Domains and the Cost of Innovation

Audrey Watters brilliant article “The Web We Need to Give Students” delineates a host of excellent reasons for why students should be provided a space of their own on the web as part of their formal education.  She argues this is just important for K12 as it is for higher education, featuring Clarence Fisher and Bryan Jackson (those damn innovative Canadians!) to underscore the work already being done in this regard. A domain and web hosting provides a platform that’s on and of the web, as Watters notes, providing a portal to an entire world of intellectual opportunities:

Giving students their own digital domain is a radical act. It gives them the ability to work on the Web and with the Web, to have their scholarship be meaningful and accessible by others. It allows them to demonstrate their learning to others beyond the classroom walls. 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.

Given Audrey’s remarkable pen and tremendous reach, I wasn’t entirely surprised to learn former schools minister in the UK, Jim Knight, picked up on the idea of a Domain of One’s Own as a compelling approach to teaching digital skills. What’s more, the post in which he frames his thinking has the following as its sub-header “Jim Knight considers stealing an innovative idea from the US.” I’m sure more than a few of the UK folks in my network are cringing at this idea given they have been a part of this conversation for years. Nonetheless, this is a major coup for UMW and it’s domain program, right?

Absolutely! University of Mary Washington deserves a lot of credit when it comes to getting behind a domains project, funding it, and trying to build it into the fabric of the university. Ironically, however, at the same time UMW’s role as an international force for innovation in edtech is being widely recognized, the group that made it happen is disbanding. There are a lot of  reasons for this, and I can’t speak for anyone else. But for me, it became increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to run a group filled with some of the best talent in the field and still offer less than $50,000— sadly the starting salary I got back in 2005. UMW got lucky for a long time in this regard, we all worked for far less than we were worth (I think that’s a institution-wide nationwide reality), but we had freedom, with little to no oversight for most of that time.

But with a project like Domain of One’s Own that’s changed over the past year. It’s a high profile project and a lot of folks have taken an interest, in a Barton Fink sorta way.

And that could be a very good thing, but as we have been suggesting for years, our success was premised on an investment in people. It was our group’s collective belief that if we continued to do great things year-after-year and prove our value (which I think we have) the resources would follow. As it turns out they didn’t, and I think that was the hardest part of my role (and my biggest failure) as director over the last couple of years—realizing that no matter what we did and how successful we were, the resources necessary to sustain our group—no less build on our successes—would never materialize. I really wanted to believe. It’s been a hard pill to swallow.

All this said, I know this is a broader reality playing out across higher education right now. The late logic of capital has come home to roost in academia: do more with less, lucky to have a job, tenuous tenure, the mission, austerity, budget cuts, everyone’s expendable, etc. But the fact is I firmly believe none of us at UMW are expendable. It really was, is, and will continue to be about the people. So if anyone out there is considering a Domain of One’s Own project, know this, the tech can be very, very cheap. It’s the right people that will be expensive, and for good reason—they determine its success. And success means integrating a digital-based curriculum across a university culture—this takes support, resources, and a concerted effort of talent. If you’re thinking about doing something like this I highly recommend you invest in some excellent people, pay them what they deserve, and trust them to do great things. Major kudos to VCU’s ALT Lab in this regard, they have been creating positions at really competitive salaries. Not sure how Gardner Campbell is doing it, but it lifts us all up.

In fact, this is what I have seen at various schools who have taken up this project. The University of Oklahoma has invested heavily in Adam Croom, Mark Morvant and many others to carry out various digital projects, including the important work of OU Create. Channel Islands has invested in folks like Michael McGarryMichelle Pacansky-Brock, Jill Leafstedt, and Jamie Hoffman to integrate CI Keys into their culture. Davidson has done the same with Mark Sample and Kristen Eshleman for their Domains project. All these projects revolve around a cadre of folks who are doing great things, and pushing experimentation and freedom forward.

But let me be clear, I am more than proud of the work we have done with UMW Domains on the back of Tim Owens 🙂 It’s been part of a longer tradition, and I think Mary Washington should certainly be excited about being touted internationally as the home of an innovative project the UK should import. At the same time, there must also be the recognition that the very conditions that made this possible have been eroding steadily over the last several years. Continued wage stagnation (we got two or three raises in the ten years I was at UMW) and an attempt to institutionalize that innovation without the requisite resources. But the good news is that none of this is a foregone conclusion, UMW still has the ability to consider investing in this group, and actually bringing in the caliber of people needed to continue what’s become a pretty special tradition—one I’d be heartbroken to see “disrupted.” Anyone who has worked at an institution knows that the powers that be have the ability to invest in those things that are important to them, I still want to believe, regardless of all evidence, that UMW’s DTLT is one of those things.

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