Website Domains Help Students Learn How to Shape Their Digital Identities

The University of Mary Washington teaches students how to actively engage with the Web by giving them domains of their own.

by / July 29, 2013 0
Students shape their digital identity with domains of their own.

While some colleges give their students mobile devices, the University of Mary Washington is giving freshmen a website domain so they can shape their digital identity. And other universities are considering doing the same.

Few universities provide domains for some of their students, much less a fourth of their students. But after piloting the domain giveaway with 400 students and faculty last year, this university in Fredericksburg, Va., is opening it up to 1,000 freshman this year. In four years time, the entire student body will have access to their own domain and Web space through the university's Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies.

Students need their own domains because they traditionally view the Web as consumers rather than as producers. That's why it's so important to teach students how to own their identity in an increasingly digital world, said Martha Burtis, special projects coordinator of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the university.

"The Web is not something that happens to them, but the Web is something that they can potentially shape," Burtis said. "Culturally, we more and more think of the Web as this thing that's delivered to us. And I think that's dangerous — a dangerous illusion to buy into. We need to be as participatory as possible in conversations about the Web and in shaping what the Web becomes. And part of Domain of One's own is getting at that aspect of digital literacy so that when students graduate from here, they don't necessarily have that passive perspective on their participation in the Web."

People can't control what results show up when they search for their name online. But they can build a positive digital footprint.

For example, Tim Owens, an instructional technology specialist at the university, shares a name with the former lead singer of the band Judas Priest. But his blog shows up in the first page of search results because he's spent years updating it with posts.

"What you can control is letting the good stuff rise to the top — and Google definitely notices when you have a domain of your own and you're putting stuff out there, and they give authority to that," Owens said. "And so, this is empowering students to take some control over that and giving them a platform to really own their digital identity and put that stuff out there."

The majority of college students are active on Facebook and other social networking sites. But they often don't have a home base where they can control how they present themselves online. And they don't always understand how the Web works or how to shape it, said Jim Groom, director of Teaching and Learning Technologies and adjunct professor at the University of Mary Washington. That's where A Domain of One's Own comes in.

Until students graduate, the university will cover the cost of their domain and hosting. When students do leave the university, they can easily migrate to other domain and Web hosting services.

Other colleges jump on domain, Web hosting

A Domain of One's Own has inspired Groom and Owens to launch an independent project this fall for colleges and classes. Starting in August, the Reclaim Hosting pilot will enable other universities to provide students with a domain and Web hosting of their own. Through a grant from the Shuttleworth Foundation, the duo will cover Web hosting and software for the fall semester. The colleges will cover the $12 cost per domain for their students.

This experiment is not designed to provide hosting at no charge beyond a semester or two. But it does allow universities to discover different ways to use an open-source hosting environment. And that will ultimately help the University of Mary Washington with A Domain of One's Own locally.

So far, more than 50 university representatives around the world have expressed interest, and several thousand people will participate in the pilot this fall. Potential applications for the domains include creating student portfolios, learning about the Web and designing a visual identity.

"This is an idea that's met it's moment in terms of these other institutions and educators," Owens said. "That there's this much interest with other people to do something like this means that we're not just crazy and it's not just something in the air in Fredericksburg — that this really is something that other people are thinking about and wanting to do."

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.