DoOO: Something Terrific

This is a condensed account of DoOO: Something Terrific, presented by Liz Hudson on 21st January 2019, as part of Digital Education Week at UHI.

In February 2018, I moved with my husband and three year-old son, from the West Midlands in England to the Moray area of northern Scotland. I’m primarily a writer and learning designer, working at the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), with freelance and voluntary engagements here and there.

I was attracted to working at UHI, which has 13 campuses
scattered across northern Scotland, to see how digital and hybrid pedagogies operate in a distributed, remote and rural, culturally distinctive learning ecology. You see, I studied in a wonderfully unique, rural landscape too – and it was the most wonderfully transformative experience.

I am interested in different domains of learning, whether they be physical, virtual, public, private, social, scholarly, domestic, or professional. Leander, Philips and Taylor (2010) suggested that a learning domain, like a classroom, might be viewed as a ‘container’ or ‘nexus’, of energies, resources, information, geographies, and histories. Interrogating the complexity and interoperability of such spaces may help us to develop hybrid pedagogies that capture and enhance learning, without losing the individuality of the learner or distinctiveness of their context.

I am continuously fascinated and troubled by the cavities and tensions between what education should or could be, and what it has become or is becoming for many students today. This preoccupation has been with me as a student and educator for as far back as I can remember. I’ve always been a fan of education in fiction, from Enid Blyton books to films like Goodbye Mr Chips, and Dead Poets Society. I used to design schools, imagining everything from the architecture, to curriculum, to teaching philosophy. But I didn’t enjoy secondary school and spent 7 years in different types of further education – sixth form, community college, night school… none of them were particularly inspiring.

When I finally made it to higher education, as a 26 year-old first generation undergraduate, it had been an impulsive decision and an unconventional choice. I was to experience someone else’s alternative vision of education, but I was one of the privileged final few. That incredible experience revived and has continued to fuel my passion for reimagining education, as it can always be better and should always feel extraordinary.

I am a proud graduate of Dartington College of Arts, a small liberal arts college near Totnes in Devon with 500 or so students. It was internationally recognised in the arts for its radical and inventive pedagogies in performance, interdisciplinary practices, and practice-based research. In 1925 Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst bought the neglected, derelict buildings and grounds of the Dartington estate and embarked upon a unique experiment in rural regeneration, one of learning, farming and arts.

Initially the vision included the Dartington Hall School, attended by Lucian Freud, which limited classroom-based learning in favour of involvement in estate activities. Later, in 1961, Dartington College of Arts was founded and former students and teachers will tell you – it was a magical place, where weird and wonderful things happened. The Dartington experience, as a teacher or learner, was physically, conceptually, and philosophically connected to the place and a nexus of histories and energies. As a student you felt part of an evolving vision and continuous narrative, part of something unique and special.

Former programme directors John Hall and Simon Murray (2011) wrote:

‘For many who worked and studied at Dartington the power and sense of topographical context became an ambiguous – and sometimes troubling – experience; one which could never be shrugged off but at best engaged with productively and provocatively. The hegemony of place as context had regularly to be challenged and questioned as students became aware that context was more multiple, complex and nuanced than suggested by the often overwhelming – and sometimes disabling – beauty of the estate.’

Dartington Hall Estate. Image: Liz Hudson

At Dartington, the pedagogy tapped into the landscape. There were no lecture theatres as such, no classrooms with defined seating arrangements, just studios and the estate. I recall one lecture, which involved filling a cup with water and walking with it in silence, through fields, over stiles, down to the river at which point we were instructed to just “start writing”.

They could, in hindsight perhaps, have made better use of technology to record and connect these experiences. But, in many ways they got it right, based on what I’ve seen in higher education since. Although there was a learning management system (LMS or VLE), it was only ever used on one occasion that I can recall. Any digital practices at Dartington tended to be playful or creative.

