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.75 Weeks into A Domain of One’s Own

We’re not quite a week into the start of the semester at UMW, but I thought I’d take a moment to reflect upon the launch of A Domain of One’s Own — as much to record for myself some lessons I’ve learned over the last few days.

  • We started the week with a presentation on Sunday to which all UMW freshmen were invited. If I had to guess, I’d say we had between 300-500 students in the auditorium out of  class of between 900-1000. Given that the session wasn’t billed as “mandatory” and it was a GLORIOUS day in Fredericksburg on Sunday, I figure that isn’t too bad.Overall, I think it went well. We did a show back in 2007 and 2008 for incoming freshman about social media, and we followed a similar approach: keep it as entertaining as possible, give away prizes, and sneak some good and useful information in when you can.Somewhere, I think there’s a video, but I’m not sure it’s been posted.The most fun part of the show (as was the case in 2007 and 2008) was a game show we ran called “A Domain is Right.” It comes complete with Jim Groom as the Pat Sajak-like host and Andy Rush (in a tux, no less) as a the guy who voices over all the prizes and introductions. The students had to answer a series of questions about social media, the internet, etc — and we made them run around like crazy as they lined up under their answers of choice. It was fun. (I think).
  • I, of course, had high hopes that we would see a surge of students registering just as soon as they got back to their dorm rooms that evening (after a full day of  mandatory programming following our show). I mean, what else could 1000 brand-new freshmen have to do the night before classes started on a lovely, cloudless Virginia evening? Alas, this didn’t happen. I was feeling a bit discouraged until we unearthed some technical issues that were getting in the way (more on this below).We’ve had a lot of frank conversations in DTLT over the last several months about our expectations for this project. And, I think we’re all in agreement that we need to grow A Domain of One’s Own just like everything else we’ve nurtured over the years — organically and naturally. We need to plant lots of seeds in the minds of students, work closely and creatively with faculty who are interested in the initiative, and stand back to watch things grow.This can be hard. It’s human nature to want to *engineer* such things — line things up just so, flip the switch, and then magically watch everything you ever dreamed of happen. Or, *require* people to participate and then, oh!, how your numbers will grow!But, our experiences have taught us that this isn’t the way to win the hearts and minds of those around you — and it isn’t the way to enact true cultural shift. And, in many ways, what we are offering people at UMW (and, consequently, expecting them to engage with), really requires a kind of cultural shift.We have, I think, laid some great groundwork for this shift. I believe that we can grow something wonderful on top of it.
  • When I got into work Monday, we didn’t have a single registration. I was bummed.Luckily, we started to do some digging and we discovered several students had actually begun the process (the first step is to set a password for their client account), but had not gotten any further. Thinking this was suspicious, I contacted our network group and asked them to check if the emails that were being sent to students (they have to receive an email and click a link to verify their identity in order to set their password) were being delivered.It didn’t take long to discover the answer was no.Our students receive email via Microsoft’s 365 product (a hosted email solution), and it was obvious that for some reason messages from the Domain of One’s Own Server weren’t being delivered at all. We had been blacklisted by Microsoft. Yes, MS — and I’m sure other “cloud” based email systems — maintain a blacklist that doesn’t just mark messages as SPAM and put them in a “Junk” folder. It actually prevents the messages from being delivered. At. All.Now, here’s where I admit that I SCREWED UP. I had tested the signup process backwards and forwards, but the one pieces that was a “black box” for me was the actual student emails. Faculty are on a different email system, so I was never able to actually go through the process from start to end as a student — using student email. I should have asked for a student email account! I assumed I wouldn’t be able to get one, so I didn’t ask. THIS WAS DUMB. I have since asked, and guess what? No problem — our IT staff created one for me within minutes. Oh, hindsight.

    So I knew the student email part of this was the one thing I hadn’t tested and I WAS nervous about it. But, the worst thing I thought would happen was that emails would go into students’ Junk folders. We’ve had this happen with UMW Blogs email in the past, and, while it’s frustrating, it’s not insurmountable. You just have to make sure you provide clear instructions to students about where to check for the message.

    I never thought — in a million years — that our email would just get blocked. Period. Again: hindsight.

    Once we realized what was going on, our fantastic IT staff were very helpful and did what they could to immediately “whitelist” our server with MS, but there was no telling how long this process would take.

    By Monday night, I was pulling my hair out. I could see students attempting to start the process in our log files, and not getting anywhere. I felt like we had failed before we’d even left the gate.

    Luckily, that night I discovered that WHMCS (the client management system we’re using), allows you to route system emails through an SMTP server. We were able to setup an email account on a different server (one that ISN’T blacklisted), and messages started going out.

  • Before I went to bed on Monday night, I sent an email to all the students who had tried (and failed) to signup since Sunday, explaining the situation, apologizing profusely, and inviting them to try again.One student wrote me back and said she had tried again to set her password by clicking the link in the validation email, and received a strange error that her request couldn’t be completed because of “security reasons or because [her] session timed out.”I thought that was odd but figured that perhaps she had clicked a link from an older verification email (links expire after 2 hours), and asked her to try again.Meanwhile, on Monday and Tuesday, we began to have complaints from students trying to signing up on UMW Blogs that the links in the verification emails they were getting weren’t working. Tim had just completed a migration of UMW Blogs on the weekend, and we had run into some caching problems. We thought that might be the issue.It took until late morning/mid-day on Tuesday before we realized the problems were related. Sure enough, our student email system (again Microsoft 365) was somehow breaking these links. Apparently, when you retrieve your Microsoft email, the system runs any links in messages through a filter that is meant to protect your privacy. Honestly, I don’t understand how it works or why it’s there — but it is. Usually, this process is transparent. But, for some reason, the links from both of our systems? They’re borked.

    We quickly edited the templates in both systems that generate the messages to instruct users to copy and paste the links into their browser windows. And, by copy and paste, we don’t mean right-click, select “Copy Link Address.” No, you must use your mouse to select the text and then click Ctrl+C. Otherwise, you end up copying the borked link. Ugh.

  • So, where does that leave us?First, the good news: As of about 11:00 this morning, our server is no longer blacklisted by Microsoft. We no longer have to rely on the SMTP re-reoute to send messages. This is VERY good news, because in addition to interrupting the delivery of messages out of our sign-up system, the problem was going to interrupt ANY messages being sent to students from ANY system on the server (including, say, messages from any new applications they installed).So, Yay!We’re still waiting to resolve the link issues with Microsoft. I’m crossing my fingers the fix is around the corner.Students are signing up! They’re coming in slowly but surely. Today, I sent out a reminder email to all of our freshman. And, we’re already thinking through more ways to reach out to students and build awareness about the project.

    Whew. I barely made it through all of that, so if you did? Kudos.