014

Thoughts on Web Space at My School

So, as I learned from Twitter and the blogs of folks like Audrey Watters et al., a Domain of One's Own is coming to my school. But apparently it is coming to my school in the top-down, by-invitation-only way that other technology initiatives have happened over the past couple of years. Not a word about this at the Academic Technology blog or the Center for Teaching Excellence blog. Nope, you will not find an announcement about the workshops that are apparently (???) happening right now on campus, and certainly not any kind of invitation to follow and/or participate in this, even though there are surely quite a few faculty on campus who would be curious about this important experiment which might, for the first time ever, provide serious support by my school for online content development by both faculty and students. No call for volunteers (and you know I would love to volunteer...), not even a listserv to subscribe to (email is still the main way information gets spread at my school). In fact, when I contacted the director of the Center for Teaching Excellence week before last (by email) to ask about blogging and other online community options for the coming year, not a word of this was mentioned in the reply. Nada. Thanks to the openness of Twitter and other people's blogs, though, I did at least get to hear about it!

So, on the one hand, I'm glad this is happening, but I'm also discouraged that it is not happening in a more open way... and I'm also not surprised. Last fall, the Janux learning management system (in which OU is apparently prepared to invest millions of dollars) came to light without any preliminary warning and, it seems, that very expensive learning management system has been built to serve the needs of just a couple dozen faculty members, without any shared opportunities for the rest of us struggling to find ways to make our online courses more social and interactive than is possible in the Desire2Learn course management system.

Something similar happened a few years ago, when a WordPress/Edublogs installation was finally set up at my school... but individual faculty were not even allowed to request accounts, much less students. No, that blogging system was set up to serve the needs of departments and other academic organizations. The sad results can be seen here: http://blogs.ou.edu. Without the momentum that could have been provided by students and faculty who are really excited about the online world and the use of blogs to build online presence, that blogging initiative went nowhere. Was anything gained by excluding students and faculty from the experiment? Just the opposite: I would argue that the failure to open up the system for all interested members of the campus community is what resulted in its now moribund state.

I teach fully online classes, with student content creation and sharing being the heart and soul of those classes. Since Desire2Learn is completely inadequate to that task, I've relied on external tools for many years to make it possible for students to share their work online.

I've used a variety of blogging and discussion tools, starting out with EZBoard  and then Bloglines (remember the Bloglines Plumber?), and then Ning and now, because of the demise of mini-Nings for educators, I'll be recommending that students use Blogger next year, although any blogging option they prefer will work. It's still pretty rare for me to meet students who have built up an online presence and thus have a blogging preference already, but it's great when that happens — one of the students last semester did his class project as a section in his existing WordPress blog, which was super!

For websites, I recommend that my student use Google Sites although, once again, if there is another system they want to use, that's great. For example, last year one of my students wanted to learn how to use Wix, and that worked out nicely! After a disaster in August 2010, when the IT folks at my school erased, without warning, hundreds of the websites that my students had published in their students.ou.edu webspace (that webspace, which I think is still 3MB per account, was set up for students in 1999), I started recommending Google Sites. I've been very happy with the results: Google Sites is easy to use, and the sites belong to the students, so they can choose to leave them up or not after the class is over. I am so grateful that almost all the students leave their sites up, realizing as they do that the archive of previous student projects is the single most important resource for each new class! You can see the archive of student projects built with Google Sites here at eStorybook Central. One of the fun tasks I have next week is going through the archives to check for any sites that have gone offline (there are usually not more than a handful), while also adding the new sites from the wonderful stuff people did in the Spring semester.

So, naturally, as someone with a long-term interest in student web publishing, I have followed Jim Groom and his colleagues for many years, watching the development of the Domain of One's Own project with great interest.

I'm also impressed with the use of Google Sites for student portfolios at Clemson University, where online portfolios are used in conjunction with all the General Education classes.

The big question: what will happen now on my campus? Is Domain of One's Own going to go the way of OU Edublogs (dying out because it was not widely available to all faculty and students) or of OU Janux (by-invitation-only to a select few) ... or will it finally provide the catalyst for truly open, truly participatory web culture at OU...?

I await the results with great curiosity.

Meanwhile, since I've still got online classes to teach starting in just a few weeks, I'll be working on my Blogger and Google Sites support materials... because I cannot afford for the university to catch up to what my students and I have been doing since back in 2002: creating and publishing content online every single week of the semester, starting in Week One.

Which means....... SOON.

And thank you, Google, for making that possible!





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(I have limited this to Google accounts only, but no word verification; meanwhile, if you want to contact me directly, you can do that too! laura-gibbs@ou.edu.)