The CUNY Academic Commons is an online, academic social network for faculty, staff, and graduate students of the City University of New York (CUNY) system. Designed to foster conversation, collaboration, and connections among the 23 individual colleges that make up the university system, the site, founded in 2009, has quickly grown as a hub for the CUNY community, serving in the process to strengthen a growing group of digital scholars, teachers, and open-source projects at the university.
As stated in the site's Terms of Service, members "seek to use the Academic Commons as a means of fulfilling our highest aspirations for integrating technology into our teaching, learning, and collaborating."
Information silos vs. shareable knowledge
Information can get stuck in Institutional Silos - Image by pSimon - Creative Commons In their case study of the CUNY Academic Commons, published in On the Horizon, (2011) note that, prior to the CUNY Academic Commons, little "cross-campus communication" between like-minded faculty and graduate students existed. CUNY was a "loose federation" of campuses, largely represented by static websites. The need for a university-wide means of sharing knowledge was perceived by CUNY Committee on Academic Technology, and discussions began in early 2008 to find a solution.
Nantel (2010), Kaya (2010), and others have similarly observed how information can easily get stuck in institutional "silos". Social networks, like the CUNY Academic Commons, can "help open communications between departments" and improve knowledge transfer (Nantel). While countering the "prospect of missed connections" was a principal reason why the CUNY Academic Commons was formed, serendipitous discovery became a technological goal. Developers of the site (primarily faculty and graduate students) experimented with social media tools to see how best to connect scholars, while not being too intrusive in their daily lives.
Work began in 2008 to create a repository of "learning objects" which could be easily shared and archived, and which were designed to constantly evolve. The Committee on Academic Technology reached out to the various campuses for ideas, and feedback indicated that the site should be "open and organic" and flexible enough to respond to the diverse needs of the faculty. The first beta version of the site was created in February, 2009, and after much tinkering, CUNY Academic Commons was officially launched in December of the same year. The site has seen "rapid adoption". Membership as of May 2011 is approaching 2000, while the number of blogs on the site is close to 400.
From the very beginning, the site was a "space of open experimentation, open communication, and open sharing." A participatory network encourages "peer-to-peer learning among faculty members" and is "a generative platform" which makes "the professoriate of the largest urban public university system in the world more visible to itself and to a wider public," according to .
In her critique in Yale University s Collaborative Learning Center blog, Kristjiana Gong (2010) finds several ways CUNY Academic Commons is able to build a "social university":
- transparency in development and support
- porous boundaries between users and support at all levels
- regular communication
- users are engaged in creating a warmer community
Since funding did not permit a full-service site, a small team of software developers and community facilitators began to shape the Commons with a "self-service approach" in which faculty and graduate students were largely responsible for building their own sites. An open source model was adopted in which the community as a whole was responsible for testing, defect reporting, and ideas for enhancements.
The CUNY Academic Commons has a strong ethos of giving back to the WordPress and BuddyPress community. Writing for WPMU.org, Siobhan Ambrose (2011) notes that the site has released many significant BuddyPress plug-ins and regularly shares tips and hacks with the BuddyPress network.
More than an LMS
The CUNY Academic Commons is not primarily a Learning Management System (LMS). While popular LMS systems such as Blackboard aim to provide academic course spaces for individual courses within institutions, the Commons is designed to facilitate conversation and collaboration among colleagues both within and between colleges in the system. Because of its do-it-yourself, open-source approach to scholarly communication, the Commons has sometimes been characterized as an alternative to LMS systems. Writing in the ProfHacker blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education, for instance, David Parry (2010) finds that "Blackboard and the other bloated Learning Management Systems" interfere with student learning; Parry writes that the CUNY Academic Commons is "an example of what could be done University wide if the instructors wanted to drop Blackboard and commit to a better solution."
Even though the CUNY Academic Commons is closed to undergraduates, it is still a tool for teaching graduate courses and a hub for sharing pedagological resources. CUNY teaching projects that share the technical architecture, open source ethos, and DIY approach of the Commons include Blogs@Baruch and Eportfolios@Macaulay, and Looking for Whitman.
Many reviews in the current literature point out similarities between the CUNY Academic Commons and Facebook. But as Kaya (2010) contends in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Facebook does not offer the kind of academic interaction that is available with sites such as the CUNY Academic Commons which "mix serious academic work, and connections among working scholars." Indeed, the CUNY Academic Commons emphasizes the "productivity oriented features of social networking" and "collaborative academic work" () that is not generally found in commercial social networks. As Gold (2011) writes in "Beyond Friending: BuddyPress and the Social, Networked, Open-Source Classroom" that students are often reluctant to mix social networks with academic networks. Faculty too, it may be inferred, value distinct, professional networks where they can focus on their scholarship.
