A Brief History of Domain of One’s Own, Part 1

Domain of One’s Own (DoOO) is not just a platform. It’s a philosophy. A history, then, can not just account for the development of the technologies but must also account for the thinking that brought the project to life.

Our goal with this series of posts is to offer a version of that history. Our approach isn’t about establishing a chronology; rather, we want to explore the origins and genealogy of the project, to capture its spirit, and to look toward its future. Because DoOO focuses so intimately on identity and what it means to be fully human on the web, we are starting this series with our stories — how we came to know Domain of One’s Own, how it has shaped us, and how we will help shape it.

What is DoOO?

Domain of One’s Own is a project that gives all University of Mary Washington students, faculty, and staff the opportunity to get a domain name with hosted web space. The domain and web space are free for the time they’re at the University. The project has a rich origin. Since 2004 every member in the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies has had a domain name and Web hosting. That was also when DTLT, began experimenting with open source platforms, which made the Web more accessible. One of the founders of DoOO, Martha Burtis, explains how open sources tools “made it possible to build learning environments that empowered students, and not necessarily to the detriment of the course.” In 2007, DTLT began to wonder, “what if every faculty member and student had their own domain name and their own space on the Web?”

Eventually, the “what if’s,” became “needs.” Members of the UMW Community needed “a space online that they not only control and own but they understand how it works.” Thus, Domain of One’s Own was born. Through the hard work of Martha Burtis, Jim Groom, and Tim Owens, along with the rest of DTLT, Domain of One’s Own piloted in 2012 with a small cohort of faculty and students. Part of the success of that first year was the faculty development initiative sponsored by DTLT and Mary Kayler in UMW’s Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation. Almost immediately, the project garnered national and international attention. Starting in 2013, domains became available for any member of the UMW community, including staff, faculty, and students. There are currently over 2000 active UMW Domains.

Domain of One’s Own is in part a response and an antidote to the emerging discussion around ePortfolios, while also resisting traditional educational platforms that look nothing like the rest of the Web. According to Audrey Watters, the project helps faculty, staff, and students at UMW “have more control over their scholarship, data, and digital identity.”

Discovering Domain of One’s Own

I (Jess) first encountered Domain of One’s Own on August 29th, 2012. Over the summer of 2012, I took a web authoring and design class at George Mason University. GMU provided us a tilde space where we could host our hand-coded websites using our newfound HTML and CSS skills. Upon returning to UMW, I looked to see if UMW had tilde spaces for students, because I wanted to continue to practice. After much googling, I found a blog post that Jim Groom had written the day before called Documenting Domain of One’s Own. I didn’t know him, I didn’t know about UMW’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT), I just knew I wanted web space, preferably free. After reading the post, which explained more about the pilot, I boldly commented, “Hi, I’m a student here at UMW and this sounds like a great idea! Can students sign up for it now? If not, because it’s still a work in progress, how can I access my webspace via Secure File Transfer application? I was doing so at GMU over the summer and I was hoping I could here too, just to start working a site that I’d use primarily to showcase my future history research projects.” With the encouragement of my professor, Susan Fernsebner, I created a website for the final presentation in my History Seminar. From there, I continued to redesign the sites I built by hand until I was introduced to WordPress by a (former) DTLT member, Ryan Brazell.

I worked with course blogs and WordPress throughout the rest of my time as an undergraduate at UMW. In 2014, my relationship with Domain of One’s Own changed significantly. While taking Jeff McClurken’s Adventures in Digital History course, I got to spend time in DTLT learning how to make child themes in WordPress. When DTLT moved to the Hurley Convergence Center, I applied to be a tutor at the Digital Knowledge Center (DKC), a peer tutoring center where students get help with digital projects. The possibility of working with digital tools and platforms interested me, and so I also added a Digital Studies minor just before my senior year. I went from dabbling with my domain to thinking critically about how Domain of One’s Own could help me build and shape my digital identity. This is when I realized how a project like DoOO could help students and faculty rethink how the web works and what we can do there.

In my role as a tutor at the DKC, I was supervised and mentored by Martha Burtis. I learned a lot and got experience with a bunch of digital tools. I learned what the backend of Domain of One’s Own looks like and how to fix common problems on the system. For me it was all very exciting — to see under the hood of a large scale project like DoOO. I was also able to witness DTLT at work, consulting with faculty just on the other side of the glass from where I was working in the DKC. They were empowering faculty and I was empowering students. However, I knew my time with the DKC and interacting with DTLT was going end. That thing called graduation happened, and I threw my resume out to a bunch of jobs that had digital components, but none were as interesting as the work I had done at UMW. DTLT announced an Entry-Level position, and it felt like the job had been created just for me. I applied, interviewed, and got the job. Now with my new colleagues, I support WordPress and Domain of One’s Own, and present to classes about digital identity. I’m looking forward to the future of Domain of One’s and what my second year in DTLT has in store!

