It has been one week since Jim Groom paid us a visit at Penn State, and something has been gnawing at me ever since. I am afraid we might be close to missing the boat with empowering students to think creatively with the web.
Even though we have an institutional blogging platform here at PSU, one with 7000 active users right now, I feel like we may be misusing the platform by expecting students to start building their digital identities with proof of their life long learning.
Let’s go back to 2007. We are getting ready to spin up blogs@psu. We imagine this to be the tool that will let students actually use the web space the University has provisioned for them for the past decade. We have had a portfolio initiative at Penn State. The initiative is not technology based, per se. It is more about examining and evangelizing the power of portfolios. Just like most things on the earlier web, these portfolios were multimedia brochures – souped up resumes for students entering the job market. For the time, there were some stellar examples.
With the advent of Blogs at Penn State, we looked to expand the definition of portfolio to a tool for social learning, reflection, and personal digital archive. Some programs, like the College of Education’s Professional Development School, really latched on to the idea of portfolio as a tool for reflection and meta-reflection. It was successful because of all the thought that went into integrating the portfolio into the curriculum and learning process. (Shout out to Dr. Carla Zembal-Saul!) But overall, I think we had limited success with the blogs as portfolio approach University-wide.
One reason blogs@psu is not so successful as an individual portfolio tool is related to the fact that it is so successful as a tool for creating artifacts in a collaborative manner. Chris Long ran with adding all his students to his blog, and letting them co-author a living document. But what about students feeling ownership of their own work? It looks like that didn’t matter so much. Creating a shared space online, one that fostered community and dialogue, was more important to learning in the context of a particular class than this abstract idea of individual ownership.
But how could ownership really be a factor, anyway? Students didn’t own their stuff. Yes, it was more open and students had more control than they do in the traditional LMS, but it was still in a university system. What they build with it and their access to the content was still governed by the institution. While educational technologists get jittery about putting stuff in commercial services like blogger, worrying “What happens if blogger goes away?”, in the institutional system the student’s content is GUARANTEED to go away once they graduate. Why should students invest any effort in building their digital identity with our tools? I get asked when pitching the grandiose vision of crafting digital identity via blogs@psu, “What happens when I graduate?” Yes, technically the content can be extracted. The movable type blogging system we use has the ability to export posts as a text file, and many other systems can ingest this file, but that is really just a small part of getting your stuff out. There are all the files – not just images, but documents, videos, images. There is the fact that the URL will change, breaking not only inbound links from the outside but also internal, intra-blog links. There is the fact that other blogging systems will have different affordances along with different templates that reframe the content, putting it in a perspective that may be different than what the student originally intended. It is a messy process. Not impossible, but messy.
Technical problems aside, there is still this idea of ownership. If I were a student today, I would definitely not put my blog on my institution’s server. My blog has posts going back to 2003. Ideally it is a document that transcends any aspect of my life – changes of school, employer, career. If we are serious about using portfolio as a tool to help students start conceptualizing their place on the internet, acting with intention, and building a habit of life long learning and reflection, then the portfolio must transcend the institution. Consider Jim Groom’s notion of a domain of one’s own:
Moreover, the above URL is premised upon an individual’s enrollment in a university or college, and when they leave that school this space will often disappear. A digital identity should be an online address one can have no matter where they are, a space where you can track that person as they move not only from being a freshman to a sophomore, but from an undergraduate to a graduate and beyond. An online home where they consciously integrate their professional profile through a streaming set of resources and spaces they inhabit online
As the manager for Blogs@PSU, I see support requests come through from students asking how they can install plugins they found online, or how they can tweak the system a certain way. They have the instructions on what they need to do, they just don’t have the access to actually do it. Of course the resources on how to this or that can be found online – but they don’t apply within the garden of the institution. We have our own special idiosyncratic installation. This is a central system and as such a certain integrity must be maintained. Everyone cannot be given such deep access to the system. They are not trusted IT administrators. While an institutional blogging system is more comfy and modern box to put your stuff in, it is still a box. This reality must be addressed. What could happen if we were to help students gain more freedom to experiment in crafting their online selves?
Gardner Campbell’s A Personal Cyberinfrastructure:
Staff could manage everything centrally, with great economies of scale and a lot more uptime. Students would have the convenience of one-stop, single-sign-on activities, from registering for classes to participating in online discussion to seeing grades mere seconds after they were posted. This answer seemed to be the way forward into a world of easy-to-use affordances that would empower faculty, staff, and students without their having to learn the dreaded alphabet soup of HTML, FTP, and CSS. As far as faculty were concerned, the only letters they needed to know were L-M-S. Best of all, faculty could bring students into these environments without fear that they would be embarrassed by their lack of skill or challenged by students’ unfamiliar innovations.
Pointing students to data buckets and conduits we’ve already made for them won’t do. Templates and training wheels may be necessary for a while, but by the time students get to college, those aids all too regularly turn into hindrances. For students who have relied on these aids, the freedom to explore and create is the last thing on their minds, so deeply has it been discouraged.
So where does this leave us? Could we experiment with guiding students to create their own online presence that they could truly own? They could get their own domain, and under such a domain host various web software and perhaps the truly adventurous can experiment with how different tools can interact to create new modes of communication, customized to fulfill their own needs.
Earlier this year I wrote some initial reaction’s to Gardner’s piece. The post has 16 comments going over this issue, especially the question of whether the benefits of hosting one’s own stuff outweighs the costs of mental attention to figure it all out. I will say that there was one student testimonial that I posted before which speaks volumes:
I have always considered my self proficient in the internet. Of course, I could use Facebook, write a blog, search Google, watch Youtube, etc. But, now I am realizing that I am not proficient at all. My education has prepared me very little to experiment with the internet in a way that would allow me creativity. My professors have only pushed BlackBoard and blogs, but they have never really asked us to create entirely new websites and ideas. Even my journalism classes have not sought to prepare me for the experimentation and launch of new journalism models. Instead, we seem to be stuck in a place where online creativity is halted by current structures. (via jessicamasulli.com)
You can look to Groom’s ds106 classes to see what happens when students are required to purchase their own domain and web hosting, and install their own blogging software. Even if they were thrown into the deep end, they relied on each other for support and figured it out.
I am not saying there would be no need for an institutional blogging system. I think it could still have value for course-based blogs, sites about organizations on campus, and a space to aggregate all this content – not just the content being hosted within the IT walls of the University, but being created out in the world by the members of the University community.
Sure, there are questions about curricula, pedagogy, identity, responsibility, ownership. I am not going to say that there aren’t. I am saying we need to figure out what all the questions are, and begin to answer them.
The internet can be a powerful force for personal growth and cultural change. I think it is incumbent on higher education to foster a sense of understanding and creativity with the web. The students today are going to have an opportunity to re-create their fields using the web, if they are prepared.