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…