Web-Hosting Project Hopes to Help Students Reclaim Digital Destinies

Jim Groom and Tim Owens believe that college students are not being adequately prepared to be good “digital citizens” of the 21st century. Partly to blame, they say, is the prebuilt and prepackaged software that many use to create digital identities or to curate their interests online. Services like Facebook and Tumblr do not allow for online experimentation or for a true understanding of how the Web works, they argue.

Mr. Groom, director of teaching and learning technologies at the University of Mary Washington, and Mr. Owens, an instructional-technology specialist at the Virginia university, recently started a new side project, Reclaim Hosting. The goal is to provide instructors and administrators with a simple way to give students personal domains and Web hosting they can own and control. Mr. Groom and Mr. Owens will set up Web pages for students free of charge.

“Reclaim Hosting came out of a narrative of something we’ve been talking about for a while, which is empowering people to get a space of their own” on the Web, Mr. Owens explained. “Google shut down Reader because they decided not many people used it,” he said, referring to the now-defunct RSS-feed manager. “These services come and go, and there’s a lot of questions about data ownership right now.”

If Facebook disappeared tomorrow, for example, millions of people could lose the online identities they have cultivated for themselves on the site. That’s why Mr. Groom and Mr. Owens say it is essential that people build their own presence online rather than rely on outside services. Although Facebook’s disappearance may be an extreme scenario, many people face the more common problem of discovering that search results for their names do not accurately reflect who they are or how they wish to appear.

Mr. Groom, who was named as a Tech Innovator by The Chronicle in 2012, sees Reclaim Hosting as “distributing the work force and empowering individuals” to learn basic Web skills so they don’t have to rely on corporate services that may or may not exist in the future.

“It’s code or be coded,” he said. “We’re providing a space and platform where people can learn how to code. Understanding conceptually how Web hosting works is an important skill in the 21st century.”

Tech companies, he said, have no interest in giving people an open space they can build on, and would rather “build a software and charge you a monthly fee and not make it open source.” Users who build pages hosted by Reclaim Hosting can do nearly anything they want with them, including installing and experimenting with a wide range of open-source applications, like WordPress or Drupal.

Mr. Groom and Mr. Owens say they hope to give faculty members and students an opportunity to experiment and figure out how the Web works. Last year the duo offered a pilot version, called “Domain of One’s Own,” to Mary Washington students. Students in the pilot used the free domains for a range of purposes, including to create art portfolios and build personal blogs. The administration viewed the project as such a success that all new freshmen will be offered their own domains and Web hosting in the fall semester, Mr. Groom said.

Over the course of the pilot last year, Mr. Groom and Mr. Owens also talked about offering the service to other institutions. A $5,000 grant from the Shuttleworth Foundation will allow instructors elsewhere to sign up for a pilot version of Reclaim Hosting beginning on August 15. Mr. Groom and Mr. Owens say they have already received a number of inquiries about the service, including interest from the Virginia Community College System.

There will be no fee for the Web hosting, thanks to the grant. Educators will simply need to cover the cost of registering the domains, which Mr. Groom and Mr. Owens say comes out to $12 per student. If Reclaim Hosting discovers it has enough demand to continue past the pilot version, they will explore ways to keep it going financially, Mr. Groom said.

“Right now it is an experiment,” he said. “If it gets to the point of a community-run service, we have to figure out how to sustain it as a community.”

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