How the Web was Ghettoized for Teaching and Learning in Higher Ed?

Short answer: learning management systems.

The above title was something I tweeted out last night when I finsihed the presentation I delivered yesterday at the Digital Media Learning 2014 conference.

I’ve been working on a broader narrative for contextualizing the work we’re doing at University of Mary Washington with Domain of One’s Own. This initiative offers students and faculty a domain and web hosting so that they can more deeply inhabit and interrogate the web. For some, it’s most easily explained as an eportfolio, but for me that explanation is far too short-sighted. What’s more, it ignores higher education’s ongoing over-dependence on learning management systems (or siloed teaching and learning) for well over a decade.

Martha Burtis has been on a blog tear as of late framing our expeirence with Domain of One’s Own six months on, how we are building out community through, as well as how faculty and students are using UMW Domains. I recommend reading Martha’s trifecta of awesome posts for a detailed account of where we are with Domains of One’s Own to date.


In terms of the DML presentation, after briefly explaining Domain of One’s Own and blowing the audience’s collective mind 🙂 with the greatest Richard Scarry cannibalistic pig analogy ever used for explaining how domains/web hosting work based on this post (which accounts for the first 14 slides) I moved into the core of the presentation, at least for me,  “A Brief and Incomplete History of Personal Web Spaces” starting at slide fifteen (see slide deck at bottom of post).

I’ve talked about tilde spaces (~/spaces) in relationship to Domain of One’s Own in a cursory manner before, and the idea of tilde spaces as a precursor to UMW Domains is something I’ve continued to return to in my mind. In an attempt to more concretely frame the history of web publishing at universities I started doing some initial digging since. I hope to get deeper into this reseach in the coming months because it’ a total blast, but until then, let me share out some initial discoveries.

Earlier this month, while talking about the history of personal web spaces on various campuses at the office, I sent out the following tweet to get a sense of the rough timing of whenpersonal web spaces started to show up at campuses around North America.

I got back an impressive stream of responses—more than 75 in all! I’ve embedded some of them below to give yiu an indicator of the range of dates and universities.

While some of these personal web spaces were available as early as 1993, from this informal poll it seems that 1995 was the most common date for the collective memory on Twitter. And thanks to Tim Owens taking a spin on the Wayback Machine, we discovered the earliest recorded date for personal home pages at Mary Washington College (we didn’t become a University until 2004) was Fall 1996. That’s right, Domain of One’s Own is hearkening back to a tradition almost twenty years old. There was even a “community” page offering an index of all the staff and student home pages. There’s even a link for the howto.

Mary Washington College’s personal homepage hub

A real pleasant surpise was that thanks to the awesomeness that is the Wayback Machine the links to these personal pages were archived. So we could see the various home pages of faculty and students linked to. And lo and behold Gardner Campbell‘s personal home page was right there-front and center.

Gardner Campbell’s 1996 Personal Homepage at MWC

The page links to his various courses for that semester, has an image of his kids as the header, and a whole series of relevant, scholarly and personal sources below. Hell, I was even able to listen to a recording of “My Favorite Town” (a song he wrote, produced, and perfomed) on his bio page. The genre of the personal home page was in full effect already in 1996.

@jimgroom FWIW “Genres and the Web: Is the personal home page the first uniquely digital genre?” — Alan Levine (@cogdog) February 10, 2014

And this genre was not limited to faculty, below is a screenshot of Molly Barber’s  home page from Fall 1996.

Molly Barber’s homepage at MWC circa 1996

The following image is a scan of a tutorial (which I got from Andy Rush who started me down this rabbit hole) Jim Greenberg  wrote about creating personal web pages at SUNY Oneonta. If you read it, you’ll notice users had to create the www directory, change permissions, FTP files, write HTML, etc. In other words, creating and managing a personal webpage on universities servers back in the mid-90s wasn’t simple.

But, at the same time, it was an option that was empowering. A larger number of schools from small liberal arts colleges to big universities provided their students and faculty with personal web space. This was on par with the cutting edge services of the time like GeoCities—which also emerged in 1995. What GeoCities did well (and universities did not) was to use frontier and other spatial metaphors to link the folks exploring and writing on the web with “homesteaders” and pioneers that were building the virutal cities and neighborhoods of tomorrow. They featured their work and designed the entire site to promote community. To my knowledge, I don’t know of any universities that tried this out with their personal web spaces. Does anyone out there have any examples of something like this?

