Beyond Friending: BuddyPress and the Social, Networked, Open-Source Classroom

Matthew K. Gold

In the spring of 2007, I asked students in the “Introduction to English Studies” course that I was teaching at Temple University to use blogs to discuss the novels we were reading for class. During a unit on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, one of my students wrote a post titled “Chaos and Imagination”[1] that speculated upon the autobiographical roots of Ellison’s text (Cummings). Soon after the post was published, a comment appeared from an unexpected contributor: a producer from Radio Open Source,[2] Chris Lydon’s nationally syndicated public radio show, asked my student to contribute a question to Lydon’s upcoming interview with Stanford professor Arnold Rampersad, who had recently published a biography of Ellison.[3] On the Radio Open Source blog,[4] the producer linked to and quoted from my student’s post, adding her work to a list of “extra credit” readings that also included texts by Saul Bellow, New York Sun book reviewer Adam Kirsch, and Ellison himself.

My student was delighted and flattered by the attention her blog post had received; it gave her confidence in her writing and bolstered her enthusiasm for our class. I was nearly as happy with the news, since the episode confirmed my suspicion that bringing my classes onto the Web in an open, public way would be beneficial and edifying for my students. Since I had been unaware of Rampersad’s biography, the editor’s comment both brought the text into our classroom and reframed our discussions. We were no longer studying an important work of twentieth-century literature within the narrow context of my syllabus; instead, we had become part of a conversation that involved the broader reading public. As the professor, I was displaced from the center of that conversation, which became more open, distributed and student-driven than it had been before.

This moment has informed my approach to teaching and learning ever since because it demonstrated so powerfully the kinds of connections made possible by open learning environments. In almost every class I have taught afterwards, I have not just asked students to blog, but to do so within a network of connected blogs so that their posts could be in dialogue with one another and with the public. These networks have consisted, at times, of multiple blogs hosted in a single space. At other times, students have created blogs on hosted servers that were then brought together in a single, centralized location through RSS aggregation.

WordPress, an open-source blogging platform, has been my blogging tool of choice since I first used it in 2004, primarily for its ease of use, its extensibility, its flexibility, its attractive theming options, and its active communities of developers and users. WordPress itself can now be installed as either a single, stand-alone blog or as a “multisite”[5] network, which means that multiple blogs can be created from one installation.[6]

In 2009, developers released BuddyPress,[7] a series of plug-ins that promised to add “social networking in a box” to WordPress multisite installations. In practice, this meant that in addition to creating blogs, site members could create profile pages, add friends, write status updates, post notes on one another’s profile pages, send private messages, create groups, use discussion forums, and track member activity across the installation. If WordPress created a network of connected blogs, BuddyPress created a social ecosystem around that network.

In an online learning environment, BuddyPress lowers the barriers to student engagement. Whereas writing long posts or comments are the primary means of interaction in a blog-based site, BuddyPress creates opportunities for interaction that offer the prospect of low-stakes engagement, which we might consider an updated, networked form of the kind of “low-stakes writing”[8] long championed by composition instructors (Elbow). Students may visit the course site because they receive a friend request from a fellow student, and in visiting the site, they may quickly respond to a status update, contribute a link to a group, respond to a forum post, send a private message, or update their own status. Taken in aggregate form, all of these informal interactions with fellow class members help create a richer, more social learning environment than a site that uses blogs alone.

BuddyPress adds several new features to networked learning environments that can be used in creative ways:

Activity Streams – BuddyPress tracks many site activities through an RSS stream. As members of the site create blog posts, join groups, or add friends, these events are displayed on their profile pages and on a site-wide feed. Similarly, groups have activity streams that display recent forum posts, documents uploaded, and news of the creation of new member accounts, all of which can be used to keep track of site-related events. Privacy issues related to these activity streams are mediated by various privacy controls (e.g., activity in private groups is visible only to members of those groups).

Member Profiles – Upon joining a BuddyPress-enabled site, new members set up a profile page on which they can include an avatar and a listing of salient links and interests. These profile fields can be customized to reflect the subject matter of the class. In a writing course that I taught in Fall 2010 to architecture majors, I asked students to list their favorite architects and buildings. I set up these expanded profile fields in front of my students during a class session, which allowed me to ask them what kinds of information they wanted to know about one another. Free plug-ins, such as Custom Profile Filters,[9] make it possible for members of a network to find others who share their interests, thus creating an organic, user-driven, serendipitous system of connection.

