This Month on the OpenLab: August 2020 Release

Bee on a yellow flower.
bee & planidium by André De Kesel is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

On August 4, 2020 we released version 1.7.44 of the OpenLab. It was a large release, and included multiple new features, new plugins, updates to all existing themes and plugins, and updates to WordPress and BuddyPress, the software that powers the OpenLab.

New Features

  1. We redesigned and expanded the “badges” feature used to differentiate different types of Courses, Projects, Clubs, and Portfolios. Previously, we had badges for Open Educational Resources (OER) and First Year Learning Communities (FYLC), which could be used to filter courses on the directory page. We still have these two badges, but we’ve added the following:
    1. Cloneable: groups that can be cloned via shared cloning
    2. Open: groups that have open privacy settings
    3. Model: courses or projects that serve as cloneable models that have been peer reviewed to meet standards for best practices. Read more about model courses on our self-paced faculty training module, Teaching with the OpenLab.
    4. Department Resource: courses or projects that serve as resources for departments, such as model courses, course hubs, or department project sites.
    5. College Resource: sites that serve as college-wide resources, such as the City Tech Guide.
  2. Related to the new badges, we made a number of significant changes to search on the OpenLab to make it easier to find Courses, Projects, Clubs, and Portfolios:
    1. We revised the search box that appears at the top of the OpenLab site so that it searches across all types of groups—Courses, Projects, Clubs, and Portfolios. For example, if you search for “design” in the top search, you will now see all Courses, Projects, Clubs, and Portfolios with the keyword “design” in the title or description of the group.
    2. On the results page for this site-wide search, you can further refine the results to search only in particular groups, as well as the usual filters of school, department, etc. You can also use the new group badges to narrow down search. These additional ways of searching were also added in each of the group directory pages: Courses, Projects, Clubs, and Portfolios.
  3. The WordPress Block Editor (also known as Gutenberg) is now the default editor for all new sites on the OpenLab, but the Classic Editor is still available for anyone who wishes to use it. Read more on the Open Road about the transition to the Block Editor.
  4. Discussion, Docs, and Files—some of the tools available on a group’s profile—are now deactivated by default when you create a new group with a site. However, they can be turned on in the group profile settings. We found that they are not used very often when the group also has a site and can sometimes be confusing, providing too many potential places to add content. However, they are activated by default for all new groups that don’t have a site.
  5. We made a change to site menus so that the Profile and Home links automatically included in the site menu can be edited or removed. The Profile link can now be found in a section called “OpenLab” so if it’s removed, it can be re-added. The Home link can be re-added as a custom link.
  6. We made a few improvements to the appearance of the Library widgets that can be added to the sidebar of a site.
  7. There were some improvements made behinds the scenes to cloning that will improve the process for groups with a lot of content on the site.

New Plugins

We added four new plugins in this release:

  1. Highlighter Pro: logged-in members of the OpenLab can highlight and comment on specific sections of text on a post or page, allowing for more fine-grained engagement on a site than usual commenting.
  2. Gravity Forms Image Choices allows you to add images to a Gravity Forms quiz or survey.
  3. Setmore Plus allows you to add an appointment scheduler to your site.
  4. Meks Smart Social Widget is a simple plugin allowing you to add icons with links to your social media sites to your site sidebar.

Improvements to existing features

  1. We made some improvements to the Easy Table of Contents plugin—in particular, the feature that allows you to add a TOC widget to your site’s sidebar and “stick” the widget to the side of the page as you scroll down. For sites with a lot of content, this can be useful as a secondary navigation menu.
  2. We made a few small changes to the sign up page to help clarify that members don’t need to use their real name as their username, and that it can’t be changed once signup is complete. We also moved the Display Name field up to appear closer to user name. Display name is what members use to identify themselves publicly and it can be anything they choose.
  3. A number of small display and color improvements were made to the Education Pro, Hemingway, and Hamilton themes.

Retired Plugins

We retired a number of plugins that are no longer being updated and/or are not used by OpenLab members. These plugins will still be active on sites where they’re currently activated but won’t be available for activation on new sites. They include:

  1. Achievements
  2. Awesome Flickr Gallery
  3. BadgeOS
  4. BadgeOS BadgeStack Add-On
  5. Captcha
  6. Cardboard
  7. Category Order & Taxonomy Terms Order
  8. Gravity Forms Directory & Add-ons
  9. HTML Import2
  10. Mihdan: Ajax Edit Comments (Editing comments is now part of default WordPress functionality so the plugin is unnecessary.)
  11. Page Links To
  12. pageMash
  13. Page Tagger
  14. Simple Drop Cap
  15. Simple Pull Quote
  16. Table of Contents Plus (We still have Easy Table of Contents.)
  17. WP Simple Anchor Links
  18. WP-Pro-Quiz
  19. WP-SWFObject
  20. WPBadgeDisplay
  21. WPBadger

Bug Fixes

We fixed one bug and identified another plugin conflict that can’t be fixed right now.

