It has been two weeks since the first ever CUNY WordCampEd, an event co-sponsored by us at the Schwartz Institute, New York City College of Technology, and the Macaulay Honors College. I have been meaning to reflect on this remarkable conference in this space but, seeing as how way leads on to way, I haven’t been able to get around to it. Plus, the need for yet another reflection seemed to diminish as the days passed since several smart and insightful people have already blogged the event. NYCCT’s Matt Gold, York College’s Michael Cripps, and Dave Lester of George Mason University have posted excellent recaps of the conference. Jim Groom, our inimitable keynote speaker, wrote a powerful, very personal reflection on the day’s conversations and why they matter to CUNY, and our own Luke Waltzer recently posted to this blog a terrifically engaging and forward looking exploration of some of the ideas that animated the events of that day and, most importantly, what they mean to the future of instructional technology at CUNY.
This week, though, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece by Jeff Young on CUNY WordCampEd. Since the picture the Chronicle paints of CUNY WordCampEd doesn’t fully jibe with my experience of the event, I figured this was reason enough to enter the fray.
What’s especially striking about the Chronicle piece is that it presents CUNY WordCampEd as motivated by the flight of a cadre of CUNY professors from Blackboard to blogging software as an ad-hoc alternative. “The meeting’s focus,” writes Jeff Young, “was an idea that is catching on at a handful of colleges and universities around the country: Instead of using a course-management system to distribute materials and run class discussions, why not use free blogging software — the same kind that popular gadflies use for entertainment sites?”
I take issue with this description on a number of levels, not the least of which is that it trivializes the tremendous pedagogical power and content management capabilities of a fully-realized, highly extensible, open source web publishing platform like WordPress and characterizes the event as animated by a simple opposition: blogs vs. Blackboard. In fact, CUNY WordCampEd was driven by something much much bigger and far less simple: a collective recognition that 1) the open, social web offers rich possibilities for transforming teaching, learning and the sharing of knowledge and creative work that we are only beginning to tap in a meaningful way here at CUNY and 2) that proprietary, closed learning management systems (LMS), in addition to their various other deficiencies, cannot keep up with the ways in which the social web is continually changing.
A good deal of the conversation at CUNY WordCampEd revolved around three very different yet exemplary projects, all of which are either built on or incorporate WordPress Multi User (WPMu), the “blogging software” to which the Chronicle refers. These are the CUNY Academic Commons, a multi-faceted online community space for CUNY faculty and students that seamlessly integrates WPMu as well as several other open source tools; our own Blogs@Baruch, a publishing platform for Baruch College intended initially to enable faculty to facilitate additional occasions for student writing and founded on the principle that that any opportunity to write is potentially an opportunity to grow as a writer; and Eportfolios@Macaulay, an adaptation of WPMu that allows Honors College students to collect their work, reflect upon it, share it with others if they choose to, and keep it for posterity — it likewise allows faculty to holistically assess student work. None of these important projects were mentioned in the Chronicle piece. Neither was ScholarPress, a set of impressive course management tools for WordPress developed by Dave Lester and his team at George Mason University (the same folks that gave us Zotero and Omeka), which Dave demonstrated at the opening of the event. (If there was a true, similarly capable alternative to Blackboard as LMS discussed at the conference, this was it, gradebook and all.) By excluding any discussion (or even a mention) of these projects, the article reduces and simplifies the thrust of day’s discussion of open source tools so that it ultimately comes off as merely speculative and not rooted in actual, substantive work already underway here at CUNY (excepting, of course, of the recognition of the wonderful work Zoë Sheehan Saldaña is doing here at Baruch).
Though the themes of Blackboard as 1) replicating an outdated pedagogical model and 2) and barely working recurred throughout the day, the conference was much more about experimenting with open source web tools based on their own merit than as any kind of real alternative to Blackboard that could or should be adopted centrally. As we have seen in the Clarion article which Luke cites, CUNY’s flirtations with alternatives to Blackboard in the wake of repeated outages seem to be more about showing Blackboard Inc. that CUNY means business and is not to be taken for granted than they are about finding a real, viable, working alternative that enhances both teaching and learning. Jim’s cry to “Open up CUNY!” did not mean “let’s all dump Blackboard and start blogging.” Rather, it was a call to breathe into our use of technology for teaching, learning, and sharing the spirit of free access and openness on which CUNY was built. CUNY WordCampEd was not an occasion to think through ways blogs could displace Blackboard in the classroom, but, in his words,
to imagine the possibilities of an open source CUNY, a CUNY that is not only re-investing in people rather than corporations to steer the future of education for this space, but a vision of imagining the technology as a way to make visible and accessible the work happening at the most diverse collection of urban campuses in the nation: a vision of open education that trumps courseware or videos or blog posts, a vision that brings 22 disparate campuses into some real communication with one another fueled by a community that believes in the irrefutable value of open, affordable, and relevant education in the 21st Century.
CUNY WordCampEd was not about blogs. It was not about Blackboard. It was about CUNY. This may not be of interest to those readers of the Chronicle who do not yet care about what is happening at The City University of New York, but it matters to me and to all of us who learned so much from the presentations and the conversations at CUNY WordCampEd.