A Facebook for Faculty


Some call it "a hive." Others describe it as a "Facebook for Faculty." Whatever metaphor you use, the University's new Academic Commons website is offering faculty, administrators and graduate students a fresh and sometimes surprising approach to solving problems, collaborating on projects and advancing scholarship - centered on the latest social-networking tools.

The Commons - a major initiative of the University's Committee on Academic Technology - offers blogs, wikis, groups, forums and "wires" (think Facebook's Wall) that are specifically designed to promote a free-flowing exchange of knowledge among colleagues across the University.

"It's a very democratic, non-hierarchical environment," says George Otte, who chairs the committee and is also University Director of Academic Technology. "It's a gathering place for academics to get out of their 'silos' and talk to each other."

The Commons (http://commons.gc.-cuny.edu) is among a host of social media websites that have proliferated in recent years, led by mega-sites like Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and Twitter. But there are several aspects that distinguish the Commons from other sites, notes Matthew Gold, who serves as director of the Academic Commons and is assistant professor of English at New York City College of Technology.

"When you do work on the commons, you are doing work within the University community," says Gold. "It provides an easy way to let people know what you're doing and be connected in ways that you're not in other places, like random blogs." When members of the site list their academic interests on their profile, adds Gold, they can find other members who have similar interests - and reach out to them as "friends."

This "serendipitous" quality to the site can lead to useful, albeit unexpected, connections, Gold and others say. Any member can form a networking group around a project, event or interest, so the Commons' roughly 90 groups range widely: everything from the University Women's Councils and ePortfolios, to digital media studies and Hispanic/Brazilian literature. There are more than a dozen groups focusing on different components of the New Community College Initiative - even a group called CUNY Pie, for "CUNYites who love pizza" and want to join colleagues in pizza-of-month excursions around the city.

Unlike many networking websites, the Commons also is designed to be "organic," says Gold, using an "open source platform that enables people to shape their needs. We're trying to empower members of the site to create what they want to create."

"We've tried to build a site so its uses were not predetermined," adds Boone Gorges, an instructional technologist at Queens College and the lead technical expert for the Academic Commons. At the same time, this brand of social networking focuses on offering "a multifaceted approach to community-building" at CUNY, Gold says. There's almost an interactive 3-D quality to the site, like a beehive that provides many ways of entering and connecting. The result, says Otte: "You get activity and honey."

While the Academic Commons began as a twinkle in the Committee on Academic Technology's eye several years ago, it is part of a growing trend of academic collaboration. For example, the new Advanced Science Research Center, a high-end facility at the City College campus, has been designed to spur both formal and informal collaboration among researchers in multidisciplinary areas such as nanotechnology and neurosciences. And at the University's supercomputing facilities at the College of Staten Island and several other campuses, teams of scientists are sharing two National Science Foundation grants to create new computer architectural designs such as fine-scale graphic models of the heart, aimed at solving complex research problems.

"Collaboration has taken off," says Michael Kress, vice president for Technology Systems at the College of Staten Island. Scientists also use a technical wiki to share expertise about using the computers, says Kress, and occasionally get together for face-to-face sessions. In addition, Kress has seen nursing doctoral faculty use groups in the Academic Commons to share documents and participate in research projects. "I was impressed with the user-friendliness of it," he says. "This technology-based networking is an absolutely great opportunity to collaborate."

At other campuses, too, faculty are using online networking to pursue scholarship. Wabash College in Indiana, for instance, also has created a community known as the college's Academic Commons, composed of faculty, librarians, technologists and administrators. The Commons (http://www.academiccommons.org/) is a web-based resource as well as a publication designed to share knowledge and disseminate innovative digital tools that can improve, even transform, the teaching and learning of liberal arts education.

But at CUNY, the Commons has not simply focused on discussions of how technology can advance educational practices. The Academic Commons, itself, is experimenting with the use of tools of social media to spur teaching and learning that might not occur without it.

"What's special about the Commons is that it has the potential for relationships to be used for scholarship," says Gorges, who is also a philosophy graduate student at Queens College. It allows for more casual, informal ways to find out about each other: "It's like unbuttoning your top button" at a social gathering.

Indeed, the CUNY Commons was recently cited by digital humanities scholar Dan Cohen at George Mason University as an example of a leading wave of academic social networking websites. In a presentation at the University of Mary Washington entitled the "Future of the Digital University," Cohen noted the signature elements of websites like the Commons: "openness, do-it-yourself cul-ture, decentralization and collaboration." So far, the CUNY Academic Commons, which officially launched late last year, has about 700 members. (To become a member, faculty, administrators and graduate students need a CUNY.edu log-in. The site can't currently support undergraduate membership.) When you sign up, the first thing you do is create your own profile. Then you can find out what other members are from your campus and start connecting with others as "friends," similar to the way people connect on Facebook.

