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Posted by on Nov 23, 2011

Creating New Academic Networks With ‘Commons in a Box’ – Wired Campus – The Chronicle of Higher Education

The City University of New York’s CUNY Academic Commons announced today that it is developing “Commons in a Box,” an open-source software project to help other institutions and groups set up online spaces for their members. “Educational groups, scholarly associations, and other nonprofit organizations will be able to leverage the Commons in a Box to give their members a space in which to present themselves as scholars to the public, to share their work, to locate and communicate with peers, and to engage in collaborative scholarship,” according to an announcement on the Academic Commons News blog.

It also said that CUNY Academic Commons will work with the Modern Language Association on a pilot project to create an “MLA Commons” for its more than 30,000 members. The association has been exploring new ways to help promote members’ activities, establishing an office of scholarly communication earlier this year. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is supporting the Commons in a Box work with a $107,500 grant.

I applaud the efforts of CUNY in this respect in not only developing a good solution/alternative to creating institutional social networks (as opposed to just offloading this activity onto Facebook) in-house, but also making that creation freely accessible to other universities that want to follow suit. I applaud this openness and am curious to see if this experiment scales a bit at other universities. This could easily work on a micro level (in fact, I believe it is better suited to micro disciplinary affinity groups as opposed to larger institutional efforts), but while I don’t want to say I have concerns over this approach working on a larger level (institutionally or system), I must say that my experience with learning in social media leads me to believe that expectations should be managed.

This isn’t because I believe that openness is not a valuable goal or anything (quite the contrary); my reservations stem more from social dynamics of affinity and weak tie communities and the evolving role of the institution in the learning process. So, as I am a relatively lazy writer, I will just list them as I see them.

1. What is the identity of the learner as a member of the CUNY (or any university system) community? How strong is that tie? And what does that connection translate to in terms of social interaction?

I could easily see a freshmen student jumping into this to make social connections and monitor events, communities, etc. that develop. In fact, that might be a considerable value point if it were to provide just that. A social orientation tool for incoming members of a community. Orient, engage, interact, and evolve as a member of a community.

The paradox (as I see it) in this process is that the farther one proceeds with their formal education, the less likely they are to embrace the composite (university) and more likely to embrace the affinity (the discipline) that the composite captures. So, while this might work well for undergraduates (particularly incoming students), it would taper off at higher levels of education as learners begin to identify themselves as practicing members of a learning/research community. Please know, CUNY, that I might be arguing for something that you never intended the Commons to do, a role it was never designed to perform, so please forgive this. . Just thinking that the nature of online interaction redefines the position of the larger organization (often detracts from it) and favors the loose, weak tied, rhizomatic meanderings of the online learner. More structure detracts from this.

2. Social media fatigue and emotional investment-not a zero sum game, but there are congitive capacity limits

I think essentially the process of creating personalized spaces for social media environments, this process of buy-in so critical to engagement and learning, is ultimately a hindrance to this being successful at a university level. Social environments require perpetual social activity (which to its credit CUNY’s Academic Commons does seem to have) and perpetual investment (new ‘things’ to go along with new activity) so it is a considerable investment of resources. CUNY seems committed to this process so kudos to them.

I actually think this would work a bit better with the MLA Commons approach as the article refers to as that represents the affinity group with the most delineated tribal boundaries. Being a ‘member’ of this social environment would mean interacting with your disciplinary tribe and that carries much more weight ultimately than your association with your university (once again, at higher levels of formal education). However, it still requires investment of the participant’s time and limited cognitive output (as in my example-this is all I have!) and therefore my participation needs to do double duty. I want it to be on my homespace first (my blog here) and then interact elsewhere if applicable to the community.

I need to be able to invest this effort here and there simultaneously (in fact, to begin to move beyond these here and there distinctions) and these Commons approaches, while perfectly fine for what they are designed to do are essentially walled garden approaches. Very small walls and very few barriers to entry, but investments in cognitive capacity.

That is why Twitter works so well (and precisely why it is my learning community of first resort) as it is am ambient network of professional practice and the noise is managed through selection. Tinker here, tinker there, and you have a viable, if perpetually evolving, ear (and voice) to the larger conversations of your academic tribe. Twitter works precisely because there are no walls (or at least very few in any immediate view). Do these Academic Commons approaches have this? To some degree yes, but the ambient community is limited to an institution; the tribal affinity becomes a department and not a full-bore professional practicing community.

So it is a limitation a step above efficiency (at a program or disciplinary level within a university-a natural affinity circle) and a step below scale (the entire practicing community communicating via Twitter). While I do think it is a great idea for fostering community at the university level, it does not answer the core requirement of identifying as a member of a university past brand awareness (I lived in Princeton for 5 years so feel qualified to report on the intersection between brand awareness and (at times, wildly illogical) messianic devotion). Namely, why am I here and who are my people?

Come to think of it, this is more of a philosophical thing, isn’t it? What is the role of identity in formal learning structures?

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