Open source technical infrastructure
CUNY Academic Commons is built entirely with open source software: WordPress with Multisite, BuddyPress and MediaWiki. It uses MYSQL as a database and runs under Linux. BuddyPress, a powerful WordPress plug-in which transforms a multi-user WordPress site into a social network, serves as the site's hub. As one of its spokes, MediaWiki is seamlessly integrated into the site and lets users collaborate on projects and build knowledge bases. Users are allowed to create as many blogs and groups as they want. As Lamb & Groom (2011) write in Educause: "the jaw-dropping CUNY Academic Commons seamlessly integrates the open-source ... platforms into an appealing and highly sustainable environment."
Grants and Awards
Commons in a Box
In November, 2011, the CUNY Academic Commons received a $107,500 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to create Commons in a Box, a new open-source project that will help other organizations quickly and easily install and customize their own Commons platforms . Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jennifer Howard notes that the CUNY Academic Commons will first work with the Modern Language Association on a pilot project to create an MLA Commons for its more than 30,000 members to help promote their scholarship.
Sloan-C Award For Effective Practice
At their 5th Annual International Symposium for Emerging Technologies for Online Learning on July 25-27, 2012, the Sloan Consortium presented an award to the CUNY Academic Commons for effective practices in online and blended education. The CUNY Academic Commons: Social Network as Hatchery was one of six winning practices recognized for a number of criteria, including innovation and replicability and the ability to advance the goals of access, learning effectiveness, faculty and student satisfaction, and scalability. 
What members build
CUNY Academic Commons logo
The tag line from the site's brochure - "What will you build?" is a good introduction to the diverse materials posted on the CUNY Academic Commons. The following links provide examples of what is available on the site:
Groups and forums
Sources and further reading
- Kaya, T. (2010). CUNY Social Network Mixes Scholarship With Facebook-Style Friendship - Wired Campus. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/cuny-social-network-mixes-scholarship-with-facebook-style-friendship/27266
- Parry. (2010). WordPress a Better LMS. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/wordpress-a-better-lms/23050
- Degl innocenti, J. (2010, December 20). The 20 Most Outstanding BuddyPress sites of 2010. Retrieved March 25, 2011, from http://buddydress.com/2010/12/the-20-most-outstanding-buddypress-sites-of-2010-by-jerome-degl%E2%80%99innocenti/
- Kaya, T. (2010). New College Social Networks, Unlike Facebook, Foster Academic Interaction. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/New-College-Networks-Unlike/124871/
- Nantel, R. (2010, October 1). Internal Social Networks May Help Break Down Institutional Silos. Retrieved March 21, 2011, from http://www.brandon-hall.com/workplacelearningtoday/?p=12348
- Lamb, B., & Groom, J. (2010). Never Mind the Edupunks; or, The Great Web 2.0 Swindle (EDUCAUSE Review) | EDUCAUSE. July/August 2010, 45(4), 50-58. Retrieved from http://www.educause.edu/EDUCAUSE+Review/EDUCAUSEReviewMagazineVolume45/NeverMindtheEdupunksorTheGreat/209326
- Gold, M. (2011). Beyond Friending: BuddyPress and the Social, Networked, Open-Source Classroom. Learning Through Digital Media Experiments in Technology and Pedagogy. Retrieved from http://learningthroughdigitalmedia.net/beyond-friending-buddypress-and-the-social-networked-open-source-classroom
- Gold, M. (2011). The CUNY Academic Commons announces the Commons in a Box project. Academic Commons News. Retrieved August 4, 2012, from http://news.commons.gc.cuny.edu/2011/11/22/the-cuny-academic-commons-announces-the-commons-in-a-box-project/
- Gold, M., & Otte, G. (2011). The CUNY Academic Commons: fostering faculty use of the social web. On the Horizon, 19(1), 24-32.
- Gong, K. (2011, March 2). The CUNY Academic Commons: Building the Social University. Collaborative Learning Center, Yale University. Retrieved March 19, 2011, from http://clc.yale.edu/2011/03/02/the-cuny-academic-commons-building-the-social-university/
- Ambrose, S. (2011, February 22). 15 Go-To Places for WordPress and BuddyPress News, Tips and Tutorials. WordPress News at WPMU.org. Retrieved June 8, 2011, from http://wpmu.org/15-go-to-places-for-wordpress-and-buddypress-news-tips-and-tutorials/
- Roel, R. (2010, April 1). A Facebook for Faculty. CUNY Matters. April 2010. Retrieved June 8, 2011, from http://www.cuny.edu/news/publications/cunymatters/april2010/facebook-for-faculty.html
- Hanley, L. (2011). Mashing Up the Institution: Teacher as Bricoleur. The Radical Teacher, (90), 9-14. Retrieved June 8, 2011, from http://www.jstor.org/pss/10.5406/radicalteacher.90.0009
- Jones, K. & Farrington, P. (2012). Learning from Libraries Using WordPress: Content-Management System Best Practices and Case Studies. ALA Editions. [Forthcoming] Retrieved June 8, 2011 from http://www.alatechsource.org/taxonomy/term/106/using-wordpress-as-a-library-content-management-system
- Howard, J. (2011). Creating new academic networks with Commons in a Box'. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved August 5, 2012 from http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/creating-new-academic-networks-with-commons-in-a-box/34453