Connected Courses: It’s Time to Reclaim Your Domain

Image credit: Amy Burvall

For more than a decade I’ve been circling around one pretty basic idea: the open web kicks learning management systems (LMS) asses when it comes to teaching and learning in higher ed. I’ve said it far less succinctly than that on numerous occasions, but my point has always pretty much the same. And Audrey Watter’s nails it with her usual exactitude in a recent talk in Newcastle about the LMS:

The learning management system has shaped a generation’s view of education technology, and I’d contend, shaped it for the worst. It has shaped what many people think ed-tech looks like, how it works, whose needs it suits, what it can do, and why it would do so. The learning management system reflects the technological desires of administrators — it’s right there in the phrase. “Management.” It does not reflect the needs of teachers and learners.

If that’s the case, what are the needs of teachers and learners? Is it presumptuous for a few edtech folks to argue everyone should be using the open web? Probably, but that’s not going to stop us. And I will turn again to Audrey’s recent talk for an excellent reason why:

If we think about new technologies like the Web as facilitating learning networks and as learners and learning communities as nodes on those networks, we can see a very different “shape,” if you will, to education technology than what the learning management system enables.

The web as learning network that isn’t an insulated, hierarchical reproduction of a managed system is a reality higher ed seems to be hell bent on resisting. Why can’t we imagine, for even a moment, the idea of user as developer that was prevalent in the early days of the web. Once upon a time we explored HTML and used FTP to upload files. Since then, creation on and through the web has gotten much more user-friendly. And, as Gardner Campbell notes in his essay on The Personal Cyberinfrastructure, we have arrived at a moment where a student can and should be the sysadmin of their education. The same holds true for faculty. What’s more, with extensive experience over the last two years helping more than 1000 faculty, staff and students get their own domain and web hosting through UMW’s Domain of One’s Own project, I can confidently say it’s easier than ever. And, to visually quote Amy Burvall, it moves us towards a technical infrastructure that privileges “self over system.”

Image credit: Amy Burvall

And while ease and convenience can’t be underestimated for faculty, it’s the personal and professional opportunities available that are truly compelling:  building your online identity, networking within your discipline, and designing curriculum centered around digital fluency. It seems to be a foregone conclusion that online learning, hybrid courses, and digitally rich classrooms are the future, yet the systems we provide to support this inevitable reality do little to nothing to reinforce any of the most basic rights of students, faculty, and staff.

  • Do you have control over your data? (Domains is about as FERPA compliant as you can get!)
  • Is the work you do in any given system easily exportable and ultimately affordable beyond your university experience?
  • Do you have the freedom to customize your online learning environment?

We have been working hard at UMW to start answering these questions. And having worked with more than 75 faculty over the last two years, and almost 1000 students, we’ve been able to answer yes to all three. This is the “singleness of purpose” driving the work we’re doing at UMW. We see open sources publishing platforms like UMW Blogs, courses like ds106, and campus-wide initiatives like UMW Domains as compelling examples of resistance to higher ed’s fifteen year addiction to the LMS.

And the shift starts pretty simply. The path to empowerment is through acknowledging and reclaiming ownership of your world online. Over the course of the next 12 weeks I’m committed to help any and all faculty playing along with Connected Courses get up and running with their own domain and web hosting. This was the impetus behind the original vision of the course: create resources for faculty who wanted to build a course-hub on their own domain like the one Howard Rheingold and I worked through in this three part video series. Those videos were the beginning of a larger idea of creating resources that would support faculty interested in setting up their own domain and web hosting.

Connected Courses CPanel

To that end, we created the Connected Courses documentation that provides an overview of web hosting, domains, as well as ton of specifics about CPanel, WordPress, and more. If you ever wanted to dig into managing your digital life online but never felt comfortable based on time investment and support, this is your lucky semester! Use any web hosting service you like, but the documentation above is specific to the CPanel GUI interface for managing your slice of a server. Also, if you want targeted support for your web space, I recommend starting out with Reclaim Hosting. Full disclosure: this is hosting service Tim Owens and I run, and I recommend it because it means we can help you in very targeted ways.

Image credit: Amy Burvall

So, as you follow along for the next twelve weeks consider this an opportunity to fully explore the tools available to create and manage your own space online.

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14 Responses to Connected Courses: It’s Time to Reclaim Your Domain

  1. Pingback: Connected Courses Mooc | More than just Content

  2. James Michie says:

    Nailed it!

    #EdTech like many other areas of education become enveloped in the need to systematise and reproduce… in this scenario the learner (as individual) always plays second fiddle.

    Amy Burvall’s images are great BTW… perfect illustration of how I have felt for some time.

    • Reverend says:


      It’s a constant struggle, and I am hoping the pendulum will starting swinging away from systematization. That said, we have a job to do to make independence from the systems a bit easier and more transparent. I’m hoping that’s where Domain of One;s own and Reclaim Hosting will start laying groundwork for introducing faculty and students alike to a whole new way of thinking about ownership and control when it comes to their work.