Here is a my personal favorite webpage on GeoCities from 1996.

Another thing GeoCities figured out that universities didn’t was how to make creating personal web pages as easy as possible. They created a GUI interface for uploading files, managing those files, and editing HTML—not dissimilar from something like a streamlined CPanel.

As a result, by 1999 when it was sold to Yahoo! for $3.7 billion, GeoCities was the third most popular site on the internet behind AOL and Yahoo! The boom was in full effect, and GeoCities was a model of social space on the web. The rest is history, a decade later Yahoo! closed Geocities and effectively trashed a whole swath of internet history.

Thanks to the Archive Team‘s Herculean efforts, much of the GeoCities community was preserved and made available for free download a year after the shutdown. One terrabyte of data from the kilobyte age as Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied describe it as part of the cultural study/art project they’re designed around the terrabyte dump of more than a decade of web culture. Their work is truly inspiring and as Dragan recently posted:

The tumblr blog One Terabyte Of Kilobyte Age Photo Oppresents one way to make it all accessible, by transforming it into an exciting soap opera of screen shots.

With the Geocities Research Institute’s latest effort, categorizing the home pages can go as easily as checking tumblr: When accessed through the Geocities proxy server, each post is connected with the local database, widgets to view and modify the displayed home page’s metadata are inserted into tumblr.

It’s pretty awesome to think that after the corporate apocalypse that leveled GeoCities to internet kipple, a motley band of artists and archivists are picking up the pieces. Sadly, but not surprisingly, universities are nowhere to be found in this work—we’re too busy running conferences and doing digital humanities 🙂

On that note, while going through the Geocities FAQ from 1996 I stumbled upon this gem under the “What is GeoCities all about section?”:

We aspire to be positive contributors to this new culture. We’re committed to developing innovative ways to foster the spirit of community that is so vital to the future success of the Internet and the World Wide Web.

And under the “What is GeoCities hoping to accomplish?” section I found this:

Our homesteading initiative is just the first step in building World Wide Web based communities that are destined to become a vital part of the Net. Please send us an E-Mail if you’re interested in learning more about helping build the societies of the New Frontier.

What?! This is from the GeoCities FAQ? The idealism of the web was at full rhetorical throttle. This doesn’t sound like a business FAQ, this sounds like…like magic. A vision of a web that I would like to believe universities, the guardians of culture, would have taken on the responsibility for fostering. Promoting a generative web by cultivating distributed communities of open publishing at the institutions that helped build and create the culture for the internet more generally.

But, instead we got this….


The blackbox for online publishing that was and is the learning management system (LMS). Like the pinetree deodorizers hanging from rearview mirrors, you could find one in every college and university. And as the world of Web 2.0 came around in the early 2000s the LMS became the rationale for dismissing blogs, wikis, and social media out of hand, while at the same time systematically discontinuing these personal web spaces provided on campuses without replacing them with anything else. The last relic of campus publishing spaces that tried, however pathetically at that late stage, to empower students and faculty alike were gone. So as we’re waking up from the hangover of a decade of innvoation lost at the hands of the LMS we are greeted with the corporate MOOC. As Mike Caulfield notes so brilliantly, it’s not Groundhog’s Day it’s Memento.

And where is the web in all this? Why are we surprised that we’re still pulling teeth as instructional technologists to get faculty and students to recognize the value of the open web when it comes to teaching and learning? For more than a decade the web has been systematically ghettoized as a dangerous space where people steal and victims are robbed (not entirely false, but not the whole story either). It’s during the Napster era that these educational safe spaces were introduced to “protect” our communities from the web, insulating us from what was possible at an astronomical cost. The fear and loathing surrounding the internet, copyright, and downloading that enabled universities during the late 90s to shutoff the web for anything beyond basic business operations is best summed up for me in the :38 second GI Joe PSA “Stop All the Downloading.”

