Channeling Engelbart: Augmenting Human Education

Gardner Campbell not only teaches the ideas of Doug Engelbart — the visionary who invented the mouse, hypertext and many more of the digital tools so many people use every day — he understands that Engelbart’s technological attempt to “augment human intellect” also ought to be a central goal of pedagogy. Fortunately, as vice provost for learning innovation and associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, Campbell is in a good position to pursue this goal in practice. If, as Engelbart insisted, digital media should be seen as means of helping individuals and communities think more deeply and solve problems more effectively, then Campbell’s insistence on teaching on the open web rather than in a learning management system underlies the way the web can be a mind-amplifier — for those who know how to use it.

I first delved into Campbell’s work when Jim Groom converted me to the practice of teaching and learning on the open web. When I asked Groom why he insists that students and teachers claim their own domain names, lease their own servers, and set up their own blogs and wikis, he referred me to Campbell’s call for students to build their own “personal cyberinfrastructure:”

So, how might colleges and universities shape curricula to support and inspire the imaginations that students need? Here’s one idea. Suppose that when students matriculate, they are assigned their own web servers — not 1GB folders in the institution’s web space but honest-to-goodness virtualized web servers of the kind available for $7.99 a month from a variety of hosting services, with built-in affordances ranging from database maintenance to web analytics. As part of the first-year orientation, each student would pick a domain name. Over the course of the first year, in a set of lab seminars facilitated by instructional technologists, librarians, and faculty advisors from across the curriculum, students would build out their digital presences in an environment made of the medium of the web itself. They would experiment with server management tools via graphical user interfaces such as cPanel or other commodity equivalents. They would install scripts with one-click installers such as SimpleScripts. They would play with wikis and blogs; they would tinker and begin to assemble a platform to support their publishing, their archiving, their importing and exporting, their internal and external information connections. They would become, in myriad small but important ways, system administrators for their own digital lives. In short, students would build a personal cyber infrastructure, one they would continue to modify and extend throughout their college career — and beyond.

Why be a system administrator for your own digital life? The practical answer is that if you don’t control your digital footprint and your power to influence people through digital media, others will do it for you. The pedagogical answer is that the web is a knowledge platform that requires a portfolio of literacies in order to tap into and contribute to a vast and growing online collective intelligence just as basic alphabetic literacy enables the literate to tap into the written and published knowledge platform contained in books and libraries. The political answer is that technical conflicts over intellectual property, net neutrality, MOOCs, and learning management systems are about whether individuals or institutions will control the power to innovate, influence, learn, and persuade.

Campbell’s proposal for providing low-cost access to web publishing tools was brought to life by Martha Burtis, Jim Groom, and Tim Owens at University of Mary Washington in A Domain of One’s Own, a service that has enabled me and my students — and hundreds of others — to take control of our own domains and install platforms such as WordPress and MediaWiki on our own leased servers. The cost is $25/year — about half the best price I have been able to find or equivalent services — and a lot better than the $7.99 per month it cost in 2009, when Campbell published his call to action. Twenty-five dollars is a fraction of the cost of many of the textbooks students are forced to purchase.

Technology is a servant of pedagogy in Campbell’s view, but he recognizes that mind-amplifying technologies can serve as instruments for the kind of inquiry and reflection that good pedagogy is meant to facilitate. In a keynote lecture on “Ecologies of Yearning and the Future of Open Education,” Campbell dived deeply into this issue and the questions arising from the collision of educational institutions, digital media, and commerce (e.g., MOOCs and LMSs).

Inspired by Campbell’s writing, speaking, and from our collaboration in creating Connected Courses, I asked him a few questions about co-learning, learning on the open web, the meaning of open, and how his Thought Vectors course has put his ideas into practice. I found this 15-minute interview to be one of the most exciting of the 60 interviews I’ve done for DML Central so far — exciting because a vice provost, educator, and teacher of educators groks so fully the challenges and opportunities that life in the digital age has presented to learners and learning institutions.

Banner image credit: Jean-Baptiste LABRUNE