BMCC Strengthens Community Through OpenLab Virtual Campus

March 31, 2022

A team of Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) professors and staff is working to increase student participation in the BMCC OpenLab by creating a sense of community and fostering a sense of belonging within a virtual campus.  The OpenLab Virtual Campus is one of seven projects funded by the President’s Fund for Excellence and Innovation.

In the same way the college has physical campuses where students meet for classes and other activities, the OpenLab is meant to be the online space where many of those same activities can take place. The BMCC OpenLab is accessible through many different electronic devices including smart phones.

A vast portion of BMCC students who commute from across the city’s five boroughs to the main campus in lower Manhattan, leave once class is dismissed. The OpenLab enables them to remain connected and engaged in BMCC activities, clubs or classes even after they leave the physical campus.

“Students may meet face to face on one of BMCC’s campuses, but they can continue collaborations together online in the Open Lab,” said Jean Amaral, Professor and Open Knowledge Librarian at BMCC.  “It’s analogous to the physical campus.”

Professor Amaral and her fellow Virtual Campus team members Gina Cherry, Director, Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning and Scholarship; Learning Experience Designer Syelle Graves; Digital Education Director Thomas Harbison and Media Arts and Technology Professor Christopher Stein say the Open Lab is an online space that students can get to on their own time and strengthen their sense of connectivity and community at BMCC.

The President’s Fund provided the team with resources to hire dedicated staff members who will conduct outreach through student serving departments, and help those same students engage in activities that meet their interests and goals.

Student Engagement Coordinator Raquel Neris compares the OpenLab to a resource rich tool box for students.  In addition to student outreach, she’ll be offering support to students at every step of the way as they get up to speed on the workings of the platform.

“We’ll show students how to create their own portfolios, templates and guide them through the process of creating a community,” said Neris.  “Learning is about connection. We learn together exploring the world.  The OpenLab provides us with an opportunity for another possibility for communication. In the twenty first century, we are not limited to any particular physical space or this moment in time. The OpenLab allows us to create communities, expose our work and be able access it at any time, any place in the world,”

Open Lab is a thriving collection of classes, projects and active communities

Specifically, the OpenLab is a network of websites.  On top of that network of websites, there are also interconnections and features that gives the user the ability to decide how they want to share information. At the core of each of the websites is the widely-used open source blogging, publishing, and social networking platforms WordPress and BuddyPress

“In a larger sense, the Open Lab is built on open source technology,” said Professor Stein.  “The BMCC Open Lab has benefited from over 10 years of work at the CUNY academic commons, City Tech—New York City College of Technology (CUNY) as well as other CUNY institutions that have all worked on this project and we at BMCC have benefited from that.”

When a student or faculty member signs into the platform, they will find a thriving collection of classes, projects and active communities.  A BMCC community member can also set up a space on the Open Lab that is exclusive to BMCC but not open to the rest of the world.  There is also an open space where students, faculty and staff can set up profiles and communicate with each other, similar to social media.

“It is a virtual place they can get to on their time,” said Professor Amaral. “It’s a resource that’s free that allows students to connect.  We have the BMCC website, which is the formal space to engage with community around the college’s policies and procedures, but then we have the OpenLab, which is a vibrant growing active community, where the community members are creating the materials, the spaces and sharing things there.”

The Virtual Campus team explains that there are a number of different ways to utilize the site.   Within the space, there are places for discussion.  BMCC community members can friend one another much like social media sites and leave each other messages.  They can also create their own sites within the OpenLab platform and choose whether or not they want to share them with the world.

Launched in 2019 with help from a Digital Pathways Project grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the OpenLab was instantly embraced by BMCC faculty members.

“Faculty wanted to put courses on an open more configurable space,” said Professor Stein. “While we have a lot of great courses on the open lab, it is also constructed in a way that anyone in the BMCC community can go in and make a space.”

Research shows that students often decide in their first semester whether a college is for them, and whether or not they are going to stay, said Professor Stein.

“A lot of times that decision can be influenced by whether or not they see themselves as connected to the college community,” he said.

As the Virtual Campus team-leaders stress time and time again, the OpenLab is one way to create a stronger connection between students and students, faculty and students and staff and students.

“We are so excited about what the President’s Fund is making possible, said Professor Amaral. “We’re envisioning every student club or group having a space on the OpenLab, so when club members graduate or transfer, new club members can come in and continue the work of those clubs. This will be a place to stay connected with the BMCC community and share life accomplishments for years to come.”

The BMCC Virtual Campus on the OpenLab relates to the college’s Strategic Goals including but not limited to Strategic Action 5.3; Re-imagining and redesigning both the College’s physical and virtual space to increase a sense of welcoming, create in-person and virtual communities, and enhance student learning and success.

  • OpenLab Virtual Campus one of seven projects funded by President’s Fund for Excellence and Innovation
  • Open Lab provides tools, space and time to establish sense of connectivity and community
  • Students can continue face to face collaborations online

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