And that’s basically the historical frame for the presentation as it relates to edtech. It’s not perfect, and it’s not done, but I will be presenting a few more iterations of this argument at least two or three more times over the next month. So any and all feedback is more than welcome.

I rushed through the final slides about how Domain of One’s Own tries to revisit the idea of web publishing at unviersities that breaks beyond the lip service to social media and the inevitability of the LMS and/or MOOCs. It’s time for universities to integrate the web into their culture across disciplines as a basic ingredient of literacy. But more on that anon, this post is way too long as it is, and I got to get some sleep. Here’s the slides for the presentation if you’re interested, and the video should be here at minute 34:00. That said, if you are short for time watch the presentation before mine by Jonathan Worth, as well as the one after by Kristen Swanson. They were much better than me 🙂

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23 Responses to How the Web was Ghettoized for Teaching and Learning in Higher Ed?

  1. Scott Leslie says:

    Good post Jim and lots right. I was there, I remember (started working in Higher Ed doing Internet stuff in 1993, set up hundreds of /~ accounts for faculty, delivered dozens of “learn HTML” workshops, and ultimatley have the dubious honour of being the first Blackboard customer in Canada.) But in hindsight I’d phrase one bit of this slightly differently – not just “Short answer: learning management systems” but slightly longer answer “LMS beat personal content management to the punch, and incumbency matters (even if it almost always sucks).” Geocities was never the answer and hand-crafted HTML sites neither. All it took was 3-4 years of LMS traction ahead of the flourishing of blogs and wikis and rss (oh my) and it was always an uphill battle from there. Topped with – IT, as practiced in Higher Ed, was the manifestation of the instrument of control administration had for decades, consciously or not, sought. Some saw this and delayed or resisted, and boy do they look smart now. As did the few who rolled their own and didn’t let the light of “university as dev shop” go out. Took me almost a decade to realize what I’d help to do, and by then it was too late. Same story Internet-wide, and maybe not even one quite as naive about the silos they’d built, but many I think actually were, thinking they were helping.

    Doesn’t mean don’t fight the good fight, and incumbency doesn’t always last forever. /~ is a good trace not to forget, that as you describe lives on. Anyways, it’s late, thanks for the memories. S

    • Reverend says:

      Thanks for the further contextualization, you do a briilliant job of filling in many of my gaps. I areally appreciate that. I love this idea of incumbency, and how much it matters. Also, I’m sure you are right that there is a whole part of this history I am missing about those university folks who built a content management system to rival the LMS that had many of the features I extolling here. I want to big more there.

      Also, the idea of the LMS an convenience makes total sense, and I was part of that shift at CUNY’s College of Staten Island in 1998/1999, that said there was friction there about it value and sense of usefulness as part of the web. The movement around an open CUNY was still alive, and the web was part of that.

      As far as Geocities not being the answer, I would suggest the model, at least for 5 or 6 years was pretty wperoful, and while not the long term solution perhaps, what is when it comes to technology—and it might be argued the idea of long-term, all inclusive solutions when it comes to enterprise systems might be another angel to explore.

      Finally, in terms of the boom and IT shops in higher ed was part of my next set of discussions, and I really want to go down that road. IT as service and business (often equated with finance) is fascinating and a huge part of this I didn’t touch on. Man, the comments on this blog as of late really amke me feel likes its 2007.


      • Pat says:

        Is there not, perhaps, an oversight of identity dualism here?

        Geocities and the personal home pages up top tend to feature a big selfie and be an expression of their individuality. So it is their expression of that part of their life, same as myspace was (myspace as the geocities surplanter), and tumblr has probably taken than on (I think tumblr is the teen in a crude generational sense).

        So perhaps that isn’t open, it’s extrovertweb? The LMS is perhaps hiding light under a bushel, but I wonder if there wasn’t one, what loss in communication would occur? Perhaps Jim, you’re a CC-Zero person, whereas others are so afraid of CC-BY they’d not go near it.

        I’m not defending the LMS (my mercenary fees to fight that battle would be extortionate) but perhaps open is too much / too far for some?

        It’d be interesting to see if you could track individuals who use the social / open web and the LMS and see if they match. Perhaps compare UMW sites with LMS usage – do they match, different groups?

