David B. Dennis
, Konstantin Läufer
and George K. Thiruvathukal
Department of History, Loyola University Chicago, Chicago, IL 60626, U.S.A.
Department of Computer Science, Loyola University Chicago, Chicago, IL 60611, U.S.A.
Academic computing, Cloud computing, Collaboration, Course management, Groupware, Software-as-a-
We discuss our initial experience with the transition from conventional technology to social networking sites
and other cloud-backed sites for three core business functions of two academic departments, of computer
science and history, at a mid-size private university: course management, research and administrative collab-
oration, and community engagement. We first discuss the social/cultural context that informs our technology
choices, as well as the evolution of the technology choices themselves. Then, we identify the targeted depart-
ment functions and their actors. Next, we describe the past and present technical architectures used to support
these functions. We conclude with a discussion of our preliminary experience with this transition and to what
extent our experience can be generalized into a blueprint that can be adopted by other organizations.
Academic departments at colleges and universities
perform various functions that involve collaboration
among the members of its community and efforts
to expand the community by attracting new students
and, if positions are available, new faculty and staff.
To perform these functions as effectively as possible,
departments choose processes and technologies that
support these goals and are appropriate for the tar-
geted groups of users. Making these choices can ben-
efit from an understanding of both the technologies
themselves and the digital culture of its users.
As new technologies emerge and digital culture
evolves, academic departments need to decide which
technologies to adopt and when to implement them
in order to continue functioning effectively. We re-
port on our experience with the recent transition of
three central department functions from conventional
approaches to new ones based on hosted social net-
working sites (Weaver and Morrison, 2008) and other
cloud-backed sites (Lenk et al., 2009):
course management by faculty for their classes,
research collaboration among faculty, students,
and external collaborators,
engagementwith the communityserved by the de-
partment, including the dissemination of depart-
mental announcements, enabling students and
alumni to network, and other forms of interaction.
In the remainder of this paper, we first discuss
the social/cultural context that informs our technol-
ogy choices (Brandtzæg and Heim, 2009), as well as
the evolution of the choices themselves (Weaver and
Morrison, 2008). Then, we identify the targeted de-
partment functionsand their actors. Next, we describe
the past and present technical architectures used to
support these functions. Finally, we discuss our pre-
liminary experience with this transition and to what
extent our experience can be generalized.
It is useful to consider technology within the so-
cial/cultural context in which it is used. In particu-
lar, making technology choices can benefit from an
understanding of the digital culture of the actors in-
volved. Digital culture has evolved in four major
stages among each of the post-WWII generations.
Baby Boomers (1946-1964). This generation of
post-WWII births was raised with various
types of print and broadcast media, as well as
postal mail and the telephone for communica-
tion. The internet emerged as a mainstream
B. Dennis D., Läufer K. and K. Thiruvathukal G..
DOI: 10.5220/0003672001850191
In Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Software and Database Technologies (ICSOFT-2011), pages 185-191
ISBN: 978-989-8425-76-8
2011 SCITEPRESS (Science and Technology Publications, Lda.)
technology after this generation was well into
adulthood (Nayak et al., 2010).
Generation X (1965-1981). This post-baby-boom
generation was the first to have widespread
access to television during its formative years
and experienced. Mobile phones and the internet
emerged as mainstream technology when mem-
bers of this generation were teenagers or in their
twenties (Tapscott, 1999).
Generation Y (1982-1995). This generation was
born into the later stages of the personal comput-
ing era and the early internet, before broadband
became widely available. Its members embraced
mobile phones and social networking as teenagers
or young adults (Tapscott, 1999).
Generation Z (1996-present). This “Internet Gen-
eration of Digital Natives” is being born into a
world of mobile smart phones connected through
social networking (Tapscott, 2009).
The boundaries among generations are blurred, and
many individuals fall into more than one generation in
terms of their technology-related behavior and habits.
As we learned in our departments, engaging the
different generations can be challenging (Pfeil et al.,
2009; Waycott et al., 2009). Baby boomers and even
gen-Xers tend to be suspicious of new technologies as
fad, whereas gen-Yers are more open, and gen-Zers
appear to be fully digital in orientation. More impor-
tantly, gen-Yers and gen-Zers are increasingly willing
to live more “public” private lives, much more com-
fortable with sharing their personal data with others.
Given that generation Y represents all current col-
lege students, and the Digital Natives of generation Z
are now entering college and will constitute the vast
majority of users over the next ten years, this cultural
shift will have profound implications for the future of
academic management processes.
In this section, we describe the transition undergone
by the online interaction technology used to support
the academic functions outlined above.
