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Sharing a New Way to Collaborate and Communicate

Wayne State University is looking to expand the reach of its communication-focused Academica portal to other campuses.

Two years ago, Wayne State University (MI) embarked on an effort to reimagine its campus portal, implementing a new platform focused on real-time, two-way communication and better anticipating users' needs. (See our August 2014 feature on that initial rollout: "Rethinking the Campus Web Portal.") Developed in-house, the Academica portal offers single sign-on as an authenticated front door to applications, and is designed from the ground up to work on any mobile device. But first and foremost it is a social networking platform that enhances and enables collaboration.

At the core of the social networking aspect of Academica is what Wayne State calls "message streams," which operate like a Facebook wall or a Twitter hashtag. Streams can be created by anybody and can be subscribed to by anybody, although there are permission levels. For instance, a user could create a stream for chess and invite people to subscribe. There is a stream discovery tool that allows users to search all the public streams, or ask to join private streams.

With a successful launch under its belt, Wayne State is now looking to expand the reach of Academica to other campuses in partnership with the Ann Arbor-based Merit Network, a nonprofit organization managing high-speed networking and IT services for research and education members statewide in Michigan.

Impact at Wayne State

In the summer of 2015 Wayne State turned off its old portal and moved everyone on campus over to Academica in preparation for the fall semester. "We had some normal growing pains, but great user acceptance and good performance from the application side in terms of being able to handle all the uptick in traffic," said Daren Hubbard, interim chief information officer.

Wayne State immediately put the portal's message streams to the test in supporting users. "We created a feedback stream essentially using the communication aspect of the tool to help support it," Hubbard explained. "As people ran into problems, they posted something into that stream, and we had a cross-divisional team set up to monitor and respond to users or the development team to make sure we got feedback right to the place it needed to go," Hubbard said.

After the first three weeks, he added, the IT group was able to pull back from its "all hands on deck" posture, as "Academica started to become a regular part of our campus fabric, which coincided with the start of the new semester for us." Hubbard was particularly pleased with the elasticity of the application: Academica was was designed to be hosted in the cloud, and Wayne State made a strategic decision to leverage Amazon Web Services' elastic cloud, which allows the system to expand as necessary to accommodate high traffic. Portals often see the most traffic in a one-hour period after registration opens in the fall — the usage might be 10 times more than any other time of year.

"We had some experience with it spooling up and meeting the full demand of the campus when we initially turned it on in July, but we wanted to see how it would behave in the fall semester — and it behaved just beautifully," Hubbard said. "It is designed to spawn additional nodes for itself as it sees demand increasing. So it did that and we had no outages at all. From a CIO standpoint, the utilization of resources scaled itself up when we needed it to, and we released those resources when we could. We budgeted how much we would use with our cloud service provider, and we didn't have to expend hardware resources for that high-water mark. It just flowed up where it needed to, and dropped down to a more reasonable level when demand tapered off."

The team that built Academica was interested in studying its adoption at Wayne State. Rob Thompson, director of academic and core applications, said the most striking example of its impact was its use for new-student orientation. All the students who attended orientation were added to a stream. They hadn't arrived on campus yet, and yet were making friends and contacting other students with the same interests or who were anxious about college or classes, Thompson said. "It started a dialog that never would have happened without the platform. Using the tool to bring together new students before they step foot on campus has proven to be very powerful in creating a sense of belonging."

Michael Gregorowicz, lead architect for Academica, recalls seeing a message on the portal about the launch of a study on student homelessness. Within 10 minutes, someone else on campus had posted information relevant to that study that the original poster wasn't aware of. "I remember thinking that this is exactly the kind of conversation that Academica was created to enable," he said.

Thompson admitted that faculty response so far has been mixed. Some say it is revolutionary for their course because it allows them to communicate with students in new ways. Academica gives faculty members a way to have informal conversations with students before a class even starts. Other instructors, he added, question the role of social networking in a classroom and wonder whether it borders on inappropriate.

Expanding the Reach

A funny thing happened on the way to launching Academica: Longtime Wayne State CIO Joseph Sawasky left his position there and then in August 2015 took the post of president and CEO of the Merit Network.

Sawasky and his team at Wayne State had been working with the university's technology commercialization group on the idea of expanding Academica to other institutions. And even before he moved to Merit, the nonprofit was interested in offering Academica as a fee-based service to its hundreds of member institutions. "Merit wants to put in place the next-generation social collaboration tool too continue to be at the edge of innovation," he said.

As Wayne State gains experience with the product and works out the bugs that exist in virtually every new piece of software, Merit and the university are working through the business issues around intellectual property ownership: how to ensure mutual and shared benefit between the organizations. "I think the business issues are more complex and dynamic than any technology issues," Sawasky said. "The technology can be stood up very quickly."

One issue to be worked through involves whether the software would be open source or not. "The folks managing the technology are interested in having this application be open source," Sawasky said. "We are going through a discovery and evaluation process with Wayne State right now to make sure that is a model they are comfortable with. Open source and legacy views about software commercialization don't always work well together, so I think we are trying to have everyone understand the benefits of opening this up to the community in ways that can still benefit the originators of the application and more importantly advance the state of the art faster than any single organization could on its own."

Merit plans to make Academica the basis of its own digital commons for IT leaders from across the state of Michigan. It already has a portal for its 400 member universities, K-12 schools and libraries, but the legacy system does not offer any collaborative features. "It has single sign-on so if you want to look into bandwidth utilization or submit a ticket, or request assistance, you can do that," Sawasky said. "But we haven't created a platform to allow that community to interact in an organic way." He said Merit wants its portal to allow IT professionals across the state to do business with Merit and collaborate with each other using 21st-century social tools. "We want to see communities of interest around cybersecurity and networking topics and allow geographically proximal schools to work together," he said. "There is tremendous potential for collaboration. We think the best way to do that is provide the platform and allow people to interact with Merit or each other."

Sawasky said several higher education institutions are looking at Academica hosted by Merit as a replacement for their own institutional portal. In addition, the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District is piloting Academica for targeted communities of interest. The hope is that by the end of 2016, Merit will be using Academica, along with a few other universities.

Sawasky and Hubbard gave a presentation about Academica at last fall's Educause annual conference in Indianapolis that drew strong interest from audience members, they said. "It is a paradigm shift of what a portal is," Sawasky said. "When people just read about it, it is not really apparent unless you understand the state of the art or are interested in advancing the state of the art, but once we have a deeper conversation and can demonstrate it, people's eyes really open up to the potential. It is one of those things you really have to get your mind around first, and then start trying to understand all the advantages that it could bring."

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