opinion

Do I Own My Domain If You Grade It?

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Universities across the country are giving personal web domains to their students. I picked andrewrikard.com. Davidson College, where I’m a junior, pitched it as an opportunity to own my own data. I could create a Wordpress blog from scratch. I could play with HTML, CSS, and Javascript and create experimental projects for courses. I could even keep the domain after graduation. It is a living portfolio, my representation in the digital world.

In a recent article discussing this “Domain of One’s Own” initiative, blogger Audrey Watters calls for more schools to promote this radical shift in the way that students deal with their data. Watters has been promoting this initiative since the fall 2013 when University of Mary Washington (UMW) adopted it. She argues that:

“To own one’s domain gives students an understanding of how Web technologies work. It puts them in a much better position to control their work, their data, their identity online.”

The crux of her argument is ownership of data and public information: “In developing this ‘personal cyberinfrastructure’ through the Domain of One’s Own initiative, UMW gives students agency and control; they are the subjects of their learning, not the objects of education technology software.”

I agree that owning data has the potential to give students agency and control. But it is not a guarantee.

I want to shift the emphasis from data possession to knowledge production. Gaining ownership over the data is vital—but until students see this domain as a space that rewards rigor and experimentation, it will not promote student agency. Traditional assignments don’t necessarily empower students when they have to post them in a public space.

This past year, Davidson College introduced “A Domain of One’s Own” to a portion of the student body through faculty willing to use it in their teaching. I saw two styles of ‘Domains’ rise out of the initiative.

The first type of ‘Domain’ took audience into account, considering the implications of public scholarship, representation, and student agency. The second, in many ways, mirrored the traditional pedagogical structure by assigning papers or short answer assignments to be posted online through blogs. This is not necessarily bad, but also doesn’t necessarily empower. The problems with the second approach can be wrapped up into two key questions beginning with: Why post an assignment online if…

1. The audience doesn’t change?

If no one wants to read the hastily constructed blog post for a class participation grade, then what is the purpose of making it public? If assignments are going to live online, don’t they need to be connected to a public dialogue? Don’t they need to be oriented at the proper audience? The web is a network for conversations, and if students still see their audience as a teacher with a red pen, then nothing changes.

2. The student does not want to be represented by their assignments?

If students experience their domain as a graded extension of the classroom, then their ownership is over ‘assignments.’ How often do traditional ‘assignments’ misrepresent student interests, passion, and rigor? Giving a student ownership over data means nothing if it doesn’t allow them to determine that data. At that point the student once again loses agency in relation to the institution. Promoting digital ownership is different than assigning work in publicly accessible spaces.

I believe that these questions are vital because without student agency over data creation and display, the wonderful potential of ‘Domains’ can become a mode of exploitation. For instance, public assignments tap into fears of public embarrassment. Can ‘ownership’ and ‘assignment’ go hand in hand?

I’m not arguing against putting class assignments online, but the assignments must be framed by a conversation about audience and the way the ‘domain’ represents the author to that audience. At Davidson, there are certainly professors questioning these digital spaces, and reorienting their teaching to promote student agency, rigor, and creativity. They are questioning how their student’s ‘domains’ can engage broader audiences and promote high quality, original scholarship.

Take the examples of two assigned student projects that were both informed by a conversation on public scholarship as well as an option to keep the project off-line. There is Violet Degnan and her project, “New Black Masculinity and Hip-hop.” Degnan places this piece within a network of links, articles, and images while also abiding by strict scholarly standards. Also explore the satirical online store by John Chavez, dubbed “Stitcht,” which ‘hacks’ digital conceptualizations of gender. These two projects engage in public scholarship in creative ways: Degnan’s project participates in the very public conversation surrounding black masculinity, while Chavez uses the form of a satirical store to force an audience to question their assumptions around the online economy.

‘Domains’ is radical not because it is a technological shift, but because it encourages a pedagogical shift. The domains project isn’t revolutionary to the traditional classroom, but it is revolutionary to a classroom reimagined around public scholarship, student agency and experimentation. It makes sense when students find ownership in what they choose to create, how they put it online, and how it engages a broader audience. The question bigger than data ownership is how to make ownership over ideas happen.

Andrew Rikard is a rising junior at Davidson College in North Carolina where he studies English and Computer Science.

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