Our learning was not digitally managed, monitored or processed. PowerPoints were not used much except to display artefacts like photos, paintings and poems… not many bullet-pointy slides. But what else could you put on them, or the LMS for that matter? There was no “content to “deliver”, as such. We responded to theoretical and practical challenges through our own self-directed inquiry, enriching each class discussion with our independent research. Despite such freedoms, it was academically rigorous. Everything had to be carefully documented, well referenced, and you were partly assessed on contributions to class discussions as evidence of meaningful independent learning.

There was no need for Turnitin, because our essays and documentation were unique to each of us, reflecting our personal learning journeys. I imagine it would have been near-on impossible to plagiarise or falsify work that was so highly personalised, and in such a distinctive learning context. You were discouraged from focusing on grades, but instead focused on processing and reflecting on the experience. What a joy I think it must have been to mark the work of students you had gotten to know, with every assignment telling a unique learning story.

At Dartington, digital and analogue technologies were used creatively in teaching to explore concepts in ways that I have not seen elsewhere since.

A BA(hons) Writing class at Dartington. Image: Liz Hudson

The digital wasn’t shunned or feared, but it wasn’t equated with progress either, as it seemed to be elsewhere (and everywhere now). Dartington didn’t care about edtech trends. They didn’t fetishise it by coercing staff to blend and flip at every opportunity. The pedagogy facilitated analogue, digital, hybrid or tech-free experimentation to happen organically, but critically.

Every Dartington student embarked on the CEP – a Contextual Enquiry Project, in their third year. Researched and planned in the second year, this sent students off to anywhere in the world as reflective and critical practitioners. The CEP was Dartington’s take on employability I guess, before it became such an agenda. Students learned how to project manage, risk assess and think on their feet, with very real and immediate risks – just like the real world. For my CEP, I travelled across Cuba for four weeks with my now husband, who was a music performance student. I was exploring the text and context of postcolonial identity, while he was exploring authenticity in Cuban Son (a genre). We had to make the most of technology when it was available, but come up with alternative solutions when it quite often wasn’t. And we were acutely aware that any “non-touristy” behaviours, particularly using the internet or digital equipment, might attract suspicion from the authorities. We discovered first-hand the perspectives of young people who desperately wanted to engage with some of the technologies and freedoms of an increasingly digital, capitalist world, without betraying the sentiments of The Revolution.

Sadly, for many reasons, small but wonderful places like Dartington don’t tend to survive in today’s corporatized vision of HE. I was in the last year to graduate on the Dartington campus before a merger with Falmouth University closed its doors for good. The students, staff and local community put up a massive fight, but now Dartington lives on in moments like this, where something of the experience, the philosophy, the pedagogy, lives on.

Image: Save Dartington COllege of Arts protest, Totnes. Copyright – Becca Gulliver

As Olchar Lindsann (2010) writes:

‘Dartington exists in a thousand places, in the minds and activity of everyone who has passed through it over the decades; but it exists there because all of these people have been reformed in this one, real Place, the crucible in which so many individual projects of transformation have mingled and supported each other.’

This captures quite eloquently how I feel about my undergraduate experience, all these years later. Given what I have said about Dartington degrees, learning technology might not seem like the obvious career path. But actually, what I learned there is fundamental to my practice now.

When I left Dartington, my first job was as a note taker and facilitator for students with disabilities and other support needs, at Wolverhampton University. A goliath compared to Dartington and quite the culture shock, with giant lecture theatres seating hundreds, and an impressive digital infrastructure. For over four years afterwards, I worked as an instructional designer at British Gymnastics. When I started there, they were still teaching coaching theory in hired classrooms and lecture theatres, just as they had when I trained as a coach in the 90s. But they wanted to transform the courses by moving theory content online. I hadn’t had many positive experiences of e-learning at that point, and I was concerned that the physical, social and psychological contexts of coaching might be lost in the process. So, I persuaded the powers that be that I could teach myself the skills and knowledge to be an instructional designer… and that’s how I found my way into digital education.

