Maybe I Don’t Own a Domain of My Own

I’ve owned this domain since 1999.

Although, “owned” may not be the correct verb, a point made clear by a professor at American University in Cairo writing about the Domain of One’s Own concept.

I don’t know why we say “domain of one’s own” and “reclaim your domain”. It’s not very accurate.

My understanding of ownership is that something belongs to me. That I have already acquired it or been gifted it. And I own it until I die, no additional payment required. If I own it and I die, it passes to my heirs.

That isn’t at all the case with domains.

When I created a domain, it didn’t become mine. Basically I don’t own the domain name. I pay for it every year. That looks like rent.

Domain of One’s Own (DoOO) is a concept that originated in 2007 at the University of Mary Washington, just down the road from here in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and which has now spread to many colleges around the world. In a nutshell, UMW gives every student and staff member a domain when they enter the college, and provides hosting services along with support to help them “design and create a meaningful and vibrant digital presence”. When people leave the school, they can take their domain with them to another host.

I’ve been following the DoOO project with great interest almost from the beginning, the benefit of knowing several of the people who worked on it at UMW. It’s a very compelling idea, one that I advocate for with K12 teachers and believe should be pushed down into high schools. (more about that in a coming rant)

However, there is a larger concept of “ownership” at play here.

Audrey Watters, who pointed me to the original post, takes a step back to ask an even more basic question: “What does it mean to “own” a digital good – a domain name or otherwise?”.

When it comes to all our digital data, the answer to the question “what do you own” is probably “not much.” You do not own your Amazon Kindle books; you’ve purchased a license to access the content. Your heirs will not inherit your digital reading library. You do not own the music you stream; you’ve paid for a subscription. Your heirs will not inherit your digital music library. You don’t own the movies you watch via Netflix; again, it’s a subscription and unlike a print magazine subscription, once you stop paying the bill, you won’t have stacks of old copies lying about. If you’re using proprietary file formats for your data or there are DRM restrictions on your content, it’s quite likely your heirs will be unable to open the files to even look at what they contain so as to judge if any of your bits and bytes are worth saving. You (likely) do not own the software you use (unless it’s open source); it’s been licensed to you. Similarly, you (likely) do not own the operating system that powers your computer; you’ve paid for a license there as well. And increasingly, there are restrictions with what you can do with the computer hardware as well as the software that you might think is yours because it is in your possession – but as Cory Doctorow argues, “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.”

Although we have attempted to transfer our centuries-old concept of “ownership” from the physical world, digital goods are far often than not rented rather than purchased. Many content owners would love to shift that even farther to a pay-per-use model. Want to read that book again? Pay us again.

Anyway, so the first statement of this rant is incorrect.

I pay a domain registrar in ten year chunks to use the name (and to point people to the site). In addition, these pages are stored and served by another company to whom I pay an annual hosting fee. If I fail to pay either of them on time, this “domain of my own” disappears from the web. I cannot will it to my heirs like a paper journal (although I can transfer the lease on the off chance they will want to continue paying the bills).

Do I own even own the content on this site? Something to think about.

Thinking All Wrong About Digital

Consider this pull quote from an article titled Are We Thinking About Digital All Wrong?:

I strongly believe that describing digital as a tool diminishes its profound impact on the world we live in. Digital has transformed society, government, culture, business, media and more.1 Barely an aspect of our lives has not been touched in some way. Therefore, when I write about forming a digital strategy, I am not referring to a strategy for using a tool. I am talking about forming a strategy to adapt to the fundamental changes that digital has brought upon society.

The writer is addressing a business audience (specifically web designers) but I think that paragraph pretty much explains why all the technology we’ve poured into classrooms over the past two decades or more has had so little impact on American education.

Too many educators2 still discuss “digital” as a nice-to-have add-on, grafted onto what we’re already doing (as in “digital” learning, for example), rather than adapting the tools to fundamentally change what we do.

And until we decide to make that change, a large percentage of the money schools spend on digital will continue to be wasted.

I Guess It’s a Start

The title of this post pretty much tells you everything about the current state of digital textbooks: Students Find E-Textbooks ‘Clumsy’ and Don’t Use Their Interactive Features.

