Sunday, 20 June 2010

"My Sunderland 2.0" - implementing our own bespoke social network

On Monday I've been volunteered to present at our media team away day on how best to implement and use various web tools to aid student engagement with module content.  I don't have too much time to spare as there are a few other people presenting in the same session, covering things like:
  • the integration of our community radio station, 107 Spark FM, into our production modules
  • the development of iPhone/Android applications for learning
  • the use of social media, like Facebook study groups, Delicious social bookmarking, Twitter hashtags, etc
One of the things the University has been building and implementing over the past 6 months is its own attempt at a social networking site for staff and students, as a riposte to some of the security and privacy concerns that have been associated with delivering educational content across different third-party commercial sites.  This is where "My Sunderland"comes in...

We've already had a central launch point for staff and students to locate the types of content they may find useful (ie the original My Sunderland), such as access to the VLE, module catalogues, telephone directories, docushare, etc,  but, as has been evidenced from the many staff blogs and study groups across various social media sites the existing provision for actually engaging in a dialogue with students has been pretty clunky or restrictive.  In particular, I'm thinking of the "Discussion" tools in WebCT here - the user interface leave a lot to be desired and is hardly intuitive (for staff or students).  Student feedback on this issue regularly points out that learners prefer to discuss their module content in more familiar surrounds that are easily navigated, hence the plethora of Facebook groups for many of our modules.

Enter "My Sunderland 2.0"

In January this year, a new beta version of My Sunderland was launched which seeks to offer staff and students a bespoke communication space with all the features and facilities of the earlier space, but now dressed in the guise of a funky Web 2.0 social networking site - think of this as "My Sunderland 2.0".  This site offers a lot of interesting feature that were missing from our earlier offerings - we can create blogs/pages/communities around all manner of content, from community events or things happening on campus, to self online modules capable of hosting audio and video content.  Best of all, everything that can be created can be given its own privacy setting from the following options, meaning that only the people you want to see the material can see it:
  • Private (only the creator)
  • My Friends (only people who have accepted friend requests on the service)
  • Logged in users (all users of the My Sunderland service)
  • Public (the entire web)
  • Community xyz (only group members of specific user created communities)
These are quite powerful privacy options.  Many staff find it uncomfortable befriending students on social networking sites like Facebook as there have been many instances of students who have exploited that relationship, either by verbally abusing staff members or abusing the fine line that demarcates the public and private spheres.  I'm sure I'm not alone in having been contacted inappropriately by students around assessment time.  Of course, it goes both ways.  There are many a time I've witnessed students talking about their nocturnal activities or their great feats of alcohol endurance over an assessment period, only to be contacted by them begging for an extension of some kind.  Facebook filters are nebulous and often difficult to keep track of, but with these My Sunderland controls only the people you want to see the content are going to get the message(s) you post.

There are several other features that are available, and I'll list a few with a brief description below:
  • The Wire - this is a status update service akin to Facebook or more appropriately Twitter (140 character limit)
  • Pages - a homepage which can be used host information and subpages
  • Communities - create and manage your own communities based around modules, classes, interests, etc.
  • Blogs - maintain your own personal or committee-specific blog
I'm going to create a few simple screencasts walking people through the basic features and I'll embed the video in an update to this page in a few hours...

Any staff member or student can login into the new My Sunderland space, so go ahead, try it out now.


Video walkthroughs of the basic tools and features can be found below. Click through for HD versions with better resolution.

The profile tool

The wire tool

The dashboard tool

The blog tool

The activity tool

The communities tool

Overall, there is a lot of potential here.  WebCT is fine for uploading .doc or .ppt files, but for anything else third party solutions have tended to be the order of the day (embedding Slideshare presentations or YouTube videos live in the page).  If you wanted to get creative, you really had to know a little bit of HTML or create distinctive spaces within a module space.  For instance, the headers and the footers of a folder were editable with HTML with the centre of the page being given over to hosting files, but the pages seemed clunky to use and ugly to look at.  Also, a module space could be hard to navigate.  By adapting the look and feel of common social media tools My Sunderland 2.0 seems to offer a more customisable and friendly interface to staff with more rudimentary tech skills.

Remember, it's still in the beta phase o there may be bugs that need ironing out still.  Let me know what you think


Shaun said...

Cosmetically, a huge improvement over ver. 1.0. The usability of ver. 2.0 looks straight forward enough. Nice 1.

Rob said...

Yeah, there are still a few buggy moments in there and some doubling up of functionality in places (ie blogs, pages and communities seem very similar), but it's a step in the right direction

Maize said...

Really like the look of it; I think it will really encourage students to use MySunderland on a regular basis; rather than just at assessment time!

I love the fact that they seem to be attempting to integrate our email accounts into the page; rather than a separate system...

It screams iGoogle with the customisation, which isn't a bad thing.
I really HATE the placement of the edit page button...Brings the layout out of line...Maybe I'm a bit OCD, but I like my layout in a straight line PLZ.

The Wire isn't a bad idea; but I doubt it will be used by students =/

I think a smooth integration of WebCT into the system would work better; rather than keeping it separate from the entire thing.

I know the Twitter client is for everyone to see...But I don't like the fact it's just my tweets...Makes the page useless for me...Twitter and Facebook news feeds for the student would make more sense for them to use it.

But otherwise...Hope to use this before I leave xD

Rob said...

I think that much of what is visibile at the moment will be going through a series of refinements over the next few months. I've seen the template for the finished service which tends to be red rather than blue - it looks OK. It will also be mobile optimised too so students can use their iPhones/Androids/PDAs to access the site

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