To support my professional development, I studied on Edinburgh University’s MSc Digital Education programme, which was delivered completely online to students from all over the world. It was marvellous. I have never set foot in Edinburgh, let alone a classroom or lecture theatre there, but absolutely felt part of the scholastic community. I had my son in 2015 and decided to graduate with the postgraduate certificate at that point and pick things up when I was feeling more human and able to afford it (still waiting for both). I was invited up to the graduation ceremony but also given the option to graduate in Second Life – a virtual world, which we had used for some of the learning activities. This was live streamed as part of the ceremony in Edinburgh, up on a big screen. We had a virtual dress rehearsal to make sure we could get our avatars to pick up their scroll and wave at the audiences. What no one could see was that I was in bed with the flu, with my baby crying in my arms, trying to do this all with one hand. I learned how liberating technology can be, extending and layering spaces to engage learners that might otherwise be out of touch or out of reach.

Edinburgh University graduation ceremony in Second Life

Having enjoyed the academic contexts of postgraduate study, I decided to return to working in higher education and I joined Coventry University as a learning technologist in 2016.

Coventry University boasts the Disruptive Media Learning Lab (DMLL), where learning spaces, technologies, and hybrid teaching practices are continuously explored and debated. It was at a DMLL-hosted event – University Remixed (Nov 2016), that I first discovered Domain of One’s Own. The event was about what the University of the future might look like from different perspectives. There were lots of practical activities, and inspiring keynotes from Martha Burtis and Jesse Stommel from the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT) at University Mary Washington (UMW).

Photos of University Remixed activities

Domain of One’s Own projects, which provide staff and students with their own domain names and hosting, originated at DTLT UMW and have now spread across the US and internationally. The supporting philosophy encourages faculty and students to reclaim the web and regain control of their online presence. For some people, that journey might begin with learning what a website is, what “domain” means, how hosting works… but that’s just the beginning. DoOO participants critically engage with the web, rather than relying on institutional platforms and systems. Through these efforts, they learn how to manage their digital footprint and online presence. Digital literacy is developed through critical inquiry and decision-making, debate and reflection.

The name, Domain of One’s Own, was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’:

“A woman must have money, and a room of her own, if she is to write fiction.”

The translation of ownership of a room, from physical to online space, should not seem particularly radical in the privileged context of higher education and when we reflect on the original purpose of the internet.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee described the internet as:

“an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities, and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries.”

Of course, a lot has happened on and to the web since then.

As it happens, Viginia Woolf was a regular visitor to Dartington College of Arts in part because ‘the Dartington ethos valued and accepted people for being who they actually are’ (We are South Devon, 2017). And if Dartington had been around today, I’m sure they would have adopted Domain of One’s Own in a heartbeat, as an LMS would never have worked.

So, I was delighted that Domain of One’s Own had been introduced at Coventry University. The pilot, which began in June 2016, was mainly led by Daniel Villar-Onrubia and Lauren Heywood, and I became a member of the steering committee. The technical side of the programme was implemented in partnership with a company called Reclaim Hosting. Its founders, Jim Groom and Tim Owens, were part of the original Domain of One’s Own pilot at University Mary Washington and are still actively involved.

Reclaim provide a platform, with university branding as desired, along with hosting, applications and technical support. Within the platform is a cPanel system and Installatron application, which gives participants the ability to choose and install an application to build their website. Most people choose or start with WordPress because it’s relatively user-friendly, has a very good online user community and YouTube tutorials etc. But there are countless other apps to choose from… community building, CMS, LMS, e-commerce, statistics, surveys, collection tools… it’s an app buffet!

A key feature of Domain of One’s Own is that students and staff can take their sites with them when they leave. Reclaim can continue to host their site for them if they want, as an individual customer. Alternatively, the students can move their site another host of their choice, or they can just download the site contents and decide at a later date. This is a crucial difference with portfolios and blogs that are owned and managed by universities. In many cases they stay with the university and are eventually deleted. If they are transportable, the students still may not have the support or know-how to arrange new hosting.

