Image of trees in forest Image by Siggy Nowak from Pixabay

Welcome to D3 – Domains, Data, and Democracy: with special thanks to agency, identity, and environment

On May 20th I was invited to speak at St. Norbert College’s D3 – Domains, Data, and Democracy conference and deliver a welcome address. The post that follows is the text I worked from to deliver that address reworked just a bit – the biggest add was the addition of hyperlinks. The slide deck is also embedded in the bottom. Header image credit Siggy Nowak from Pixabay

Before I begin with the welcome address I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the historical memory of the land we are on and its indigenous peoples as well as our responsibility to work towards reconciliation by reading the St. Norbert College Land Acknowledgement.

You may or may not be familiar with this idea of a land acknowledgement. They are much more ubiquitous in Canada where they are often used to start public meetings such as this one but also in smaller meetings, to start the school day, and I’ve even heard that some of the major hockey teams use one before their home games. There is no one land acknowledgement but rather each is crafted to the local area and the native peoples who at one time maintained the predominant culture there. They don’t have to be tied to the subject of the talk, or the hockey game for that matter, but they are offered as a reminder of how we got here so that perhaps we can think about how we want to go forward. In this case, I do think that there is alignment with this talk as I will be addressing issues of democracy, ownership, and environments (though some may be digital) but I wanted to point out that this connection to the subject matter is not needed and I have included the acknowledgement as part of this talk as a remembrance of the this land and its history.

In the spirit of the Norbertine value of stabilitas loci, a deep commitment to the local community, we acknowledge this land as the ancestral home of the Menominee nation, which holds historical, cultural, and sacred significance to the community. We acknowledge the living history and contributions of the indigenous communities that inhabited this land prior to the establishment of St. Norbert College, as well as the sovereign Native American Nations who continue to contribute to the flourishing of our communities

In 2016 I first became acquainted with St. Norbert College through attending and presenting at the T3 conference. T3, like D3, is a shortened version of a longer name. When I presented it was Transformative Teaching Through Technology and I quickly pointed out that was 4 T’s not 3 but I was told the “Through” did not count. I was also told that in previous years it had been Transformative Teaching AND Technology but that the exact meaning of the name was somewhat neblus.  That there were some who saw this as ‘Transformative Teaching’, and Technology. While others thought that the idea of transformation could encompass both teaching and technology I guess as Transformative: Teaching and Technology.

Fast forward a few years to the planning of this year’s conference – I’m horribly late to an online meeting with Martha and Krissy and when I enter the meeting they tell me that in my absence they have been thinking and talking about changing the name of this year’s conference from T3 to D2 – Domains and Data. This is because SNC has in the past year gotten really serious about its commitment to the Domains project and we had been getting some requests for more support around data literacy. I tell them that I love the idea but point out that we have also been having lots of conversations in ITS and Full Spectrum Learning leadership for many years around digital citizenship and communicating to our students about what it means to be good stewards of the web and I suggest D3 – Domains, Data, and Democracy … and it stuck.

As planning progressed, I started to notice that D3 might be having some of the same problems that T3 was having around the name and how it is being interpreted. There were just these subtle things like the way folks were pausing when they said the name like Domains…. Data and Democracy. I think there was a lack of an oxford comma in drafting some of the materials that we were using. There also might have even been some confusion about where to put the “and” like “Domains” and “Data” and “Democracy” but also Domains and “Data and Democracy”.

At some point I brought up that I was noticing these subtle differences and I that I didn’t think that they were wrong but that I saw democracy as being central to both domains and data and that I also saw connections and overlaps between domains and data themselves. So Krissy asked me to come up and give a welcome address to paint a picture of how the name aligns with the conference and to talk about some of these things.

Last year we had Robin DeRosa come to T3 as our keynote speaker and one of the ideas that Robin hit upon that resonated with several people was this idea of bricolage. She contrasted the methods of the engineer with those of the bricoleur saying that an engineer takes brand new materials, lots of measurements, and lots of money to build perfect products. In contrast the bricoleur takes what may seem like disparate parts that already exist and puts them together as a new whole through a process of trying, testing, failing, and playing around.

I see the main themes of Domains, Data, and Democracy as being a list so they are separated by commas and you could even put them into a bulleted list. Each of these D’s are complex realms and we could have a whole conference on any one of them. Each has multiple moving parts, incorporates subjective decision making with a variety of impacts, and each is open to interpretation from outside entities. All of these themes have problems and issues as well as great gifts to give. My hope is that we have put together a conference for you that is flexible enough to allow you to be a bit of a bricoleur with your thinking around these concepts weighing the complex nature of each. I also hope that you will use the themes as a starting place and connect them not only to each other but also to your own interests and contexts in your own work.

