Teaching and Learning | Feature

An E-Portfolio With No Limits

Students at the University of Mary Washington build their academic identities on their own personal Web domain.

As many universities look to certifications, badges and e-portfolios as vehicles to allow students to demonstrate their achievements and skills, another movement has begun to surface on campus: a personal web domain for each student.

At the University of Mary Washington (Fredericksburg, VA), this academic year has seen the evolution of a blogging platform used by faculty and staff into a Web-hosting space where students can use an array of tools to build their own academic identities, with no limits. And the idea is catching on: Since UMW started its project, Davidson College (NC) has received a Mellon Grant to work on digital curriculum, including individual student domains, and Emory University (GA) is piloting the student domain concept in a writing program.

A Domain of One's Own

The UMW project, called "A Domain of One's Own," actually grew out of efforts of a campus group researching e-portfolios. "We found that the term e-portfolio means many different things to different people, depending on which needs you want to address," said Martha Burtis,special projects coordinator in the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT). "Out of that conversation, we asked what we could do now with the university blogging platform to take it one step further for students."

As its introductory Web page explains, A Domain of One's Own "allows students, faculty and staff to register their own domain name and associate it with a space on a UMW-managed Web server. In that Web space, users will have the opportunity and flexibility to design and create spaces of almost unlimited possibilities. Within the system, they may install LAMP-compatible Web applications, set up subdomains and e-mail addresses, and install databases. In addition, users may choose to 'map' their domain (or a subdomain) to other services, such as ... UMW Blogs, Google Sites, or Tumblr."

The Web site's intro sales pitch to students says, "Build out your own space on the Web to define who you are instead of having a service do it for you," and "Gather the artifacts of your digital identity in a central place that you own and control."

A pilot project was conducted in 2012-2013 with 400 students and faculty. After the pilot, the university decided to expand the program by making it available to each freshman class, starting with the incoming freshmen in the fall of 2013.

But as Tim Owens, instructional technology specialist, noted, DTLT staff found that although they had an engagement strategy in place, they had difficulty getting freshmen to sign up. Early usage statistics showed more activity by seniors and juniors, some of which was rollover from the pilot; others were enrolled in classes in which professors were creating domains tied to their curriculum.

"As freshmen, they have a thousand things going on when they first get here, so creating their own domain on the Web is low on that list," Owens said. "Although we got some to sign up, we realized our strength was in working with faculty on integrating it as part of a course. That will inform the way we move forward. We are opening it up to anyone on the campus who wants his or her own domain. If half of the students did it, that would be 2,000." (UMW currently has 590 domains.)

Many students are using their domains to demonstrate their academic work. For instance, student Suzanna Toske uses her domain Toske Ink to display a portfolio of her work with geographical information systems. Candice Roland, a history major, uses her domain to detail her work in historical preservation. (The data is portable, and students have the opportunity within six months of graduation to port it to any domain-hosting site they choose.)

Burtis and Owens say 30 faculty members have their own domains, many as part of courses in which they work with their students on digital projects. These domains are less about student identity, but they do allow students to do some sophisticated group projects.

"One of the key things is allowing students to explore a lot of possibilities," Burtis said. In a geography class, for example, students might be tasked with creating digital presentations and interactive maps. "They can build representations of their research that are much more powerful than a written paper." Students have access to tools such as Omeka, an open source content management system for digital humanities. "We can provide access to that in a way we couldn't provide easily in the past," she added.

Making History

Susan Fernsebner, an associate professor of history, created a domain for the first semester of a two-semester history methods seminar. In the second semester, each student will have his or her own domain. In this class, they created a domain around the Taiping Civil War in China.

"I wanted to have a project that would let them work cooperatively," Fernsebner explained. "I decided a Web site project would work." She had them look at other digital sites about the topic, including Wikipedia, and then asked them to design their own. "Rather than just writing papers for me, they are creating something for a public audience," she said. "I have shared it with an American Historical Association conference and an Association of Asian Studies meeting. The students are using it as an example of their work as they apply for internships."

This site provides an introduction to the Taiping Civil War (1850-1864). Students compiled three resources for students of the conflict:

  1. An annotated bibliography and interview with Dr. Tobie Meyer-Fong, author of What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China (Stanford UP, 2013)
  2. A timeline of major events and related primary source texts from the conflict.
  3. A map of sites as well as related primary source texts from the conflict.

Fernsebner said DTLT's Ryan Brazell was instrumental in helping the students with the mapping and timeline projects. Students learned how to integrate the primary sources with the technology and visual presentation tools.

Often Fernsebner and the students were on the same learning curve. "I am pretty comfortable with digital technology, but some of the applications are new to me," she said. "And sometimes I wasn't present when the students received the training, so they ended up teaching me, and that was an empowering moment for them. They developed some real confidence."

A Cultural Shift

Owens said the Domain of One's Own project has presented some challenges for DTLT: "It has been a change in the way we do our job. We are shifting to saying yes when faculty or students are interested in trying something new. The sky is the limit for them, but at the same time they and we have to realize we are limited in our expertise in using many tools."

Burtis agreed. "We have a whole different perspective on support now. We have a bounded set of things we can do as a department," she said. "We can give you the world, but the approach has to be agile and helping users find answers for themselves. It is a cultural shift, a multiyear one."

There were fewer concerns about students publishing inappropriate comments or content, she said. "We have a track record of open publishing on the Web, so we have learned what to expect, and we don't have a lot of issues with inappropriate content, because this is linked to students' academic identity. We do some education about the practicalities of copyright issues."

In a recent blog post, Burtis called A Domain of One's Own the most complex project she's ever worked on "in terms of the moving parts of technology, the complexity of support, and the need to help users conceptualize the space in very deep (and often challenging) ways. I have no doubt that as A Domain of One's Own grows and matures, our understanding of it will continue to evolve. We are, in effect, creating a platform for deep cultural transformation at the university. Such transformation is not easy or neat, and we must remain mindful of this."

Another recent development has been the creation of a community site that aggregates the activity of the project, including sites created and content published. "We are just getting started on that process of sharing across disciplines and cross-pollinating ideas," Owens said. In addition, Fernsebner is working with a digital scholars institute on campus, which holds regular meetings to share ideas across disciplines.

Burtis believes student, faculty and class domains open up a window to the intellectual life of the university. "Universities spend a lot of time thinking about how to make connections and promote their work through their Web presence. Some schools have a large marketing department," she noted. "But through these sites we are exposing the life of the mind of the university in real time on the open Web, and using the Web in the way it was originally designed for."

Pilots on Other Campuses

  • This year, 30 English classes are participating in the pilot Domain of One's Own at Emory University. Its Web site notes that the program offers students "a unique opportunity to register their own personal Web domain as a digital portfolio of especially innovative coursework. Participating classes will be at all levels from first-year composition to graduate school."

  • Among the initiatives in the expansion of digital studies at Davidson College is "Davidson Domains," which will provide every Davidson student a unique domain name and access to an open source platform such as WordPress. The program will begin in 2014 as a pilot using several sections of the required first-year writing course, with first-year students in 2015-2016 as the first full participants.
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