Of One’s Own

I wrote this yesterday for the Midnight Breakfast newsletter.

This past year, I have been simply blown away by the massive amount of quality work that Audrey Watters has published in the neighborhood of “ed-tech”.

If you don’t pay much attention to ed-tech, I think I can roughly sum up by describing it as a growing trend toward integrating more and more technology into the classroom. Sometimes it’s getting iPads into schools, sometimes launching new Facebook-like software platforms to track students and their progress, sometimes teachers sharing strategies with each other for better uses of video in their classrooms, sometimes working to incorporate more code into curriculum, sometimes building more standards across schools in America, sometimes “flipping” classrooms so that instruction happens in videos and teachers run practice workshops instead of introducing new content, sometimes transmitting lectures from big-name colleges and universities to far-flung corners of the country and globe, sometimes opening up internet access in parts of the world that haven’t had it, and so on. As you can imagine, it is a wide-ranging and complex area, touching on all of our complicated values around educating the next generation(s) as well as ourselves, and the role technology can or should play which forces a lot of questions about the role of technology in our own lives and work.

There are a lot of publications on the web dedicated to these concerns, not the least of which may be The Chronicle of Higher Education, which I expect many of you reading this will be familiar with. But I think Audrey Watters is the kind of person we need looking at education and technology critically, and she has done that fiercely and personally all year long, giving talks and writing at her site Hack Education.

With that, I want to endorse her picks for the end of the year:

Despite the mythology of “disruptive innovation,” the most innovative initiatives in education technology aren’t coming from startups. They aren’t incubated in Silicon Valley. They don’t emerge from the tech industry. In fact, many of the ed-tech startup ideas that are developed there are at best laughable, at worst horrifying.

What I like instead: the Digital Public Library of America, Reclaim Hosting, A Domain of One’s Own, P2PU, and Lumen Learning, for example.

The trend that she identifies each of these as more or less a part of is usually called The Indie Web, and it’s something that’s been kicking around for a bit and is near and dear to my own heart.

At Midnight Breakfast, we are trying to build something independent and as universally accessible as possible – both qualities that I think speak to the good of the web. We are also trying to make something beautiful, with great writing and great illustrations and photography, something that you can enjoy reading in the evening or on the weekend, or when you have some spare time at work.

We’ve had 20 years now with the web as an ever more present part of our lives, 20 years to see how the web affects publishing. Existing print newspapers and magazines have had to find ways to adapt, first by unbundling their archives and making them searchable and shareable on the web, and now by trying to find ways to keep their best work well-funded in a less-than-ideal scenario with ever-diminishing rates for ad-sales and drives for increased page views leading to “listicle”-style consumer-friendly content and eminently shareable “linkbait” headlines. I don’t even want to get into what’s been going on with books and e-readers and Amazon and bookstores and the iPad and Hachette, and whatever else. Suffice it to say that it’s been interesting.

But there’s also always been another strand in the growth of the web, an independent spirit fighting to build new things and bring them to new audiences, giving voice to people who might not have otherwise had a platform. My favorite early experiments were sites like Fray.com and Suck.com, and later The Morning News, still later The Bygone Bureau. And there were the independent personal sites and blogs, like Jason Kottke’s kottke.org and later Mandy Brown’s A Working Library. This part of the web feels to me, to this very day, like the “real” web – and I know how snobby or immature that must sound. But that part of the web is important not for its technology, but for its humanity. It’s the web that does like to share, but likes to have control over how things are shared, for things to be shared with individuals and real human beings, not centralized, owned, and sold to the highest bidder by 20-somthings in Silicon Valley. A lot of smart people have worked to build that part of the web, and I honestly still think it is strong, even if there are changes still needed. That spirit is important.

And I think it’s that spirit that Audrey Watters thinks is needed to have great voice in education, and I think it’s the spirit that Midnight Breakfast and so many other publications are trying to bring to the literary community.

I’ll let her take it from here:

I repeat this often: one of the most important initiatives in education technology is the University of Mary Washington’s Domain of One’s Own. The Domain of One’s Own gives students and faculty their own Web domain – not simply a bit of Web space at the university’s dot-edu, but their own domain. UMW facilitates the purchase of the domain; it helps with installation of WordPress (and other open source software); it offers support – technical and instructional; it hosts the site until graduation. And then, contrary to what happens with the LMS, the domain and its content is the student’s to take.

Maybe it sounds small, and maybe everyone is tired of hearing from people in the tech industry like me who seem to have opinions on how everyone else can do things better, but if I’m going to leave our readers with any seed for the new year, it’s this: Get yourself a domain name of your very own and tinker with it a bit just so you can have your own public space that you control that isn’t owned by someone else. Maybe it won’t take, and maybe hardly anyone will every look there but you. But sometimes we need our own spaces.