This Month on the OpenLab: January 2021 Release

Three dogs bounding through the snow.
IMGP0908” by Vladimir is licensed under CC-BY-NC 2.0.
[Post author’s note: If I were to title this image, I’d call it “bounding, with hope, into 2021.”]

On January 21, 2021 we released version 1.7.48 of the OpenLab. It included a few new features and updates to all existing themes and plugins, including BuddyPress, the main plugin that together with WordPress, powers the OpenLab. We are postponing a WordPress update until the summer 2021 release because of some significant changes that could impact many of the themes and plugins on the OpenLab. We’re also holding off on updating the Gutenberg plugin that powers the WordPress block editor because it introduces block editing for widgets, which is a significant change to the interface and we wanted to provide additional time to introduce this change to OpenLab members.

New Features and Functionality

  1. We made a change to the default settings in the block editor, so that the block settings toolbar now appears in the “top toolbar” location rather than hovering at the top of the active block, where it can sometimes obscure what’s in the block.
Block editor with the block settings toolbar in the top toolbar location.

You can always change this by toggling the “top toolbar” location setting off or in the Block Editor Options menu. Click the icon with 3 vertical dots to access this menu.

Top toolbar location setting in the Block Editor Options menu.

2. We made a number of changes to the sign up page to help make the process easier for new members. We moved account type (student, faculty, staff, alumni) before email address, so that once you choose account type and then begin to type in your email address, there is an auto-complete suggestion that appears.

3. We made some improvements to the School and Office filters on the Projects directory page so that “All Schools” and “All Offices” are now selectable in the filters.

4. We also finished most of the work on a plugin we’re developing called OpenLab Private Comments, which is based on WP Grade Comments, but is designed for use with Portfolios. When activated by a site admin (e.g.  students as admins of their portfolio sites) it allows commenters (e.g. professors) to leave private comments as feedback on their portfolios. We’re planning to release this in February.

Bug Fixes

We fixed one bug. The modal window that appears when you click the Add to Portfolio button to add the contents of a post, comment, or page you’ve authored to your portfolio site from another site was not mobile friendly. We’ve fixed this so it can be used on mobile devices.  

As always, please contact us with any questions!

January Workshops

A close-up photograph of thin red-brown branches speckled with snow
Snow balls by blmiers2

Hi City Tech community!

We’re offering support throughout January for folks teaching and learning through the winter session, or even for folks who want to jump-start the spring semester!

Instead of synchronous workshops, which we have offered in-person in past semesters, we’re providing other options for support: screencasts, open hours, and 1-on-1 sessions.

We’re developing a growing playlist of short screencasts that focus on some of the most common support questions we receive; we recommend our Intro to Block Editor video for folks working with the new WordPress editor. Check out these screencast videos HERE!

We’ll be offering Open Hours and 1-on-1 sessions for staff, students, and faculty several times this month. 

Support Schedule – January 2021

Thursday Jan. 7, 2021: 3-5pm
Friday Jan. 15, 2021: 10am-12pm
Thursday Jan. 21, 2021: 3-5pm
Friday Jan. 29, 2021: 10am-12pm
Sunday Jan. 31, 2021: 3-5pm

To see the full schedule and to sign up for open hours and 1-on-1 sessions, visit The Open Road.

We’re also available 7 days a week for asynchronous support via email at openlab@citytech.cuny.edu

New Screencast: Customizing Your Site’s Appearance

In this screencast, the latest in our Site Building Blocks series, digital pedagogy fellow Olivia will show you how to edit your site’s appearance using the “Appearance –> Customize” feature on the site’s Dashboard.

You can view our other screencasts by visiting us on YouTube.

In the Spotlight: Wrapping Up Fall 2020 on the OpenLab

Holiday greetings from the OpenLab and congratulations to all on the closing of another semester!

While our weekly “Spotlight” blog series will go on hiatus for the season, we wanted to remind you of the sites we featured this past semester, and encourage you to check them out if you haven’t already done so.

Fall 2020 Spotlight Posts

We also began releasing a series of OpenLab screencasts, providing audiovisual guidance to using different features of the OpenLab.

In addition to reviewing these posts from this past fall, you can find a full curated list of all sites that have been spotlighted in our  Spotlight Archive. This archive offers visitors 3 curated lists to help them sort through the posts:

  1. For everyone (By type of site – course, project, club, portfolio)
  2. For faculty/staff
  3. For students

As always, we also encourage you to check out our in-house sites:

The OpenLab Community Team will continue to offer email support over winter break– please contact us with questions or concerns.

We will also soon announce our winter programming. We will be in touch as we get more events and workshops on our calendar!

Wishing you all a very happy holiday season!

