Reclaim Hosting needs your money!

A dapper Charles Ponzi :)

Ok, here’s the situation, my parents went away on a week’s vacation Reclaim Hosting is pretty much rocking and rolling. We have an insane amount of interest, conservative estimates put us at about 3000 faculty and students already. What’s more, the infrastructure has been tested with some early lab rats, and it’s good to go. But there’s one small problem, we need money to front the cost of as many as 3000 domains.

What about the Shuttleworth Foundation grant, you ask? A portion of that grant was used to setup the server, buy  WHMCS and Installatron, and provide a year’s worth of free hosting to participants in Reclaim Hosting. The remaining grant money won’t even begin to cover what we need for domains. Additionally, the plan was to use that money to develop the ds106 assignment bank as a WordPress plugin as well as to frame out the architecture of the Reclaim Your Domain project. As of now, if 3000 people were to sign-up on, or soon after, August 15th (which is when we open sign-ups) we’d have to immediately front upwards of $30,000 in domain costs before that money could be reimbursed to us.

Fact is, Tim and I might be smart, attractive, and bad ass instructional technologists, but we’re far from rich. So, that’s why we are asking you. We are trying to borrow (this is a short-term loan, not a hand-out—though we aren’t against that either :) ) up to $30,000 so we can cover the demand we’re expecting in the first month. We have set up a campaign site for anyone interested in helping us get started, and we’ll track our progress there.

I’ve gone to the community well with this kind of thing before, so I wouldn’t be surprised if folks can’t or won’t do it again—no hard feelings. That said, this is a short-term loan for Reclaim Hosting so it can get up on its feet, and we have no interest pursuing funding that might compromise this project’s community focus. What’s more, you’ll get your money back no later than October 31st, 2013. If you interested, go here and give us a loan, hippies!

It’s Not About the Launch

The past week has been a bit of a whirlwind as Jim and I revealed our plans for Reclaim Hosting with a semi-official launch date of August 15th. We’ve had responses from both public and private institutions, over 50 individuals from as close as George Mason University to as far as Australia and Argentina. At this point a conservative estimate of numbers looks like several thousand people will be a part of this pilot this Fall. That is insane. Awesome, and unnerving to say the least. But these day’s I’m taking comfort in the idea of a pilot and the realization that, in the same way that Rome wasn’t built in a day, the massive launch is completely overrated.

Do you remember what YouTube or Facebook looked like when it first launched? Probably not unless you were one of the cool kids with early access. Luckily thanks to the national treasure that is the Internet Archive we can take a peek at some screenshots of what some of these very popular websites with slick interfaces looked like around day one. Here’s YouTube:

Screen Shot 2013-07-27 at 8.39.45 PM



And even the not-so-old Tumblr:

Screen Shot 2013-07-27 at 8.40.50 PM

And you can imagine that the featuresets of these particular sites pale in comparison to the long list of reasons most people probably love them today. In fact some things, like the community around these sites, has as much to do with their popularity as any particular feature or look to the site.

When I posted about Reclaim Hosting to my personal Facebook account, a friend (who does some freelance web design work) commented on the lackluster theme. He’s probably right that the site could be more flashy, but that comes at the expense of what’s really important. If I spend all my time making a website that looks flashy and fancy with rotating graphics, parallax scrolling, CSS3, HTML5, JQuery, and all the other latest acronyms, but we don’t invest in community we’re lost. This is about more than just a big fancy launch. The idea of a pilot is that we build it as we go, which is a model that DTLT has successfully used for many years to great effect. The benefit of course is that you get to help us build this. Our decisions aren’t made in a boardroom by a group of investors, they’re made when you sign up and give us feedback.

So screw the launch and let’s just start doing and making awesome stuff. We’ll build the plane as we fly it and you can help me steer.

