City Tech’s New OpenLab Creates Digital Community to Facilitate Collaboration

The OpenLab team with guest speaker Jim Groom. From left to right: Scott Henkle (community facilitator), Maura Smale (Library, Living Lab project director), Bree Zuckerman (community facilitator), Charlie Edwards (Living Lab project manager), Jody Rosen (English, OpenLab co-director), Jenna Spevack (Advertising Design & Graphic Arts, OpenLab co-director), Elizabeth Alsop (instructional technology fellow), Jim Groom (University of Mary Washington). Photo credit: Alina Melnikova.

Brooklyn, NY: New York City College of Technology (City Tech) recently launched a new digital platform — the City Tech OpenLab ( — designed to enhance teaching, learning and collaboration at the College and create a virtual community for students, faculty and staff.

Unlike closed online education systems, the OpenLab allows everyone at City Tech to communicate with one another across the College, and to share their work with the world on the public Web. It aims to create an environment that encourages collaboration, creativity and experimentation.

But that’s not all. Because students can use the OpenLab for both coursework and extracurricular activities, it gives them access to the college community on a 24/7 basis. “This is especially valuable at a commuter campus like City Tech’s and for students like ours who are balancing family and work commitments with college life,” says Project Director Maura Smale (Library).

Matthew Lawson, a City Tech student, shares his OpenLab experiences. Photo credit: Crystal Huang.

Student Matthew Lawson agrees: “The OpenLab bridges that gap — we don’t live here, but with the OpenLab we can have conversations with our fellow students or professors any time.”

OpenLab members can share information about themselves and their academic interests on their profiles, create and participate in courses, projects and clubs, build electronic portfolios to showcase their achievements and make friendship connections. The openness of the OpenLab encourages collaboration among faculty in different departments on interdisciplinary courses and projects, between students and faculty on research work, and between students, faculty and staff on college committees, to highlight just a few examples.

Professor Marie Montes-Matias (Biology) has been using it for group work as part of a faculty development initiative. “It has really helped us work together,” she says. “We’ve edited documents together online, given one another feedback and shared ideas and resources.”

The OpenLab has been rapidly adopted by the college community, even before its official launch last month. A beta version, released in August 2011, attracted almost 1,000 users by the end of the Fall semester, and the site (now in Version 1.0) currently has over 2,300 members.

Professor Maria Bilello (Dental Hygiene) was an early adopter: “I wasn’t technically savvy but, with the advice of the OpenLab team, had no problems creating my course — and my students have taken to it just as easily.”

The OpenLab is part of a $3.1 million, five-year initiative at City Tech, “A Living Laboratory: Redesigning General Education for a 21st-Century College of Technology,” funded by the U.S.

Department of Education under its Strengthening Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) Title V Program.

In creating the OpenLab, City Tech joins institutions at The City University of New York (CUNY) and elsewhere that are innovating in open education using open-source software. The OpenLab is built using a deep integration of the open-source software platforms WordPress and BuddyPress, and is modeled on similar successful initiatives at CUNY — such as the CUNY Academic Commons, Blogs@Baruch and Macaulay Eportfolios — and at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia and the University of British Columbia, Canada.

The OpenLab development team comprises City Tech faculty, staff, students and alumni, and uses an open and inclusive approach to development: all OpenLab members are actively encouraged to provide input on the site’s functionality. In the future, more members of the community will have the opportunity to participate as programmers, photographers, writers and support.

City Tech’s launch event for the OpenLab featured faculty, students and staff presenting their work and experiences. It also included a presentation by Jim Groom, director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Mary Washington. Groom, recently named one of “12 educational technology innovators” by the Chronicle of Higher Education, spoke about the benefits of open educational platforms like the OpenLab.

“On an open platform,” he told the audience, “you are building, writing and creating for your immediate community and for the world.”

As Provost Bonne August says, “the OpenLab enables students to undertake and represent their learning in multiple, challenging, and illuminating ways. We’re tremendously excited about its potential.”

New York City College of Technology (City Tech)/CUNY is the largest public college of technology in New York State. Located at 300 Jay Street in Downtown Brooklyn, the College enrolls more than 16,000 students in 62 baccalaureate, associate and specialized certificate programs.