      As for Amy Burvall, I agree entirely. I never knew I liked magenta and black so much 😉

  3. Jared Stein says:

    Love the connected courses stuff, Jim, despite that fact that I really think your claim that “the open web kicks [LMS] asses when it comes to teaching and learning in higher ed” deserves to be thrashed, dissected, and then maybe put back together. Indeed, I started to write an uncomfortably lengthy and argumentative response, suggesting that even if the claim were tenable, it’s almost impossible to prove. Regardless, I don’t even think it’s true that the two must be mutually exclusive.

    But then I realized we would most likely end up chasing our own tails, so I stopped.

    • Reverend says:

      So, no argument? Just resignation? I stand by my statement 100%. The LMS is a management tool, it has little or nothing to do with innovative teaching and learning online—which I think we can both agree is what I am referring to above. It’s all about running the trains, and for folks who have no interest in the web, that’s fine, but that’s not what I am talking about in relationship to Connected Courses or edtech more generally. Faculty using an LMS to do there own mini-MOOCs speaks volumes to just how little has changed in this sphere.

      Canvas might seem slick and new, and we’ve used it for 3 years now at UMW, but it has done nothing when it comes to augmenting teaching and learning beyond quizzes, forums, and grade books. Not so for UMW Blogs, Domain of One’s Own, our Makerspace, and more. We’re working with our community to grok the open web, that’s at the heart of edtech in my mind.

      It will be interesting to see if Canvas can avoid the bloat, what LMS can? You will be asked to do everything. We are interested in APIs for pushing work into Canvas and pulling it out for DoOO and UMW Blogs. But that’s about data Canvas gets from our student systems. And maybe there is gold in analytics, but that’s a sign of the machine using us all. The middle-of-the-road argument for the LMS would be a lot more interesting if it didn’t seem like pretext for the same old vendor lock-in over time. It’s inevitable, I guess.

      But to be clear, in my mind the LMS is a convenience universities pay into so faculty can put there syllabus somewhere, give quizzes, and track grades. We use it more out of inertia than anything else at this point. I see this as an abrogation of their responsibility to understand how the digital world works more generally, and in their discipline more specifically. Rather than relying on the LMS to solve the web for a majority of faculty, it should be an edtech’s job to introduce how much more you can get when you start owning your piece of it. The LMS is the McDonald’s of edtech, as Tom Woodward already noted. And while I am a big fan, Jared, and understand the presumed “need” for the LMS, if we are talking about innovation and pushing faculty to do cool shit, the open web does kicks the LMSs ass any day of theweek. I’d really like to be convinced how and why Canvas will be substantially different from any other LMS over the past 15 years. How has it dramatically changed teaching and learning from 4 years ago?

      More generally, what has the LMS done for highered? I think Audrey Watters makes a compelling argument about what it’s done for the worse, which i referenced above. I have examples of what the open web has done for higher ed, can we find the same, beyond convenience, for the LMS. I know Alan Levine has made call after call for just that, with no takers. And, to be fare, why focus on this post, I think Brian Lamb and I did a much more formal and comprehensive thrashing of the LMS here:

      Anyway I know the two can work together, and I know there is a middle ground, but I just can;t bring myself to swallow it given the inevitable push for market share, large consortium deals like Unizen at a million a pop, and on and on. You’re in a different landscape now, and teaching and learning is not your product anymore. You provide scale, convenience, and conformity.

      • There are some who use the LMS as a syllabus dump. That’s irrelevant, uninteresting noise. There are others who use it for really interesting and engaging activities.

        Same with websites (even – GASP – WordPress sites) – some just dump inane content, some do amazing awesomeness.

        It’s not the tool. It’s not the venue. It’s how it’s used. One size does not fit all. There is a place for the LMS. And there is a place for the Open Web™. And there is a place for the convergence or divergence of both. Different people (and groups and communities) use things differently, because they do fundamentally different things – beyond the trivial syllabus dumping.

        • Matt says:

          I am really waiting for someone to come up with examples of “really interesting and engaging activities” in an LMS. I have supposedly been trained in the best of the best when it comes to making “really interesting and engaging activities” in the LMS, and those were still not that impressive. Hell, I have won awards for “really interesting and engaging activities” in an LMS, and those were still boring compared to what I see in even the worst examples of the Open Web.

  4. Pingback: I second the recommendation for web hosting through @ReclaimHosting. Would be hard pressed to find another hosting provider more attuned to the needs of educators. Interesting

  5. Susan Watson says:

    I think that LMS is a victim of low expectations, low investment of creative energy and inertia. I do believe the tool could be used in much more creative ways, but so far it is mostly just mundanity and structured interaction.

    • Reverend says:

      Yeah, I tend to think it’s a deeper, structural issue with the LMS. What you are saying is totally right, but the pwoer of inertia for mediocrity cannot be underestimated in terms of its damage to online learning more broadly 😉

  6. Pingback: “I fought the LMS…”: My First 10 Years with Learning Managment Systems | Jared Stein

  7. Pingback: Don't Hate the LMS, It Can Help Keep Our Focus on Learning - Ted

  8. Matt says:

    I think thanks to you and also Alan’s recent UTA visit I am now going to call myself an Ed Tech Retro-Futurist. The future of education is going back to the old ideas of the open web!

  9. Pingback: Let’s get systematic, baby… | Abject

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