uSpace home page

If you’ve read a few of my previous posts, you might have noticed me talking about something called uSpace. This is the University’s new social networking platform and I’m pretty excited about it. I’ve had to keep relatively quiet about it until recently but now it’s been launched, here are my thoughts on where I think this is going.I was quite excited to discover, in the middle of last year, that the University was investigating social networking platforms with a view to setting up their own. A whole raft of options were considered, including open-source and proprietary solutions, but CICS eventually decided to go ahead and buy Jive Software’s Clearspace (now known as Jive SBS).

Having begun life as a Java-based bulletin board system, Clearspace has since evolved into a fully-fledged communication platform, incorporating a hierarchical structure, wiki-like documents, discussions, blogs and project-management features. According to CICS’s own information page:

It has been chosen to meet the needs of the diverse communities within the University.
  1. Academics - Develop an interactive learning area for your students in an environment integrated with MUSE and MOLE.
  2. Researchers - Collaborate with external and internal colleagues in a secure and fluid way.
  3. Administrative staff - Enjoy new types of communication with the University population. You can create intranet type areas for your department or Faculty, interest groups, discussions or polls. It enables much wider networking across department and role.
  4. Students - It enables you to work collaboratively and creatively on course work as well as socialise with others.

I think the main strength of uSpace is that it provides a university-controlled, safe and secure environment within which to collaborate. In research in particular it’s often considered necessary (though whether this is actually the case is another discussion altogether) to hide ones ideas from the wider research community and the general public until they are published. Using services provided by a third party, however secure and trustworthy, to collaborate is often seen as risky (though in reality insecure passwords are probably a much greater risk). In addition, there’s the very real danger that a third party could go up in smoke, taking all of your discussions, documents and data with it. Having a university-maintained system will go some way to alleviate these fears and get people using social media to the benefit of all.

I also like the democratising nature of social media, and that seems to have carried over to uSpace. Too many of the university’s services are segregated into students vs. staff: for example while both students and staff have an online calendar, neither can see the other’s which limits its usefulness somewhat, especially when you consider that many postgraduates need to work with research staff every day, but are classed as students. By contrast, everyone has access to the same facilities (to a greater or lesser extent) within uSpace. This might put off some staff, but will encourage use amongst students who won’t feel they’re being shortchanged.

On the other hand, uSpace isn’t perfect. It suffers somewhat from being a jack-of-all-trades: while all of the components are good and are well integrated, none of them can hold a candle to the best in their individual classes. Google Docs are more powerful than uSpace documents, and most wiki services provide greater flexibility. uSpace blogs provide very limited functionality, especially when compared to systems such as Wordpress. The social networking features such as friending and status updates feel clunky next to the power of Facebook or the simplicity of Twitter.

Another potential difficulty is Jive Software’s attitude towards the education market. They were obviously keen to play up their commitment to HE in order to make the sale, but I don’t think they’re really that bothered about it. It feels like they’ll be continuing to focus on the business sector, particularly with the recent renaming of Clearspace to Jive Social Business Software. At the start, they were very keen to provide support and help with education-related customisation. I’m not as involved as I was so I don’t know whether they’re maintaining this level of service, but I hope they do.

There’s definitely going to be an issue of training. Although some staff will have no problem hitting the ground running with uSpace, many others will need help getting used to such a novel way of working. And let’s not forget the students: I think we sometimes attribute them with more IT literacy than they possess. Tied into this is the fact that people will need a reason to use uSpace over whatever they already do, and it’s going to have to be a pretty good reason to overcome the natural human resistance to change. Staff and students alike will only use the service if they can understand how it will make their lives and/or work better, and at the moment a clearer message on this is needed.

I’m not convinced that uSpace in its current form is the way to go in the long-run, but it seems to be a good compromise for now, while the real work of embedding a culture of social media use within the university continues. In the longer term I’d like to see a more flexible solution using separate (ideally open-source) components such as Wordpress for blogging and MediaWiki for collaborative editing, but I can see this would be a big leap for most potential users and would require a lot more effort integrating and maintaining them. For the time being though, it will be interesting to see how uSpace develops and how people use it.

This blog post seems to have gone on a bit, so I’ll cut it off now. I will, of course, be discussing uSpace and social media in general more soon.

Have you used uSpace or something similar? How did you find it? What uses can you see? Share your thoughts in the comments below.