Gold acknowledges that some faculty have been hesitant to embrace social networking and "friend" their colleagues. With people making connections in multiple social-media sites, they say, what does "friendship" actually mean these days? "Some people may not want to add 'friends,' but they want connections," Gold says. "Maybe friendship will start a connection that will lead to working on something together."

Other people have raised issues about the privacy of conversations among members or groups. "We're open by default," Gold says, "but there are various levels of privacy." There are five levels of privacy for blogs and three levels of privacy for groups, including "hidden," which means they're not listed publicly anywhere on the site. The wikis, however, remain public. Essentially, the Commons is intended to be a public space, Gold says. "It's very much in line with the goals of the University. We're conducting public education publicly."

Right now, the primary form of collaboration on the site is through its groups. For example, "New Community College Initiative" has a private group that is working on a model for the Center for College Effectiveness. "We're rethinking the way community college students are taught," says Toni Gifford, coadministrator of the group. "The Commons is a new way for people to build on each other's ideas. The chair [of an online meeting] poses a question; people post their comments; then you have a dialogue. It becomes a means of moving forward. You can't accomplish that with only real-time meetings."

In the CUNY-wide Composition and Rhetoric groups, faculty and graduate students engage in "reflective discussions" about how writing is taught and learned, says Benjamin Miller, co-administrator of the graduate student group. "It's been an area of study since the 1960s," Miller says, and while people have long been keeping track of scholarship in that field, the group has created an online annotated bibliography. "The list was being compiled before the Commons existed, but now we have a URL," he says. "This is something happening at the University and it can be used as a promotional and recruitment tool."

As social-media sites evolve, the Academic Commons also is expected to adapt to new applications and needs of CUNY users, Gold and others say. The University has been in the forefront of using "pretty young" open-source social-networking software, known as BuddyPress, Gold says. That has provided many opportunities to develop customized features for the Commons which, in turn, have been freely shared with the digital world outside the University. "We've become known as an active development hub for open-source software," Gold says.

The Academic Commons will never replace face-to-face relationships, but it is "an added tissue of connection," says Otte. Eventually, he sees the Commons being adapted for more "campus-specific" purposes. "The CUNY Academic Commons," he says, "may become the mother ship for campuses to create their own commons."

Teleporting With Student Avatars


Over the last few years, millions of college undergraduates have signed up for Facebook and MySpace, the popular social media websites. But like many Web phenomena, large online networks often splinter into local groups that serve the needs of more specific communities.

At CUNY, for example, a group of students at City College recently launched a social-networking site called InYourClass.com. Founded by Arber Ruci, a senior management major, InYourClass offers bulletin boards for most of the 23 colleges and professional schools where members can post and reply to messages in 16 categories, including activities and events, tutoring, jobs, research opportunities, book exchange and "couch crashing" - where students can "find out where the fun is."

Ruci began working on the concept of InYourClass a year ago, when he participated in one of the initiatives of the CUNY Leadership Academy. He describes the website as a combination of "Craigslist and a more sociable Blackboard," which allows students to connect with their classmates, not just access information about their classes. The site, which launched earlier this year with the support of CCNY President Robert E. Paaswell, currently has more than 300 members.

Meanwhile, at the New York City College of Technology, other groups of students have been creating their own social networks within the huge virtual world of Second Life (www.secondlife.com). Launched by Linden Lab in 2003, Second Life enables its 9 million users ("residents") to interact with each other through online alter egos, called avatars, that can socialize, participate in individual and group projects, build virtual environments and "teleport" to different places created by other residents and institutions.

City Tech purchased an island on the site (at a cost is $1,000, plus $150 per month leasing fee), where students from several classes have collaborated on projects using 3-dimensional modeling tools and "scripts" that can control the behavior and functions of virtual objects. Students not only work with City Tech classmates, but can talk to other residents of Second Life to gain resources and knowledge about how to do things on the site.

"I saw social networking as a great tool for modeling 3-D environments," says City Tech Entertainment Technology professor David Smith, who introduced the college to Second Life. In addition to Smith, other City Tech faculty using Second Life in their classes are Isaac Barjis and Walied Samarrai (biological sciences); Reneta Lansiquot (English) and Jenna Spevack (entertainment technology).

So far, students have created an eclectic assemblage of projects on City Tech Island, including a museum that houses photos of artwork created by the "Brooklyn is Watching" Project. (You can do a video walkthrough of the museum on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=GCHY3N4OrCo.) Students from several disciplines are involved in the 3-D biology tour, where avatars can "ride" through a cell, taking on the identity of various organelles. By learning to identify with an organelle, people can then figure out what it needs to do when things get stuck in the cell's biochemical process.

As technology becomes "more immersive," Smith says, "we're seeing really major changes, from a 2-dimensional to a 3-dimensional web. We're leaving the classroom completely behind and moving into space, exploring what we can do with it."