Reclaim the Chronicle

RECLAIM_LOVE_GRAPHIC_grandeMark Sample wrote a really good post laying out what Reclaim Hosting is all about on ProfHacker yesterday. He lays out the nuts and bolts of what something like this means:

Reclaim Hosting is a web hosting service for educators and students, providing simple one-click installation of a variety of web apps, including WordPress, Omeka, MediaWiki, and many others….And indeed, the one-click installation of popular web applications is only part of what Reclaim Hosting offers its users. Each domain includes secure FTP access, an email account, the ability to run Cron jobs (which execute scripts and programs at regular intervals), and SSH/Shell Access, meaning students can work on the command line, programming in Perl and Python. In short, students get all the benefits of a typical shared server hosting service (say, Dreamhost) for the cost of several slices of pizza.

I’m a big fan of pizza, so I love that closing analogy. One of the other things we’ve started realizing recently thanks to Martha Burtis’s work on creating customized packages using “Installatron” (an aptly named application installer) is that we can start offering particular WordPress installations that are customized to be out-of-the-box solutions to something like course syndication. The idea that faculty and/or students can deploy a fully- functioning syndicated course hub in seconds is really exciting. This is an idea we’re working though currently at DTLT, and you can see the early stages of thinking through this here. This approach is done with WordPress, and it populates free plugins and some custom code that enables students to automatically push their work to the course hub.

And while some might balk at the automation of this, it by no means precludes anyone from hacking away, building their own, or taking this in a bold new direction. What this does is makes the syndicated course setup that much more seamless for faculty to use, which I ‘ve found makes a huge difference in their willingness to experiment with such an option. The fact that the experimentation with this through Domain of One’s own has made such an idea possible already justifies this project, but add to that the fact that we are using Reclaim Hosting as a way to make these possibilities available to as many faculty and students as possible is downright awesome.

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Another feature I’m beginning to explore in the True Crime Freshman Seminar with  the students, all of whom have their own web host and domain as part of UMW’s Domain of One’s Own, is being able to help them manage their web hosting by being able to access their cPanels (see image above). With this setup I can act as a server admin for all of their sites and  help them out with issues that in the past I found difficult to resolve when teaching ds106. I can help them trouble shoot DNS issues, installation problems, plugin snafus, databases problems, etc. If you’re using Reclaim Hosting as a way to show your students how to manage web hosting, maintain their own space online, and get familiar with the affordances of web hosting—this is one possibility for enabling some powerful support. That said, you might want to let them know as much,  becuase with great power comes great responsibility.

DEDTECH: GMU’s Nada Dabbagh on Integrating PLEs into a Graduate Seminar


In this video I sat down with George Mason University professor Nada Dabbagh to discuss her vision for integrating personal learning environments into her graduate seminar EDIT 802: Cognition and Technology. Nada is having the students in this course setup a domain and web hosting so that they can manage and control their own learning space and more. In this video we spend some time talking about her reasons for having them create their own learning environements that they control is important.

After that, we jump into the actual environement her students will be working within to provide them with an overview of cPanel, the web hosting management space they will be using. From there we discuss the difference between using subdirectories versus subdomains for installing open source applications like WordPress, as well as the importance of keeping track of all the passwords for the wide array of applications they will be managing.

This video is not only a resource for Nada’s students, but also frames out some good questions around what a domain and web hosting are, as well as providing some metaphors to help you conceptualize the difference. Additionally, the video works through the idea of giving a complete beginner a sense of how this space might be useful as a teaching and learning tool.

What I love about this video, as well as the Howard Rheingold series I have been working on, is that faculty are willing to broadly share their thinking around how the building the technical environment for their course informs the pedgogy, and vice versa. These are some early experiments in what I hope becomes a more extensive series of talking with faculty and technologits about the process they go through when imagining a course. It would be cool to start getting down a format wherein we can talk with particular educators and technologists about nhow they approaches a particular class and why. Such stuff might be pretty useful for other instructors and technologists who want to get a sense of how the process of designing and customizing learning spaces beyond the LMS works.

