Muhlenberg College: The ‘Berg Builds

This post has sat in draft for almost three weeks while I finished traveling and decompressing from a month away. Like Cogdog, I have been a tired blogger these days, but unlike Alan I haven’t always been able to push through it. But maybe that’s not all bad, because during that down time there have been a number of other posts about the event at Muhlenberg by the people who are making it happen! Blogging is everything, indeed!  I would encourage you to check those posts out, and thankfully Lora Taub-Pervizpour provided an awesome round-up post with links to many of them.


Lauren Brumfield and I just returned from an intense two days on the ground at Muhlenberg College. I want to try and get down my impressions of our time there before they vanish because I really think that the thought, planning, and passion that the fine folks at Muhlenberg College have put into their domains pilot Berg Builds is exemplary. If anyone is wondering how they might build an open, inviting culture around their Domain of One’s Own project, I would say do everything Muhlenberg is doing.

Day 1

Lauren and I got into Allentown a bit later that night than expected, and we crashed immediately in preparation for a full day. And a full day it was, it started with Donuts and Domains. First rule of Domain Club, create a t-shirt! 🙂

Lora Taub-Pervizpour, professor of Media & Communication and Associate Dean for Digital Learning, organized the trip and was our most gracious host at Muhlenberg. Our first destination was the college Guest House to have a discussion with the Digital Learning Team (DLT). This was our first indicator things were happening at Muhlenberg beyond the t-shirts. The DLT (sounds a lot like DTLT, no?) was a recently formed group of instructional technologists, designers, media specialists, and librarians. While I have recently noticed the gutting of such groups at schools such as Plymouth State University, it was encouraging to see Muhlenberg doubling down on a robust support staff comprised of such an interdisciplinary ed-tech group.

This initial discussion was far-ranging and fairly open-ended, guided by the following questions: 

  1. How do we make our Domain of One’s Own initiative sustainable?
  2. How do we ensure its success?
  3. How do we generate support from highest levels of leadership?
  4. What can we learn from other institutions further along than we are?

What an awesome set of questions, and it is apparent this school is digging in to make this thing work. And the only real answer to the first two questions: do the work—get out there and demonstrate to faculty and students why this is important! And that will, in turn, take care of the 3rd. As for the 4th,  Muhlenberg has been so awesome in this regard, and Tim Clarke‘s push to build a cohort of schools starting Domains projects is a brilliant push that has already begun on the Reclaim Community forum. There is much to learn from how other schools are approaching this, and the best form that comes to mind is certainly not a Slack channel or email or even a Reclaim Community Forum (which I’m a big fan of), but blogging!

I think my pull quote from this session was “Domain of One’s Own is won one post at a time.” And while pithy, I firmly believe this. If you want Domains to be successful then get just one faculty member or one student or one staff member excited about claiming their own space and posting something they care about to the web. That will be the beginning of a long road of helping people see the value of “owning” their own space on the web and sharing what they do. And that consists of a lot of  work that has as many (if not more) failures than successes, but that’s the job. In my mind, everything else comes from this one small, but very powerful spark of excitement. 

After the morning session we got some lunch, and I finally got to meet Muhlenberg’s CIO Allan Chen. This was special for me, because I’ve been following Allan on Twitter since at least 2008. He was engaged in the EDUPUNK discussions at the time, and I really appreciated his nuanced take on its limits and possibilities. So, when I heard he was the CIO of Muhlenberg, I was really excited. It’s funny how 8 years later we finally meet with both of us at very different stages in our life and career, but also still dedicated to re-thinking how tech can best support teaching and learning in higher ed—and our blogs are proof of that! What did I say about blogging again? 🙂 Allan is a year into his new position, but it is more than apparent that he is one of the folks truly enabling this work at Muhlenberg. He has extended the IT department as a bridge for exploring new ways to integrate technology thoughtfully into the classroom.* That is really encouraging to see, and it is both strange and reassuring to see folks I came up with on the web in positions of power making good, meaningful change at institutions like Muhlenberg.

After lunch Lauren and I got some down time in Trexler Library to prepare for sitting in on Tina Hertel’s First Year Seminar. It occurred to me while preparing that it’s been more than a year since I’ve been in a classroom teaching. I don’t think I have gone that long since 1997, which is when I started in this racket. The class was scheduled to discuss Audrey Watters‘s post “A Domain of One’s Own in a Post-Ownership Society,” and we were asked to lead the discussion around that brilliant piece. It was really fun to be back in front of a classroom, and I realized just how much I miss it. That said, I also remembered how hard it is to do well, and how much work it is to direct a conversation. But those students were awesome (and they will have a second act in this post!), they took the reins and engaged in discussion, and if it was stilted and incongruous at times, that had everything to do with my being out of practice. 

After that, we sat down with the Office of Information Technology (Allan Chen’s division) and talked about how IT can best help ensure Domains success. Just take a moment to think about this: everywhere I went at Muhlenberg there was only on real question, how can we make this work? That’s exactly how you want to approach a pilot you are exploring! This meeting was fairly straightforward because when working with Reclaim we really only need to make sure single sign-on works (which was already finished), so our needs were fairly straightforward, and they had already been met! I simply said by making the single sign-on happen and deciding hosting domains in-house is not something you want to pursue, yet still enabling it for your campus through Reclaim—you’ve demonstrated your support for the project. Sometimes doing less is more when it comes to infrastructure for IT departments. What’s more, they appreciate the fact that this approach frees them up from worrying about the technical infrastructure of running web hosting for their campus, allowing them to focus on supporting it and making it work at the level of the course, the faculty member, the staff member, and the student.

Can you begin to see why this took a while to write, right? 

