tl;dr: I had the opportunity to propose a #DoOO project at my university and it failed to come through. Because apps.
In 2016, someone in the leadership of my university asked for my opinion: they were working on a funding application that was themed around the idea of an open, approachable university that is in exchange with its surroundings, its stakeholders, employers and businesses in the area, with society as a whole. Basically a ‘third mission’ application.
The application team members were wondering if I would be able to contribute an idea or a concept related to learning, teaching and digital technology that was in line with the idea of outreach and participation beyond our campus borders. Now, let that sink in for a minute: university administrators approached me. They were curious about digital pedagogy, about ways to enable interaction of students with the ‘real world’, and they were hoping to include a concept that fosters this in an application to the federal ministry. Not too bad, is it? Especially considering that my university does not have the more or less traditional tools and technologies in place that many (falsely, I would add) consider to be state of the art for digital teaching and learning practice. No LMS. Not really, anyways – we have a self-developed and self-hosted platform which students use to set up their semester schedules. It has some additional features, but that’s its main use.
Okay, so here I was in one room with university administrators. I chose the concept I was going to present by three main criteria:
a) The concept should scaffold ongoing, constructive and critical discussions around the different ideas of digital pedagogy, identity, teaching and learning among faculty and students.
b) I wanted to show ‘proof’ that what I was pitching had worked before elsewhere, that it had been applied.
c) Under no circumstances did I want to promote a centralized use of technology that follows ideas of control or restraint. (you may read “LMS” here) Instead, I was looking for something that provided students and educators with agency over their own digital identities and their learning and teaching.
The title of this post might have given it away: I introduced the idea of a Domain of One’s Own. I have been following the people and the community around this for a while now and I have had a couple of conversations with educators at my university about this. Some use Wikis in their teaching, some experiment with blogs and others work on data visualization, so I would be able to build on their work to a certain extent, they might be interested in #DoOO a try.
Also, there are some other universities here in Germany that host blogs for student projects. They run on university servers, are only accessible from within the university (at least for the most part) and students usually do not get to tinker with these spaces. These are the spaces where they put their content, they cannot adapt them in terms of naming, design. Ownership is clear here, these blogs are born within the university and they die within the university. And students definitely cannot use their domain for whatever they want to. It’s basically a CMS for a pre-defined purpose. These blogs are literally called ‘blog farms’.
So I had somewhere to start, at least, to explain what DoOO might be used for and I could comfortably make the claim that there would be some scholars willing to work with us from the beginning. From blogging to open data applications, wikis, everything in between and beyond – there would be numerous applications and uses that would put our students in a place where they can interact with society, with people within and outside of the university. Knowing that these various uses are not what these administrators had in mind (their job description often asks them to be risk-averse, I guess), I only pointed to these various possibilities as one end of the spectrum. Jim Groom talked about it and Martha Burtis recently included it in her keynote at #domains17: the ePortfolio as a Trojan Horse. This should be my way in here, too. I proposed that we start with one Liberal Arts major at our college. This program is quite unique at our university and resembles much of what you would probably also find at a US East Coast Liberal Arts College. Its students have a bit more academic freedom than most others and we already have a very thought-out mentoring program in place for them. For the funding application, I proposed to start providing these students with domains, then evaluate and possibly scale it up a notch.
I was expecting some of the people in the room to be sceptical of these ideas but that was not the case at all. They had some critical questions, especially with regards to the ‘third mission’. We looked for some ways to frame this better for the funding application and that was it. I was asked to write two pages for the application, include a calculation for the first four years and they would get back to me if they had any questions. I got started right away, sent them a draft two days later and asked them them to let me know if they thought that I would have to re-write some parts of it, calculate differently or make any other changes. I received a reply immediately, applauding the clear structure and the fact that I tried to make this as approachable as possible. This text was going to be only a small part of the application as a whole and that was it for me, for now. I followed up a couple of times until the deadline came closer, basically asking if there were any changes needed to adapt this more to the rest of the application but I was told that there would be no changes needed.
Then, after the deadline had passed, I was presented with an excerpt of the application text (I had to ask a couple of times to receive this). The text that was handed in with the application had nothing to do with what I originally had drafted. Basically, what it said was this: the university will develop an app (that has always worked, the world is full of perfectly well working uni-developed apps and the conversations they enable are vivid, well-balanced and ongoing). Students will use this app to communicate with one another (yes, this has always worked as well – define the streams that students are supposed to use to communicate and they will happily abide), they can upload videos to a platform (only accessible via the app, of course, so that students are protected from using anything they might be able to use later in their life).The app will be used for students to display their academic and professional progress, they will upload certificates and grades (no statement on privacy, on ownership of data, of data sharing). This content can then be viewed (via the app, of course) by stakeholders (mostly employers, I assume) outside of the university. Access will be restricted, but it is not clarified how this will be done.
This opposed what I had in mind on all levels. No agency for the student or the educator. Nothing about learning to carve out a space, an identity on the web. No mention of data control, of privacy. No mention of the barriers that go along with an app in terms of accessibility. This final text is about half a page long. So, how did we get from what I had drafted to this gem? Nobody can tell me who wrote this (my guess is: an administrator wanted to ‘polish’ the application text).
I don’t quite know yet how to handle this. I am not trying to use this post to wash myself clear of any mistake – I might have argued better for what I would have liked to do, I might have caught the wrong signals. It has been about 5-6 weeks since I was given the final application text and I wanted to cool down before writing about this. I actually started this post 4 weeks ago and noticed that I would not be able to write this without personally insulting anyone. So I stopped. Want to know how I learned (and still learn) when to stop? By reading other people’s blog entries, but also by writing some of my own. By communicating with people who are not like me on many levels. By discussing ideas and developments that I sometimes highly appreciate and, more often lately, that I despise because they oppose everything I believe in. I stopped because I decided that this space that I am carving out on my domain is not supposed to be one where I furiously insult people for their mistakes and wrong-doings. My domain is not supposed to be that space. There’s an app for that.