Exploring a “Personal Cyberinfrastructure”

Servers

Creative Commons image “flight deck (2)” from Flickr by dѧvid

One of the most robust and interesting thinkers in educational technology today is Gardner Campbell at Virginia Tech. Through one of his recent blog posts I happened upon another article that he wrote for the Educause Review about developing a “personal cyberinfrastructure.” In short, Gardner argues that students should be introduced to “digital citizenship” through the personal management of their own web server. This would allow students to do traditional web things, like blogging and sharing other materials, but it would also allow students to explore the full potential of what Doug Englebart called “augmenting human intellect” through computers. I highly recommend the whole article (and the rest of Gardner’s writing as well), and I think this is a fantastic idea. But I was left with one small sticking point after reading the article: could I, as someone actually working in instructional technology, even set up such a server for myself? How might doing so change the way I thought about the web, especially about the possibilities of the web? The resulting project, described in some detail below, reflects my attempt to set up such a server and to wrestle with the central implications of Gardner’s thesis.

Before I get started, however, it is worth mentioning that while I do have some web development experience, it is limited to HTML and CSS (with a little Jquery just for fun). I am not really a coder, I do not know Javascript, and I have not previously attempted to set up a server by myself. That being said, I am something of a tech geek and I enjoy tackling new challenges, so I felt comfortable at least attempting this project.

Anyway, as this was going to be a test server rather than a production server (for now), I decided to use a product called Wamp to create a virtualized web server on my Windows 7 laptop. This handled the installation of Apache, PHP, and MySQL in a (relatively) straightforward manner. I did have to tweak a few PHP files, but the installs went smoothly otherwise. From there, rather than develop from scratch in HTML, I decided to install Drupal 7, which is a powerful web development framework. I did not have any trouble installing it on the Wamp-based server, and before I knew it I was up and running. I decided on Drupal for a number of reasons:

  1. It is open-source. This obviously means that the code is available for free, but it also means that the project embodies the collaborative and open ethos of the web.
  2. My department uses it fairly extensively, meaning that undertaking this project would also have professional development benefits.
  3. It has a very active developer community. The library of user-contributed modules is enormous (more on this in a moment), and the forums and help documentation probably contain every conceivable question and answer combination for new users.
  4. It is highly extensible and customizable. This was very important for the spirit of the project, as running a pre-packaged website without custom features is exactly the opposite of what I think Gardner was advocating in his article. Not only are there thousands of user-contributed modules that extend the core Drupal framework, but those with the requisite coding chops (or those looking to develop them) can interact directly with the code and contribute their own custom modules back to the user community.

At any rate, with Drupal up and running, I now had a somewhat daunting task ahead of me: actually using it! I had very little familiarity with the interface, so I spent a good deal of time reading the Understanding Drupal introduction. If you’re interested in the concepts underpinning Drupal, it is definitely worth a look. After playing around with it for far too many hours, going back to the documentation, trying out a host of new modules, and building a very basic but extremely functional site, I can now say that I am hooked. I am seriously considering moving my blog from this WordPress-based installation to my own custom Drupal site. The ability to do almost exactly what I want with the site is a feeling of freedom and creativity that really surprised me. It now seems that if I think it I can create it, even without writing a lot of code.

Even more to the point, I think this experience is generalizable beyond the Drupal environment. I didn’t use the words “playing around” lightly; I actually felt like I was playing, albeit with a grown-up set of toys. I tinkered, solved problems, tried new things, and almost completely lost track of time in the process. My experience is what I think Gardner is describing when he uses the word “iterative” with regard to learning: each new partial acquisition of understanding leads one to reassess, rebuild, research, and repeat. Once I understood how one piece worked I could incorporate that piece in a larger context that not only leveraged what I already understood but created something new. I didn’t expect to feel the sense of possibility, the sense of potentiality that I do now. In sum, I heartily agree with Gardner that we should be encouraging the type of learning and creativity that can only come from a process like this. It makes me wonder how this type of learning could be used in other contexts as well, though that discussion will have to wait for another post.

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