Happy Sys Admin Day to André Pitanga

We’d like to wish André Pitanga, the Systems Administrator of the CUNY Academic Commons, a very happy Sys Admin Day! As the Sys Admin Day site makes clear, sys admins do a host of jobs to keep a site like this running. But what that page does not necessarily make clear is that Sys Admins are our first, second, and third lines of defense when our servers are hit with malicious attacks. Holding the line in the face of such attacks can be hard and unforgiving work; to maintain a strong commitment to openness in the face of such attacks takes a very special person. We are extremely lucky to have André in that position with the support of the CUNY Graduate Center Information Technology Office behind him.

So, thank you, André. Happy Sys Admin Day and congrats again on your well-deserved employee recognition award!!

Sys Admin Appreciation Day

Yesterday I learned, via a tweet from Bethany Nowviskie, that Friday, July 30th is System Administrator Appreciation Day. While I hadn’t heard about this holiday before, it strikes me as one of the best holidays yet invented — because, really, we can’t thank our Sys Admins enough. And that is particularly true for the CUNY Academic Commons, where we are lucky enough to have the extremely bodacious André Pitanga, Lead Systems Administrator at the CUNY Graduate Center, running our show — or, rather, running the servers that run the software that runs our show.

Photo of André's keyboard by catcubed (http://www.flickr.com/photos/headlouse/1484615917/)

The Sys Admin Appreciation Day website details a number of reasons why all members of the Commons should be grateful to André for his work. And they are all true — André designed and set up our server racks, got the servers running, configured our networks, installed our software packages, performed needed system upgrades, troubleshooted thorny permissions issues, secured the site during malicious attacks, and made himself available for consultation on all sorts of issues. If you’re lucky enough to get a tour of the server room from him –I’ve done it five or six times now; it never gets old — you’ll see his eyes light up as he describes the racks he designed for this project. Sure, those eyes take on a slightly maniacal glimmer as he discusses server cooling systems, but it’s all good! Right?

There are a few things, though, that make André’s work truly special: his contagious enthusiasm for collaborative projects, his passion for open-source platforms and the communities that support them, and (most importantly), his humbleness, sincerity, and openness. The Commons is extremely lucky to have André behind it, not just because of his formidable technical expertise, but also because of the creative enthusiasm that he adds to Development Team.

And, so, on this day, I want to express my gratitude to André, my colleague and my friend, for everything he has done for the Commons. Thank you, André. You rule!

Missed Connections

sharing Boone Gorges, who is familiar to many of you as the homegrown rising star of our development team, recently traveled to Vancouver to take part in the Open Ed 2009 conference. From what I’ve gathered, Boone’s flights to Canada and back went relatively smoothly.

And indeed, far from missing connections, Boone was able to make some valuable ones, particularly with the development team at the University of British Columbia’s Office of Learning Technology. Knowing that UBC is working on projects that are similar to ours, Boone starting thinking about ways in which our Dev teams could do a better job of sharing things with one another — something that make sense, given the commitment we all have to open education. Boone speculated on this in a blog post titled “Sharing Hacks“:

Communication about code is a hard thing. On one end of the spectrum is internal communication. The gang at OLT keeps internal notes of the small hacks they do on their system, as do we at the CUNY Academic Commons. On the other end is end-user documentation, meant for a broad and largely non-technical audience. The kind of communication that’s missing here is the stuff in the middle, between groups doing similar sorts of work.

Boone ended that post by stating his commitment to writing more frequently on this development blog about the smaller issues of development. But his larger point — that those of us developing open-source educational platforms need to communicate more regularly with one another — is one that can’t be emphasized strongly enough.

And so, I will close this post with one of Boone’s central questions: “What are some good ways to get this kind of sharing moving?” His post, along with this one, represents a start, as does the revival of UBC’s development blog. But we need to build more lasting channels of communication soon, lest we miss some important connections.

Photo credit: Flickr user o.blaat

Recent Site Developments

Over the past several weeks, the Commons development team has made a series of major and minor changes to the site. I’d like to detail them here and discuss our future plans.

Admin Bar Improvements
We’ve taken several steps to tie the site together through better navigation bars. You’ve probably noticed some big changes to our two nav bars, the BP Admin bar (so named for “BuddyPress admin”) and the main nav bar. Here’s a screenshot showing both nav bars: navbars

The new BP Admin bar essentially provides sitewide navigation, since it appears on every single page of the site, including each user’s blog. We’ve created a navigational tool that is significantly more robust than it was; now, instead of clicking “Home” and simply returning to the home page of the Commons, users can access the main sections of the site (People/Groups/Blogs/Wiki/Forums/News/About) directly from the admin bar.

If that first drop-down menu on the admin bar provides links to the major areas of the site, the second dropdown menu, titled “My Commons,” offers a more personalized set of links. When the user scrolls over that menu, a list of custom links (“My Friends,” “My Groups,” “By Blogs,” etc.) appears.

The next two dropdown menus, “My Blogs” and “My Groups” are somewhat redundant, since they seem, at first to replicate options available on the “My Commons” menu. But you’ll notice when you mouse over them that they offer more direct links to the user’s content, so that, for instance, one can choose to create a new post on specific blog simply by clicking My Blogs > (Name of Blog) > New Post.