  1. There was an issue with gallery blocks in the Block editor, where when a new gallery block was added, and you tried to add images from the Media Library there would be a message that “No items were found”. Navigating to the “Edit Gallery” link shows that all media library items had already been added.
  2. There’s a conflict between the TinyMCE Advanced plugin and Block editor where when the plugin is activated, the shortcut for choosing a new block type by typing “/block name” doesn’t work. We’re not able to fix this conflict right now, so please be aware of it.

As always, please contact us with any questions!

Teaching with the OpenLab?

Hummingbird flying.
Hummingbird” by Domenic Hoffmann

We have a brand new online self-paced training module for faculty: Teaching with the OpenLab. The site provides resources and best practices to help you use the OpenLab effectively when teaching online, or (in the future) hybrid or in person.

You’ll find step-by-step help for signing up, creating your course, and setting up your course site, whether you’re creating a course on the OpenLab using the new course template, or cloning a model course provided by your department. 

You’ll also find guidance on every aspect of teaching with the OpenLab: preparing course materials, communicating with your students, designing and receiving assignments, providing feedback and grades, and getting your students started. 

Finally, the site provides a list of common-sense best practices for digital pedagogy that you can use to evaluate your approach.

Let us know what you think! There’s a feedback form at the end of the module: as always, your comments will help us help everyone teaching with the OpenLab. 

Need help? Contact us at anytime!

The New Course Template

A new look for new courses!

We’ve just introduced a new template for courses on the OpenLab. The OpenLab course template determines how courses appear when they’re first created; existing courses won’t be affected.

Check out the new course template on the Course Template demo site.

Included in the new version:

  • A fresh new look (using the Hemingway theme);
  • A structured menu to help faculty and students find and organize their work using categories;
  • Built-in help and resources for students;
  • A set of recommended plugins and widgets, automatically enabled to make working in the course site easier;
  • An optional discussion post (introductions) to help faculty and students get to know one another;
  • An optional student survey that faculty can use to understand how their students are situated regarding technology, working space, etc.
  • Suggested templates for your syllabus, schedule, class agendas, and assignments.

Why now?

The template is designed to support best practices for teaching online and for using the OpenLab platform, such as using categories to organize course content. It’s also designed to provide a more consistent experience for students using courses on the OpenLab.

Want to make changes?

Please do! As always, you can change your course however you like so that it suits you and your students.

Need help?

We have a Course Template Tour and OpenLab Help overview available now, with a faculty training module coming very soon. In the meantime, as always, you can reach the  friendly OpenLab team at

Course Template Tour (YouTube)


If you have thoughts about the new look for courses, let us know in the comments below or contact us anytime. All feedback – positive or negative – is very welcome!

Introducing the Block Editor

Multicolored blocks lit up in a dark space.
Tetris Blocks” by ShyCityNXR is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

In December 2018 with the release of WordPress 5.0, the Block editor (also known as Gutenberg) became the new default post editor, replacing the editor that has been around since the beginning, now called the “Classic” editor.

The Block editor is much more powerful than just a text editor, making it easier to build page layouts and integrate text with visual page elements, without any coding needed.

It has been installed on the OpenLab for the past year, but the Classic editor has been the default, until now. After the OpenLab summer release on August 4, the Block editor will become the default for all new sites, but the Classic editor will still be available for use on any site, or on individual posts and pages. Existing sites currently using the Classic editor will not be switched to the Block editor, unless you choose to change editors.

We encourage everyone to start using the Block editor, and explore all that you can do with Blocks! However, we have instructions for how to switch to the Classic editor if you would prefer to keep using it.

The Classic editor will be officially supported by WordPress through the end of 2021, and while it will likely continue to work for some time after that, it will become more obsolete over time. 

We have a number of pages in OpenLab Help, including:

There are also many helpful tutorials and introductions online. Here are a few good ones:

And as always, feel free to contact us with any questions or concerns, or stop by our virtual office hours!

In Solidarity with BLM: A Note from the OpenLab Team

Black Lives Matter in lights at a protest
Black Lives Matter” by Ella via Flickr

City Tech’s OpenLab team expresses our solidarity with activists and organizers working incredibly hard to affirm and protect Black lives in the wave of protests surrounding the murders of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black people targeted by white supremacist violence.