From there we went to Dinner with the Digital Learning Team (DLT), the Digital Learning Assistants, and the Domain of One’s Own Faculty Learning Community. I’ve already talked about the Digital Learning Team (that was our first meeting of the day), but it might help to spell out who the Digital Learning Assistants and DoOO Faculty Learning Community are. The Digital Learning Assistants are about 10 students ranging from freshmen to seniors at Muhlenberg who will be learning the intricacies of Berg Builds. They will be installing and playing with various applications, exploring media, and just generally playing with this web hosting environment to get more familiar with its potential. All this to prepare to support other students using this space, an approach very much premised on UMW’s Digital Knowledge Center (DKC) run by Martha Burtis. In fact, Muhlenberg had previously consulted with Martha—did I already mention they are doing the work?

The DoOO Faculty Learning Community was the other group at this dinner, and this group consisted of roughly 15 faculty who are taking part in a year-long cohort to explore the possibilities of Berg Builds for their personal sites, course sites, and research projects. Starting a DKC and running a faculty initiative like the one we did at UMW from 2013 through 2015 are the two pieces of practical I give to schools who wants their program to succeed. Muhlenberg had already gotten both up and running! I wasn’t kidding when I said Muhlenberg is a model of how to succeed, and I’m not alone in this sentiment, something which very much shines through in Adam Croom‘s brilliantly titled “The Berg is the Word!” You probably won’t be surprised to learn Adam is another person who Muhlenberg has consulted given his remarkable success at University of Oklahoma. Did I mention it is all about doing the work? 

So these were the various groups at dinner, and the dining room had a level of excitement and conviviality that reminded me of some of those early Faculty Academy dinners at UMW. If you were at UMW in 2006, 2007, 2008, and/or 2009 you know exactly what I mean. A sense of shared communal purpose that was palpable and truly electric. This was the stage being set for my talk that would happen right after dinner at 7:30 PM on the main floor of the Trexler Library out “in the wild.”

It was a wild space to present, there were students behind the stacks studying who could overhear my manic ravings, and it seemed open and porous in some interestingly symbolic ways.  Lora Taub-Pervizpour offered a more than generous introduction, and as you can see below, she was looking quite stylish in her Reclaim Hosting shirt…. #4life!

And after that I had a blast for the next 90 minutes presenting. It started off with some unintentional feedback that gave folks a taste of what they were in for:

That 6 seconds may be all you need, but if you are a glutton for punishment here is the other hour and a half!

The students we had spoken with earlier that day in Tina Hertel’s First Year Seminar came to the talk for extra-credit (which I heard someone call “the duct tape of education” recently, and loved it) and they made my night. I had said something to the effect of….

I think that might have ignited this group of students because they went nuts on Twitter, and it was awesome! Here’s a sampling:

And that’s just some of them, but you get the idea, just pure, unadulterated joy! If you want to see more, Lora Storifyied a bunch. So good! I just want to thank those tweeting maniacs for reminding me why I like doing this stuff in the first place, to have fun!

After the talk we were scheduled for a drink at a local tavern, but everyone was so exhausted from this extremely full and amazing day so that was kyboshed and I headed back to the hotel and collapsed.

Day 2:

The next morning we met with the Domain of One’s Own Faculty Learning Community and Tim Clarke and Jordan Moyes led them through both the conceptual vision as well as the the process of setting up their domains and installing applications.<Begin shameless plug>It was cool to witness yet another instance of just how seamless and straightforward the process has become for folks to manage their own open source web apps through Reclaim Hosting </end shameless plug>. 

I even scored a physical copy of Audrey’s “Claim Your Domain,” which was a treat.

For lunch we went to Cali Burrito, a local favorite featuring high quality California style burritos—a personal favorite. After that, we headed back to campus for the final event of the trip, an afternoon session with the Digital Learning Assistants. I mentioned that Lauren had accompanied me on this trip, and the idea was to start exposing her to more of the work we do on the ground at institutions. I think it was eye-opening that the work she did as an undergrad in 2014 and 2015 was actually a thing beyond UMW. What’s more, it is a thing she is uniquely equipped to speak about as a student and a professional and having her on the trip was amazing. She did a far better and way more timely write-up of our trip to Muhlenberg, and her contributions during the final session were awesome. It’s kinda strange because Lauren and I had a faculty/student relationship at UMW before working together at Reclaim—though I am not sure entirely what that means because I was never much of a Faculty member with a capital “F.” Nonetheless, being able to spend time with Lauren exposing her to what Reclaim Hosting is as an ethos on the ground at Muhlenberg was absolutely invaluable, and she ruled! What’s more, it just further built on our trip to Portland earlier that month, I really feel like Reclaim is congealing in some very powerfully positive ways these days.

And because no post on the bava would be complete without an overt reference to ds106, the final session was brainstorming a visual mission statement for the Digital Learning Assistants. Tim Clarke had the inspired idea to use the 1 Story/ 4 Icons assignment to accomplish this.

I think the icons they came up with to frame the mission of what Muhlenberg is trying to accomplish through this project pretty much sums up this post beautifully. Digital empowerment across the community! It was truly a pleasure and an honor to spend two days on the ground at Muhlenberg helping them imagine their take on Domain of One’s Own, but I also felt a bit vestigial. I’ve yet to see a campus that has aligned all the pieces so strategically from the get-go to ensure their initiative works. I remain in awe, and they really do set the bar high when it comes to expectations for my next campus visit.


*One of the questions I get asked fairly often is to whom should a group of instructional technologists/designers/media folks report? And that usually boils down to the CIO or the Provost. Abstractly you can make an argument for either, but practically it all depends who is currently in each role. More often than not, sustaining an edtech group is about allies and folks with a longer vision, and that has more to do with people than academic titles.

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