The writer is addressing the issue in colleges but that same statement applies to the online Social Studies textbooks we began using last year here in the overly-large school district.

I’ve ranted about this before but the fact of the matter is that the publisher in our case is offering little more than a digital reproduction of the hardcover book, and they still require us to purchase a minimum number of those analog versions.

The math textbooks our students will be using this year are somewhat better in that the material is largely in HTML, includes some video, and adds a few interactive features. However, as with those digital social studies books, the math textbooks are hit or miss when it comes to using them on smartphones and tablets, even those still running Flash.

I suppose you could view this in a glass-half-full manner, as a tentative start to the process of eventually having all classroom materials in a digital form. I’m just not sure that process is going to move very quickly since the publishers seem far more interested in protecting their markets and profits than they do about anything instructional.

If I was running this show, we would be putting some of the large chunk of the money spent every year on dead-tree books into creating online, open-source, accessible on any device instructional materials of our own.

It’s one of those big changes that could have incredible long-term advantages for an educational system accustomed to very short-term thinking.

The Possibilities of Digital Textbooks

Digital textbooks are all the rage these days.

They’ll save schools billions of dollars, and relieve kids from the burden of carrying around the paper versions. More than a few education “experts” have applied the “revolutionary” tag to the concept.

And on that very subject, the US Department of Education and the Federal Communications Commission this week held a big meeting just up the road in Washington on that very subject, with the purpose to determine how the US can “move all K-12 schools to interactive digital textbooks in the next five years”.

So, who attended these high level discussions?

FCC Chairman Genachowski and Secretary of Education Duncan hosted a discussion with CEOs, senior executives, and other leaders from the education technology ecosystem to develop ways the industry and states can meet their challenge to move all K-12 schools to interactive digital textbooks in the next five years.

Representatives included senior executives and leaders from Apple, Aruba Networks, Chegg, Discovery Education, Idaho Department of Education, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Inkling, Intel, Knewton, Kno, the LEAD Commission, McGraw-Hill, News Corp, Pearson, Samsung, Sprint, and T-Mobile. [emphasis mine]

Education technology ecosystem?

Anyway, with the exception of the participants from Idaho (a known leader of instructional technology innovation, right?), do you see any actual educators in that list? Or any organizations representing the various educational open source initiatives?

No, what you see are the very large companies that already control the printed textbook business, some major tech companies, plus a few tech startups with interests in digital distribution. All of which stand to reap large profits from controlling the digital textbook business.

That’s what Duncan, Apple, Pearson and others really mean when they talk about the “possibilities” of digital textbooks.

Textbooks Don’t Work

In a recent post on his Class Struggle blog, Jay Mathews explains why textbooks don’t work and hurt schools. His conclusions are based on a new book called “Tyranny of the Textbook” that discusses “why the $4 billion-a-year textbook business is so much a part of our schools’ mediocre performance”.

Textbooks don’t work well. Research shows that with rare exceptions they do not help improve student achievement much. They are not effective because effectiveness doesn’t sell.

Jobrack [the author] argues, rightly, that textbooks can help students learn well only if they are part of a curriculum designed by educators who know what works in the classroom and tested by comparing the level of achievement under one curriculum to another. There is research on which curricula are most effective, but textbook companies don’t use it because their customers aren’t interested in that.

“Publishers are incentivized to create materials that appeal to teachers who don’t want to change, so curriculum materials that could have a significant impact on education reform are less profitable,” Jobrack said.

Despite all that “not very effective” stuff, here in the overly-large school district we are in the process of doubling down on textbooks, by adopting the online/digital versions of the same materials being pushed by the publishers.

However, simply swapping out paper books repackaged in a digital format – written and distributed by the same companies, usually with the same content – is not “revolutionary”, “innovative”, “reform”, or whatever other term our administrators have applied to the transition.

The digital versions of these instructional materials are hardly unique, usually wrapped in a convoluted interface and/or DRM, and often cost the same or more than the paper versions, and there are few good reasons to continue supporting this branch of the education business.