Evolving Interaction

2 pioneering social media websites created at the University keep advancing based on continual interaction between designers and users.

Since the CUNY Academic Commons and OpenLab were designed several years ago, one thing has become clear: They were built to change.

CAC-Logo-Stacked-200px The Academic Commons — a major initiative of the University’s Committee on Academic Technology — was created as a social media website for faculty and graduate students to exchange ideas, collaborate on projects and scholarship, as well as connect with colleagues University-wide.

OpenLab is a digital platform designed to support teaching and learning and strengthen campus life at the New York City College of Technology campus — part of a broad, five-year initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Both are based on a concept of dynamic, democratic change, an online community that is expected to evolve, based on continual interaction between designers and users.

“It’s an iteractive model,” said Jenna Spevack, an associate professor in CityTech’s Advertising Design and Graphic Arts Department and co-director of OpenLab. “It’s organized to grow and change, based on feedback.”

The Academic Commons (http://commons.gc.cuny.edu), which has grown to almost 4,000 members from a few hundred since late 2009, is “increasingly being integrated in life at CUNY,” said Matthew Gold, director of the  Commons and Assistant Professor of English at CityTech. The site now hosts more than 450 groups which span the spectrum of academic life — everything from scholarly roundtables to bikeCUNY, a group for those who bike (or want to bike) to work. “People are using the Commons to connect to each other,” Gold says. “They realize this is a place to share work.”

It is also the place to launch many other places like it. With a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Commons team now offers “The Commons in a Box,” a free, open-source software package that helps other organizations easily install and customize their own Commons platforms. “We’ve already had nearly 3,000 downloads of Commons In a Box,” Gold said. “We’re developing an ecosystem and filling a real niche for a wide range of organizations.”

openlabLogoMeanwhile, CityTech’s OpenLab (http://openlab.citytech.cuny.edu), offers a platform where students, faculty and staff can meet and share their ideas. “It’s an extension of the classroom learning environment,” Spevack said. The site allows students and faculty to share documents and portfolios; create study groups; enhance classes with multi-dimensional texts;  and check in on what’s happening in various classes — without having to log in. Launched about a year ago, it now has almost 6,000 users, with 442 courses and more than 30 campus clubs signed on.

“There’s a need at CUNY for a digital space that fosters increased collaboration and communication,” Spevack said. And while OpenLab presents yet another option in the increasingly crowded field of social media, she’s not worried about user overload. “A huge part of our job is to expose students to the real world,” she said. “You’re going to have to adapt over and over again to different ways of learning.”