#DoOO is not an app and not a blog farm

tl;dr: I had the opportunity to propose a #DoOO project at my university and it failed to come through. Because apps.

Featured Image “Controls” by Alan Levine via Flickr under a CC-BY 2.0 license

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.

8 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this experience, Christian! That sounds completely frustrating, and I can definitely understand that it would take a while to process and even be able to write about it. Here’s a related experience from my campus: we do have Domain of One’s Own (which we branded as OUCreate), and it’s great; I love it. But during the exact same time frame when people were lobbying for and deploying the pilot of DoOO, there were also millions of dollars (literally: MILLIONS of dollars) being spent on a closed, proprietary, untested LMS platform, on top of the LMS platform we already have. The same campus office was actually coordinating both projects: two projects that, at least from the outside, look antithetical to one another.
    And listen, since the actual costs for DoOO are quite small (someone at the Domains17 conference mentioned that his IT director laughed out loud when he heard how low the costs would be, and he compared it to a rounding error in the budget for software site licenses), do you think it is possible that it still might be set up and running as a project at your school anyway? It is still microscopically small compared to the two LMSes we have at my school (Canvas plus the totally closed LMS)… but at least our DoOO exists, and is making a real difference for the people who use it. I use it every day, and given the total dominance of LMS culture at my school, I’ve made it a point to try to show at every opportunity just how the opportunity we have with DoOO is what allows us to do really creative and powerful things with the LMS (well, with Canvas anyway… the other LMS, the multimillion dollar closed proprietary LMS, doesn’t play nice with the rest of the Internet at all).
    Maybe the same thing would be true at your school: by having space of their own, students and faculty can create projects that would be worth sharing via that app…?

    Reply

    1. Thanks, Laura, I see what you mean. I can also see how DoOO seems like a small budget when your institution invests millions in infrastructure for teaching and learning. The hard truth is: we don’t do that. We just don’t. And the larger amounts for this would not have been contributed towards the tech, but towards the people who will help with this. Main parts of my budget for this last try was for people who would assist educators and students. My university, although we are praised for our teaching model (does not always help, different story), has only very few, if any, folks who can assist educators in their use of technology in teaching.

      Which is not to say that I am giving up. I am already working on the next opportunity to make this happen and it might just be some Reclaim space, some domains and a quiet kick-off with 15 students in one seminar. If this happens, the upside will be that I can position it as a subversive project that the students are not only part of, but that they make happen themselves 🙂

      Reply

      1. YES YES YES to carrying on with your own subversion in your own seminars. My students have been publishing their work online since 1999 when I first started teaching at my school. If I had waited for our DoOO project, that means I would have missed out on 15+ years and literally thousands of student websites and blogs in the meantime. I’m glad we have DoOO now… but I am even more glad that I did not have to wait for DoOO to promote student web publishing and to encourage students to take ownership of their educations/creations. 🙂

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    2. Oh, and quick addition: I sincerely hope this app idea does not come through even though that might mean that the whole application crumbles to ashes.

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  2. Feeling so much pain for you, and so much respect for both the maturity of your ideas/approach AND how you wrote about this experience here.
    Can I ask something? Could you possibly propose an idea that is DoOO-like but free? I know working on WordPress vs own domain has issues, but it also has potential to subvert in PART. And students keep their blog/site after they leave (and can easily convert to their own domain any time if DoOO ever comes thru or they can pay for it). I’m gonna blog this. It feels a bit naive but i think it’s a good idea for my own context. Don’t know if it would work for yours

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  3. Hi Christian,

    jeez, I just finished reading your blog piece, and must say, I totally hear you and am truly sorry for this absolutely frustrating experience – particularly the turning upside-down of your contribution to the larger application. But I also feel it is important that experiences like these are shared, so thanks a million for doing so!
    I must say I can fully relate to many of the points you mention, since I’ve been working for more than three years to implement, among other platforms, one of those pesky ‘blog farms’ you mention – but with a more open approach towards setup and rules, because we as a team felt that the limitations that you also describe will definitely choke the creative use of WP and its universe of plugins and themes. During those three years, we came as far as arguing our way through the thick slick of the university’s administrative moat, now at least being able to ‘allow’ our users a free and open WordPress (non-Multisite) blog setup with (almost) all of the possibilities that the WP theme and plugin universe comprises – but this fight has been a long and frustrating one. We had to argue our way around administrators who e.g. wouldn’t for the heck of it understand why a one-size-fits-all standardized WP layout will not satisfy all possible scenarios that students and scientists will eventually come up with, and why this is a problem that should be addressed right from the onset of such a project. Furthermore, university people who want a new blog in this setup can now (theoretically) choose their own subdomain (within the realm of the university blogosphere) – but this choice now also has to go through an additional approval step via the official administrative body. Our dream would have been a One-Minute-Choose-Your-Own-Subdomain setup (and yes, even this is far away from a true DoOO implementation), but in the end, we often had to compromise and now have a somewhat more complicated setup – but I feel this is still better than having one of these closed farms in which you aren’t allowed to do anything.
    Another attempt we made failed at the very beginning, because our IT provider refused to issue a wildcard subdomain certificate (with a dry “not possible” comment, and mind you, this was 2016), which we would have needed to test Sandstorm as a platform. So we decided for an experimental setup that was not blocked by these institutional barriers.

    So, all in all, must say, I’d be more than eager to see a truly open DoOO implementation in a German HEI environment, but it seems this – in many cases – is still a utopia (but definitely a utopia worth fighting for).
    And I also think working on parallel planes – carving out personal and small-group spaces and subvert institutional barriers on the one hand, and also try and advocate for a breaking down of these barriers via exemplary experimental cases) – is an approach that might work in the long term… but this often also means double workload… so still much to do!

    Reply

    1. Hey Tobias, thanks for sharing this expereince. Making these struggles and fights visible is important, I think, and I am glad that it seems to have hit a nerve with some people to not only share their success stories, but also the day-to-day one-step-forward-two-steps-backwards that many experience.

      Reply

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