        I’m interested, as an open person, in sharing as much as possible, but in the way you want to share. The OpenJoyce license statement sums this up. I’d like to think how social openness could reach out to the lurkers and the shy and find ways to encourage them to contribute (if they wish to do so anonymously)

        • Brian says:

          Interesting comment, Pat. I always thought wikis were the ultimate expression of the “introverted web”. I’ll never forget this amazing bit of writing on the very first (completely wide-open and anarchic) wiki we had at UBC. It only lives on by the grace of the Wayback Machine. The unknown and anonymous author writes:

          “Carving words into a screen is only slightly easier than carving them in blood on your arm.”

          “So I wiki. Why? Because it doesn’t matter. Sure, people might read it, but it is electronic, unreliable, ethereal. It is something I don’t entirely understand. But what I like, what I really enjoy about wiki writing, is that paper never gets the chance to solidify against me.”

          I don’t think I can overstate how exciting it was to me to see something pop up in a web space that I had started but which I had no control over. I’m still chasing that buzz, but as with so many addictions the chase just gets drearier and buzz less intense.

          • Pat says:

            I guess this a sort of Lacan / Debussy in whether writing is a creative or destructive act – wikis being pretty much the epitomy of that.

            Would a self destructing web be open? Kinda like that idea

        • Alan Smithee says:

          “But I see a modern world full of malls, and fast food, and wasteful transportation– I can bemoan that so many people opt for convenience. ”

          It’s like this – teaching does nothing for my career, it’s not even mentioned on my performance objectives – every hour I spend crafting my own site is an hour I don’t spend writing papers. I find a lot of the open crowd don’t seem to understand that as *employees* there isn’t any benefit (well there might be personal but this is a job to me, so if it ain’t measured, I ain’t interested) to being open.

          A VLE to me allows to bang up stuff and get on with writing – moreover, the next year I just copy it over, change the dates, update a couple of things and we are good to go.

    • I agree, but putting full blame on the LMS feels like the easy way out. The LMS got traction because it solved (well, claimed to solve) a bunch of problems. It became kind of like a Motherhood issue – you’re not against MOTHERHOOD, are you? LMS became a common platform – that’s actually a good thing – it’s just that the implementations were so… un-internetlike. We can fix that. I think it’s important to provide common platforms, but also important to not restrict activity to what any vendor decides is worthy of inclusion. That’s where we as institutions have failed – but it’s been a collective failure of our institutional imaginations. Perhaps shortcircuited by the promised easy-answers of LMS vendors, but we (as institutions) could have pushed back more. I know many many many individuals were (and are) working to do just that, but without the collective institutional fortitude to say “hey, you know what? this stuff may be necessary but it sure as hell isn’t sufficient” – we’ll just keep winding down this road toward outsourcing of innovation.

  2. Jmcclurken says:

    Great post Jim. I have a few responses to add on:

    Minor — “we discovered the earliest recorded date for personal home pages at Mary Washington College (we didn’t become a University until 2004) was Fall 2006” — Assuming that’s a typo since that page is from 1996.

    I think you’ve done a good job of detailing the technical side of these pressures and transitions but it seems to me there are other factors at work here as well.

    1) Though critiques of the ivory tower have long existed, the notion of academia as a walled garden in which the outside world doesn’t intrude (much) has long been seen as a positive good by academics and by many others in society. In that sense, one can see why buying in to an LMS that allowed those private, gated, privileged conversations to continue even in electronic space could be seen as a continuing of the mission of universities, not a discontinuity, by many faculty members.

    2) In those early days, even the people who were building these pages and sites and communities didn’t always understand exactly what they were doing with them. While that sense of play and experimentation was and is critical to allowing the web to become such an amazing resource, it also made it hard to explain to university administrations a) why it was worth investing more resources in and b) why it was worth the risk of opening the messiness of the university up to outside scrutiny.

    So, LMS’s hit a kind of sweet spot for universities: a) addressed fears of falling behind on technology, b) fit into a utility or enterprise model on the administrative side (and could be explained to administrations), and c) shielded both faculty and administrators from exposure and critique for controversial (even when needed) topics as well as protecting intellectual property.

