OU Goes Social with “Platform”

Earlier this week, the OU quietly opened up its new social site – Platform – with a mailing going out today to inform students and alumni about it’s availability…

…and at first sight, it’s looking really good:

As a distance learning institution, our students potentially miss out on the sense of community that you get as a student in a traditional university, although we work hard at engaging students in online forums at a course level and the students assocation (OUSA) try to support general interest groups again with online forums. At a regional and local level, course tutorials offer students a chance to meet face to face, (although there is an increasing number of wholly online courses) and our students also take it on themselves to create their own local groups, Facebook groups, and so on.

So I’m guessing that one of the functions of the Platform site is to help develop the wider community feeling that membership of a university provides, alongside the course cohort communities.

But more than that – the site is open to anyone, whether or not they are a current student or part of the OU alumni. And there’s no hard sell…

So what’s on Platform?

The front page is a general news page, that also currently includes a couple of “interactive” features, specifically a poll and a Youtube video from one of the OU View channels on Youtube (The Open University, OU Life or OU Learn). (I assume that the polls, and maybe the video, will change on a regular basis?)

There’s also what looks like a “learning fact of the day” panel that provides a link to an actual “course sales” page in a reasonably un-intrusive way.

Just in passing, it’s worth comparing this panel with the OU “Learning Fact of the Day” widget, which actually links through to an OpenLearn course from which the fact was pulled, rather than driving the viewer to a page on the course selling catalogue.

Something that is not obviously on the site is a schedule of OU/BBC programmes, or even an OU/BBC iPlayer channel? Maybe that’s because the placement of this site in comparison to the open2.net site is not fully clear yet? Certainly I could see Platform cannibalising open2’s traffic if Platform started publicising OU/BBC programmes? But Open2 is looking rather tired… (That said, things are happening on that site. For example, the site is starting to include extra video features around our broadcast TV programmes, as the Barristers wraparound site shows (if you can manage to navigate round it to actually find the content, that is ;-) and commenting around the programme pages is slowly starting to take off (see for example the comments around the James May’s Big Ideas: Man-Machine programme).

But back to the Platform site…

The News tab links to a set of news stories I guess created by OU staff (at the moment?). And I’m guessing there’ll be a mix of text stories as well as audio packages. (Though I do take issue with calling linked to audio a “podcast”, I do have to admit;-)

Two more things to note about that audio link: firstly, it’s a link rather than an embedded player plus a link – clicking the link opened a player in a new window on my browser. That’s a shame… it would have been much neater if there was an embedded player there. Secondly, here’s where it’s pointing to: http://podcast.open.ac.uk/feeds/platform/20081124T124715_is_reality_tv_ruining_music.mp3. The OU podcast site (which is: a) still not out of testing/really launched yet, and b) not the OU iTunesU site. (I’m not sure how much the content from those sites will overlap). And from a little tweet I heard a week or two ago, the podcast site actually uses Amazon S3 for storage and delivery…

A few other things to notice about the News pages – ratings, tagging and comments are all available… (I’m not sure what the moderation policy is, w.g. whether or not Platform staffers are actively moderating (= not scalable/sustainable in the long run, if the site takes off?) or using a lazy approach (report this post). Same with the tags – e.g. if people use inappropriate or offensive tags, can these be moderated, deleted?

The Blogs area links to a set of blogs on different topics. At the moment this looks like they’ve commissioned people to write posts for the Platform blogs (Open2 uses a similar sort of approach for their topic blogs), so it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out. Certainly I don’t fully engage with writing posts to the Open2 Science and Technology blog, for a variety of reasons (I don’t like the blog engine they use; posts need to go through an editorial policy that strips out movies and maps in case of rights issues, but lets typos through that I can’t go in and change once the post is published, the traffic is lousy compared to the views I can get posting here on OUseful.info etc etc).

Each blog appears to have it’s own RSS feed, which is good (I haven’t checked which feed type they went for… it would be nice to think it was Atom).

The call to action around the feed – “Get Updates” – is well chosen, I think, and it’s nice that feed autodiscovery is enabled. I have to admit that the feed URL looks a bit odd, though… http://www.open.ac.uk/platform/blogs/alumni/%2A/%2A/feed. Hmm… (%2A renders as * if you hover over the URL in the browser status window)

The Campus area looks to be an attempt to bring something of the OU campus alive, with voices and tales from people who work there. (I’m guessing this part of the are will feed from the OUlife Youtube channel and maybe the research channel, when it launches?).

If anywhere, this is the page on the Platform site that looks most like the place that is linking out to other OU web properties on the “main” OU website. In which guess, I guess it’s really an info point? And many respects, the thing that is closest to a traditional university homepage (although, err, Where is the Open University Homepage??).

The Join In area is where forums can be found (also linked to as “Forums” from the front page, I think?

The Timeout area is where the games are… ;-) The OU actually has quite a long history of releasing games (e.g. here’s a round-up I did a couple of years ago: OU Online Games and Interactives), but the explosion in casual game formats and libraries means that they must be far easier (=quicker and cheaper) to make now, as well as being more acceptable, maybe?

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the commenting and “joining in” features require you to login. There are two huge things happening here. Firstly, to login to the site, you don’t need to be a member of the OU (that is, you don’t need to be staff, student, or alumni). Secondly, you can – if you want – login in OpenID:

The OU has actually been running an experimental OU OpenID server for sometime, which allows anyone with OU credentials to use those credentials as an OpenID, but as far as I know, this is one of the first production service running on the open.ac.uk domain that lets users in with an OpenID, although take note here – the OpenID doesn’t let you in to any OU authenticated areas: it’s just for Platform. (I’m not sure if Cloudworks or Cohere do OpenID yet?)