3.1 The Distant Pre-web Past
The distant past, by internet standards, refers to the
pre-web era. Even though the web had been in exis-
tence since 1989 in the form of hyperlinked text doc-
uments, this era effectively continued until the wider
commercial adoption of the web in the mid-1990s.
During this period, various disjointed mechanisms
were used to provide content in a read-only fashion:
e.g., FTP, Gopher, WAIS, etc.
This period also saw the development of various
means of interaction, though these were likewise dis-
associated. Asynchronous communication with indi-
viduals occurred via email. Public and internal dis-
cussion was supported by USENET groups. Docu-
ment submission was provided by FTP upload. Ac-
cordingly, online interaction among the various ac-
tors described above was limited mostly to email and
USENET, and even that was possible only among the
few people who had access to these mechanisms.
3.2 The Recent Web and Email Past
In the mid-1990s, commercial adoption of the web in-
creased tremendously, and content dissemination was
consolidated on the web in the form of read-onlysites.
Interactive offerings included interactive discus-
sion fora, some first-generation consumer-oriented
websites for photo sharing, driving directions, etc.,
and some developer-oriented sites for collaborative
development. Fueled by the dramatic growth in inter-
net access among the general population, email sky-
rocketed as the main means of nonpublic interaction.
3.3 The Social Networking Present
The early 2000s saw the emergence of a phenomenon
often called web 2.0 (O’Reilly, 2007; Jahnke and
Koch, 2009). The major change brought about by web
2.0 has been to engage users in the creation and clas-
sification of content. Examples are community-based
content creation efforts such as Wikipedia and the
widespread use of tags instead of preset categories.
Furthermore, while first-generation interactive
websites have been designed as silos that required
screen-scraping for programmatic interaction, most
second-generation functionality is service-oriented
and exposes a documented API for programmatic
interaction (Weiss and Gangadharan, 2010). This
change is technologically significant because it allows
individual applications to focus on performing fewer
functions better and supporting cross-integration.
The middle of this past decade gave birth to two
related trends: social networking and cloud comput-
ing. The former typically are software-as-a-service
(SaaS) offerings in cloud terminology. Based on the
SaaS paradigm, a wide range of well-known cloud-
backed offerings have emerged, such as:
general social networking sites such as Facebook
and Orkut;
specialized professional networking sites such as
LinkedIn and XING;
ICSOFT 2011 - 6th International Conference on Software and Data Technologies
hosted conventional and lightweight blogs such as
Blogger and Tumblr, respectively;
microblogging sites such as Twitter;
social bookmarking sites such as Delicious and
web content management sites such as Google
online document management and groupware
sites such as Google Docs and Zoho;
social coding sites such as Bitbucket and GitHub;
Our study of how recent and ongoing transition to
technologies based on hosted social-networking has
impacted management of academic affairs focuses
on the following three fundamental department func-
tions. In this section, we briefly define these functions
and the associated workflows, scenarios, and actors.
4.1 Course Management
Course management is the process used by faculty
to manage the various aspects of teaching a course
to a class of students (Gauthier and Impey, 2004).
This function is complex but consists of several well-
understood scenarios.
dissemination of course materials;
group discussions;
submission and evaluation of written homework;
submission and evaluation of code examples;
student presentations and their evaluation;
test taking and evaluation;
sharing grades with students;
conducting polls on students.
4.2 Research Collaboration
Research collaboration among computer science fac-
ulty, students, and external collaborators can be de-
scribed as a workflow that involves the following ac-
tivities (Kraut et al., 1987; Ding et al., 2010).
1. knowledge gathering;
2. project planning;
3. collaborative writing and software development;
4. bibliography management;
5. formal publication;
6. other types of dissemination.
4.3 Community Engagement
The community served by a department includes its
current students, faculty, and staff, prospective stu-
dents, alumni (former students), employers, candi-
dates for faculty or staff positions, as well as more
loosely connected groups such as the parents of cur-
rent students. The complex, amorphous function of
engaging this community comprises several scenar-
ios, including the following (Waters et al., 2009).
maintaining the department’s official public web
maintaining the department’s internal content (in-
facilitating the department’s internal processes,
such as faculty meetings, committee decisions,
enabling faculty to maintain web content specific
to their teaching and research activities;
disseminating of various types of departmental
announcements to current and former students;
enabling current students to network with each
other and departmental faculty and staff;
enabling alumni (former students) to network
with each other and departmental faculty and
disseminating entry-level job postings to current
disseminating advanced job postings to alumni.
4.4 Actors
The following actors are involved in these workflows
and scenarios:
Faculty in their roles as teachers and researchers
belong mostly to the baby boomer and X gen-
erations. As computer scientists and scholars
exposed to university information technologies,
they tend to be more technology-savvy than other
members of these generations but still display
some of their characteristics, such as privacy con-
cerns, reluctance to participate in social network-
ing, etc. Younger faculty are being hired only very
slowly in these departments.