    • Reverend says:

      Thanks for finding that, it’s been updated. Also, I appreciate your larger framing of how the LMS does correspond to the way in which many universities imagined themselves. What was intersting to me in this regard, is how the People page at UMW was front and center on the homepage. I wanna talk to Ernie if there was a broader sense of a hippie liberation of content in these spaces 🙂

      As for the impracticality of these web spaces when it comes to admim, I’m really interested in this ebcause as you, and Scott above note, there’s a bit of retrospect is 20/20 here. I know how much overhead for relatively little award html pages were to create back in the day. Also, for what was happening online in the 90s the LMS seemed liek a godsend, it was readymade CMS and defualted to closed which didn;t seem an issue at universities more broadly until a decade later. There something there to, I wonder when the web started deeply eroding notions of the closed ivory tower more broadly? Another awesome angle to incoporate into this study—thanks for this.

      But, interestingly enough, as long as you;ve been at UMW teaching, you had your stuents doing web facing projects for teaching and learning, often HTML written in Netscape Composer—so you are evidence there were faculty who saw deep value for universities sharing out resource sas part fo their mission. Is that an untold history here?

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  4. So I actually read this 11 p.m. last night and started mentally arguing it back and forth. Could not get to sleep, and finally had to take half an Ambien circa 2pm to shut my brain up.

    I think this history is good, but I think the LMS finger is too pointing. This happened everywhere at once, so any factors local to the university experience seem to me to be beside the point.

    Here’s crazy thought that entered my mind at 11:30 that I couldn’t shake. Web Applications killed the web. The very aspect of the web that we revere as the great democratizing force, that we romanticize compared to Apps and Desktop Computing — it killed the web.

    I can’t explain how I got here, quite. And I’m still tired, so this may all be nonsense. But I was thinking of my early days of the web. The web back then was just another protocol. You could ftp to a file or browse it on the web. And in this world, software was separate. So Usenet exists, and you get any variety of usenet reader. Email exists, and you get an email client. The protocols around these things are open, and that’s where the networking is happening. So my list of email address is on my computer as is my set of usenet subscriptions.

    So then this idea of the web as “middleware” comes about, and what happens? Some of the interface computing moves up to the web, which solves the problem that you need “X” app to use “X” service. Now you only need a browser. But something else happens. We start building equivalents of forums, usenet, etc. on the web. But there’s a difference. In usenet, I tell my local machine subscribe to x, y, and z newsgroups. My network is on my machine. And it’s actually transferable to other software. But “web-as-middleware” which solves the Mac/PC problem everyone is bitching about is different. In web-as-middleware my connections are stored not only in the software, but they are linked to a specific site.

    From that point on, you’re doomed. Because in the middleware model your personal network is linked to a domain and a company. You can change mail clients tomorrow, who would notice? But you can’t change gmail tomorrow, because it’s all bundled up. You can’t change twitter. The network is in the middleware.

    OK, so that part is not news to people. But here is my disconcerting thought that kept me up. The minute you build a community that does anything other than deliver pages on the web — the minute you create an “web application” — whether it is Blackboard, WordPress, Wikipedia, whatever, this is almost unstoppable. For your middleware networks to be worthwhile, they have to be big and inclusive and handle your networks for you. On the other side, companies like being big and having lots of customers. There’s not really a countervailing force here.

    We make fun of Blackboard, but in a middleware world you’re going to have to agree on *some* forum provider if you want all students to have access. And it has to be dependable, and not disappear. And it has to be secure — it really does. There has to be a sue-able corp behind it. Etc. So what are you going to do?

    Going to an Apache-based open-source forum product might have been better in some respect, but it doesn’t really get at the root problem. As painful as it sounds, the better model would have been desktop applications + protocols + online storage. I don’t know how we would have stepped back and done that — we’d have had to be intentional in a way we weren’t. But we actually would might have been better off in a world that required you to buy a piece of software to comment on blogs. We certainly have given up a lot to have these cross-platform capabilities.

    Anyway, crazy thoughts. I’m absolutely ducking bracing for the response.

    • Pat says:

      Remote consumption as a form of lurking as well?

      I would counter the idea it was web applications that caused the problem – but perhaps as you covered it was protocols, or the absence of them. Email is POP / IMAP, everything uses it. Geocities was erm err whatever it felt like using. If say, WordPress and Drupal both used the same webservice or API to alter their content then moving, migrating and so on wouldn’t be an issue.

