Spotlight: Jim Groom

On October 20th and 21st, Whittier College and DigLibArts were fortunate enough to host instructional technologist Jim Groom. In addition to holding a reclaim hosting workshop and delivering a talk in Villalobos Hall, Professor Groom gave Amer Rashid, one of our Student Technology Liaisons, the opportunity to interview him. The interview (transcription provided below) covered Professor Groom’s work with Reclaim Hosting, Domain of One’s Own, and the importance of developing a digital identity for students. Check it out below!

Amer Rashid: So first, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started working in these kinds of projects?

Jim Groom: Great! My name is Jim Groom and I have been working in higher ed for about twenty years. I have been working with instructional technology, which is a very focused area of higher ed. It’s basically an area where you take technology and you think about how it can affect and impact higher ed. That’s basically what I’ve been doing for the last decade. What we started to discover, and think about, was how the systems that are created around technology right now are not faculty or student centric at all. I’ll give you an example: you’re here at Whittier, you’re a student, you have an email address, and you have maybe file storage. Depending on how it’s set up, all of those identities, all of the things you do in your classes, in your Moodle, none of it lives on your own space and can seamlessly transfer to the next space you go to have a kind of consist identity across all of your digital lives. Education is one small example, think about your medical records, and think about your electricity usage in your house, you name it. So one of the things we think about is how do we take the work and the data we accumulate over time and consistently keep that as a part of our digital identity? This is data that is often times very specific to us, tells a story, it may mean nothing to someone else but it means a lot to us. Our idea was to rethink infrastructure, and make the individual student the node on the web that manages and controls their work and decides what they share with the university. For example, you graduate Whittier and you get a transcript. What if you had a transcript that you managed and maintained on your own space and then you decided I want to apply to UCLA for grad school, I’m going to give them access to that. You have the credentials to say, “here’s my transcript, and you can see it”. It’s a handshake that’s verified and then you go on. You kind of manage and maintain your data that’s important over the course of your life. And more and more our lives are going to start to be like that. Just think about how much your individual life is premised on a network whether that be Facebook or Tumblr or email or Twitter, you name it. There is some space in which you have invested a lot of time and a lot of your thinking. So how much of that is something you can have as a part of your archive of who you are as a person online. That’s really impetuous to think through, really rewiring the ways we understand the network to be respectful and empowering of the individual.

AR: So considering that this is a fairly new phenomenon that a lot of people are hearing about, we mentioned that this is something we just started talking about and hearing about this year and we’re juniors in our college education, there are a lot of schools like Whittier College, a smaller, liberal arts college, that have resource issues. How can schools, especially the smaller programs, really work in order to facilitate a program like this or to give students the ability to have their own domains? How can schools help students create their own digital identity and be able to teach the significance and the appropriate ways in doing so as well, so not just giving them the space?

JG: This is probably as a good of a question for you as it is for me. I think the challenge there is that you want to go about and show people a domain and show why it’s valuable and why they should think deeply about this. I think that’s unevenly developed across students. Some students see a domain and web hosting and the fact that they can install applications and do stuff online and their eyes grow wide and they’re excited. These students realize that this is a whole new world they can devour and some don’t. I think that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I mean that’s expected. I think the unique opportunity we have in higher ed with these domains is to capture students who are in the process of thinking through those formative moments and intellectual endeavors in their life. To make part of that thought process how do they understand and conceptualize and even interrogate this notion of identity online. This is a great time to do it and there is no one solution that is like you have to get your domain, package it up, take it with you, aren’t I neat with my Hollywood headshot, everything is perfect – not what this is about. This is really about you interrogating and deciding if this is something I want. What are the limits of it? What are the possibilities? You should feel like you have a critical stance towards it, which is generative hopefully in terms of you thinking about what are the larger implications of our personal data of where that lives of who controls it. I mean issues of privacy; this is not a conspiracy, after Snowden this is pretty much acknowledged. So what better place to deal with those questions then in the context of higher ed and hopefully your undergraduate, especially if you’re a liberal arts undergraduate! I love the thought of digital liberal arts – the idea that our culture, past and values interfaces with the digital. There’s a whole new universe in that collision, which I would hope that a Domain’s of One’s Own would be platform to explore. That for me is what it would be its about. It’s a platform for exploration intellectually and technically. The idea of it is that someone from your community will come back and teach you how to use it. They’re not saying here’s the tool, here’s what you do with it; they’re saying here’s a platform, let me show you what you can do on it. I’m not saying what we’re doing at Reclaim Hosting is the solution; in fact what we use is totally retrograde technology. It’s not expensive or cutting edge, but it still works ten years later.

AR: The technology has mostly changed in terms of aesthetics and the functionality has grown but the structure is the time.

JG: I think the major changes for your generation is the application idea, the idea that an application can replace the web. For a while, I fought that, but I think it is part of evolution that is imagined and build upon.

AR: We talk about creating a digital identity and if apps are so essential to how we interface with technology, one day we could find Domain of One’s Own as it’s own application where students can go in and check out their website and domain through an app.

JG: The point you bring up is a good one because it brings back early ideas of Domain of One’s Own. There was a group of undergraduate students at NYU who came up with this idea of a pocket server, a server in your pocket that you could maintain your own networks, apart from these monolithic corporate sites. It was a great idea conceptually, yet the thing that kills all alternative ideas is convenience and critical mass. So that’s interesting because I expect that a lot of these experiments are going to fail. I’m actually expecting a Domain of One’s Own to never be mainstream. In fact, we’ve imagined it as an independent approach to educational technology and we’re framing it as an alternative way to think through what maybe isn’t the mass media approach to communicating and what that means to build your own infrastructure. I don’t want to pretend like this is a solution we’ve figured out. We’ve been playing around with this at Mary Washington University for three years now. Schools have really started to take this project up. We have almost 30 schools across the country that are doing something like this. So it’s interesting that there’s a little alternative movement happening.

