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Last week, the City University of New York (CUNY) unveiled its plans to create a "Commons in a Box," an open-source toolkit to help colleges and universities "roll their own" academic networks. The project will help replicate CUNY's Academic Commons at other schools.

The Academic Commons was founded in 2009, an effort to help connect the faculty, administration, and grad students across the 23 colleges in the CUNY system and to help combat "information silos" -- something that exists, as CUNY exemplifies, even under one university system. "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," CUNY's project contends. "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."  The CUNY Academic Commons has enabled its users -- some 2000 as of May 2011 -- to easily share and collaborate on both academic and administrative projects, creating both public and private online spaces.

With a $107,500 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, CUNY has announced that it will now begin work on the "Commons in a Box" project, assembling its software into a single installation package.  This means that other colleges and universities will be able to easily create their own academic platforms. News of the project came with the announcement that the Modern Language Association will take part in its development and will use the platform to create an MLA Commons for its members.

The project has been built using open-source tools, including WordPress (which enables multisite blogs), BuddyPress (a WordPress plugin that turns the blog into a social network), and MediaWiki (the Wikimedia Foundation's wiki software). As a proponent of open-source technologies in education, that makes the Commons in a Box project a win in my book. It isn't simply that the project will put the tools to create their own academic networks into the hands of schools; it's that the Academic Commons development team has been sharing its coding back with the open source community, with WordPress plugins for example that have been downloaded over 100,000 times.

Why does it matter?

That open-source piece is crucial, I would argue, as it enables the community's shared ownership of code that works -- and works for academics. Building an open-source network, rather than relying on a proprietary one (or even something like an LMS) also means that universities have more control over their network's infrastructure, as well as the contents housed therein.  

Both of those things offer a striking alternative to other social networks, most obviously Facebook.  Of course many schools have rushed to create Facebook pages for marketing and recruitment purposes, but it's pretty clear that the site doesn't necessarily "work" for the types of thing that scholars might envision a specifically academic social network do.

But open source versus proprietary technology isn't the only thing at stake.  Nor is it simply that Commons in a Box supports an open ecosystem versus a "walled garden." It is that latter piece that seems particularly noteworthy, however, as the project is part of a larger movement on campuses to open up academic scholarship itself -- not just through (open source) social networking but through open access. It'll take a commitment to that openness on the part of the organizations and campuses that spin up their own Commons -- but hopefully now there will be solid tools and resources (both developers and advocates) to do just that.

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