ATDP and the Internet: Four alumni… four thousand and one stories

An early Internet Classroom website front page, from Summer 1997

Thirteen years is an eternity in internet time. 1996 was the Jurassic era, as far as the online world goes, and that was when ATDP first dipped its toes in the nascent WorldWideWeb. The ATDP website, construction on which began in late 1995 and unveiled before the summer of 1996, was among the first such entities in UC Berkeley’s online space, and a pioneer at the Graduate School of Education. ATDP—a program within the GSE—had a website even before its host school did.

Also in 1996, The Internet Classroom (TIC) was a summer course offering for the first time at ATDP, a unique new class on web design and online culture that proved to be far ahead of its time.

Starting that summer, ATDP and TIC students delved deeply into the online world, long before websites and online services we nowadays consider internet institutions, existed: Yahoo, Google, eBay, Craigslist, Safari, Firefox, Amazon, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, et al. Back then, the web browsers we used in TIC were the quaint (now long-gone) Mosaic, and the fledgling Netscape. TIC students started publishing online journals long before blogging was even a gleam in some web developer’s eye. In effect, those students were literally part of a technological revolutionary vanguard that would utterly transform the world, from the late ’90s through the early years of the new century.

Every summer since then, numerous students at ATDP have taken TIC as the internet and online world has become normative for their generation. For young people these days, going online and using digital technology is as routine—maybe even as vital—as breathing oxygen. Their lives are mediated by computers and computing, almost literally from the moment they are born.

Fast forward to today, and a look at four ATDP and TIC alumni, in whose stories are encapsulated the kind of cultural and technological moments that define an era. It’s basically a story of how the internet has become part and parcel of the lives of young people these days and, specifically, the role that ATDP and TIC played in that process.

ATDP-IMAGEAlison Eeds was a student in the second Internet Classroom, in 1997. She was so captivated by the potential of the internet that she came back the following summer and became a Teacher’s Assistant. Alison went on to obtain her BA and MA degrees at UC Davis, then started teaching social science at Vacaville High School in 2005. After just four years as a teacher, she was selected as the 2009 Solano County Teacher of the Year. She was hailed by Vacaville USD superintendent John Aycock as “a wonderful example of that ‘next generation’ teacher who is infusing technology into her lessons” and, in an e-mail to me Alison’s mom wrote, “You will note that she is really into technology—and I think that started at ATDP and the web class she had with you! She even does video podcasts for her students to study for tests.”

Cynthia Nie took the Advanced Internet Classroom in 2000, and not only became a Teacher’s Assistant the following summer but took the reins as its lead instructor in 2006, while she was an undergraduate at UC San Diego, and continues to teach the class to this day. Cynthia received a degree in Interdisciplinary Computing and the Arts from UCSD, and is currently working on her Master of Fine Arts degree at USC’s renowned Interactive Media Division. Her master’s thesis project, titled Schism, is a fascinating massively multiplayer online game that, unlike most MMOs these days, “refocuses the player’s experience away from the individual and onto the team [and…] Whereas most multiplayer games will reward group effort with individual rewards, Schism seeks to reward individual efforts with group rewards.”

In a marvelous lobbying coup, UC Merced’s inaugural graduating class got First Lady Michelle Obama to speak at their commencement on Saturday, May 16th. Graduating senior Daniel Hunter (TIC ’00 and AIC ’01) was an instrumental part of the grassroots student effort to get Mrs. Obama to consider giving her only commencement speech of the year at their UC campus. That campaign took place online with YouTube videos made by the graduates, and thousands of heartfelt e-mails to Michelle. Through nine years of middle school, ATDP, high school and college, Daniel maintained a strong relationship with mentors at ATDP, one mediated by our online tools and spaces. In the graduation invitation sent me by the Psychology/Neuroscience major, he handwrote “To my very first class instructor at a UC campus.”

Shawn McDonald (AIC ’02) also just graduated this spring, with a degree in Political Science from Johns Hopkins University. In a weblog post entitled “How I’ve grown and an exploration of the internet and culture,” he wrote: “I think community can be enhanced by digital components, but you need a place in order to have a center. … My ATDP experience has been enhanced from digital interaction, but it only works because ATDP exists within a physical location and TIC in particular has continuity in location. JHU lacks community because there is no place for people to congregate.” Over the years of his continued involvement in ATDP and its online communities, Shawn has brought his political acumen and creative energies to bear on the project of re-envisioning how society works.

These short paragraphs on these four individuals are mere pixels in the larger canvases of their young lives… but ones I paint here in this pointillist way so as to suggest a meaningful thing they have in common—from their beginnings as ATDP students fascinated by the potential of the internet to shape culture at large, they have gone on separate paths but have shared common aspects of the journey: they have made technology merely the tool, not the purpose; they have used the online world as a medium, not as the destination.

Alison’s, Cynthia’s, Daniel’s and Shawn’s storylines touch and intersect with a thousand and one other stories—of their own students, their classmates, professors, colleagues, all the members of their varied and disparate communities. In doing so, the threads that they created or picked up at ATDP and the Internet Classroom during their years here continue to be woven into the tapestry of American culture at large in the 21st century, with the internet as the loom. The stories they continue to live, and to tell, sustain and inspire many of us as we journey alongside them.