Staff in their job-specific roles such as secretary, sys-
tem administrator, etc. are predominantly baby
boomers and gen-Xers. They tend to understand
the technology they use to perform their jobs, but
in many cases require training—especially in the
case of upgrades or new systems.
Current Students undergraduateand graduate alike,
almost overwhelmingly belong to generation Y.
Most members of these groups are regular social
networking users and have some expectations that
the organizations they interact with participate in
social networking as well.
Prospective Students will overwhelmingly belong
to generation Z and beyond. They will have even
higher expectations of managing their interactions
through social networking. In particular, they will
expect their initial engagement with academic in-
stitutions or departments to occur through social
networking tools (Lindbeck and Fodrey, 2010).
Alumni (former students) span multiple generations
and use social networking accordingly. They
are particularly interested in networking for so-
cial reasons or in search of employment and
will engage in technology that supports these
goals (Goetchius, 2008).
External Users such as employers, candidates for
faculty or staff positions, students’ parents, etc.,
are a highly diverse group in terms of age and
level of education. Nevertheless, as these individ-
uals belong to more and more recent generations,
their expectations of using social networking for
their interactions with academic institutions or de-
partments will continue to increase.
In this section, we describe how our technical archi-
tecture in support of the above-mentionedtargetedde-
partment functions have evolved along with the avail-
able technologies themselves.
5.1 Course Management
In the distant pre-web past, there was very little course
management technology available. Instructors pro-
vided printed copies of their course materials, col-
lected homework and project submissions on paper
and/or removable media (floppy disks), and posted
grades on their office doors. Using email to interact
with students was then considered an innovation.
In the more recent past, the central Information
Technology Services unit at our university acquired a
major commercial course management system (Gau-
thier and Impey, 2004) that was intended to provide
all required functionality online. Although accep-
tance was widely encouraged and continual training
has been provided, the system itself has been criti-
cized by numerous faculty for its inflexibility, poor
usability, regular and enforced “course deletion” re-
quirements (owing to space limits) and occasional
data loss (often associated with the preceding).
At present, the authors have abandoned the cen-
tral system in favor of a combination of several care-
fully chosen, free, partially integrated “best-of-breed”
cloud-backed technologies:
Dissemination of course materials occurs via
cloud-backed solutions such as Google Sites and
hosted blogs.
Group discussions take place in Google Groups or
closed Facebook groups.
Submission of code examples takes place through
social coding sites such as Bitbucket, which pro-
vide shared private code repositories that support
standard version control software such as Mercu-
rial. In addition, these sites allow students to cre-
ate a project wiki, set up an issue tracker, etc.
Written work is submitted through Google Docs.
Gradebook functionality is provided through
Google Docs spreadsheets. Summer work is in
progress to have a gradebook with support for var-
ious roles, i.e., instructor, student, TA.
Some online test taking and polls are conducted
using Google Forms.
The authors have already been following this ap-
proach on several of their sites for computer science
and history courses.
5.2 Research Collaboration
In the distant past, research collaboration was largely
ad-hoc (Kraut et al., 1987; Ding et al., 2010). Code
and documents were exchanged by email or remov-
able media, although early version control systems
such as SCCS and RCS were used for more system-
atic collaborativedocument authoring and code devel-
opment. Knowledge gathering and interaction took
place in meetings, by email, phone, and/or Unix talk.
In the recent past, more modern version con-
trol systems such as CVS and Subversion were
adopted, often with Secure Shell-based setups that
supported collaboration across institutions. Interac-
tion remained largely the same, except that Unix talk
was replaced by newer forms of instant messaging.
At present, numerous collaborative research ef-
forts, including the authors’ own, have transitioned to
a combination of cloud-backed technologies. Specifi-
cally, the authors use these (free) systems:
Knowledge gathering occurs on project-specific
Wikis hosted on Google Sites, which supports
fine-grained access control.
ICSOFT 2011 - 6th International Conference on Software and Data Technologies
Project planning takes place with the help of Base-
camp, a simple, effective, and highly usable site.
Collaborative software development is supported
effectively by distributed version control systems
(DVCS) such as Git or Mercurial. Various social
coding sites, such as GitHub and Bitbucket, sup-
port these DVCS. We use Bitbucket for nonpublic
development because of its free private reposito-
ries and GitHub for open-source projects because
of its high visibility and social coding features.
Collaborative writing is the first of two writing
phases. In this phase, the authors use Google
Docs until they have a coherent draft. Then they
switch to an appropriate formal publication mech-
anism as discussed below.
