Open Software Jumpstarts Academic Communities

The CUNY Commons in a Box software offers campuses a simple way to create academic social networks.

by / December 19, 2012 0

More than 60 campuses and groups expressed interest in open software for academic communities. Now a team from the City University of New York (CUNY) Academic Commons has made it a reality.

Universities and other organizations have access at no charge to the Commons in a Box software, which allows them to easily install and manage community sites for faculty, staff, administrators and students. It runs on WordPress and a plug-in for WordPress called BuddyPress.

BuddyPress presents a high barrier of entry for many people, especially small university staff. When in-house developers built CUNY Academic Commons in 2009, they had to manually code interactions between the plug-ins.

"When you build your own network, it's meant to be very customizable and very flexible," said Boone B. Gorges, lead developer of CUNY Academic Commons. "But with that kind of customizability comes a certain amount of complexity that was a barrier for a lot of people."

With a $107, 500 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, developers made the Commons in a Box software easier to install. And it's designed to make learning communities accessible for organizations that don't have the staff or funding to design their own communities.

An installation manager guides users through the steps to get their site up and running. And it won't let anyone deactivate one thing if that deactivation will break something else that's activated.

A few years ago, Gorges wrote a plug-in called BuddyPress Docs, which allows users to collaboratively edit documents on a BuddyPress installation. He modified it for the Commons in a Box project so that it looked more like a wiki. Users can see a full revision history, set different kinds of permissions for document editing, and include tags and categories. 

One of the early coding victories for the project was a single sign-on for WordPress and the wiki powered by WordPress, said Matthew K. Gold, director of the CUNY Academic Commons, as well as advisor to the provost for Master's Programs & Digital Initiatives and assistant English professor at the New York City College of Technology. And that victory has been shared back with the WordPress community.

The software code published throughout the project on git.hub, a social sharing space for code developers. And in January, the Modern Language Association will pilot a new MLA Commons based on the Commons in a Box platform.

"What we're offering is a way for communities to really own their own data and their own spaces and to be in control of them, which we think is a pretty important move for higher education," Gold said.

Because this software does not come with a price tag for users, others can build upon it, Gold said. The CUNY Academic Commons team created the framework, and now it's ready for the community to modify, remix and share their improvements with everyone else.

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.