The CUNY Academic Commons: Building the Social University

Matthew Gold talks about the CUNY Academic Commons

Matthew Gold and Boone Gorges, respectively Project Director and Lead Developer for the CUNY Academic Commons, joine us today to discuss creating and maintaining a scholars’ social network using BuddyPress. (We’re currently trying to work towards implementing a similar system as a way of interconnecting the nearly 500 blogs and thousands of posts currently in WordPress.)

CUNY Academic Commons was launched in 2009 with three goals: connect people across campuses, create a space in which faculty members and grad students could create content, and encourage exploration and discovery. Because of the diverse population and geography of the CUNY system, there was an administrative need to create an integrated, connected, networked university. The academic commons grew out of a committee composed of two representatives from each of the colleges (faculty, staff, administrators, graduate students) and was charged with creating an academic technology commons to determine the best practices of teaching with technology.

After much discussion, they determined that they did not want an institutional repository (no social networking!), a perfect taxonomy, a hard sell to potential participants, or traditional model of tech support (hoping for a more do-it-yourself approach). Conversely, they were certain they wanted openness (in the ethos, mode of development, and access), an organic system, and decentralization.

Starting with the capacities already available in WordPress — author-focused, published content (blog posts) and commentary dependent on those posts —Academic Commons grew by adding the BuddyPress plugin, opening up the world of groups, profiles, and a media wiki. Going beyond blogs, forums, and documents, groups link people through profiles (much like Facebook). Groups ranging from focus on academic subjects (such as digital humanities or use of games in the classroom) to social subjects (such as Pizza in New York) have emerged to create powerful interactions on the website. Sorting devices through the News Feed enable filtered content (much like a Twitter feed), allowing users to look at the information sharing around the network most pertinent to individualized interests. The media wiki enables collaborative editing of documents as well as historical and meta-discussions about the site.

Matt and Boone argued that one of the most important features of the growth and functionality of the site is transparency in development and support. Boone emphasized the need to have porous boundaries between users and support at all levels, focusing on regular communication with the community through the “Feedback” tab located on the right side of every page. Primarily, the feedback tab is used to report (and fix) bugs, but it also enables members to suggest content and vote on others’ suggestions (much like Reddit or Digg). While some communication methods have added work, such as Boone’s development blog, some have added community (read: free) assistance, helping to track, edit, and test new developments. Ultimately, all of these functions are meant to incorporate the entire community into the building of the Commons so that users are engaged in creating a warmer community.

One of the missing pieces of the site, however, is the lack of available support for incorporating CUNY’s approximately 250,000 undergraduates. For the future, there is hope that Academic Commons will be able to include not only undergraduates, but also functions to engage content from Blackboard. Furthermore, Matt and Boone are happy (and eager) to talk with other universities interested in pursuing similar efforts — like Yale!

Interested in more?  See Matt and Boone's powerpoint.

For full coverage of this session, please click the video below (note a slight delay upon initial playback):

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