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Hosting Futures

Yesterday I was part of a call between Reclaim Hosting, Cloudron, and Bates College to talk about what piloting a mashup of LAMP and Docker-container based hosting might look like for Bates’s newest academic program Digital and Computational Studies (DCS). It’s a fascinating program, and description below gives you an idea of what this program is all about:

It is neither a computer science department, nor a data science program, nor media studies, nor a digital humanities program… but instead, a bit of all of these. DCS is charged with bringing academic computing to the full breadth of the liberal arts at Bates.

This means that we hope to develop a program that introduces students to the fundamentals of programming, but also provides computational/digital space for students, regardless of discipline, to discover the intersection of their course of study and the networked, computational world that field is now and forever steeped in.

I really dig this description, the idea of making the fundamentals of programming and computational thinking the foundation of an interdisciplinary program seems truly unique. I was asked by a college-age student in Berlin a couple of weeks back what I would recommend in terms of programs, and I have to say this one strikes me as a very interesting disciplinary approach to the digital world. The first of what’s soon to be a triumvirate of faculty, Matthew Jadud, has a Computer Science background and studies the behaviour of novice programmers, and this summer mathematician Carrie Diaz Eaton (who focuses on Mathematical Ecology) and long-time Davidson Domains champion and historian Anelise Shrout (focusing on nineteenth-century American History and Digital Humanities) will be joining the program’s faculty.

To support this new program, they’re looking for a unique approach to infrastructure. They want to provide everything from publishing software like WordPress to integrated development environments (IDE) like Amazon’s Cloud9 or Eclipse CHE—with various options and offerings in-between. While a LAMP environment can take care of publishing apps like WordPress, Omeka, Scalar, etc. web-based programming environments open up a whole new world, as do applications like Etherpad, Gitlab, Rocket.chat, etc. So, this is where working with Cloudron to integrate their supported applications through our current Domain of One’s Own setup would be awesome. It will require thinking through managing user permissions, but enabling container-based apps would significantly augment our current hosting options.

During this discussion Carrie Diaz Eaton shared the work she has been part of with QUBES: “a community of math and biology educators who share resources and methods for preparing students to tackle real, complex, biological problems.” QUBES is built on top of a project that came out of Purdue University called HUBzero, a service which provides focused community sites, course spaces, open educational resource sharing, and access to applications used heavily in the sciences, such as R, Latex, Jupyter Notebooks, etc. That last bit blew me away, HUBzero effectively allows faculty to setup a course space and provide their students access to open source tools for various kinds of scientific data analysis with software like R-Studio, NetLogo, Mesquite, etc.

While Carrie was talking I was reminded how firmly Reclaim Hosting is planted in the Digital Humanities community—which has been very awesome to us. But seeing QUBES and how many focused tools exist for the sciences that I have no clue about was a wake up call. The world seemed big again.. What’s more, realizing instances like QUBES run on top of HUBZero re-focused the discussion to disciplinary communities sharing resources for teaching and learning (the tools being one part of that equation) which pointed to a more vertically integrated stack for courses. HUBzero is effectively providing a very targeted LMS for particular courses that expose their students to a range of tools in order to do the work. HUBzero sets up the server environments and does all the integrations—and from what I can tell this is possible based on a foundation model that looks for other schools to join and help support the initiative. I’m not sure they also offer one-off hosting for such communities,  but that is something I’ll try and follow-up on.

In fact, there is most definitely a bunch I’m missing and/or misunderstanding about all of this, but after hearing Matt explain what they are looking for as part of their DCS program and seeing the work Carrie has already been apart of it struck me that these virtual, cloud-based hosted environments for web-based programming, data analysis, and publishing are already happening (Reclaim is just one of them), the question that interests me is which of them will be able to make the process of integrating these environments for a campus clean, easy, and elegant. It will be interesting to watch (and hopefully participate in) the shaping of this next generation of online hosted learning environments. And from what I have seen there will be no one ring to rule them all, but thoughtful integrations to make them seamlessly work together.