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2007 Campus Technology Innovators: Social/Community Networking

2007 Campus Technology Innovators

Innovator: Tufts University

Using localized social networking to encourage authentic—and novel—academic connections across the campus community

Educators and technologists at Tufts University (MA) believed early on in the potential of Web 2.0 communication and collaboration tools to enhance teaching, learning, and research. So, in partnership with three vendors in different technology areas, and under the guidance of project lead David Grogan (manager of the Curricular Technology Group, Academic Technology, UIT), they set out to create the Spark project, designed as an easy-to-use, integrated tool suite for the creation of a localized social and semantic network of knowledge, ideas, and activities. Their hypothesis: By encouraging the use of these tools in an authentic academic context, Tufts community members would make interesting and novel connections among themselves and with each other's work.

Technology choices. With a set of limited but essential baseline requirements, the Spark team began researching the "best of breed" for each technology they would need to build the suite. Baseline requirements included: 1) the ability to easily integrate with Tufts' LDAP authentication system for single sign-on, 2) easy user management, 3) flexible user interface, and 4) scalability.

Tufts’ Spark tools are flexible enough to meet a wide variety of instructional, research, and co-curricular goals.

"We chose blogs and wikis as the flagship tools because these technologies offered flexible mechanisms to address a wide variety of teaching, learning, and research use cases," reports Amelia (Mely) Tynan, Tufts CIO and VP of information technology.

In the summer of 2006, the group selected the Movable Type blog system from Six Apart, and the Confluence wiki system from Atlassian. Then the technologists designed a web interface using JSP and Java servlets that would serve as the single point of entry to these tools.

Community use and benefit. Spark launched in September 2006, and was immediately promoted to faculty, staff, and students via newsletters, word of mouth, and individual consultation. Since the rollout, the team has added a homegrown podcast publication utility and a discussion tool using JForum.

"By matching instructional goals to the [cost and payback] of these technologies," says Tynan, "we began building use cases that could be reused as more people came on board." Because the department of UIT Academic Technology takes a very broad view of activities that can be described under the rubrics of teaching, learning, and research, the Spark website was designed to give full access to all members of the Tufts community (faculty, students, staff, and associates).

"Enabling full and easy access to tools for communication and collaboration will benefit the whole community as more connections become possible with increased use," Tynan observes. "We have users representing all Tufts community types. They are using the system for a variety of purposes: study blogs, course management, project tracking, collaborative writing, community portals, publishing podcasts." Other benefits will be realized as well: "From a technology perspective," she adds, "the project has resulted in an architecture that allows us to quickly integrate, deploy, and experiment with new tools as their value becomes of interest to the community." An added plus: "We have been surprised by the flexibility of these tools to meet a wide variety of instructional, research, and co-curricular goals. This has enabled the Academic Technology department to respond in a rapid and agile way to a large number of requests from clients for custom solutions," says Tynan.

Tufts' University's David Grogan

Grogan and the Tufts team
designed an easy-to-use
tool suite for the creation of
a localized social and
semantic network of
knowledge, ideas, and activities.

Future enhancements will include providing a richer user interface experience and more cross-tool integration. This summer, in fact, the project team will implement a variety of enhancements designed to: 1) make content more visible, to encourage discovery and connection-making; 2) evaluate Spark's impact for community constituents; 3) encourage use of tagging and other social/semantic networking features; and 4) enhance usability.

The Tufts technologists are working closely with their academic community to explore the potential for the new Spark technologies within academic domains and workflows. "Working with constituents to analyze, design, implement, and provide ongoing support for the use of the tools greatly increases the chance of the technologies gaining traction," says Tynan. "The larger goal of the localized social/semantic network of ideas depends on this interaction and growth of use." She advises those involved in similar undertakings to be willing to quickly experiment with and possibly discard technologies as new tools appear and disappear at an ever-increasing pace.

Will Spark deliver the "interesting and novel" community connections Tufts educators anticipate? "We've just spent a week with faculty in our summer institute," notes Tynan, "and their engagement and active use of collaboration technologies give us strong affirmation that Spark has great value. The potential is enormous."

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