The OpenLab Community Team

In the Spotlight: Teaching Math in a Remote Semester

Even in more “normal” times, few subjects cause college undergrads more anxiety than Math! Add to this the stress of distance education during a global pandemic and, well, you have a definite challenge on your hands. 

However, the Math department has done incredible work this semester, leveraging the OpenLab to facilitate effective remote teaching. This week, I spotlight three of their recent initiatives.

Model Courses

Over the summer, three departments/ programs created Model Courses: Communication Design, the English Department’s First Year Writing program, and Mathematics. These model courses are subject-specific and open to all faculty to clone to use with their students, via the OpenLab’s shared cloning feature. They contain course information, sample assignments, and resources for students–all of which are designed to help faculty meet recommended best practices for teaching online. Math faculty can choose to use these courses in whole or in part, adapting them to meet their needs. Because the courses are public, faculty can still access course materials if they are using another platform (e.g. Blackboard) to teach. You can find these model courses in the Courses directory by checking the “Model” checkbox.

Course Hubs

The Math Department also created Course Hubs, each boasting a collection of vetted open source materials that address core topics. These were created through the OpenLab Model Course Initiative and made publicly available on the OpenLab. In the space of a few weeks, Hubs were created for seven different math courses, including the traditional sequence from Algebra through Calculus and a number of others. In preparation for a fully-online semester and in support of a large and heterogenous department, the team collected student- and faculty-facing resources to support a wide variety of distance-learning activities and approaches, including online lessons, course coordination information, and more. We especially like that these resources include videos that are useful to students, and training opportunities for faculty adapting to distance education!

Assignments to Foreground the Human Side of Math

While the model courses and course hubs provide faculty with valuable teaching resources, they are, at the end of the day, tools that have to be made effective by the instructors implementing them. No tool will ever replace the boost in confidence students receive when surrounded by supportive faculty members and peers. This is why assignments like Prof. Kate Poirier’s are so important. Prof. Poirier invited students from one of her more advanced math classes to post advice to students in her introductory class. Conversely, students in the introductory course were invited to post questions to more advanced students. You can view some of the wonderful advice the more advanced students gave here, and the questions newer students had here. There are too many witty, compassionate, and insightful comments to list here, but as a highlight, I’ll just mention student Sierra Morales’ post encouraging newer students to slow down and write their work step-by-step (no rushing to get quizzes in first!), and to “practice writing out your method and reason for solving each problem the way you did.” The post ends by reminding students to be patient, invest in themselves, and seek out peer advisement when needed. I also want to point readers to Kate Poirier’s other creative assignment inviting students to watch and respond to a viral TikTok video on “whether Math is real” (i.e. useful in real life). In the absence of face-to-face interaction, this online dialogue is heart-warming and necessary–an undervalued but brilliant component of successful learning and teaching.

Congratulations to the Math Department and Math instructors on their innovative work this semester! Make sure to check out these resources and assignments for inspiration!

In the Spotlight: Experiential Art & Design Club

This week, I spotlight the amazing student-led group, the Experiential Art & Design Club. This club provides a “space to create & playtest digital experiences”: you can join to “make video games, immersive art, AR filters, websites, and literally anything else you can think of.” How has this club adapted to remote learning? They’ve moved 100% online and use the OpenLab to maintain an effective digital presence! Some highlights from their OpenLab site and profile include:

  • Featuring links to their Discord (where they meet every two weeks) and Instagram on their profile page.
On their profile page, the club features links to their social media accounts.
  • A “Sign-Up Now!” button at the top of their home page, where it is difficult to miss–and that’s a good thing!
EXP Club's "Sign Up Now" button sits at the top of their home page,
  • A sign-up form in the right-hand widget sidebar of their site, again making it as easy as possible for folks to join the club and get in touch with club leaders.

  • FAQs directly on the site’s home page. These are featured at the bottom of the page, in a collapsible accordion menu which doesn’t take up too much space. The reader can glance at the questions when first landing on the site, and decide whether or not they need answers before joining the club. I love that these questions address potential student insecurities about participating: “I suck at coding,” one of these questions reads, “can I still join?” The club leaders want to reassure you: “the whole point of our meetings is to get better. None of us started off where we are right now. If you’re bad at it, come anyway.”

Finally, beyond maintaining a wonderful site, the EXP club has also adapted their 2020 activities to fit the constraints of a pandemic-stricken world. They note: “For 2020, we’re switching to quick solo projects so everyone can try something new at their own pace. These ‘challenges’ take place every 2 weeks and come with inspiration, tutorials + download links to get started. Check out all of those here.”

This site provides a great example of how to use the OpenLab to keep your club members active and engaged. Check them out for inspiration!

