The CUNY Academic Commons: Social Network as Hatchery

Award Winner: 
2012 Sloan-C Effective Practice Award
Student-Generated Content
Author Information
George Otte, University Director of Academic Technology, CUNY
Matt Gold, Project Director, CUNY Academic Commons
Boone Gorges, Lead Developer, CUNY Academic Commons
Michael Smith, Outreach Coordinator, CUNY Academic Commons
Chris Stein, User Experience Designer, CUNY Academic Commons
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
The City University of New York
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

The City University of New York (CUNY), the world’s largest urban public university, serves over half a million students (272,000 degree students and 280,000 continuing ed/certificate students) at twenty-three colleges spread throughout the five boroughs of New York. The CUNY Academic Commons was created to respond to challenges posed by rapid enrollment growth and faculty turnover, but also to promote cohesion and collaboration around academic uses of technology. Released only a little over two years ago but already with several thousand members, the Commons has created a collaborative environment for interaction and mutual support around online and blended learning, open access publication, digital scholarship, and technology-enhanced instruction. Built on open-source software and overseen by a dedicated team of developers and facilitators, it evolves in response to its users and their interests, while helping them discover the extent to which those interests are shared, productive, and worth developing further. Its developers are now, with the support of a Sloan grant, working on the Commons In A Box – a means of replicating the project elsewhere, with maximum ease and minimum expense.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

In recent years, enrollment growth has brought tens of thousands of new students each year to CUNY, placing significant expectations on online and blended learning, not as distance education, but as a way of preserving access to the public that CUNY serves. Enrollment growth, along with turnover, has also fueled extensive faculty hiring for the last decade. Even if newer and younger faculty had not brought with them interests in academic uses of technology (and at some CUNY campuses they can represent as much as 50% of the full-time faculty), such changes were reaching the older faculty, sparked by student interest as well as administrative interest in such trends. Without an integrative network of communication and collaboration, such changes could be more centrifugal than centripetal in effect, with each campus and each department taking its own approach to incorporating technology into its workflow.

The challenge facing this vast system has been to preserve and highlight innovation while consolidating efforts and practices around academic uses of technology, particularly work with online and hybrid courses, eportfolios, educational gaming, and work with digital media. The CUNY Academic Commons has proven our best means of answering that challenge. Now with extensive resources situated (and constantly updated) in the Commons Wiki as well as hundreds of discussion groups and individual and collective blogs, this academic social network provides possibilities for interaction and the sharing of resources to promote greater adoption and application of academic uses of technology, and does so by shared models, not top-down mandates.

Launched in December 2009, the CUNY Academic Commons has grown to over 350 groups, 600 blogs, and nearly 3000 members. After several version upgrades and significant modifications -- email “push” notifications of posts, ways of collaborating on (and not simply sharing) documents, and so on, the development team is focusing work on replication and extension of this specific Commons instance through the “Commons In A Box” project (for which description and references are provided below).

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

The CUNY Academic Commons is widely viewed as one of the most effective open-source academic social networks in the country. Only a few years old, it has been profiled in the Chronicle of Higher Education and praised in publications including EDUCAUSE Quarterly, Radical Teacher, On the Horizon, and Library Technology Reports. (See “Commons Buzz” for a complete list of such coverage.) Its leadership team has been invited to make presentations about the project at Yale University, Teachers College of Columbia University, and Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH), and has consulted on building similar networks with a number of institutions including Georgetown University, the State University of New York, Temple University, the New York City Mayor’s Office, and Arizona State University.

The most dramatic evidence of the effectiveness of the Commons has come in the form of a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to the development team for a project called the Commons In A Box – a way of literally packaging the replication of such a network. (See the Commons News blog entry on the Commons In A Box for a full account of project.) As noted in the coverage given the grant in the Chronicle of Higher Educationthe pilot project for the Commons In a Box will be the development of an “MLA Commons” for the Modern Language Association, the single largest academic professional organization.

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

The practice relates most powerfully to the Scale pillar. The CUNY Academic Commons gives visibility and reach to practices that would otherwise be localized and disconnected (what some call “random acts of innovation”). At a multi-campus system like CUNY, it makes campus efforts in eportfolio use or online instruction or faculty development for blended learning synergistic, and prevents each campus or program from “reinventing the wheel.”

The Commons has become a vibrant and crucial hub of connection for a university that has too often seemed a collection individual colleges rather than a single institution, offering a compelling vision of a social, connected university system that has successfully fostered an integrated community of members from multiple institutions. It has also galvanized open-source development at CUNY, promoting connections among like-minded projects and enabling cross-campus collaboration at the level of infrastructure and development as well as new forms of scholarly communication.

The development and recognition of the Commons In A Box project shows that this is indeed a practice that can “scale” (to use the pillar name as a verb). The developers are dedicated to openness, open source software, open standards, and open development, encouraging and facilitating replication, both within CUNY (where projects based on the Commons support University-wide initiatives and even refereed journals) and beyond (as in the partnership with the MLA).

Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

The CUNY Academic Commons uses WordPress as both the blogging tool and backbone for user data on the site; BuddyPress, a social-networking layer for WordPress, as a space for individual profiles and groups; BbPress, a discussion-board tool (later integrated into BuddyPress) as a forum tool for groups; and MediaWiki as the platform behind a public wiki that would contain best-practices documentation. An early and important development was the creation of a single sign-in system for WordPress and MediaWiki. (Since the development team immediately made this innovative code public, the single-sign on system was utilized rapidly on both academic and non-academic websites, enabling other communities to add collaborative wikis to their blogging systems.)


The CUNY Academic Commons (like its progeny, the Commons In A Box) is essentially a software project, but an initial investment of $200,000 in a virtual server array was made at CUNY’s Graduate School and University Center to ensure what is effectively unlimited server space for the project.

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

See above. Beyond that investment in server space, the CUNY Academic Commons runs on open-source software and people power, which is to say that the only monetary investments it requires to keep going are in personnel. Oversight is almost entirely faculty: the Project Director (Matthew K. Gold), the User Experience Designer (Christopher Stein), and the Outreach Coordinator (Michael Branson Smith) are all faculty, and the Lead Developer (Boone Gorges) is a former CUNY doctoral student (Philosophy, ABD) who is now an independent software developer. Most of the compensation to overseeing faculty comes as reassigned time. Some part-time community facilitators are paid as non-teaching adjuncts to provide user support and some push-out via social media (through Twitter, Facebook, and the like). These personnel costs run about $100,000 total per academic year.

Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
George Otte
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Effective Practice Contact 2: 
Matt Gold
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Effective Practice Contact 3: 
Boone Gorges
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