Reclaim Hosting: Battling Digital Somnabulism One Domain at a Time

occupywebA week after launching Reclaim Hosting it seems like the project has hit a broader, international nerve. By a conservative count Tim Owens and I did this morning , it looks like we’re going to need a bigger boat  based on the overwhelming interest that, by a conservative estimate, would result in more than 2000 accounts come August 15ht when we open up sign-ups.  What’s more exciting that the crazy amount of people interested, is the realization that a lot of people want a communal approach to an open source toolkit for their teaching and learning.

As it turns out we can deal with the issue of scale when it comes to servers, just get another one (or three!), right Tim? However, the idea of trying to create a community wherein students and faculty can share what they are doing in this space in order to model different approaches, help one another out, and feedback what they’ve learned is the real nut to crack. Tim and I are working on how we might build an environment that harnesses a community of support (which itself will be evolving depending on the community), and I imagine our work with ds106 will help us in that regard. The fact that we can so easily open up the possibility for something like Domain of One’s Own to students, instructors,  academic departments, and institutions around the world (and this is truly a global project) using a small flash grant from the Shuttleworth Foundation is remarkable.

That said, I have to acknowledge that Tim Owens deserves the lion’s share of the credit. He cloned the work he and Martha Burtis are doing with UMW Domains in no time flat, and it will come as no surprise that Reclaim Hosting  is inspired by the Domain of One’s Own project happening at UMW this Fall. What’s more, it follows in a long line of projects coming out of UMW’s DTLT like the Bluehost Experiment, ds106 and UMW Blogs. DTLT has made it a habit over the last ten years of pointing its initiatives towards the web in order to share the work we’re doing, as well as allow others to piggyback on them if their environment is less than conducive to innovation.

The secret is that we’re not the one’s  ”sacrificing” our limited resources for the good of the cause by sharing out work. Rather, the process pays back to UMW 1000 fold. We get access to a wide range of approaches all over the world from different education levels (K12, undergraduate, graduate, etc.) that help us better understand how to approach Domain of One’s Own locally. We also hook into a community of students and instructors that want to experiment, exposing us to some of the most innovative approaches going and forcing us to stay sharp at home. What’s more, it often brings attention to your work. When you open your work up, you’re usually the one that benefits as a result. In fact, I would argue that the community as a whole does.

On that note, I was excited to see Chronicle intern reporter Sara Grossman’s article on Reclaim Hosting. She took the time to follow-up on her interview with us several times, and I think her article does justice to the project:

The goal [of Reclaim Hosting] is to provide instructors and administrators with a simple way to give students personal domains and Web hosting they can own and control.

That’s right, and while the pedants will argue how much can you truly own or control a domain or hosting (“it’s leasing!”), the idea behind this project is to move beyond a simple consumer attitude towards the web. In order to truly engage this participatory medium on your own terms, you need to understand how it works. This means experimenting with installing applications, browsing database tables, experimenting with DNS, mapping domains, etc. Whats more, it’s about avoiding our culture’s tendency of “falling into a state of digital somnambulism,” to quote Cathy Derecki’s must read post on the topic titled “Time to Fight the Digital Nanny State.”  In fact, I get excited when I think an entire community college system like VCCS is considering the implications of such an approach.

In the following video Tim and I frame this project in more detail. We work through some of the details of how we are trying to share resources, develop a distributed community site, and create an ongoing video series wherein we explore the possibilities of various open source applications. I imagine it will cover approaches to building distributed course sites, managing your students cPanel accounts, as well as cover a series of various technical details behind web hosting. But all this analyzing is paralyzing, it’s time to play this dang thing!

Reclaim Hosting

It’s been an exciting past few days as Jim and I launched Reclaim Hosting and began building out the system to support the signups. We sat down today to talk about a bit more about it, including some of the software we’re using, as well as talking more about the idea of Distributed EdTech (#dedtech) and the ability for a community to pool their resources around complex topics and systems like this. It’s also been a blast to just get in front of the camera, fire up the livestream, and start doing DTLT Today again. I think it’s going to be one of many avenues we use going forward not only to narrate our process on the work we’re doing, but also to server as a way to provide professional development for this pilot in the next 6 months.

