Do We Need More Walled Gardens

September 16, 2011

When I first read about OKStateU - Oklahoma State University's (OSU) new social network, I was admittedly skeptical. Built using BuddyPress, an open source social network based on WordPress, OKStateU launched this fall as a "social media site for students." Billed as an "ad free" and "exclusive" space for OSU students, faculty and staff, OKState appears on the surface to be yet another attempt by an institution to create a campus walled garden. A walled garden refers to online spaces that have limited access based on membership in a particular group. Several institutions have created walled gardens in the past with limited success. The main reason for failure generally stems from the fact that campus communities have usually already formed in online spaces other than the ones that the university has created. The initial push from an institution can generate excitement, but once that excitement fades, the walled garden strategy isn't usually sustainable.

OKStateU may be running off of BuddyPress, but it reminds me of a similar walled garden site -- Ning. And, anyone who has followed higher education for any amount of time knows that Ning used to be the de facto site for creating a social network that didn't rely on Facebook. Ning sites come and go like old mining towns of yesteryear. Note that I like BuddyPress. I think it can be a great platform for community engagement. I know of at least one student affairs association that is using it as a place for connection-making and information-exchange. However, in my experience working with undergraduate students, if you build an online space that is separate from where the critical mass is engaging, your walled garden will eventually fade into obscurity.

When I read that OKStateU provides OSU students with online space to create "discussion groups, athletic groups, and personal interest groups," I was dumbfounded as I can't help but think that Facebook will probably be where OSU students will form communities of interest. The introduction video for OKStateU mentions that OSU is a Desire2Learn school. Didn't D2L recently announce a feature set that included social integration? Wouldn't it be easier to add social connectivity to a reliable LMS? One less site or service to manage seems like a benefit in my view.

Since the OKStateU site isn't entirely locked down to non-OSU members, I was able to browse around the site. There is a fair amount of interaction. I'm glad that folks at OSU are engaging in out-of-the-box thinking. It's always exciting to read about a new project. However, walled gardens are incredibly difficult to sustain. I wonder if the strategic goals of OKStateU could have been met using existing sites, tools, or services?

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