In the web: spider or moth?

I have had a couple months to settle into the more operational role I outlined in my previous post. It has gone much as expected… A typical day weaves together sensations of satisfaction, frustration, hope, fatalism, learning, failure, anxiety…

I’m not throwing any pity parties. In the grand scheme, I am in a good place. The members of our team have proven to be even more dedicated, industrious, inventive than I thought they were going in. Even on my worst days, the problems feel like they are ones worth solving, and I feel truly fortunate to spend my time working with people that I like and respect.

That said, by some combination of history, staffing, and the cruel hand of merciless fate, I find myself mostly responsible for supporting hundreds of campus instructors who use Moodle. I also oversee the production and maintenance of hundreds more Open Learning online courses on Blackboard and Moodle. Given my long personal history of histrionic criticism of the learning management system, this feels like some form of cosmic retribution. The experience has done little to change my convictions of what online learning can and should be…  But I am in no position to impose my values on already beleaguered instructors and students, particularly since I can barely keep up with existing needs. So given the facts on the ground, I see no choice but to put my head down, try to make the best of things. I hate myself at times for making that accommodation.

There are more promising things afoot. We will be rolling out more SPLOTs. We have a couple fun pilots building on new developments with the BC Open Ed Tech Collaborative. I expect some big things with open textbooks and OER in the coming year. If we can get our collective heads above water, the team has immense talent and is bubbling with ideas. I recently outlined where our team is at for an internal meeting, the challenges and the promising potential.


The whining text above is a typically long-winded preamble to why I started up this post in the first place… Given where I am at, it was a bracing and satisfying thing to come across Martha Burtis’ recent keynote at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute held at the University of Mary Washington. By all means read or listen to the whole thing, but I wanted to highlight some sections of her talk, because she articulates much of what I’ve been struggling to maintain a grip on…

She beautifully captures the immense potential the web once represented, the role that higher education should rightfully have played in working with it and shaping it, the catastrophe of our own making that we now live within:

It seems only reasonable to assume. No, not reasonable. It seems impossible to not assume that in the domain of education, a domain that is entirely about the creating, the building, the sharing of knowledge and learning that this new force of creation and knowledge sharing would be fully and authentically realized.

How on earth could it not be?

How could we all not see the power that this new medium was affording us and not be drawn to it, in every way?

Most importantly, how could we not, in fact, see it as our job to shape this new medium and to help the rest of the world understand what it could do? As a platform for transformational teaching? As a space for public research and dissemination of knowledge? As a place for collaboration on scales never seen before?

And yet. Blackboard.

What happened?

…We’ve doubled-down on courses and the LMS, we’ve bought into the notion that what technology afforded us for teaching and learning was standardization of experience and pedagogy, and we’ve abandoned the nascent spaces that might have let us continue to explore the Web as a flexible, open, and powerful platform for teaching and learning.

And we’ve spent so many years going down this path that there are now powerful monetary investments and administrative processes and expectations pounding on our backs, pushing us further and further.

How do we make it stop?

Martha is able to draw on her immense contribution to the field (UMW Blogs, ds106, etc…) in outlining what a Domain of One’s Own model does to counter this logic.

I’d like to suggest four goals that are embedded in DoOO.

  1. Provide students with the tools and technologies to build out a digital space of their own
  2. Help students appreciate how digital identity is formed
  3. Provide students with curricular opportunities to use the Web in meaningful ways
  4. Push students to understand how the technologies that underpin the Web work, and how that impacts their lives

Where I found her talk most powerful is in identifying the nature of the resistance this ethos generates, and why we can’t allow the passivity of education technology to go unchallenged:

You’ll notice that only one of these goals speaks to teaching and curriculum directly. I sometimes get pushback when I talk about these other three. What does digital identity have to do with college? Why do our students need to muck around in the code? Why can’t they use commercially provided tools like or Wix? Don’t they already have a space of their own on Facebook? Twitter? Tumblr? Why do they need this one?

I, frankly, find these questions quite perplexing. It seems to me that the Web is the single most powerful media environment to ever exist in our history. I’ve lived through the last twenty years, and I can’t even wrap my head around the changes it has enacted on me personally, much less us culturally. For most of this time, in higher education, we have sat back on our heels, locked in our boxed courses, convincing ourselves that the Web has nothing really to do with us.

It has everything to do with us.

…We can give [students] opportunities through projects like Domain of One’s Own to begin to think critically about what they’re doing online. Not through either the fear mongering they’ve experienced in high school or through Pollyannaish rhetoric about the Web being the ultimate democratizer. But rather by asking them to make things on the Web, to grapple with how those things are managed and controlled, and to consider how what they see on the Web shows up on their screens.

If you care about what learning, communication, identity and justice mean in the digital age, I can’t recommend Martha’s talk highly enough. I take inspiration from her work. I re-use her code. I count her as among the lights of critical and ethical practice that shine a path in dark times.

6 thoughts on “In the web: spider or moth?

  1. Great post about a great talk. Martha really does articulate this as well as anyone I have heard. And it cool to get a constant reminder of what it is we are doing this for. Also, that spider vs moth GIF is officially freaking crazy.

  2. This talk (and others at that event) was truly excellent. I personally owe so much to Martha, Jim, yourself Brian, Alan and many others for inspiring my crazy variety of a connected classroom and getting my kids blogging.

    I’m truly standing on the shoulders of giants and can’t ever see myself going back into a silo environment. I just couldn’t do that to my kids, they deserve better.

    Keep up the great work and come down here for tacos in Guadalajara soon!

  3. @Jim – I don’t know why, but choosing a GIF is usually the first thing I do when writing a post, and like this one it often ends up defining the theme.

    @Ken – I was just looking through some of your recent connected courses to send to a professor here, as prospective models. Great stuff. I’ve learned so much from you, and really dig how you approach what you do.

    @Pat – I would expect nothing less. Let ‘er rip. But I might cry.

    @Bryan – Instructors here are challenged by many of the same forces that you document so well in your work. To be honest, my sense is that the finances of our universities and colleges are not as dire as some places you’ve investigated. But it is certainly not an easy time, budgets are tight, a lot of services are stretched. Many of the faculty I speak with here feel overwhelmed. I was specifically referring to the support that instructors get when they use online technology, particularly our on-campus ones. We have a lot of work to do. So I feel it would be arrogant of me to push people to adopt my preferred approaches. I’m hoping we can build those supports in the coming months.

  4. Thank you for answering. I don’t know your area; I know a bit more about central Alberta and some of the schools north of me.

    It seems like everyone around the world wants to do online learning on the cheap.

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