Groups – Groups are the primary engine for collaborative work in a BuddyPress site; three privacy settings offer varying levels of visibility.[10] A number of plug-ins make it possible to extend the functionality of groups. When enabled, discussion forums allow groups to hold and archive conversations around topics and threads. A group documents plug-in[1] creates a way for group members to upload documents; the document page, which lists and sorts all group documents, can then serve as a repository for group-related publications. Groups can be associated with a blog on the same WordPress installation using the BuddyPress Groupblog plug-in;[1] this allows for the creation of private spaces for group discussion and a more open group blog that can be used to communicate with the wider public. Groups can also be paired with the BuddyPress ScholarPress Courseware plug-in[1] that, while still at an early stage of development as of this writing, creates spaces within groups for the uploading of assignments, the submission of papers, and the assigning of grades.

Why Not Use Facebook?

In attempting to create “social networking in a box,” BuddyPress has mimicked functionalities that are part of popular social networking sites such as Facebook. Academic institutions have begun to set up presences inside websites like Facebook in an attempt to “meet students where they are.” While most schools have simply set up informational pages on Facebook for their students, Purdue University recently unveiled Mixable,[11] an application that creates a digital learning environment inside Facebook (Kolowich).

So, why use a platform like BuddyPress, which, though free to download, requires an investment of time to configure and customize? Why shouldn’t educators simply use the social-networking spaces in which students have already converged, so that they might become part of the already-active “lifestream” of those students?

Here are some reasons why BuddyPress offers a more attractive option than Facebook or commercial sites like it:

Proprietary vs. Open-Source:

As an open-source platform, BuddyPress and WordPress are tools that can be reshaped by their participants to meet the needs of particular learners or classes. Because the code underlying these tools is freely available, both students and teachers can take part in the constructive and collaborative process of building new features for the very platform upon which their community is built. This type of refashioning of the virtual learning space reflects what Christopher Kelty has called “recursive publics:” “publics concerned with the ability to build, control, modify, and maintain the infrastructure that allows them to come into being in the first place and which, in turn, constitutes their everyday practical commitments and the identities of the participants as creative and autonomous individuals” (Kelty 7). In a course that centers on code or on social media, such modifications to the infrastructure of the platform could take the form of actual tool-building and code-writing. In less technology-oriented classes, students might simply request that certain plug-ins and themes be installed that can extend the capabilities of the platform.

In a proprietary setting such as Blackboard, of course, such modifications to the core platform are acted upon only at the discretion and according to the timetable of the for-profit platform owner.

Data Ownership, Data Portability, and Free Labor

In an article about Mixable published in Inside Higher Education, Kyle Bowen, the Director of Informatics at Purdue University, is quoted as saying that on Mixable “the conversation is owned by the student” (Kolowich). This is patently untrue, as conversations that take place on Facebook are owned by Facebook,[12] a private company whose shares are not traded openly on the stock exchange as of this writing.[13] Student data posted on Facebook is not portable: the only way to remove personal data from Facebook is to delete it. And even then, the data persists in Facebook’s servers for some time (“Statement”).[14]

More troubling, however, is the fact that when classes or other university activities take place on Facebook, material posted on that platform helps build equity for Facebook by increasing advertising revenue; Facebook can sell the activities of its users to prospective advertisers who hope to reach these valuable audiences. Trebor Scholz has called attention to “the immaterial creative/affective labor performed in the sociable Web,” in which “networked sociality is the product” (Scholz). When educational activities take place on proprietary sites such as Facebook, educators become complicit in a profit-making process in which teaching and learning activities are commoditized and sold by a third-party vendor to third-party buyers.

When a university or a single educator installs BuddyPress and WordPress, by contrast, students have the opportunity to participate in the open and generative community of developers and users that attend to these platforms. They can assume more meaningful control over their own data, export that data as desired, and release it to the public under a range of licenses, including Creative Commons licenses. Such open-source learning environments are generally devoid of advertising, thus reducing the extent to which students and their work are commodified within (and by) the online classroom.

Separation of the Lifestream

While “meeting students where they are” might seem attractive to harried educators hoping to capture the attention of busy students, efforts to build educational spaces within popular social-networking platforms risk undesirable interactions between personal and professional lives. The educational technologist Jared Stein has described such social institutional spaces as “creepy treehouses” that may be seen by students as an “infringement on the sanctity of their peer groups, or as having the potential for institutional violations of their privacy, liberty, ownership, or creativity” (Stein). Consider the ramifications of a friend request sent by a professor to a student on Facebook; the student might not want to be “friends” with an educator in a space in which his peers might post embarrassing photos or status updates, but he might reasonably worry whether rejecting the friendship request could hurt his grade.[15]

Creating social academic spaces through tools like BuddyPress, by contrast, allows teachers and students to participate in subject- or class-specific social networks structured around their educational experiences. They can make course sites more dynamic, social, and interesting without compromising member privacy or creating situations that mesh personal and educational networks. They offer, in other words, a separation of the lifestream in a way that lowers the stakes of social-networking. A professor can feel free to make a friend request of a student on a BuddyPress course site without worrying that the request will intrude on the student’s personal life. Such no-stakes social networking can help build goodwill in a course.

