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CUNY Academic Commons

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Subject: City University of New York, Education in New York City, Community development, Community building, Social networking services
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CUNY Academic Commons

CUNY Academic Commons
Website CUNY Academic Commons

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 24 [1] individual colleges that make up the university system,[2] 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
In their case study of the CUNY Academic Commons, published in On the Horizon, Gold & Otte (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.[3]


Work began in 2008 to create a [4] 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 Gold & Otte.

In her critique in Yale University’s Collaborative Learning Center blog,[5] 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.[6] 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, 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.

Facebook comparisons

Many reviews in the current literature[7][8][9][10] 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" (Gold & Otte) 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 [11] 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.[12]

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.”[13]

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:

Personal blogs

  • Helldriver's Pit Stop
  • Turf Walls
  • Tony's Thoughts
  • Open Access at CUNY

Group blogs

  • CUNY Hybrid Initiative: Established in November 2012 as an open resource to help faculty, instructional designers, and administrators in creating, teaching, and supporting hybrid courses.[14]
  • A Living Laboratory: General Education Seminars at City Tech
  • Queens College Graduate School of Library and Information Studies
  • Open Access Week 2010
  • CUNY Pie - A Pizza blog for CUNY Geeks

Groups and forums

  • E-Books in the Libraries
  • Math Matters
  • e-Portfolios
  • New Media Lab
  • Creative Commons and Copyright: Resources for the Teaching Faculty

Program Community Pages

  • Philosophy
  • Anthropology
  • Graduate Center Music Program Community Portal
  • Urban Education Graduate Commons

Wiki pages

  • The CUNY Digital Humanities Resource Guide
  • Resources for Teaching and Learning with Technology
  • CUNY on iTunes U
  • Information Literacy Resources at CUNY
  • e-Portfolios at CUNY

See also

Sources and further reading

  • Kaya, T. (2010). CUNY Social Network Mixes Scholarship With Facebook-Style Friendship - Wired Campus. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from
  • Parry. (2010). WordPress a Better LMS. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from
  • Deglʼinnocenti, J. (2010, December 20). The 20 Most Outstanding BuddyPress sites of 2010. Retrieved March 25, 2011, from
  • Kaya, T. (2010). New College Social Networks, Unlike Facebook, Foster Academic Interaction. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from
  • Nantel, R. (2010, October 1). Internal Social Networks May Help Break Down Institutional Silos. Retrieved March 21, 2011, from
  • 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
  • Gold, M. (2011).  Beyond Friending: BuddyPress and the Social, Networked, Open-Source Classroom. Learning Through Digital Media Experiments in Technology and Pedagogy. Retrieved from
  • Gold, M. (2011). The CUNY Academic Commons announces the Commons in a Box project. Academic Commons News. Retrieved August 4, 2012, from
  • Gold, M., & Otte, G. (2011). The CUNY Academic Commons: fostering faculty use of the social web. On the Horizon, 19(1), 24-32.[1] doi:10.1108/10748121111107681
  • Gong, K. (2011, March 2). The CUNY Academic Commons: Building the Social University. Collaborative Learning Center, Yale University. Retrieved March 19, 2011, from
  • Ambrose, S. (2011, February 22). 15 Go-To Places for WordPress and BuddyPress News, Tips and Tutorials. WordPress News at Retrieved June 8, 2011, from
  • Roel, R. (2010, April 1). A Facebook for Faculty. CUNY Matters. April 2010. Retrieved June 8, 2011, from
  • Hanley, L. (2011). Mashing Up the Institution: Teacher as Bricoleur. The Radical Teacher, (90), 9-14. Retrieved June 8, 2011, from
  • 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
  • Howard, J. (2011). Creating new academic networks with ‘Commons in a Box'. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved August 5, 2012 from


  1. ^ [2], CUNY about 2012
  2. ^ Kaya, 2010
  3. ^ Gold & Otte
  4. ^ Gold & Otte
  5. ^ Kristjiana Gong
  6. ^ Gold & Otte
  7. ^ Gong, 2010
  8. ^ Lamb & Groom, 2011
  9. ^ Kaya, 2010
  10. ^ Roel, 2010
  11. ^ Gold, M. 2011
  12. ^ Howard, J. 2011
  13. ^ Sloan-C, 2012.
  14. ^ CUNY Hybrid Initiative page

External links

  • CUNY Academic Commons (official site)
  • CUNY Academic Commons on Twitter
  • Commons In A Box open source release of CUNY Academic Commons
  • Philosophy Commons
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