Building with Howard: Creating an Open Source Learning Environment Pt 3

This is part 3 of a series Howard Rheingold and I have been working on to demonstrate out the open how to create a learning environment using open source tools like WordPress, MediaWiki, and more. go here for all the videos so far. The idea behind this series is to get faculty and students interested in how they might fashion their own learning environments in a web hosting environment using their own domains. The first fifteen minutes of this video focuses on Howard’s approach to assessment in his Social Media Issues course, which will be experimenting with contract grading. From there we explored a few things in regards to the open source framework we are building.

  • Finding and installing WordPress themes
  • Integrating signins between WordPress and MediaWiki
  • Just how clunky MediaWiki still is after all these years
  • Customizing menus in WordPress
  • Uploading header images and changing the background color in WordPress Themes

The point about how clunky MediaWiki remaisn was the source of a broader mini-rant about how long we have been using these tools, but how difficult some absic things remains. Integrating signups between MediaWiki and WordPress is still a major pain in the ass six years on—the WPAUTH extension for MediaWiki that I’ve been using since 2007 remains the gold standard. Also, to change the logo in my MediaWiki install I need to FTP in and change code in localsettings.php file—WTF?!

I truly would like to see a robust platform like MediaWiki become a lot more ubiquitous in the teaching and learning space, but an application that makes simple administrative necessities that difficult will not be an options for your average user. Also, why haven’t we made some of this stuff easier? And this goes for syndication as well. My thoery is because we’ve wasted too much time chasing the next platform that will sovle our problems and finally truly disrupt education—in other words,  most technologists are fools and zombies.

Building with Howard: Creating an Open Source Learning Environment Pt 2

This is part two of a series Howard Rheingold and I are working on wherein we’re openly building the framework for his Social Media Issues course using a variety of open source tools, plugins, themes, extensions, etc. This is really a blast for me because I haven’t gotten into the nitty gritty of a one-off open source learning environment like this since 2007 or 2008 (although ds106 was exactly this in 2011, but I gotta a lot of help). I’m really loving the work with Howard to build out his course site, and once again explore for myself what’s possible with tools like WordPress and MediaWiki. In fact, the whole idea around ds106, Domain of One’s Own, Reclaim Hosting, etc., is that you dig into stuff like this and have a community of support to help you. A huge reason why folks wouldn’t even consider this option is that it’s way too onerous to do alone, but we may just solve that by working on this stuff as a community. Open and distributed edtech—you have a problem, we can help you fix it! We’re DEDtech! Anyway, that’s the dream.

As for this episode, Howard and I spent some time in the beginning on the WHYs. Why have your students blog openly? Why have them take control of their digital domain? Why build these aggregated spaces? What has been the biggest treat about pairing up with Howard is that he makes me explain some of the assumptions I’ve been carrying around for years. I’ve been pushing syndication of student blogs into course hubs at UMW for six or seven years now. We’ve been using the FeedWordPress plugin for five or six of them. This stuff is like water to us, and while others might be waking up to it recently—it’s been part of our edtech DNA at UMW for a while. So having Howard have me try and actually explain why a faculty member might want to do this is awesome. What’s more, as we go through these sessions it’s a real conversation between two people who are negotiating what the course framework might look like. The coolest part is we’re sharing it in hopes that others get some ideas, frame their own questions, and potentially work through a similar model. I feel like I am doing the best kind of instructional technology again: exploratory, customized frameworks that scale to the size of a single professor—a hub that reflects the personality of a course, but refuses to subsume the students within it. This is the kind of instructional technology that truly rocks—LMSs still suck!