DTLT Today: Episode 104, UMW’s Domain of One’s Own

Note: At two points in the above video (roughly at 12 minutes and 22 minutes) there’s cacophonous feedback when we go to the shot of the laptop. Andy picks it up and fixes it soon after the 22 minute mark. I’ll be editing this out sometime soon, apologies in the meantime. Those clips with heavy feedback loop have been edited out.

After a year and a half hiatus DTLT Today is finally back in action with episode 104. Even better, we had the whole old gold crew together (i.e. Martha Burtis, Andy Rush, Tim Owens, and myself) to talk about the Domain of One’s Own project we’re kicking off this Fall for 1000 freshman.

I pushed for this episode because I was blown away by how streamlined Tim Owens and Martha Burtis had engineered the sign-up using the client management software WHMCS. It’s extremely slick; a two step process that gives students and faculty alike their own domain and web hosting immediately. What’s more, the domain propagates in less than 10 minutes. It’s amazing to see how cleanly and professionally this project has come along. Martha and Tim talk a bit about their setup process in the above episode, which I find nothing short of fascinating, particularly the bafflement of the WHMCS community forums when they were inquiring how to give domains away for free and prevent anyone from buying anything else. A new kind of client software! :)

Given all our success we got a little cocky (royal we, it’s all TIM OWENS!) and decided to open a parallel project up to any interested teachers and faculty over at Reclaim Hosting. Over the next two weeks we are going to be knee deep in support documentation and videos for Domain of One’s Own, and what struck me today is that we can easily run this project in terms of support with an eye to the open web. Not unlike ds106, we can focus and build the project for our immediate community, but at the same time open it up to a larger community for anyone interested. Fact is, we aren’t duplicating efforts, we would be doing this stuff anyway. After Tim figured out how to make the process so smooth to clone such a model was simple, we just needed some money to float the server and software cost for an academic year, and thanks to the Shuttleworth Foundation flash grant I received (thanks to David Wiley) we could do it.

Another thing that struck me as we were doing DTLT Today yesterday was that we could also plan every Monday afternoon throughout the Fall semester on doing an episode of DTLT Today focused on getting people familiar with CPanel, installing open source applications, setting up aggregator blogs, etc. Seems to me we would be killing two birds with one stone, supporting the local students, staff and faculty at UMW as well as any interested teachers/faculty from any interested school, college, and/or university (hell, you don’t even have to be part of any of them). Initially this was the same reason we opened up ds106, because folks wanted to know how to manage their own web host, access their databases, setup subdomains, customize open source applications, and much more.

Even cooler, we can make it so that any interested faculty can control and manage their students accounts. They can set them up with domains, access their CPanels, and generally work with them if they are having issues. It gives the students their own space and gets them familiar with the possibilities of open source web-based applications while at the same time giving the faculty the ability to help them as they get started. I love this idea!

At lunch yesterday Tim referred to this model as “distributed ed tech” that we can all do if we simply point our work a bit more towards a community beyond our campus. What’s more, you have to provide a shared object of attention and invite people in so you can have a wider community. But not at the expense of the local, but rather to augment what’s happening locally, which has been proven to be the case with ds106.

I know firsthand there are a lot awesome people who not only could use some focused help with managing web hosting for themselves, as well as a community, but also would bring a mojo to community engagement that is remarkable. I am referring particularly to Todd Conaway’s post “Owning and Sharing: Like Buying a Coke” wherein he illustrates the various cultural issues that are wide spread across higher ed (anything from financial woes to limited human resources to despotic IT departments to a general institution bureaucracy and malaise) that such a community of distributed edtech might help a lot of people overcome for a real, compelling change in their local cultures. We’re all doing what we are doing anyway, it’s now time to just point it outwards a bit so that we can start sharing resources, working smarter, and build the cross-campus, inter-institutional connections our schools, colleges and universities seem to do everything in their power to prevent.