Although there’s little customisation you can do as a virtue of registering – the benefits arise from being able to comment, and join in the forums – the site design certainly has the look and feel of a site that might, one day, let you drag and drop panels around, and rearrange the page furniture webtop fashion. (Or maybe we need to clarify the widget strategy first?!)

As yet, there’s no link to the platform site from the Open University homepage, so it’ll be interesting to see how the relationship between the OU homepage and the platform homepage evolves over the coming weeks and months (and also how the relationship between Platform and open2 are managed?).

Seeing how the relationship between Platform and the new generation of departmental websites will evolve over time will also be an interesting one. For example, my own Communication and Systems Department homepage is experimenting with “voices from the department” with a range of blog and audio content, and the team responsible are also looking for ways to make the site a destination site around communication related technologies (hence the “Gadgets” area):

Hmm – maybe I should offer to do a “speedmash” or “half hour hack” area for them?;-)

And finally, for a review of some “older” OU 2.0 services, Brian Kelly did a write up some time ago: The Open University’s Portfolio Of Web 2.0 Services. You can find links to most of them here: /use – From us, to you, and back again.

PS in case you’re wondering, I think I’m correct in saying that the OU Platform site is built on Drupal…

PPS Brilliant job folks – it’ll be interesting to see how people engage with it…

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

15 thoughts on “OU Goes Social with “Platform””

  1. Nice work everybody involved with Platform. A small step in the right direction.

    * OpenID – wayhay. The sooner we can use something open rather than a very limiting folder-based in-house system the better.
    * Community / discussion – really good to see this kind of thing on a major OU site rather than hiving it off into a blog, wiki or forum subdomain.
    * Design – different to the normal plain and dull stuff that permeates round here.
    * Drupal – a proper open-source content management system with ongoin support from a wide and diverse community rather than an under-resourced internal system.

    Oh and the content is really quite interesting too.


  2. Hello, Tony,

    Definitely a nice looking site — it’s nice to see more sites like this making use of Drupal to support teaching and learning.

    At some point, the site admins might want to turn on javascript aggregation for the site. It’s definitely not necessary now, but could be useful down the road.

    Also, I posted a link to the site in the Drupal in Education group — if any of the folks behind the site are willing/interested, this would be a great site for a case study.



  3. thanks Tony. We’re looking to develop a lot in the next few months or so – mostly in the directions you mention (and hopefully many more that will be suggested by the users of the site).

    The feed url structure winds me up too, nothing that can be done about it at the mo however. It’s only feeds from tags that are weird tho but I agree that it would be useful to be able to predict the location of a tag’s feed.

    we worked hard to make sure the url structure for pages and feeds elsewhere is sensible and predictable however ;-)

  4. Perhaps it does fall a bit short of being a complete social platform, but I think it’s well on its way. One of the most important features, I think, was mentioned early in the post:

    he site is open to anyone, whether or not they are a current student or part of the OU alumni.

    I think that this unlocking makes the space one in which students are a lot more likely to invest. It addresses one o the most serious problems with the LMS-based approach to online learning that’s become the default: when the course ends, so does the student’s contribution to it. The ability to create and sustain a lasting presence is going to be a sine qua non of a flourishing online community, a fact the Platform’s designers seem to have recognized: kudos.

  5. Interesting post. Platform is a good idea, but the site is ugly. There are at least four different font sizes in evidence, an unnecessary image block (if I want to read about the new VC, I’ll click through to look at his mug shot, thank you!) at the top of the content section and a whole load of space wasted at the top of the page. The overall impression is messy.

  6. @bill – many thanks for the tip. we have pathauto enabled – I’ll add it to my list of things to look into!

    @daniel @jason – we know it’s not yet there as a complete social site and we have some ideas about how we want to move forward with this. What you see is a first step to give us a, um, platform ;-)

    if anyone want to discuss in more detail you can reach me at s.a.brown at open.ac.uk

  7. Except, sadly, it doesn’t really work.

    The OpenID implementation appears to be broken – it redirects me to Yahoo (my OpenID provider), I log in successfully and get sent back to Platform…whereupon it just says “OpenID log in failed”.

    Ok…so I’ll try to register for an account. All looks good, and it says something like “We’re sending you instructions by email”…which never arrives. Never. I’ve tried three different email accounts now. Nada.

    Similar thing happens if you try to change your password for a username you’ve attempted to register before…the promised email just never arrives.

    So in summary, I’m not really impressed that they’ve launched a site that’s impossible to register with.

  8. Hi Brian. Can you contact me at s.a.brown@open.ac.uk and we can help you resolve the problem.

    You can’t log in to Platform via OpenID until you have created an account (just the way Drupal works with OpenID). I’m not sure why you aren’t receiving confirmation emails, this is the first time I’ve heard of that problem.

    Anyway, drop me a line and we can work to resolve the problem.


  9. Not a true community site yet just a forum really but its a good start, very nice theme.

    I’ve been waiting for OU to do something with Drupal they seem to be a bit of a pioneer of open source, i’m so pleased they didn’t just buy Blackboard and try (but fail) to use it for everything like we do.

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