Inhabiting the Course, Inhabiting the Web

I (Jesse) knew I wanted to be a teacher when I was a 9-year-old kid. My mom was in graduate school, and I’d stay up with her late into the night while she studied. Sometimes, I’d do her Anatomy Coloring Book homework for her, but I’d also spend hours piling up her textbooks to design syllabi. (I didn’t actually know the word “syllabi” at the time.) In 1999, I helped design my first official syllabus as a teaching assistant. In 2001, shortly after I started teaching courses of my own, I decided to eliminate paper syllabi. Taking my classes paperless was as much environmentally motivated as it was driven by a gut instinct that the syllabus for a course shouldn’t be static — that the syllabus should be dynamic and that students should have a hand in creating the framework for a course. If my 9-year-old self could design syllabi, why do teachers patronize to adult students by dictating to them the shape of their learning? Not all teacher-created syllabi are bad, and I believe the teacher has an important role in helping to shape the learning that happens in a class. But syllabi, as long as I’ve known them, are too often defensive documents aimed at controlling students through absurd levels of bureaucracy.

So, in 2002, I started hosting my own syllabi on the web, but they were more than just syllabi. Over the years, they morphed increasingly into course sites authored as much by students as by me. I would open the space, but I was only one of many that would inhabit it. And I’d often use the course site from one semester as a starting point for the next, so students would also build upon each other’s thinking from semester to semester across years. As much as possible, I tried to de-emphasize the administrivia of a conventional syllabus (the bits required by institutions) so that the subjects of the course and student work would be foregrounded. I also made my course sites conversation spaces, starting with e-mail lists, evolving through Google groups, blog comments, and Twitter feeds. My goal was always to destabilize the “front of the class” — to show up as a teacher myself but to create ample opportunities for students also to show up as teachers.

The Domain of One’s Own project at University of Mary Washington caught my attention very early on, as it germinated, well before it was fully rolled out on campus. At the schools where I’d taught, my work had always been done against the flow of the institution. But UMW was supporting the work at an institutional level and making the work explicitly about student agency. When I talked to Jeff McClurken about my current position as Executive Director of DTLT, he had me at hello. And this is why: In a recent conversation about DoOO, Jeff remarked, “It is sadly unusual to tell students the work they do in their classes is theirs. That it matters. That they should share it. That they own it. That their digital identity can be developed by them, not by their teachers, the institution, and not, Dear God, by the LMS.” Learning is not static. Students are not receptacles. Technology should not be about surveillance. The web is a place we can inhabit. These things are at the heart of Domain of One’s Own, which as of 2016 has been enshrined in UMW’s Strategic Plan.

Looking Forward

We (Jess and Jesse) now work together (with the rest of DTLT) to help shepherd Domain of One’s Own. But we recognize that the work is the result of so many that came before us. There was an idea, and that idea had parents, but so much of the work of DoOO has been done in the classroom by faculty at UMW and the thousands of students they’ve collaborated with. So much labor, and so much heart, have gone into this project. Jess’s experience has been vital to DTLT, because she’s worked on all sides of the platform. And we’ve also learned immensely from the expanding community of institutions around the world starting their own DoOO-inspired initiatives. The project continues to grow and change. As Martha Burtis writes, “By letting this project emerge in an organic way, we can let it become what it needs to become.”

Over the next few years, what we’d like to see, is for the DoOO community to increasingly become a student community — not just technologists talking to each other from one institution to another. How can we open our pedagogies so that students at schools around the world are inhabiting the space of the web together — so that our classes are made permeable and allow students to engage on the public web across cultural and geographic boundaries?

And how do we make sure that these spaces are not obligatory — that they are spaces students choose to make, choose to inhabit, choose to learn within, and perhaps choose to continue learning within once they graduate? As UMW faculty member Debra Schleef writes, it should be “a choice to keep one’s domain, to change it significantly, or not to use it at all.” How do we assure that DoOO doesn’t become another space, like the LMS, designed to track, monitor, regulate, and control students?

To answer these questions, we find ourselves looking back even as we look forward, and so our hope with this series of posts is to investigate the history (anecdotal and otherwise) of DoOO, even as we continue to imagine its future.

[Photo “hedgehog” by flickr user plus45 licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]