For the last six weeks I have been running an experimental project at Columbia, an online course called “Reclaim a personal space for education online” but which I think of as “Learning in Public”. The course runs on the P2PU platform and is modeled on the Domain of One’s Own initiative, a fantastic effort to teach students how to build and operate their own online spaces using WordPress and other Free Software. I’ve learned a number of lessons from the first half of the course and produced some resources that I hope will be of use to anyone else who is interested in running their own DIY online course.

Moving online

When Domain of One’s Own first launched at the University of Mary Washington (UMW) it was tied to an undergraduate course on digital storytelling that provided scaffolding for learning the mechanics of how to set up WordPress and operate your own internet domain. Since I work primarily with instructors, who are generally unable to fit such a commitment in a full language course load, I designed this course to operate entirely online and replaced the storytelling scaffolding with an exploration of what it means to move your private learning into a public space. As supporting materials I also threw in a strand of topics giving a technological introduction to the web (what are web sites made of, how are they shared, etc). There are never enough opportunities for general technology education and, while we are being reflective about the effects of using technology, it seemed appropriate to support a similar exploration of how that technology actually works, even if only in outline.

Learning in Public

I have felt for a few years now that we need to do a better job teaching people how to navigate and participate effectively in networked communities. Over the years I have talked with many people running Summer of Code, Wikipedia Education, and other similar community internship or engagement projects. Almost all the participants in such programs run into the same troubles identifying and navigating social norms, learning to use the public communication tools that tie such communities together, and publicly sharing their own work in useful ways.

This is perfectly understandable since I know of no concerted effort to teach these skills, which people often seem to assume are natural abilities for “Digital Natives” or are unaware of how real and valuable such skills are. I think this is the most glaring oversight in all the core curricula out there. For that matter, we could probably run a semester-long technology course on “Technology Triage and How To File Useful Bug Reports” to the great benefit of all involved and society at large. This course is not that one, nor does it include most of the material I would include in a a real “Learning in Public” course since the main focus remains on building personal websites. But, at least informally, this is my first attempt to build up and publish some of those materials where I hope they can do some good. If you are interested in weaving some of those materials into your own courses in future, you might take a look at these three of the pieces I’ve put together so far: What is a Website?, Ethnography of an online community, and Copyright Soup: CC, OER, and Bears, oh my!.

Is any of this actually what people want to learn? So far all of the participants have been focused on building their sites but I am not rushing to judgment. This semester’s group is too small a sample size to draw conclusions from (see Advertising). The material I’ve built so far has been nicely reusable in other contexts around the LRC so I consider that a sign that I am on the right track. Whenever initiatives reinforce each other like that it is always a win in my book, which was part of my goal in designing this experimental course out of mutually reinforcing but ultimately independent tracks. If you are putting together your own online course, I would strongly advise a similar reusable module approach.

The Tools

After running Domain of One’s Own for a couple of years at UMW the origianl organizers of the project spun off a hosting company to help other universities manage similar projects and to provide individual hosting geared towards the needs of the educational community. They call that company Reclaim Hosting and I knew they were going to be the perfect fit when I started planning out this course. They have a great combination of strong values, great support, and rock bottom pricing and I am very happy to have gone with Reclaim for this project.

Since a big part of the goal for this course was to expose instructors to the realities of taking a course in public online so the normal university course tools were not going to work. For better or worse all of the big “MOOC” platforms (obligatory reference to moocthulhu) are locked down to particular instructors and institutions so I built the course on P2PU, a post-OpenCourseWare, pre-MOOC open fever open education platform. That had some pros and cons.

P2pu is effectively a public wiki and suffers from all the common signs of wiki graveyard syndrome, lots of half-finished courses or courses that have not ben run in years and where it is unclear how you could get control of the material should you wish to run on yourself. There are also some signs of technological aging on the platform itself that made me wish I were using WordPress instead. From the fact that they have re-designed the main website to focus on how to run an in person learning group while hiding the actual course listings, I think they are aware of the difficulties and are trying to focus on reusing the existing courses that were finished and are useful. Unfortunately, this makes it all but impossible for people to discover new courses on the site, which should be one of the main advantages of using such a platform as opposed to just building things on your own blog.

While I think it is great that p2pu gives people a public platform for building freely licensed course, if I were doing it over again I would just build it in a Reclaim Hosting account. Maybe next time I’ll do that and use it as an opportunity for a BuddyPress component. In the meantime I will be completing the course as initially planned so that I don’t contribute to the wiki graveyard, but as I go I am also migrating all the content over to github at this address: so the materials can be more widely used.


P2PU’s advice is right on point here. Organize a local community, even if offering the course publicly, and start doing that organizing a month before you start the course. This is where I need to put the most work next time around. While the course has generated decent interest, people seem very reluctant to join a course already in process, especially people who work at universities. If I had spent more time lining up all the interested parties before starting the sessions, the course would have been larger and the discussions correspondingly more diverse.

Reuse and the future

As I mentioned earlier, I have found a number of ways to reuse much of the content created through this course, whether in individual consultations with instructors, a forthcoming group workshop trying to condense the course into one hopefully memorable afternoon, or as a series of blog posts coming out later this month. I also think some of it may end up in the Reclaim Hosting documentation. One of the things that continues to surprise me, even 13 years after my first free software/free culture experiences, is just how widely things can spread when they are freely licensed. My introductory lessons about WordPress may be useful for Reclaim not because they are the world’s best but because almost all of the copious WordPress documentation online is under a restrictive copyright license and reclaim freely licenses their own documentation.

After this term I want to keep some of the momentum going by collecting other general technology and education material in the same github account. Feedback or contributions are certainly welcome. If you don’t have a github account, you can just send me an email. I’m ian@ this site’s domain name.