AR: Do you think that there are certain characteristics around particular schools, which are signing on, which are across the board the reason that maybe this movement is appealing to them?

JG: I do. I like the way you frame that and I like what you’re suggesting. I imagine if you had a platform like this you would make it your own. This goes back to the idea that each regional band or scene has it’s own identity. LA had a specific punk identity versus New York or Seattle. A part of that is finding themselves, defining their issues, who they are, and so much of who we are is defined locally. So I would imagine that a school would be a great independent label, so to speak, for some domain initiative for people to frame it.

AR: That only makes sense seeing that your alma mater is your label. Your degree says a lot about who you are and we carry that with a significant amount of pride in most parts of our culture.

JG: Absolutely! It’s no mistake that great scenes that happen culturally start at universities. It’s no mistake that most of the protocols of the Internet started at a university. It’s the petri dish for culture. Having a platform where people can experiment, whether it’s Reclaim Hosting or something else, is something most institutions haven’t fully grasped.

AR: While looking at Whittier College specifically, seeing how we’re doing at DigLibArts, a big topic comes up amongst digital higher ed talking about open source information. How does that work when it comes to ideas of open source journals, academic journals, or things of that nature? How do we mitigate those borders and barriers and decide which one is going to be open source and which one is going to be a part of our private digital identity that we’ll only share with certain people?

JG: I like that fact that that is a personal choice. You’ll decide this is my thinking that I want to protect and this is the thinking I want to share. I think what happens in the context of open is by being open, by positioning yourself as open, I think you provide a context and an invitation for other people to come and dialogue. By openly blogging and sharing my work, by being an open advocate for work that I’ve done and other people done, it’s actually pushed my work beyond what it would be. It’s opened me up to a professional network. It’s given me access to other people who relate to an idea or disagree with an idea and gave me feedback. It wasn’t necessarily refereed the same was as journals, but it was an open network who was filled with people who were professional and smart and could give me feedback and help me and my ideas grow through momentum, feedback, and a network of people supporting it and vice versa I would do it for others. So for me open was a relationship. It was a relationship among people amongst an open network. I was never interested in open as a resource. What’s interesting to me is the kind of object you and I would leave in the wake of our discussion online. Our blog and our spaces would be the trace of our thinking.

AR: So essentially the platform of our hypothesis.

JG: It could be in Tumblr, it could be on your blog, it could be on Facebook; it’s a trace of you as an intellectual developing over time. For me it’s the open relationship to your own thinking and it’s something you may want to shut down or get rid and you should have control. For me having an opening position towards the web is realizing there’s a rich world that has as much ugly as it does beautiful. I do think the position of open and sharing pays back in terms of what you get out of other people and what other people share back with you and how that helps you think about your own ideas and how you grow. That’s why I think this platform is crucial for higher ed. I think a lot of people have a lot of great things to provide. It’s an inclusion of voices. It’s often an idea of getting over the academic idea of doing assignments for a grade. What if it was about your definition, in relationship to other people, of who you are?

AR: When looking at the idea of identity in general, identity is something that is often conversed about. There have been a lot of arguments about what identity is or isn’t and how we define it. We see that kind of bleed into digital spaces and then seeing phenomena come about it like the Arab Spring, which was fueled by digital technology. We see how the growth you were talking about in higher ed and how it can work in any other thing. It starts to become engrossed in to who you see yourself as an individual but also how you represent yourself to the rest of the world, which is quickly shrinking.

JG: Think about the really immense possibility of you presenting yourself to the world, like you really can, like you can join the discussion about the Arab Spring if your informed, you know something, and you’re able to connect with people. I remember back in 2000 when Bush Jr. was a cokehead and some how that was all right over time. It was shared out; it was online; it was kind of a meme, but he worked it through. You’ll realize one of the things that happens is those mistakes you made that before social media that would have been cataclysmic actually become less and less so because there’s an actual sense of the idea that we know we’re going to make mistakes and we know we’re going to make them online. There’s a certain amount of forgiveness in that. A lot of the rhetoric right now is be careful what you do because if you’re going to do it, it’s going to be there forever. Maybe to some degree that’s true, but I think as a culture, as much as we want to focus on how awful we are and how much were killing ourselves, we’ve become far more talented.

AR: Do you think a big part of that is because we have access to each other and create those relationships?

JG: Exactly! I think we put ourselves in a situation where this is a complete new infrastructure of information. An environment and ecosystem of information we all don’t understand, but we should. At the same time it has made us communally a little more forgiving. What’s more is we can go out and if someone was trying to denigrate us online, we have the facility and capability to challenge him or her openly. So there’s this struggle over space. The thing that’s amazing about the web is this idea of social constructed knowledge. Well, that’s Wikipedia. A culture can come together and build information collectively to make sense of something. For me it opened up as many questions as it answered. The coolest thing is we have a whole new generation of artists, thinkers, historians, sociologists, etc. who have to deal with this phenomenon that’s been sitting on our lap for 25 years. To me that is the coolest part of what were doing, it still feels fresh, and it still feels new. I still get excited about it.

AR: I think that’s a great place to leave us off, something to be excited about.