I championed the initiative in my faculty and introduced it within the course design and review processes. This meant that DoOO could be embedded and threaded through new and revised courses. Intro sessions and workshops were provided to introduce participants to the philosophy of Domain of One’s Own and get them set up with their sites. During those sessions, participants were taken through the process of selecting their domain name, installing the application and then they might take part in a website design activity.

There were regular drop-in sessions and also community lunches held in the DMLL with guest talks, including one from visititing fellow Audrey Watters. Community members would be invited to talk about how they were getting on and show their websites. It was a really supportive, friendly atmosphere and people seemed comfortable talking honestly about their challenges and achievements. At the end of the year there was even an awards event, to showcase the great work that people had been doing.

Image of keys with quote: ‘Home. Territory. Space. Place. To claim your domain online—and specifically, to help learners claim their domains—taps into all of these meanings. It is about taking control over our virtual spaces and our personal, virtual territory. It is about knowledge—our personal knowledge that we can showcase to others. It is about building a digital home.’ Audrey Watters

So for me, I feel DoOO has helped me to reconnect with my pedagogical heritage. Many things that were important to me as a student and now as an educator seem to have been lost in strategies and agendas, both corporate and political, often based on fear and perceived risk. I find the incessant business of best practices, templating, and content delivery exhausting. Don’t get me wrong, I have written plenty of best practice guidelines and baselines, not to mention templates for VLEs and other tools and systems. I understand their intended purposes. But now I feel that any policies or systems we design, should be to liberate, not restrict or control.

That’s why I could immediately relate to projects like DoOO and the critical pedagogy underpinning them. Jesse Stommel asks why we create such bureaucracies between teachers and students. He points out that technology won’t guarantee that students won’t cheat, and neither will it guarantee that they will learn. He sometimes draws upon the term ‘counteranthropomorphism’, coined by Stanley Milgram, to talk about dehumanising teaching practices, which classrooms and LMSs and things like gradebooks can do. So why do we put so much effort into boxing things and people up? How does any of this help to create the transformative, extraordinary learning experiences I believe, and I imagine most educators believe, students deserve? The experiences that travel with us, to share and inform our contributions to society, for the rest of our lives?

Simply giving all staff and students websites won’t achieve all of that, but developing a culture of critical pedagogy and running projects like Domain of One’s Own would certainly enable us to pause and check that students and learning are still the focus of our efforts.

Like most institutions, UHI has a learning and teaching strategy, which attempts to address contemporary educational concerns through innovation, and research-informed pedagogies. These days, such strategies will focus on things like digital literacy, open educational practices, and employability. The success of such strategies depends on how they are interpreted and applied across the institution, which can sometimes turn into a check box exercise (aha – a new template is needed!). I argue that it is not possible to develop open educational practice, or a 21st century definition of digital literacy (see UAL example), through the LMS/VLE, institutionally-controlled e-portfolio, and Office 365 alone. These tend to be “closed systems” by default or design, selected in part for their security and management features. Furthermore, the VLE and e-portfolio are unlikely to be professionally relevant outside of the university. In contrast, initiatives like DoOO facilitate these and other common features of teaching learning strategies, such as personalised learning, research-based practices, connected and collaborative learning, and creative, active use of technology.

Critical pedagogy facilitates student agency and invites them to express themselves, often publicly. On numerous occasions, I have heard educators complain that students can’t think for themselves, that they need spoon feeding. But how can we expect our students to feed themselves if they aren’t allowed to hold the spoon? Our students should not be passive consumers of content, or passive users of technology, or passive anything if a higher education is worth what we all hope it’s worth.

So yes, terrifying as it might sound, students might publicly criticise aspects of their institution, or the education system as a whole (they can anyway, but is anyone listening?). Students will learn to stand up for themselves and be heard. They will find out through practice how to convey their opinions sensitively and professionally – online and yes in public. Very poignant in this political climate. And they will learn not to simply blame the system, or the technology, but rather do something about it.