It is my hope that by presenting them as a list of things we can encourage participants of the conference to think of them as building blocks. Some of you may want to grab onto one of these and spend the next two days looking at every event and workshop through that lens. While others may only want to concentrate on some particular set of connections like “Data and Democracy” or “Democracy and Domains” or “Domains and Data”. Still even others may want to keep all three in mind and look for the connections between them.

To help demonstrate this I’d like to share with you a bit of my own bricolage or how I see these themes fitting together. I will use three other frames that I think are important to this. As this is a welcome address I’ll also try to weave my thinking with some information about the instructors that we have invited to the conference and snippets from some of the workshops and other events we have lined up.  I want to encourage you to keep in mind what your own bricolage creation looks like as you weave these themes for yourself.

Domains as Agency

D3 is being held as this past year St. Norbert College has made great headway into a centralized domains project with connections to their philosophy of Full Spectrum Learning and the college’s strategic plan. I’m excited to hear a State of Domains address from the Full Spectrum Learning leadership tomorrow to get all the details about how things are going but I also realize that there may still be those in the room who have different levels of understanding around what a domain is and what it means to give one to a student.

Audrey Watters says that giving a domain to a student is a “radical act” but radical acts do not come without risks and complexity. I will point out in my short examination of each of our themes that all of them come with affordances and constraints. I believe the most radical thing that a domain does is encourage and enable agency – the ability for an individual to act independently and make their own choices. Agency is central to democracy but it can be seen as risky in educational environments as students by nature are not as informed and have not had the opportunity to build specialized knowledge. However, education cannot exist in a risk free environment rather it is the job of educators to weigh risks to the student with the opportunity for learning.

Martha Burtis gives us several opportunities over the next two days to look at the complexities around domains as educators from considering the web itself as a subject of study to situating students and student agency in domains pedagogy.  Martha is one of the founders of the Domain of One’s Own movement and has worked to help higher education see how we interact with and support student use of digital environments and technology as more than a transactional exchange and rather an opportunity for truly transformative learning. No  matter if you are new to domains or have a start and are looking to dig in deeper Martha has planned some amazing conversations and collaborations for us.

Data as Identity

A domains project often gets legs as an e-portfolio project. This ties back to showing a student how to create a digital identity but let’s be clear that a domain does a lot more than that. There are plenty of platforms that we could direct students toward which they could use to build a digital identity but when we direct students to use 3rd party platforms we not only teach the student how to create a digital identity we also teach them that it is okay to give that identity data over to a 3rd party without question.

For all of the hype and promises of a better life through data, like all of our themes, data is not without its imperfections. We have been generating, collecting, and analyzing data long before digitization but the digitization of data, especially personally identifiable data, has changed the paradigm for what it means to live in a democracy and no one knows this better than Kris Shaffer. Kris works on matters related to digital disinformation, data ethics, and digital pedagogy and his new book Data versus Democracy: How Big Data Algorithms Shape Opinions and Alter the Course of History, will be published this spring.

He writes in the description for his Data Literacy workshop later today that “Big-data algorithms affect just about everything we do these days: the news we read, the shows we watch, the music we listen to, the students we admit, the mortgage rates we’re offered” he goes on to say that many of the claims around the promise of data is nothing more than a marketing scheme and this workshop will help us to understand the difference. Besides helping us to demystify big data and machine learning Kris also offers us workshops around data privacy, fact checking online, and a cryptoparty.

Democracy as Environment

Democracy is a system of governance for and by the people. Rather than having a monarch or a dictator who makes political decisions for the people – in a Democracy the people gather together to govern themselves or, most likely, to elect representation. It sounds great but then like all of our themes, you guessed it, it gets messy fast – few proclaim it is an flawless system.

Often it is hard to see issues in our environment because we live in it every day and it is easy not see the forest for the trees. Ideas get normalized and we stop questioning things that might have earlier given us pause. Let’s stop for a moment and remember that land acknowledgement that I started this talk with which is a reminder that this land was once held by different people than those who are here now – see there is an assumption in this idea of a democracy for and by the people about who “the people” actually are and who “counts” as “the people”. Those who are not included can fight for greater acceptance but there are always those who see this as a zero sum matter and fight to keep barriers and boundaries high.

Digital tools and technology can be used to transcend and span these boundaries, make short work of some of the oldest and strongest barriers like time and distance, and be used to further justice for society. But it is easy to forget that those digital environments themselves can be problematic and can reinforce threats to our societies and cultures.

Another criticism of democracy goes something like this – if all these people, who are not trained in the ways of governance and who are likely uninformed or ignorant, have an actual say in the running of things, well then things are going to go to pot because uninformed people are calling the shots. Democracy answers this criticism with a call for education and an informed citizenry. My interests, questions, and thinking are around what an informed society looks like in a digital age. What literacies and skills are needed to be informed in such an age and how does that impact who we are as a people?


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