We believe that Black lives matter, and that existing structures of oppression maintain racial hierarchies that marginalize Black and brown people. These systems impact the daily lives of CUNY students as well as faculty and staff of color; the complicity of our institutions must be acknowledged and changed. We hope the OpenLab can be a place for open discussion, shared resources, and community building.

We’ll share here some resources we find helpful, and hope you will, too. One place to get started is Black Lives Matter.

This Month on the OpenLab: June 2020 Release

Strawberries” by Richard Hemmer is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

On June 2, 2020 we released version 1.7.43 of the OpenLab. It included new features and a few minor updates to plugins and themes.

New Features and Changes

We made one small and three large changes to cloning functionality on the OpenLab, as well as one bug fix.

  1. We expanded cloning to include clubs, in addition to courses and projects.
  2. We expanded shared cloning so that faculty, students, staff, and alumni can clone projects and clubs that have shared cloning enabled. Only faculty can clone courses. All courses, projects, and clubs cloned via shared cloning will display credit to the original author(s).
  3. All pages, posts, and menus that were published on sites being cloning will be published on the newly-cloned site. This is a change from previous functionality, where everything was in draft form. Site admins can review published pages and posts and move anything to draft as necessary.
  4. Previously, forms created with the Gravity Forms plugin weren’t cloned to a new site. Now all data from Gravity Forms (except any connections made to a personal Dropbox account) will be cloned to the new site.
  5. We fixed an issue that prevented folders in the files section of a group profile from being cloned. Now, if folders are being used to organize files, the folders will be cloned to the new site.

We made a number of improvements to the Education Pro theme:

  1. We made the main navigation “sticky” so that it remains visible at the top of the page, as you scroll down.
  2. We streamlined the available menus so it’s more intuitive to create menus and understand where they will appear on the site.
  3. The widget area at the bottom of the theme is now activated, so you can add widgets to both the sidebar, and the bottom (or footer) of the site. We also removed the OpenLab footer when this theme is activated in order to reduce the cluttered appearance of two footers.
  4. Previously, if you uploaded your own custom header image, there was an automatic transparent color overlay added to the image. We’ve removed this overlay so that the image will appear with the original colors. This means you’ll need to be careful that it doesn’t make the site title—which appears over the header image—unreadable.
  5. We enabled the featured image functionality, so you can upload a featured image for different pages and posts.

We made two improvements to the OpenLab Attribution plugin:

  1. The plugin is now network activated plugin so it’s automatically active on all sites.
  2. For block editor users, it’s now more visible in the block editor, so the button to add an attribution is on the top level of the block toolbar.

We made a few small fixes to the OpenLab Gradebook plugin:

  1. There was a bug causing letter grades with a ‘+’ or ‘-‘ to appear with only the letter grade visible in Firefox, and with the +/- slightly cut off in Chrome. This was just for the instructor view; students could see all grades with + or -.
  2. The rows in gradebooks with more than 5 students were becoming progressively more misaligned farther down the page.
  3. We added a deletion warning when deleting an assignment to double check before it’s actually removed. This will help prevent the accidental deletion of assignments from a gradebook.

New Plugins

  1. DCO Comment Attachment: This plugin allows commenters to attach files, such as images, or even PDFs, Word docs, and others, to their comments. There’s also automatic embedding for YouTube and Vimeo videos, as well as Twitter and Facebook posts. For security reasons, this functionality is only available to logged in members of the OpenLab.
  2. Wonder Gallery: This plugin allows you to create playlists and other galleries that include videos embedded from YouTube, Vimeo, and other hosts, as well as images, and posts from your site.
  3. NextGEN Gallery: This photo gallery plugin provides many different options for creating beautiful and responsive photo galleries.
  4. Category Tag Pages: This plugin allows you to add categories and tags to pages. Note that the categories and tags won’t appear on individual pages, as they do for posts, but the pages with categories or tags will appear in category and tag archives.

Accessibility Fixes

We made a few small accessibility fixes to improve color contrast ratios in the following themes:

  1. Hemmingway
  2. Lingonberry

As always, please contact us with any questions!

