For the past few months, I’ve been involved in the development of the CUNY Academic Commons, a new project of the City University of New York whose stated mission is to “to support faculty initiatives and build community through the use(s) of technology in teaching and learning”. This is no small goal, given the mammoth size and unruliness of CUNY: 23 institutions comprising some 500,000 students, 6,100 full-time faculty, and countless more staff and part-time faculty. The Commons – built on a collection of open-source tools like WordPress MU, Mediawiki, Buddypress, and bbPress – is designed to give members of this diffuse community a space where they can find like-minded cohorts and collaborate with them on various kinds of projects.
My work as a developer for the Commons pulls me in several directions. Most obviously, I’m getting a crash course in the development frameworks that underlie the tools we’re using. These pieces of software are at varying stages of maturity and have largely been developed independently of each other. Thus, making them fit together to provide a seamless and elegant experience for users is a real challenge. This kind of technical challenge, in turn, leads me to consider critically the way that the site could and should serve the members of the CUNY community. How do you design a space where people with wildly different interests and wildly different ways of working can collaborate in ways that work for them? By making the system open enough to accommodate many ways of working and thinking, do you thereby alienate some of those individuals who need more structure to envision the utility that the site could hold for them? How do the choices you make when developing a tool – decisions about software, about organization, about design – mold or constrain the ways in which the site’s uses will evolve?
In light of these varying challenges, there are a couple different things that I would be interested in talking about at THATcamp. For one, I’d like to get together with people working with and on open-source software to talk nuts and bolts: which software are you using, how are you extending or modifying it to suit your needs, and so on. I’m also very interested in talking about strategies for fostering the kinds of collaboration that the CUNY Academic Commons has as its mission. I’m also anxious to discuss more theoretical questions about the design and development of tools that are meant to serve a diverse group of users. In particular, I’m interested in the interconnections between the designer, the software, and the designer’s knowledge and assumptions about the desires and capacities of the end user.