      The LMS, perhaps as the most API less thing on the internet (until what LTI it had nothing) – and honestly, try writing a Moodle Web Service plugin – was the problem.

      So if we’d kept to a protocol model, the LMS would have worked fine? Does the app model show people always wanted software? How many people use the dropbox website? Would github work as just git? Doubt it.

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  6. Alan Levine says:

    Blaming the LMS solely is a stretch for me, we (as in institutions) played a role in accepting them. Like Jim, at the time it made sense. I started teaching people HTML in 1993, but after a few years, I saw only a fractional take up, and at that, what was produced was rather gaudy. But its not like there were other options out there.

    And I was one in the mid to late 1990s that promoted the baby LMSes, when Blackboard and WebCT was more like startups, led be people out of education. In 2000, I organized an event that brought the CEOs of Blackboard and WebCT to Maricopa to help frame the future (they actually were nice to each other)

    What is missing here is the factor of N… the size of the population involved in the web. In the 1990s it was tiny. My first connections are one who all are commenting here. But the population in those days was largely (those stats that Jim cited in his preso) essentially one of artisans, craft persons willing to figure out things, experiment. As more people with a broader range of skills and interests learned of the craft, its like any time when we move from a time of local restaurants to fast food franchises,. It’s like a group of crazy music freaks who hand craft and share some sort of 19 string harmonitar. More people see it, and want to be able to make that kind of music, but perhaps not invest the time, so we get entrpeneurs making mass produced ones, and then Harmonitars for Dummies sells a lot, and what we have are a whole lot of harmonitars in the world, but not relatively as much great harmonitar music.

    I am reaching here, but I bet Mike can pull examples of economics when a niche product goes mainstream. A spike of interest people who wish to have the result of the craft but not invest what it takes to have the craft.

    I know people who build their own houses and furniture. I marvel at their craft. In theory, there is no reason why I could not learn, but maybe its not quite worth it for me to try to become a craftsman (when I can pursue other things like photography), so I make a bargain to maybe buy something produced at factory.

    Or try this. I’ve been printing and framing my photos for sale at a local establishment. To start, I am trying to outlay as little money as possible, so I am cheaply printing them at a Walgreens (actually they have good printers, and I can send them online), and trying to find decent inexpensive glass frames. But I have a vision/dream of building custom frames, so I visited my friend M who does framing out of her craft shop. She gave me an entire lesson on how she specs, orders, and builds the custom frames. She went to art school, where they learned that intensely. I am looking at all it takes to to that, and trying to weigh if it is worth my energy there.

    So we always have to make these decisions to get something more expediently, not always because we are lazy, or drones, but it’s a thing we do all the time to get through a day. What are we willing to give up for that convenience versus do it in a craftspersons way.

    But what we have in 2014 is a much different N than 1994- much more complex in motivation, skills, not a small N of hippie web crafters. Yeah, the LMS is dreadful to me, and I have nothing to do it. But I see a modern world full of malls, and fast food, and wasteful transportation– I can bemoan that so many people opt for convenience. But I also am aware of what seems like a growing little “n” of people willing to grow their own food, practice a real craft, live without a car… and the same way, for all the vile bland deadness of the LMS, I am more than encouraged by all the effort that goes on outside of that, and that is where I prefer to put my energy.

    I cannot take down the LMS or the demand for it any more than I can take down McDonalds. But I can act locally with the other scurrying mammals, because sometimes, the large dominating creatures do not forsee what is happening at the end of the Jurassic.

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  9. Pat says:

    New Theory, well an old one I now share

    Early elearning people, like the Plymouth Settlers left to build a new world. And so, many of the early elearning people sailed away from Oppressive, Perfidious Classroom Albion to establish somewhere new.

    In elearning terms, a lot of the people I know who’ve been around from the start happened to be retrained or repurposed librarians, who do have a tendency to big systems and so on.

    So when the settlers did land on elearning pastures new, they build one thing they felt they could rely on – a big system.

    And if you think an LMS sucks, compared to most library systems it is a joy and a pleasure.

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