The Rationale for the Academic Commons
The SPU Academic Commons is a realization of contemporary pedagogical practices: collaboration, transparency, identity and the provision of a personal cyber infrastructure. Through SPU Academic Commons our faculty, staff and students will have the opportunity to build and develop contents/artifacts germane to their SPU experience through a digital community portal, engaging topics within this space that benefit themselves, others at SPU, and potentially an audience beyond our environment. Its architecture is designed to give users a basic entry point into web development, providing everyone with the tools for high-quality production while scaffolding growth to more advanced technologies and opportunities.
Too often in academic institutions, information and expertise are siloed in departments or organizations, and opportunities for creation and collaboration are lost not because people are unwilling to engage but because paving a pathway to community engagement is either too difficult or the community tool is designed not for academia but appropriated to somehow fit. This leaves faculty, staff and even students in the unenviable position of, to paraphrase physics professor Stamatis Volkos, having to reinvent the flat tire. Opportunities to engage with one another across departments and statutes are lost before they could ever begin.
SPU Academic Commons is a web-hosting framework built within WordPress. The specific software, Commons in a Box, was developed at City University of New York for the purpose of supporting campus initiatives and fostering community. To quote CUNY’s mission from 2008,
The free exchange of knowledge among colleagues across the university is central to better educating the student body and expanding professional development opportunities for faculty research and teaching. Creating networks and support systems that are enabled by easy access to quality digital resources will nurture faculty development through sharing replicable materials and best practices.
To bolster a spirit of community and collaboration at a time where the digital space is seen as increasingly important, we must engage tools and technologies designed specifically for this purpose. Blackboard, SPU’s learning management system, is designed as a mirror of classroom and registration practices. While Blackboard has some tools labeled as web-dynamic, its purpose is to be a closed space. Sharepoint, SPU’s internal memorandum service, is designed as an intra-office solution for businesses and organizations. While Sharepoint has some tools for web development, its purpose is to be a closed space. Commons in a Box, however, is designed specifically to connect academic colleagues along topics of research, scholarship, governance, teaching and learning.
Web publishing in academic spaces (whether as ePortfolios, personal pages, or subject-specific titles) is linked in the research literature to gains in learning outcomes and instructional effectiveness. Moreover, a project such as SPU Academic Commons is indicative of SPU’s signature commitments: the formation of character through the creation and development of digital identity, the engagement of our multicultural and complex world through the creation and sharing of our work and experiences on these topics, the celebration of Christ through linking His story to our digital works, and a focus on the digital wisdom necessary for rigorous learning in an intellectual community.
The ease of building in WordPress and the scaffolded nature of journeying from novice to expertise makes the SPU Academic Commons a tool available for any member of the SPU community no matter their technological prowess. And its uses can be quite diverse:
- Associate Professor Owen Ewald plans to use the space to showcase his Marston lectures in conjunction with his emerging scholarship in fields including Koine Greek.
- The Center for Scholarship and Faculty Development will use the space to host a new book club surrounding topics of teaching, learning & technology.
- Professor Kim Segall will use the space to support her study abroad program in Spain & Morocco.
- Educational Technology & Media will use the space to continue their Online Teaching & Working Group, providing avenues for faculty to engage it more readily on their own schedule while not sacrificing the community support.
- Professors Kathy Lustyk and Lynette Bikos are interested in revamping their existing research center sites in a manner that flows more freely through teaching as well as scholarship.
- The SPU Academic Innovation Committee has discussed using the space for its grant-awarded initiatives to document and share their experiences in developing innovative pedagogical strategies and programs.
- Associate Professor Brian Chin has already begun to create his Center for Talent, a program tying together scholarship, community service, music and faith that engages contemporary digital tools to serve students.
- Assistant Professor Scott Kolbo and will use the spaces to support creative student portfolios in the first-year art intensive.
The common refrain in these projects is the importance of community and collaboration, as well as an understanding of the importance of the digital world. When we mandate technology as a teaching tool, we only harness a percentage of its potential. When technology can be both a teaching and a learning tool, the opportunities for engagement and further growth are considerable.