BuddyPress Community Sites

 

Though BuddyPress can alter the dynamics of a single course, its power can be seen most clearly in large-scale installations of WordPress MultiSite, where it can affect the dynamics of entire educational communities. As the founding Project Director of the CUNY Academic Commons,[16] an academic social network that fosters collaboration among the 23 campuses of the City University of New York system, I have used BuddyPress with my colleagues to bring together members of a single university system who have mutual, but often previously undiscovered, interests. Established in 2009, when BuddyPress was still in beta, the site has fostered a number of emergent interests; among the groups that have quickly formed and gained momentum include those devoted to Open-Access Publishing, the Digital Humanities, ePortfolios, and Gaming Research. Entire departments, such as the English Department at the College of Staten Island, have begun to use the group functionality that BuddyPress provides as a primary means of communication and organization. Because BuddyPress provides a way to archive documents and conversations, it has become a useful tool for a wide variety of cross-campus groups, committees, and initiatives. And the Commons itself has emerged as a major developer of BuddyPress plug-ins, helping extend the software beyond simple friending functionalities, towards more robust productivity applications.[17]

BuddyPress can be particularly effective in helping to establish connections between disparate courses and communities. In a project titled Looking for Whitman: The Poetry of Place in the Life and Work of Walt Whitman,[18] a multi-campus experiment in digital pedagogy sponsored by two Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, BuddyPress helped bring together students and faculty members from four campuses in a concurrent, connected, semester-long inquiry into the relationship of Whitman’s poetry to local geography and history. As part of the project, each class focused on work that Whitman had written in the location of its college; a course in New York focused on his early, Brooklyn-centered writing career, a course in Fredericksburg focused on his mid-career writing about the Civil War, and courses in Camden focused on his late-career. Students from all classes shared their responses to the poet’s work on a single website that used WordPress blogs and BuddyPress groups to create connections between these students and their work.

Many of the assignments for the project were shared among students from every school.[19] An early assignment, for instance, mimicked the frontispiece that Whitman used in the first 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. In that text, Whitman’s name did not appear on the title page, leaving the engraved portrait of the author as the major clue to his identity. For our project, we asked students in the first week of the course to introduce themselves to one another by adding an image of themselves and selecting some lines from the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass that seemed particularly powerful to them. Using RSS feeds and tags to aggregate the results into a single project blog,[20] we created a networked, twenty-first century analogue to Whitman’s nineteenth-century text.

The cross-campus nature of Looking for Whitman necessitated concerted attempts to build a larger sense of community among students in all participating classes. This effort was made more difficult by the fact that the project involved classes from very different types of academic institutions: a general education course at a open-admissions public college of technology, a senior seminar for English majors at a liberal arts college, two graduate classes on Whitman at a research university, and a graduate course for American Studies majors at a university in Serbia.[21] Among such diverse participants with such differences in background and academic preparation, BuddyPress proved essential in helping students reach out to others. We found, for instance, that students wound up not just reading one another’s blogs, but also writing on each other’s profile walls, adding one another as friends, and posting updates to their groups. BuddyPress helped knit the social fabric of the project together in important ways by making connection possible through low-stakes engagement.

The Social, Networked, Open-Source Classroom

 

Classrooms have always been networks, of a sort, with professors and students forming an interlaced series of nodes that take shape over the course of a semester, but tools like BuddyPress can make those networks more open, more porous, and more varied. In very useful ways, the classroom-as-social-network can help create engaging spaces for learning in which students are more connected to one another, to their professors, and to the wider world. While it is unlikely that most of my students will wind up having their work featured on the website of a nationally syndicated radio show, WordPress and BuddyPress have helped make that a real possibility for all of them.

Works Cited

Cummings, Lindsay. “Chaos and Imagination.” we are such stuff as dreams are made on. 11 April 2007. Web. 19 December 2010. <http://lindsayc.wordpress.com/2007/04/11/16/>.

Elbow, Peter. “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing.”  Assigning and Responding to Writing in the Disciplines. Eds. Mary Deane Sorcinelli and Peter Elbow. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997.

