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Flowing Streams and Flower Gardens

How old do you have to be to have a "Domain of One's Own"?

This was the intriguing question that awaited me on Twitter when I woke up early Saturday morning. Appreciation to Aaron Davis for including me in the conversation. He knows me well enough to know that I would jump on the "open for all" cookie. Truthfully, this question presents a significant dilemma for me. On the one hand, I have personally experienced the tremendous learning advantages to building a functional presence within one's own web domain. On the contrary, much to the chagrin of some of my PLN mates, I've seen the benefits a learning management system can provide in helping learners gain confidence and competence with their online experiences.

Domain of One's Own - an open, user-created space on the web for documenting, interacting, sharing, and learning. 

Originating at the University of Mary Washington, the initiative helps students and faculty register a domain name and associate the URL with hosting space managed by the school. Other organizations are getting on board with this personal learning program.

Learning Management System - a digital tool where a school, or teacher, can create a space on the web for documenting, interacting, sharing, and learning.

Personal disclosure, I own several web domains, and I have purchased several others for each of my children. Though most of these digital slates are currently blank, I believe each person should have a digital space for documenting and sharing their story. Digital scrapbooking comes to mind when David White says there is much to be learned about patterns of interaction and engagement based upon what he calls "resident" behavior on the web. Residents on the internet regularly interact with others and leave traces of their identity in web-based places of engagement.

One of my favorite writers, Audrey Watters, recently shared this interesting perspective on web usage and our attention. Quoting Mike Caufield's keynote, Watters shares this interesting metaphor of Internet technology; "the garden and the stream."

"The stream privileges a rapid flow of information; this is “the feed” on Facebook and Twitter. It is a serialization of information that you can wade in and out of, but the data always rushes by. The garden helps us imagine the Web as a place, as a topological space. We can experience the garden in many different ways. We choose the pace and the direction we navigate. And we tend to the garden. We deliberately plant. We carefully cultivate. We propagate. We plow. We dig up from the roots. We find the best place – location, water, soil – for growth. We trim back. We weed. We graft. We fertilize. We harvest. We care."

Whether you prefer White's description of resident web behavior or Caufield's garden analogy, digital literacies become significant and meaningful when the place on the web is created and cultivated by the learner. However, very few educators and even fewer students have the skills and confidence to start tilling the soil in web gardens. It's the classroom LMS that clears the weeds, aerates and irrigates the soil, and plants the seeds for growth.

Audrey Watters has described LMS companies as monsters of education technology because they lack transparency, mine data, and keep learners wading in the stream. I disagree. The LMS can be a place where interaction, collaboration, and digital responsibility are practiced; stepping stones from the babbling creek to the meandering garden. Here's the full professional disclosure that Aaron Davis models and requests. I'm an ambassador and evangelist for Schoology.

We can continue to fear and blame educational technology tools, or we research and apply their best use. Is the LMS perpetuating old educational practice, or does it provide experiences and interactions befitting the modern learner? Can the LMS be a place of innovative teaching and learning? Schoology, for example, offers discussion boards, portfolios, media albums, blogs, and web pages providing learners with gardening experience, either free-range or fenced in.

Research, courtesy of the "Blackboard beast," and shared by John Whitmer, shows patterns of LMS usage by teachers and students, and searches for a relationship between patterns of usage and academic achievement. The conclusions drawn from analyzing seventy thousand courses containing more than three million users do not surprise me.

  • A majority of teachers use the LMS for delivery of content and student assessment.
  • Most LMS courses offer limited opportunities for student interaction.
  • Increased usage occurs when learners integrate other web resources into the LMS.
  • Student activity and engagement increase when the LMS is focused on forum facilitation and collaboration.
  • Further research is needed to conclusively identify relationships between LMS usage and student achievement.

"Patterns in Course Design; How Educators Actually Use the LMS" - Blackboard Blog

Not so monstrous, the LMS is a toothless giant when it's utilized more as a place of learner interaction, and less as a tool of compliance. I agree with Watters when she asks, "Who does the LMS serve?" The results of usage will likely be disappointing if it's just about adding convenience and efficiency for the educator. 

Digital literacies and "future-ready" learning should certainly be considered. Are digital literacies impacted with more power and relevance when users work within their own digital space? This is the question being researched by W. Ian O'Byrne and Kristine Pytash. The initial research focuses on identity development and content portability. Their contention is digital literacies, in their truest sense, are not possible without building a domain of one's own. Like learning portfolios, O'Byrne and Pytash see personal web spaces as "sites for learning" where students are engaged in planning, mapping, curating, documenting, revising, and reflecting. They recommend pre-K, and kindergarten students begin building learning portfolios within their web domain.

Thinking back to the original question, I don't believe learning opportunities should be based on age or grade level. Here are key issues in advance of implementation;
  • What support systems are in place? 
  • Who controls the content?
  • What is the purpose of the digital learning space?
Personally speaking, I see tremendous value in creating and cultivating a personal learning garden on the web. Research is illuminating the importance of interaction and learner agency in both traditional and digital learning spaces. LMS products, like Schoology, offer a variety spaces for learners to develop digital literacies. More of a space than a tool, when the LMS is more than a content container, it can be a useful place for transitioning learners from the stream to the garden.

My research on personal learning spaces continues. I am looking forward to reading O'Byrne and Pytash's upcoming journal article. As always, comments and feedback appreciated.

References and Related Reading

Visitors & Residents. (2016, August 09). Retrieved November 02, 2016, from
Watters, A. (2016, October 21). Attending to the Digital. Retrieved November 02, 2016, from
Watters, A. (2014, September 04). Beyond the LMS. Retrieved November 02, 2016, from
Watters, A. (2016, August 23). A Domain of One's Own in a Post-Ownership Society. Retrieved November 02, 2016, from
W. (2016, February 22). Preparing Students to be Literate Digitally in a Digitally Literate Environment of Their Own. Retrieved November 02, 2016, from
@johncwhitmer. "Patterns in Course Design: How Instructors ACTUALLY Use the LMS - Blackboard Blog." Blackboard Blog. Web. 02 Nov. 2016.

photo credit: aka*Travz Double Pouring Wonder via photopin (license)


Aaron Davis said…
This is a great reflection Bob. I found it interesting looking into what Google provides in regards to spaces (, there were so many different ways of being. Yet when I spoke with staff about it, students and schools predominantly provide guided group spaces. Although Schoology provide all these bolt-ons, I am left wondering how much they support students in being autonomous? That is probably my concern and interest, especially in the garden.

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