After the WHYs, we covered a few customizations to his WordPress hub such as adding a widget for the Twitter conversation around his #comm182 course hashtag. Thanks to Tim Owens, I recommended the native widget from Twitter that actually works well. Just go to Your Twitter settings–>widgets and you have all sorts of options.

Twitter Widget

After that we discussed how to create custom menus in WordPress to organize pages on the course hub. What’s more, the links option in custom menus is a very useful feature that I think a ton of faculty will find appealing for loosely integrating a range of external sites into one central hub. We flirted with the idea of themes, but we’ll be spending more time in the next episode—which is Tuesday, August 20th btw—talking about the myriad possibilities in that department. About half way through we installed a MediaWiki and went over the affordances of that technology. I particularly liked our discussion about wikis because we actually went back-and-forth about what he may or may not need. I don’t recommend MediaWiki lightly because it can be a real pain in the ass, at the same time it is powerful and every time I set one up for a class I see the immense possibilities all over again. That said, when I soon realize I have to edit a localsettings.php file to get a attractive icon for branding a new wiki some of that luster is lost. Truly a love hate relationship.

I’ve demonstrated some basic editing for MediaWiki that we have document for the course here, and I am working on a broader HowTo wiki page for this class that I’m expecting other folks who want to do a course like this might use, copy, or customize for their own course. I’ll be talking about integrating WordPress and MediaWiki more tightly in the next episode, as well as the possibilities with plugins like Wiki Embed—which I think is awesome. I also found this cool MediaWiki extension I hadn’t seen before that enables seamless Poem formatting, which is a complete nightmare in WordPress. Who knew? I’ll highlight all these MediaWiki extensions, integration, and WordPress themes and more in the next episode. Until then, stay syndicated baby!

Building with Howard: Creating a Learning Environment with Open Source Tools Pt 1

Yesterday I had the distinct pleasure to sit down with Howard Rheingold—at least virtually—and go through the process of setting up a course hub using WordPress. The above video is the first part of a series in which we will work through building a learning environment using open source tools on a LAMP environment. This video focused on creating the central hub for Howard’s course Social Media Issues that he’ll be teaching this fall.  O ver the course of the conversation Howard and I covered how to 1) install WordPress using on your web server, 2) post content, 3) search, add, and activate plugins (in this case FeedWordPress), 4) add widgets, and 5) change the theme.

Howard’s interested in creating a dynamic course environment wherein students can establish and control their own online presence and have their work syndicated into a central course hub (not unlike the environments Alan Levine has been building recently for universities like Harvard ). By installing and activating the FeedWordPress plugin, we effectively enable the ability to add the URL of students’ sites (assuming they have an RSS feed) so that their posts can be fed into a central aggregation point for the class to view and comment upon each others work.

What’s more, this WordPress hub will have a series of pages that contain various information about the class, such as an about page, a  syllabus page, an FAQ, etc. It can include or link to social media conversations happening on the open web. For examples, you can embed a conversation from Twitter happening around a hashtag into the sidebar link out to class Tumblr, etc.

At the same time, the WordPress blog hub is just one facet of the course. We’ll be doing another episode tomorrow afternoon in which we plan on covering a few more of the affordances of  the hub and then moving on to integrating a wiki into the course environment. We’ll be demonstrating the open source application MediaWiki (which powers Wikipedia), and I imagine we’ll have a full session given it can be a lot more painstaking that WordPress.

I’m excited about this video series because it really brings me back to instructional technology work I was doing  in earnest at UMW back in 2006 and 2007. We were experimenting wildly with open source tools to see what kind of environments we could create for the campus community. This experimentation ultimately led to UMW Blogs and then ds106, and while these examples forced UMW to starting wrestling with questions of scale, the fact remains just about anyone can access and start experimenting with a wide array of web applications for the price of lunch.

I love that Howard is ready and willing to sit down and think through his course with me over the next couple of weeks.  This is distributed edtech at its very best, and hopefully sharing the process of building this course site will both inspire and help others to experiment as well.

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!

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!