Bibliography management can greatly benefit
from sharing and centralization. We have iden-
tified CiteULike as the most effective option for
sharing bibliographic information among collab-
orators and publicly.
Before formal publication can occur, suitable
venues have to be identified. WikiCFP allows us
to manage a list of conferences and workshop to
which we plan to submit. Twitter is also useful for
receiving announcements from conferences, such
as postponed submission deadlines.
Formal publication itself is the second of two writ-
ing phases. In this phase, the authors use La-
TeX or LyX to satisfy the envisioned publisher’s
formatting requirements, and version control sys-
tems, as described above, enable collaboration.
Other types of dissemination include announc-
ing the publication of a paper on a blog such as
Tumblr, which can automatically send short ver-
sions of posts to Twitter, inclusion in one’s CiteU-
Like bibliography, and email to specific individu-
als. Disqus is a discussion mechanism that inte-
grates with Tumblr, among other sites. Gravatar
is a service used by various other sites for map-
ping of email addresses to avatar pictures. Finally,
Google Analytics provides various types of web-
site access data (including blogs) that are useful in
estimating the impact of a project or publication.
5.3 Community Engagement
In the distant past, community engagement occurred
mostly through conventional channels such as mail-
ings, poster advertisements, on-campus meetings, etc.
USENET groups also played a role in allowing mem-
bers of an academic community to interact.
In the recent past, universities attempted to move
large parts of their conventional community engage-
ment efforts to web and email, with mixed results.
The department of computer science maintains an of-
ficial website and uses Google Groups for reaching
current students by email. There was no systematic
way to reach our alumni.
At present, the departments of computer science
and history at the authors’ institution have estab-
lished a social networking presence almost overnight
by picking and integrating a few specific technolo-
gies. Our initial focus has been on engaging stu-
dents and alumni, which in turn requires that students
and alumni be allowed to participate actively and con-
tribute (Waters et al., 2009; Goetchius, 2008).
To engage our students, we have created a Face-
book page with a custom URL that is easy to
remember. This page allows our current, for-
mer, and prospectivestudents to interact with each
other and department faculty informally. This
choice was based on the observation that virtually
every one of our students already had a Facebook
account. We have also set up a Tumblr blog for all
public departmental announcements, thereby de-
centralizing the process of content creation among
department faculty. All blog posts automatically
feed into a departmental Twitter handle we set up.
Discussions are enabled through Disqus. We are
currently evaluating how to pipe the blog posts
back into the existing Google Groups-based email
lists using cloud-backed technology.
To engage our alumni, we have created a LinkedIn
group so as to underscore the professional nature
of this effort. We were able to populate this group
quickly based on departmental information and
one of the authors’ personal alumni contacts on
LinkedIn and via email. We periodically ask the
members of this group to spread the word to other
alumni who are not members yet.
We have discussed the way members of the succes-
sive postwar social “generations” relate to technology
and the evolution of the technology itself. Within this
context, we discussed our initial experience with the
corresponding technological transition of several core
functions of academic departments at a mid-size pri-
vate university: course management, research collab-
oration, and community engagement.
Our cloud-backed course management approach
has already been used successfully but continues to
undergo refinement in technology and process. Our
cloud-backed approach to research collaboration has
functioned effectively as well and continues to evolve
as we evaluate new technologies. We believe that both
approaches can already be used as starting points for
other departments and research groups.
Our social-networking-basedapproach to commu-
nity engagement has been well received and, accord-
ing to Google Analytics, drawn more traffic to the de-
partmental website. It has focused on connecting stu-
dents and alumni so far but needs to be extended to
include the various other aspects of this function.
The related work we have surveyed is either de-
scriptive (Lockyer and Patterson, 2008; Hung and
Yuen, 2010), focuses on one particular technol-
ogy (Selwyn, 2009; Roblyer et al., 2010; Ractham
and Firpo, 2011), or proposes to build an educational
social networking site from scratch (Conole and Cul-
ver, 2010). By contrast, our approach focuses on the
integration of existing, mature “best-of-breed” sites.
To understand how our observations relate to on-
going efforts by government agencies to broaden the
participation in computing, further data is needed on
social networking participation across other demo-
graphic aspects besides age, such as gender, ethnic-
ity, level of education. In addition, further data on
social networking participation across different coun-
tries (Mislove et al., 2007) would be useful for gener-
alization across national boundaries.
We conclude by observing that technology con-
tinues to evolve very rapidly. Requirements also tend
to evolve as the target users change with respect to
demographics and use of technology. Therefore in-
formation technology decision makers at the various
levels of an academic organization need to collabo-
rate closely on requirements and evaluate the avail-
able choices very carefully.
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