Gulou or, Public Scholarship in the Digital Age

Gulou ScreenshotThis post is long overdue, and if I hadn’t checked out for a couple of months in April and May it would have been blogged on the bava a lot earlier. In fact, it’s criminal it hasn’t been broadcast more widely around the UMW community because the fact that Sue Fernsebner, a Chinese history scholar and faculty member in the History department at UMW, has a blog that has become a spotlight page for news on Tumblr is a kind of a big deal. Sue lays out the whole phenomenon far better than I ever could in this post. I love the way she ponders the implications of her blog being featured alongside major Mass Media Outlets for news:

It’s now introduced there alongside established media (Reuters, LA Times, CNN, USA Today, etc.) and also accompanies other, less traditional but equally popular sites for news consumption (e.g. The Daily Show) on the same page.

I’m just beginning to ponder the implications. What does it mean that an individual’s site—one person’s own, simple Tumblr—is beside the site of a news agency like, say, Reuters, a major news organization founded in 1851 (and now owned by The Thompson Corporation)? More immediately, at least for a scholar of China and Asian Studies, what does it mean that a microblogging, pop media site such as Tumblr is interested in featuring stories from that region at its top-most news page?

I love this! And if I might be so bold to try and answer some of these questions, I would argue it represents a new era of the scholar. I was first introduced to the idea of the public scholar back in the late 90s when I was at the CUNY Grad Center. The definition I heard was that a public scholar was an academic  who might give a few public lectures  a year and/or  write an article or column for a well-known, popular magazine. Morris Dickstein and Luke Menand (both big names in the field working in the English department at the Grad Center at the time) are considered public scholars as such, but it seemed to me that their scope was only public in a rarified , NY intellectual cultural frame. I don’t mean this as a criticism—I’m a huge fan of Dickstein’s—as much as a basis for some of the limitations of the idea of a public scholar in the academy before the web.

What happens when a scholar from UMW,  a small public liberal arts university all too often overlooked when it comes to scholarship, can turn a simple, free resource sharing site on Tumblr into a featured, popular news site read by tens of thousands of people daily? That’s pretty mind blowing to me, and given how cool and awesome Sue is (I mean she’s pioneering animated GIFs as film analysis in her Chinese film class!) it couldn’t have happened to a better person. We have had an amazing group of fellows in the Domain of One’s Own Faculty Initiative this past Spring, and while Sue’s work with Tumblr pre-dates that initiative, but still I would like to claim her as the poster child for Domain of One’s Own. But, in the end, that might turn into a faculty cage match given how many faculty stepped up their game to Crouching Tiger levels of awesome! ;) I love featuring faculty work, it has been too long since I have, maybe it’s time to start featuring just what all those amazing faculty fellows did as part of the Domain of one’s Own initiative.

GIF Submission from Sue Fernsebner’s Chinese History through Film

Y U NO Domain of One’s Own?

Screen Shot 2013-07-18 at 5.05.22 PMTim Owens just framed out in this post how we can scale the possibilities of UMW’s Domain of One’s Own project to just about any professor from any school that might be interested. What’s interesting here is that the “we” in that last sentence doesn’t really refer to UMW, or even DTLT (although both helped to make it possible), rather it begins to define a broader community of folks who might be interested in pooling their edtech resources to actually help faculty and students experiment with the web beyond the LMS (which, ironically, is quickly being conflated with MOOCs).

Think of this for a second, with the Reclaim Hosting idea Tim lays out in the above linked post, we’re essentially providing a space for interested teachers/faculty (and by extension students) to experiment on this  hosting space for free. But that alone wouldn’t be nearly enough, you can get free hosting elsewhere. What we want to do beyond that is use this space to provide support, encouragement, and, ideally, form a community of people that are interested in working collaboratively.  What might it mean to openly imagine and frame a course alongside a community of people who’ll help you do it? Would it look like a roving band of institutionally-agnostic, piratical ed tech folks who’ll support you in rethinking how you use technology to augment teaching and learning in your course? I hope so!