Active State Navigation
We’ve added active-state navigation to the site, which means that the relevant section of the main nav bar will turn a lighter color when you are on that part of the site. In the following screenshot, the “wiki” link on the nav bar lights up to show the user that she is on the wiki:

We hope that this makes the site a little easier to use.

Direct Access to Forums
Previously, the only way to create a forum post was to do so through the group interface. We’re now providing direct access to the discussion forums via the forums link on the nav bars.

What’s nice about this is that members of the site can start new discussion topics outside of their groups. Additionally, users can take advantage of increased functionality on the forums (attaching files, bookmarking favorites, etc.) when posting directly on them.

Redesigned News Page
We’ve redesigned the News page so that it provides a better overall picture of activity on the Commons. If you’re wondering what has been going on since the last time you visited the site, head to this page first to see recent sitewide activity. This is a very useful way to stay up to date on happenings in the Commons.

Assorted Bug Fixes and Usability Improvements
We’ve made a number of fixes to minor usability issues:
— Links to identities on social networking services from member profile pages now lead directly to those sites
— The default listings of Newest/Active/Popular members and groups on the homepage has been changed; the default for groups is now “Popular,” to emphasize size, and the default for Members is “Active,” to promote active users.

Known Issues and Future Plans
We’ve accomplished a great deal recently, but we know we have a lot to do. Here are some of the most pressing items on our to-do lists:

— Create a Help Section with screencasts and an introduction for new users
— Redesign home page of Commons to take better advantage of feeds
— Create a sitewide search that will include the wiki, blogs, member profiles, groups, and forums
— Add wiki feeds to sitewide feeds
— Assess group needs on Commons
— Get SiteWide tags working
— Formalize bug tracking system
— Implement a system for user suggestions
— Add login widget to homepage
— Fix email capability on BuddyPress (group wire email is currently not working)
— Build more robust member profile pages

That’s just a short list of some of the things we have planned. And, of course, we’d love to hear your thoughts about all of this. Please use the comments to let us know what you think and what you’d like to see!

Redesigning the Commons Homepage

0_blueprint-2nd floor

Over the past few months, the development team has been busy working on the backend of this site, trying to integrate its various tools into a single, seamless usability experience. Now that those efforts have begun to bear fruit, we can start to turn our attention to other pressing development needs.

One of the items that has been at the top of our to-do list for a long time now reads “Redesign the Home Page to take better advantage of feeds.” If you don’t know what an RSS feed is, check out RSS Feeds in plain English. Basically, RSS feeds are streams of data that an be incorporated into webpages so that those pages present constantly updated information. Examples of RSS feeds include the listing of “Recent blog posts” on our current home page and the “Site-Wide Activity” feed on the News page.

Right now, the top half of our home page is almost completely static. As we redesign it, we’ll want to use RSS feeds to showcase more of the activity going on across our site. One suggestion that came out of last Friday’s CUNY WordCampEd meetings is that the Commons can aggregate not only activity on the Commons, but also activity on other WordPress installs on various CUNY campuses. That would allow the Commons to be a true hub for the CUNY community.

We’re throwing around various ideas among ourselves, but this website is premised on the assumption that it will adapt to the needs and desires of its community. So: what would YOU like to see on the new homepage? What feeds should be there? What feeds do you want to see elsewhere (on pages other than the home page) on the site? How can the Commons best showcase the work, energy, and enthusiasm of its communities? Please let us know in the comments below.

Image by Kurtphoto

Welcome to the AC Dev Blog

I’m proud to announce the opening of the CUNY Academic Commons Development blog, which will track new technical developments on the Commons website.

The Commons is one of a number of academic projects in recent years that have sought to foster online communities in university settings.  As George Otte, our fearless (and peerless) leader, has pointed out, the structural make-up of CUNY — the largest urban university in the world, with 23 campuses and a quarter of a million students — makes this project not just desirable, but also necessary for the university system.

What’s exciting about this moment at CUNY is that we’re (finally) seeing the rise of a number of open-source projects across the system.  By choosing to construct the Academic Commons using a connected series of open-source platforms, we have engaged the growing movement of open education (join our local Open Education group here).  Such efforts, I would argue, represent a twenty-first century extension of CUNY’s longstanding mission of making knowledge public, accessible, and affordable.

The remarkable thing about open source software–and, really, what defines it as open source–is that the code behind the program is released freely to users, who can then look at it and customize it for their needs. This is in contrast to a model of proprietary software, in which users are powerless to implement fundamental changes to the system without the help of the company that made the product.

Here at the Commons, we took a “small pieces loosely joined” approach, in which we have assembled a best-in-breed series of platforms (WordPress Multi-User + BuddyPress + BbPress + MediaWiki) and cobbled together a way for them them all work together. As we’ve tested out this system, we’ve found many things that work well, and other things that don’t. And as we find things that don’t work, we create custom plugins and extensions to fix the underlying problems.

The wonderful thing about open-source systems is that communities of developers and users tends to form around them in order to share their work and improve their websites. To truly be part of the open-source movement, we can’t just take–we have to give. And so, one reason we created this particular blog is to use it to release our custom code to the larger open-source community. That way, others can build on our work, just as we have built on theirs.

We have some exciting extensions to announce in the very near future, so please stay tuned.

Up next:  introducing the CUNY Academic Commons Development Team.