I hear alarm bells.

But what if students post inappropriate content… or lose their work… or get hacked… or start hacking… get cyberbullied… share personal data… and so on. These are all critical, and I mean mission critical, learning opportunities. And no, the so-called security of the university technologies, with its walls and gates and monitoring systems is not the answer. Just as many academics will tell technologists (quite rightly) that some things can’t be taught online, that they have to be practised in the real world… well the same goes for the internet. Students have to practise real hybrid life with the real internet.

Learning management systems are not the real internet, in this sense. As Sean Michael Morris (2018) points out:

‘the biggest dilemma they pose is that they create the illusion of digital learning without really ever encountering the internet. Like all illusions, this is misleading because digital learning (and by necessity, digital pedagogy) takes place all over the web.’

Staff and students need to understand data privacy and intellectual property as individuals: employees and consumers. I personally believe that reliance on University policies and systems as safety nets potenitally increases risk through perpetuated ignorance and the perceived transference of responsibility. Approving tools implies that there is no longer risk, which is wrong. You can breach GDPR and copyright in any learning environment or classroom. And we do ourselves, our students and our institution no favours by frantically adding rules and gatekeepers whenever new threats are identified.

Risk cannot be removed – it must be tackled head on by adult students and staff, making informed decisions. There are real-life risks in all of our learning environments – our forestry students wield chainsaws I imagine? Our midwifery students will be caring for real unborn and newly-born babies and mothers. Why should digital risks sit behind a thicker line of red tape?

You have to let go and trust your students. Jesse Stommel would argue that’s where we should start.

As a result of empowering and critical pedagogies like DoOO, students will make better decisions in their scholarly, professional and personal digital lives, which now overlap of course. Their decisions will be informed by legitimate, maybe peripheral, maybe central, participation, in the real world.

Image of boxes with quote: When students take learning into their own hands, they have no use for learning management systems.’ Jesse Stommel

Restricting staff and students to University platforms reinforces the idea that the internet is and should be the domain of techies and experts and big corporations. The authors of human history and leaders of education have historically been (and arguably still are) disproportionately white, cisgender, male, straight, non-disabled and so on. But as the internet now mediates and often dominates information communication, we have a wonderful opportunity to reframe history and rebalance the future, by filling in the gaps with the voices of those haven’t or aren’t being heard. There are plenty of unheard stories and under-represented perspectives in Northern Scotland, I’m sure.

It’s often fairly easy to persuade academics of the potential value of DoOO, but such initiatives can conjure deep-rooted fears. Fears that their perceived digital inadequacies will be exposed with traumatic consequences. But that isn’t the case and shaming is not the aim, quite the opposite. Domain of One’s Own, which is a personal and shared endeavour, is as important for staff as it is for students… who are not the digital natives we might have been led to believe they are.

I won’t detail all of the examples I gave in my talk in this post, which is long enough already. There will be examples added to other parts of this site and the Dreams SPLOT. But it’s important to reinforce the fact that DoOO is much more than giving everyone blogs, which you could achieve using internal systems. We can’t simply cherry pick the “safe” elements and substitute the things that don’t fit policies or benchmarks, then try to pass it off as DoOO. And the initiative can’t become another prescriptive system of delivering content or assessing students. It is not Domain of One’s Own without the philosophy and critical pedagogy and community it is founded upon.

Jesse Stommel says that ‘Learning is at direct odds with content’ and Sean Michael Morris says ‘digital pedagogy should not be reduced to a set of best practices, tools, or interfaces’ (2018). Statements like these might not sit well with those who designed or rely upon content delivery systems. We don’t all have to agree with every idea that comes from the DoOO community. But, as educators anywhere, we have a responsibility to critically evaluate the systems we use and spend as least as much time exploring ways to liberate, as we do formulating systems of control.

I’m advocating that we all get to do something terrific. Terrific – like awesome – is etymologically rooted in fear. DoOO incites you and your students to do something that might be a bit scary, terrifying for some perhaps, but with wonderful, immeasurable outcomes. The outcomes of imagination that you can’t bullet point in a module descriptor. Outcomes that change lives, perhaps society, maybe the world.