Transition to Virtual Office Hours

If you’re reading this, you must have the OpenLab on your mind, too. Whether you’re completely new to it, an expert, or somewhere in between, the OpenLab team is working to support you. We’ve revamped our support schedule for the rest of the semester to support distance learning. Here are the highlights:

  • We’ve converted all in-person support to virtual office hours.
  • Please be patient with us, and we will certainly be with you–we’re still figuring out how these remote office hours will work, what we need to be mindful about, what the best practices are. Our trial run will be today, 1:00-3:00pm. You can meet us here.
  • We’re offering more office hours: each week has at least two sessions of office hours, two hours each.
  • We’ve shifted the workshop times to office hours: that way, we can address the specific questions you have rather than focusing on the content of our workshops.
  • We’re asking that if you’re interested in participating in office hours, please let us know by sharing  your contact info etc and in a sentence or so what you’re hoping to work on. It can help us be prepared and make the most of our time together.
  • Here are instructions for joining office hours remotely.
  • As always, we will continue to offer email support–if you can easily ask your question this way, we encourage it. It’s the same as for your teaching: asynchronous (not working at the same time) is going to be more feasible than synchronous (working at the same time) support. Email us at or use our contact form.
  • Our extensive Help section might have the answer you’re looking for!

As you think about what work you want help with, we want to encourage you to be realistic about what you can reasonably do this semester. Use tools that will make those goals possible, and that you’re comfortable with. During office hours, we might show you how to use the OpenLab to do something, but we might encourage you to use other tools you have available to you that you already know how to use (eg email).

We hope to see you on the OpenLab again soon!

The Transition to Distance Learning: Getting Started on the OpenLab

Welcome to the OpenLab!

As we shift to distance learning, the OpenLab is here for you, and the OpenLab team can support you through this semester. Below are three steps to help you get started on the OpenLab.

Step 1: Join!

Step 2: Get help and support with using the OpenLab

Step 3: Create!

  • Follow instructions to create a Course to support your teaching this semester.
  • Remember that even though courses are shifting to online, you do not need to recreate your physical class in virtual space, nor do you need to be an expert online instructor. This archive of exemplary courses might inspire you, but remember that this is a good time to keep things simple and manageable!
  • Help students join your Course by sending them the URL for the course profile–it starts…. Students can then click Join Now! or Request Membership (depending on the privacy setting you chose when setting up your Course).

Now that you’ve joined the OpenLab community, you can join some of the collaborative communities that support your use of the OpenLab, such as the Open Road, where you can find updates, highlights, and announcements from the OpenLab, the Open Pedagogy project, where City Tech faculty and staff trade digital teaching resources, and L4, where instructors share sample digital assignments. You can also look for other Courses and Projects in your department to see examples and find resources.

This Month on the OpenLab: February 2020 Release

Groundhog with light behind it
Groundhog Day” by Alice Popkorn is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

On February 18, we released version 1.7.40 of the OpenLab.  It included one small interface change, a few plugin updates, and some bug fixes.

We removed the phone number field from student and alumni profiles.  Since members didn’t always realize it was public information, we decided that it was best to just remove the option altogether.

There were a few plugin updates that won’t cause any noticeable differences for OpenLab members, but included either minor updates or security-related updates.

We also fixed a number of bugs in this release:

  1. After a change related to the January release, the toolbar at top of the block editor was no longer sticking to the top of the page while scrolling.
  2. When Group admins had email notifications set to ‘No Email’, admins (but not members) were still getting email notifications about file uploads.
  3. There was a bug affecting a small number of groups where  group members were not able to change their email notification settings.
  4. Another bug affecting a small number of groups was preventing admins from choosing OpenLab members to invite to the group because when typing in a person’s name, the dropdown was failing to appear.
  5. When viewing another user’s profile, and then navigating to any group directory (My Courses, My Projects, My Clubs) on their profile, the group description excerpts were missing.

As always, please contact us with any questions!

This Month on the OpenLab: January 2020 Release

polar bear balancing on a barrel in the snow
DSC_0489” by Valerie is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

On January  23, we released version 1.7.39 of the OpenLab. It included enhancements to existing functionality and design, a new theme, updates to all themes and plugins, and updates to WordPress and BuddyPress, the software that powers the OpenLab.

New Features and Changes

We made some adjustments to improve and standardize across all themes the grey menu that appears at the very top of group sites.

The new theme added in this release is Twenty Twenty.  This “default theme for 2020 is designed to take full advantage of the flexibility of the block editor.”

We also added a new custom template for COMD student ePortfolio sites.  These sites now have a theme and navigation menu designed for visual artists to display their work, and a custom site menu geared towards what COMD students will need to include in their portfolios.  Students don’t need to do anything different.  The template will automatically be used on new portfolio sites created by students who have chosen COMD as their major on their profile.

We also retired a few plugins that are no longer working or maintained by their developer:

  1. WP DPLA
  2. TinyMCE Comment Field

If they are currently activated on a site, they will continue to appear in the list of plugins, unless they are deactivated. They will not be available for activation on new sites.

We wish everyone a smooth beginning to the semester, and as always, please contact us with any questions!