Figueroa, Alissa. “Privacy issues hit Facebook again.” Christian Science Monitor. 30 July 2010. Web. 19 December 2010. <http://www.csmonitor.com/Business/new-economy/2010/0730/Privacy-issues-hit-Facebook-again>.

Kelty, Christopher. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.

Kolowich, Steve. “Mixing Work and Play on Facebook.” Inside Higher Ed. 6 October 2010. Web. 19 December 2010. <http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/10/06/facebook>.

Scholz, Trebor. “What the MySpace Generation Should Know About Working for Free.” Re-public. 9 May 2007. Web. 19 December 2010. <http://www.re-public.gr/en/?p=138>.

Schonfeld, Erick. “The Clock Is Set For A Facebook IPO By April, 2012.” TechCrunch. 21 January 2011. Web. 30 January 2011. <http://techcrunch.com/2011/01/21/facebook-ipo-april-2012/>.

“Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.” Facebook. 4 October 2010. Web. 19 December 2010. <http://www.facebook.com/terms.php>.

Stein, Jared. “Defining ‘Creepy Treehouses.’” Flexknowlogy. 9 April 2008. Web. 19 December 2010. <http://flexknowlogy.learningfield.org/2008/04/09/defining-creepy-tree-house/>.


[1] See <http://lindsayc.wordpress.com/2007/04/11/16/>.

[2] See <http://www.radioopensource.org/>.

[3] See <http://www.amazon.com/Ralph-Ellison-Biography-Arnold-Rampersad/dp/0375408274/>.

[4] See <http://www.radioopensource.org/ralph-ellisons-america/>.

[5] Before June 2009, WordPress and WordPress Multi-User were distinct pieces of software (WPMu was a version of WP that allowed for multiple blogs). As part of the June 2010 debut of WordPress 3.0, the two were merged, and the new terminology for a multi-blog WordPress installation became “multisite.” Although BuddyPress initially appeared on WPMu installations, I will use the more recent term “multisite” to prevent confusion.

[6] WordPress can be downloaded for free from wordpress.org, but prospective users must have server space to install it; a free, hosted version of the platform is available on <http://wordpress.com/>.

[7] See <http://buddypress.org/>.

[8] See <http://www.wsc.ma.edu/facultycenter/lowstakes-benefits.pdf/>.

[9] See <http://wordpress.org/extend/plug-ins/custom-profile-filters-for-buddypress/>.

[10] Public groups are listed in the site-wide groups directory, and everything that happens within them is fed into the site-wide activity feed; so, for example, when a member posts a message to a forum in a public group, a notification such as “X posted a message to the forum topic, ‘Course Assignments for Monday’” will become part of the site-wide feed. Private groups are listed in the group directory, but they are closed to non-members; membership requests need to be approved by group moderators, and activity is visible only to group members. Hidden groups are completely secluded. They are not listed in the group directory, and new members must be invited to join the group.

[11] See <http://www.itap.purdue.edu/studio/mixable/>.

[12] The recently revised Facebook terms of service state that “You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook, and you can control how it is shared through your privacy and application settings.” But recent debates over privacy on Facebook suggest otherwise (“Statement”).  See also Figueroa.

[13] Facebook appears to be moving towards a public offering, but the details remain unclear (Schonfeld).

[14] In 2010, Developer Owen Mundy responded to this problem by creating “Give Me My Data” (http://givememydata.com/), a tool which helps Facebook members export their data from Facebook. I thank Michael Mandiberg for bringing the tool to my attention.

[15] Though Facebook privacy controls allow members to restrict certain friends from seeing particular profile page elements, even the act of implementing such restrictions, if detected, could cause offense.

[16] See <http://commons.gc.cuny.edu/>.

[17] For a list of plug-ins created by the CUNY Academic Commons Development team, see its page on the WordPress Repository: <http://profiles.wordpress.org/users/cuny-academic-commons/>. A fuller discussion of the CUNY Academic Commons may be found in an article that I have co-authored with George Otte, forthcoming in the journal On the Horizon.

[18] See <http://lookingforwhitman.org>.

[19] A list of projects may be found at: <http://lookingforwhitman.org/projects/>.

[20] See <http://frontispiece.lookingforwhitman.org/>.

[21] I have expanded upon this aspect of the project in a blog post titled “Hacking Together Egalitarian Educational Communities; Some Notes on the Looking for Whitman Project,” which may be found at: <http://mkgold.net/blog/2010/05/28/hacking-together-egalitarian-educational-communities-some-notes-on-the-looking-for-whitman-project/>.

Leave a Reply