Want to learn more? Start here

References

Note: The following references also include sources mentioned and discussed during the presentation and talk on 21st Jan 2019, some of which might not be directly referred to in this post.

Burtis, M. (2016) University Remixed – November EXPO 2016: Martha Burtis. [online]
Accessed: 08 Jan 2019. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h_H2H-VUNOQ&t=331s.

Groom, J. (2013) A Domain of One’s Own: Jim Groom at TEDxUSagradoCorazon.
Accessed: 08 Jan 2019. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PHLZFWGou_M&feature=youtu.be.

Groom, J. (2015) A Long Short History of Reclaim Hosting. Bava Tuesdays [Online] 22 August 2015. Accessed: 16 Jan 2019. Available at: https://bavatuesdays.com/a-long-short-history-of-reclaim-hosting/.

Heywood, L. (2018) Developing Digital Fluency on/with the Open Web. #autel18 [online] Accessed: 15 Jan 2019 Available at: http://lauren.coventry.domains/autel18/.

Gessler, M. (2017) Learning in landscapes of practice: Boundaries, identity, and knowledgeability in practice-based learning, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 54:1, 96-97, DOI: 10.1080/14703297.2016.1257539

Murray, S. and Hall, J. (2011) Arts for what, for where, for whom? Fragmentary reflections on Dartington College of Arts, 1961–2010, Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, 2:1, 54-71, DOI: 10.1080/19443927.2010.544752

Leander, K. Phillips, N. and Taylor, K. (2010). The Changing Social Spaces of Learning: Mapping New Mobilities. Review of Research in Education, 34. pp.329-394.

Levine, A. (no date) About. Splot [online] Accessed: 18 Jan 2019 Available at: https://splot.ca/about/.

Lindsann, O.E. (2010) Dartington, A Eulogy: An Open Letter on Community, Pedagogy, History, and the Life and Death of Utopian Institutions. Internet Archive. Accessed: 27 Dec 2019 Available at: https://archive.org/details/DartingtonEulogyOnline/page/n11.

Stommel, J. (2016) University Remixed – November EXPO 2016: Jesse Stommel.
Accessed: 08 Jan 2019 Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GDT3iECdWQ8&t=179s.

Stommel, J. (2017) If bell hooks Made an LMS: Grades, Radical Openness, and Domain of One’s Own. Jesse Stommel [online] Accessed: 17 Dec 2018 Available at: https://www.jessestommel.com/if-bell-hooks-made-an-lms-grades-radical-openness-and-domain-of-ones-own/.

Stommel, J. and Morris, S.M. (2018) An Urgency of Teachers: The Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy. USA: Hybrid Pedagogy Inc.

UMW Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (2017) DTLT Tool Parade.
Accessed: 04 Jan 2019 Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hhx54m3Ovpg.

Watters, A. (2015) Claim Your Domain And Own Your Online Presence (Develop a Safe and Secure Digital Space to Preserve and Store Student Data) (Solutions Series). Bloomington: Solution Tree.

Watters, A. (2016) Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2016. Coventry: Disruptive Media Learning Lab (Coventry University).

Watters, A. (2017) Current Trends in Education and Technology Part 1.
Accessed: 03 Dec 2018 Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrVnLFYd4iU.

Watters, A. (2017) Why ‘A Domain of One’s Own’ Matters (For the Future of Knowledge). Hack Education [online]
Accessed: 08 Jan 2019 Available at: http://hackeducation.com/2017/04/04/domains.

We Are South Devon (21st September 2017) Dartington Hall hosts first queer arts festival. We Are South Devon [online] Available at: http://wearesouthdevon.com/dartington-hall-queer-arts-festival/. Accessed: 11/01/2019

Wikimedia Foundation [online] Accessed: 17 Dec 2018 Available: https://wikimediafoundation.org/

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