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Build Your Own Academic Community with Commons in a Box

Playground slide and laddersBefore I finished grad school, I took a month-long seminar on teaching with technology. Among other things, we talked about how to build an “interactive syllabus” using that Tool of Tools: Dreamweaver. I seem to recall the instructional design team spending  two hours talking about how to format tables correctly in order to assure we got proper alignment. Fast-forward a few years, and I almost never build a web page from scratch. Instead, I use blogs in almost all of my classes: it’s a much simpler way to publish to the web.

It turns out many of us here at ProfHacker use blogs in the classroom. That explains why we’ve got posts on creating a printable syllabus from your blog (rather than vice versa), evaluating student blogs, re-using course blogs, moving your blog, and better blogging assignments. Blogs are great, and they help you get your work done, in an online space that approximates the community of a classroom.

But what if you want a bit more functionality for your classroom? What if you’d like to run a blog, a discussion forum, and a wiki for your students to use? Or what if that community that you want to reach out to is much, much larger than a classroom? In that case, I’d recommend you check out Commons in a Box (CBOX).

CBOX is, according to the press release, a free, open-source platform for “community connection, collaboration, and communication” and it was launched as a beta just before Thanksgiving. In short, it’s a plugin for WordPress (we’re fans of that around here) that helps you, a group you work with, or an institution build a space for working with one another. The team that built CBOX is also responsible for the CUNY Academic Commons, a community that really is too large for a classroom. With 24 campuses and over half a million students, the CUNY Commons is a platform for community formation across the institution. CBOX is an out-of-the-box version of the same software, developed through support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The tool provides the following goodies with a simple installation:

  • Out-of-the-box functionality with an intuitive set-up that guides site administrators through each step of installation.
  • A powerful, responsive, highly customizable theme developed for community engagement, based on PressCrew’s Infinity Theming Engine.
  • Responsive design for easy viewing on many devices, including tablets and smartphones.
  • Collaborative document creation and file sharing.
  • Reply-By-Email functionality for quick, on-the-go communication.
  • Compatibility with many other WordPress and BuddyPress themes and plug-ins.
  • Expansive wiki options.

Setting up a CBOX website is five-steps simple and clearly explained with the site’s installation guide. I was able to go through the whole process in under ten minutes’ time, where most of that was waiting for my web host (don’t miss our Website Hosting 101 guide) to set up a new database. I then installed the CBOX plugin, made a few more adjustments (as explained in steps three, four, and five), and I was ready to go! My site isn’t all that pretty or populated yet, but I’ve now got the tools to build the community.

If you’re not ready to install your own version of the software, you can play with a demo site, registering for an account, using the forums, the wiki, and more. It’s a great way to get a feel for what you can do with the tool. Either way, it’s important to realize that the tool is in beta and that bugs are just being discovered. I stumbled on one but it was quickly squashed by the amazing development team, which includes Boone Gorges (AKA “The Man I Want to Be When I Grow Up).

So, what would I do with a site that’s more than a blog? Having full-fledged discussion forums that include reply-by-email would, I believe, invigorate my students’ blogging. A CBOX site will also allow them to create group sections for projects or for their own discussions. I also envision using a site not for a single class, but as a community for all of my classes. There’s something about the community of an institution, where you overlap your learning and experiences with that of others, and I’m wondering how I can create that online.

I’m also planning to take some cues from other institutions that are using CBOX. You can see some of them at the CBOX Showcase. One of them, you might notice is the MLA Commons, which will be launched at next month’s MLA Convention. I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in some of the testing of the MLA Commons, and let me just say that it’s very cool. This is not your mother’s MLA; nor is it your Daddy’s Dreamweaver.

What sort of uses could you imagine putting a full-fledged scholarly community to? How would you use it in your classroom? On your campus? With other organizations you’re involved in? Let us know in the comments!

Lead image: Playground Primary Colors / Carl Wycoff / CC BY 2.0

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