Brian Lamb has referred to this model as a kind of co-op for edtech people who don’t have the resources locally. Why not share those resources out that are most difficult to get? And if I were a betting man, I would wager moral support and encouragement from a community of folks who are interested in similar experiments is the most valuable resource available for just about anything you’re trying to do. I can’t really think of a precedent for this kind of community that builds good will through good deeds, can you? Was it #ds107, or something like that? Anyway, we’re taking our cue from Brian Lamb, and offering up one little bit of what we can, free-hosting and support for any teacher/faculty interested in experimenting with building a course there (and we define teacher/faculty and course as loosely as possible, so don’t feel excluded).  In fact, we aren’t necessarily new to this, back in 2008 we did something similar for Longwood University with UMW Blogs.

So, if you are interested, Join Us!

We can do this over the next five months for free in large part thanks to a flash grant I received from the Shuttleworth Foundation by way of David Wiley.  THANK YOU! This is just one of three micro-projects we will be experimenting with thanks to this grant. This particular experiment is focused specifically on providing support for using a free, open source toolkit in the form of LAMP web hosting for interested faculty. The other two facets will be focused on 1) a series of plugins for ds106 that makes building a syndicated course space that much easier and 2)  a broader, conceptual framing of what such a distributed architecture might look like for controlling one’s data online, and how might we cobble/build it.

A Distributed Domain of One’s Own

The summer has been hot but quiet in Fredericksburg and I’ve had a lot of fun over the past few weeks working with Martha Burtis to get our new server up and running with the host of software we plan to use to roll out the Domain of One’s Own project to all incoming students this fall. It’s exciting to see an idea with so much history go from blog post to pilot to University-wide initiative. The Domain of One’s Own project is probably the most exciting thing I’ve done in my professional career and it’s certainly an idea that has found its moment as I talk to other educators and institutions about the possibilities and affordances it brings. But ultimately (there’s always a but) not every institution has a group like DTLT they’ve invested in, or a culture that would allow the idea to take hold immediately. Faculty want to know how they can provide their students the affordances of a project like ours if their IT department isn’t on board, or they don’t have an instructional technology group that can support their experiments. It’s time to fix that.

I’ve written before about the history behind Hippie Hosting which serves as a precursor to the Domain of One’s Own pilot and informed a lot of the technology and decisions that drive it. We all wanted to stop paying over $120 a year for a web host and come together to run a DIY server coop. 18 months in I can tell you it’s been a great and informative journey learning the ropes of running a web host but Hippie Hosting is stronger than ever today. I’ve talked and dreamed with Jim before about how we could take the Domain of One’s Own project and offer it to other institutions and individuals. What would that look like, to form a DIY coop of educational technology support centered around the idea of digital identity and the web? I want to believe that we as educators don’t need top-down institutional support to grab at this gold, we need each other. Hippie Hosting didn’t get where it is because of being faster, more reliable, or some feature set. Hippie Hosting is valuable because when you have a problem you get to talk to a human being (usually me or some of the other folks on Twitter) and we work together to fix it. No case numbers, no customer ID numbers, real human beings. What if we changed the narrative of “Oh that idea is fine for you all because you’ve got the support of a great instructional technology group willing to help” and flipped it on its head?

This week Jim and I put together Reclaim Hosting as a sort of grand experiment to see where this goes. Our goal is simple: If you are planning to offer a class in the Fall that would benefit from offering your students domains and web hosting, we want to make that happen for you. Thanks to support from the Shuttleworth Foundation we aren’t going to charge anything for web hosting, we’ll cover that along with the software to make it all happen. We just need you to cover the cost of the domains ($12/student). Our pilot will run from August – December with the goal of learning, building, and growing this thing so we can open the doors widely in the Spring. If this sounds like something you want to be a part of, we need you to go to to fill out a short form so we have a better idea of what our numbers look like.

