DP Workshop Sessions–Collaborative Digital Spaces: Open Up?

As we planned for the recent Mellon Digital Pedagogy workshop, we noted that many of the grantee projects, quite naturally, involve creating spaces online where students could collaborate around various course materials and ideas. But we also observed that these online “spaces” could be of different types and could be more or less “open” or “closed” depending upon pedagogical objectives, the sensitivity of the subject matter, the developmental stage of a project, and considerations such as student privacy and copyright. So we decided to include two parallel breakout sessions, one on “inward-facing” (closed or restricted) web spaces and one on “outward-facing” (open access) web spaces.

Collaborative and interactive web spaces can take many different forms–for example, blogs, wikis, discussion forums, comment sections, Google docs, Twitter streams, and other spaces defined in particular applications, such as “salons” within Classroom Salon and “projects” within Scalar. In most cases, users (or site administrators) are given a choice of settings to enable varying degrees of publicness. It’s important to note, though, that different kinds of spaces are designed to function best with a particular degree of openness, even if the user chooses otherwise. For example, the benefits of blogging platforms and most forms of social media are maximized when they are completely open and public, yet these tools can also be used effectively with more restricted access. Other collaborative tools, such as Moodle forums or Google Docs, are by design optimally used by teams or groups or classes, though it is possible to open them to wider audiences. And of course “access” can sometimes be further differentiated into various user roles, so that some users are simply viewers, some are creators and editors, and some have administrative privileges.

At one end of the spectrum, an online space may be completely private; a learner may wish to formulate ideas or work individually on a project before inviting the observation or interaction of others. At a next level, a space may be restricted to an instructor and an individual student. That is the case, for example, in Dan Dominick’s project involving music students and their listening journals. Using Classroom Salon, Dan has created a separate salon for each student in the class, in which he and the particular student are the only members. The students upload their musical selections and annotate them with their comments, knowing that only their professor will see and respond to those comments. Several professors in the School of Education have also been using salons in this way to have private conversations with their students about student teaching videos.

A common arrangement is for all the students in a given course to share a common online space that is restricted to members of the class. Learning management systems, such as Moodle, generally operate on this principle. Teams or subgroups within the class may be given their own distinct spaces to work in as well. Wikis and Google Docs work well for these purposes, as does Scalar, the new digital publishing platform now available. David Aiello’s Mellon project includes an example of such a space, the Aiello Genetics Lab Wiki.

Beyond private, group, and class spaces, there is the “open web,” that is, spaces that are public and accessible (at least for viewing) to anyone. In these cases, student work is exposed to the widest possible audience. Some argue that the technical and cultural architecture of the web, which facilitates linkage, open access, and broad distribution of content, promotes an underlying epistemology (“thinking like the web“) and theory of learning (“connectivism“). From this perspective, even though the creation of material and content may in some cases be best done in a closed space, the inner dynamism of the Web ultimately promotes the widest possible sharing of ideas and projects. Wider distribution invites greater levels of feedback and more ways to situate student work in authentic contexts of practice.

In the “open access” or “outward facing” breakout session, we discussed the benefits and challenges of moving students toward a greater degree of participation in the open web in terms of their academic and professional work. We agreed that students need to be mentored and guided toward developing good judgment in sharing their academic work responsibly and taking ownership of their online presence. Perhaps the Communication and Inquiry freshman seminars could be a starting context for developing that judgment. We recognized that there is a wider discussion of student portfolios on campus and the ways in which students would benefit by having a gallery or repository of their academic artifacts to display to potential employers, graduate school admission committees, and others. The technical barriers to academic participation on the open web have come down; it is not necessary to have sophisticated programming or web design skills in order to create attractive and robust presentations of student scholarship. The Career Services and Student Life offices would also be interested in working with students to develop their online profiles.

The discussion then turned toward the possibilities offered by the Domain of One’s Own movement, in which students (and faculty) assume ownership of their own web domains and build their digital identities. Several colleges and universities, such as the University of Mary Washington, Davidson, Emory, and the University of Oklahoma, have established programs in which students and faculty manage their own web domains and leverage new opprotunities to enhance teaching and learning. Web hosting for these programs is provided by Reclaim Hosting, a company created to support just these kinds of initiatives in higher education. There was considerable enthusiasm for bringing the Domains movement to Austin College. We are currently looking into this possibility and planning a pilot program for next year that would involve a small number of interested faculty and students. We’ll have further details and developments here on the blog. If you have any observations along these lines, please let us know in the comments section.


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