THE BLOG
10/17/2013 07:53 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

A Place of One's Own -- Online

I've been writing in these pages about the intersection of technology and pedagogy at colleges of the liberal arts and sciences. I've essentially been arguing that although America needs technicians and technocrats, and though that may seem where the jobs are these days, the value of a liberal arts and sciences education cannot be underestimated.

But I also think that liberal arts institutions must recognize that they are well into the 21st century, the "digital age." The technology of today, if it is used effectively, can be a great asset and lever for teaching. And it is incumbent on us at the universities to give our students the tools to succeed in our web-based world.

Already, our students come to the University of Mary Washington as inhabitants and consumers of cyberspace. Cyberspace is where they share ideas, seek entertainment, communicate, search for information and answers. We need to help them use that space better, even master it if that is possible. For years, Mary Washington has had a very successful blogging platform. It has been used for classwork, to create literary journals, for student reports on their travel abroad, for club postings, and for alumni bulletin boards. It now has 8,500 users. But recently we came up with a potentially more exciting idea. We call it "Domain of One's Own."

The Domain of One's Own initiative urges and coaches our students to set up their own individual websites. The initiative was propelled by several related ideas: The first was that students could use their sites to host, show, and promote their scholarship and research. The websites could serve as digital portfolios showcasing the students' resumes and best academic work for potential employers. And students would carry these URLs with them well beyond graduation. Second, the very act of building a website would be a great learning experience - it would allow students to grapple with how things are created on the web. And it would teach students how to create websites for others, an important and marketable skill. Third, for those whose ideas really take flight, the student domains would be the digital presentation of themselves, a way to explore their digital identities. They would not just be a marketing tool but a way for students and graduates to put their ideas, thoughts, writing, poetry, music, and videos, out there for others to contemplate, to respond to, or just enjoy.

Domain of One's Own started as a pilot project in 2012 with 400 students participating. This year we rolled it out for the entire incoming freshman class. Mary Washington pays for every new freshman to acquire his or her own domain name and the university contracts for Wordpress and web hosting.

If what our first users have done on the web is predictive, the initiative will be a great success. Hassan Halim, from the class of 2010, created a site called http://hirehassan.com, his online portfolio. "I saw people printing out resumes, but I put everything online," he said. "And I put my website on my card so people could find it." Hassan also used his website building experience to create sites for others, including sites for a school board candidate and a Psi Upsilon fraternity chapter, and he created other personal sites to show his videos and his writing.

Caitlin Murphy, a 2012 graduate, created http://caitlinpringlemurphy.com/ as a self-marketing tool and used it for all of her job applications. If you get a chance to view the site, you will see that it is well-organized and has a fresh, clean look. Caitlin is sure it helped her land her job at PBS: "The woman interviewing me said she'd been impressed by my website and it was one of the reasons she called me."

One of our 2013 graduates, Haley Campbell, saw virtually no limit to what could be done. Her site, at http://aetherbunny.com, holds her college work and scholarship, personal musings and ramblings, daily writing, her videos and photographs. Haley said she had wanted to do something like this for some time but did not have the money or the time to do it on her own. She also created an art and literary journal online called http://stitchjournal.com which she shows as part of her resume. "Having the skills to create a website using a Wordpress platform is extremely valuable to many employers," she says. She just started working to improve the website of a campground association.

The University of Mary Washington has been lauded for this digital initiative, and it has been written that we are the first university to do this. We certainly hope that others pick up on the idea. Jim Groom, our Director of Teaching and Learning Technologies, puts it this way: "We want to make emerging technologies central to the university experience, not an afterthought. We are building the web into the fabric of how we teach and learn here."

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