Reclaim Hosting is just one piece to the larger puzzle of how we allow people to easily feed their digital content back into a space they own and control. Making it easy for educators and students to get that space and start experimenting in it is an obvious first step, but over the next year we hope to play a part in building Reclaim Your Domain to provide a framework that allows people to take ownership and control of their digital identity. Anyone who read my previous post might think I had given up on the rhetoric of “Reclaiming” and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Having a space to archive the distributed work is important and making it easy both to get that space and to aggregate the work you do in other spaces is important. I wouldn’t partner with Jim to make this happen if I didn’t think so, and I’m excited about all the possibilities this could afford us as a community. Let’s build this together.

Redefining Reclaim Efforts

Over the past 2 years I’ve watched and later participated in the rhetoric of “reclaiming our digital identities in the web spaces we inhabit. Reclaim means a lot of things to a lot of people. At the end of last year I decided I wanted to start bringing more of the artifacts I put out on the web back in house with this blog. By February I had dropped Dropbox for a self-hosted file sharing program called ownCloud, taking a page out of D’Arcy’s playbook. In March when Google announced the impending doom of Google Reader I decided to jump in headfirst and get out from under the wing of as many Google products as possible. Since then I’ve hosted my own email, attempted to use Etherpad as a Google Docs replacement, and ran Fever on my server for RSS. Indeed it seemed like the perfect timing as we started ramping up our Domain of One’s Own pilot and preaching the beauty of controlling your own space. I may not have gone full Richard Stallman but I definitely abandoned quite a bit in the name of ownership and control.

It sucks and I’m done.

For several months now I have punished myself by using subpar products whose only clear advantage was that I could see their source code. I let the rhetoric of ownership cloud the real nut of what’s important: data portability. While everyone experimented with fancy new RSS Readers like Feedly in Google’s wake, I stuck to my guns with Fever on the idea that it was “good enough” and was somehow better by being hosted on my web space. “Good enough.” I’ve said that so many times, and yet data portability with RSS Readers already existed in the form of the open OPML format that most of these programs supported. While everyone else benefited from a host of great features from the variety of readers out there, I stopped reading feeds entirely on my iPad because it didn’t support Fever, and stopped sharing as widely due to the lack of social network integration.

I watched D’Arcy give up on ownCloud for now citing some deal breaker bugs and while those didn’t affect me directly, the fact of the matter was that every time I used a service that would happily back up my data to Dropbox or integrate with Dropbox in some other way it caused me to wince. Etherpad was a complete failure due to requiring a constant running Node.js process and even after loading a variety of third-party plugins the collaboration wasn’t even close and I found myself running back to Google Docs where everyone was.

Google is no saint and sure, the closure of a service like Reader that was widely used by a large audience, was problematic. But they also support data portability in a huge way with Takeout and the fact that I found it fairly easy to get my stuff off of their servers is testament to that. The fear that if I don’t own and control every piece of software I interact with it could disappear with no notice is not based in reality. Sure the overnight pop-up startups with no business model should be avoided if possible (or at the very least get regular backups if it’s stuff you rely on), but the majority of these services give plenty of notice before closing their doors, offer tools to export your data cleanly, and for every door that closes it seems like 10 more open in this vibrant age of web programming.

So I’m going to stop living in fear and start letting the web work for me. I’m still keenly aware of my digital identity and want to use my domain in a way that makes sense (likely as a form of backup whenever possible). But ultimately I want to be productive, social, and connected in a way that I’ve found very difficult these past few months by writing off a majority of the spaces that my network inhabits. I’m lowering my bar so I can start participating to a greater extent with the best of what’s out there without getting bogged down with political and ethical dilemmas that will paralyze you to the greatness of the web.