This Month on the OpenLab: November 2020 Release

Red squirrel amidst fall leaves on the ground.
“Red Squirrel” by hedera.baltica.

On November 19, 2020 we released version 1.7.47 of the OpenLab. It included two new features and five new plugins, as well as a few minor plugin and theme updates.

New Features

  1. We added a link on Course, Project, and Club directory pages allowing OpenLab members to create or clone these groups from the directory page, in addition to the usual location in My OpenLab. Please note that you must be logged in for the links to be visible, and the link on the Courses directory page will only be visible to faculty.

    New link on course directory page to create or clone a course.

  2. We added a link to My OpenLab on the red login box on the homepage of the OpenLab, to make it even quicker and easier to access.

    Link to my profile in the log-in/welcome box on the OpenLab homepage.

Plugins

We added five new plugins:

  1. Advanced Sidebar Menu: allows you to add a widget to your sidebar that generates a menu based on the section of your site you’re viewing. It will show all the subpages related to the page being viewed, and could be helpful for sites with large amounts of content.

  2. Nested Pages – This plugin replaces the functionality of the Page Mash plugin, which is no longer supported and has been retired. It provides an easy interface for dragging and dropping pages to change the order and hierarchy of all pages on your site.

  3. Breadcrumb – This plugin allows you to add breadcrumb navigation to any theme, and using a shortcode. We have another plugin called Breadcrumb NavXT, but it only works with OpenLab Twenty Sixteen and OpenLab Twenty Thirteen themes. 

  4. Pager Widget – This simple widget allows you to add next and back links to navigate between pages on your site. 

  5. ARI Fancy Lightbox – this plugin adds a mobile-friendly lightbox effect to images on any site. It works with individual images, native WordPress galleries, and can also be used with the NextGEN Gallery plugin as the preferred lightbox for NextGEN galleries.

Documentation for the new plugins is coming soon.

As always, please contact us with any questions!

In the Spotlight: The Fifth Annual Science Fiction Symposium

This week, we spotlight the Fifth Annual Science Fiction Symposium on Race and Science Fiction, to be held on Thursday, Nov. 19 from 9:00am-5:00pm online via Zoom Webinar.

This year’s symposium is co-organized by Wanett Clyde, Jason W. Ellis, Lucas Kwong, and A. Lavelle Porter, and features a keynote address by Jonathan W. Gray on “Past Tense, Future Perfect: American Atrocities in HBO’s Watchmen and Lovecraft Country.”

To participate in this free event, attendees will need to (1) Signup for a free Zoom account here (if you don’t already have one), and (2) Register here to receive access instructions to the Zoom Webinar. Participants may register any time before or during the event!

For those who would like to watch the event without registering, you can join the YouTube Livestream here.

You can also click here to view the full conference program and learn more about the presenters.

Hope to see you there!

New OpenLab Screencast: Pages and Posts

We are pleased to offer a new set of support materials for OpenLab users: screencasts! With video, audio, and captions, these screencasts provide step-by-step instructions for how to use different OpenLab features in a multimodal format.

Today, we’re introducing a new video in our series on the basic building blocks of OpenLab sites. In this one, we’ll focus on how to create pages and posts. This series could be particularly useful for students creating eportfolios in the second half of the semester, for staff beginning new projects, or for faculty designing course sites for the winter term.

To see our other screencasts, click here or visit our YouTube channel.

In the Spotlight: OER at City Tech

This week, I spotlight the library’s fantastic new(ish) resource: the O.E.R at City Tech OpenLab site. As a reminder, the acronym “O.E.R” stands for Open Educational Resources and “refers to any educational content that is free and openly-licensed.” From the academic year 2017-2018 to the present, NY State has awarded CUNY $4 million annually to “scale-up O.E.Rs” across the university system. This site is your go-to hub for all things O.E.R at City Tech and–dare we say–at CUNY. Its main function is to showcase exemplary O.E.Rs at the college, but it also includes other invaluable resources, such as O.E.Rs developed CUNY-wide (not just City Tech-specific), different search engines and repositories from which to search for O.E.Rs developed worldwide, and a curated list of O.E.Rs by Subject, relevant to the disciplines offered at City Tech.

The entire site is worth checking-out, but I’d like to draw your attention to a page titled Find O.E.R to teach with. This page builds out from more generalized O.E.R search tools to repositories that showcase a specific digital medium. Thus, you’ll find a list of search engines to help you with Getting Started on your quest to find O.E.Rs, but also narrower repositories of open textbooks and curricula and open courses. Lest we forget, O.E.R refers not only to texts or websites, but  also to audio files, images, and videos, that is to say to things like free digital recordings of concerts and music, public domain photography, and TED talks. The site helpfully points the visitor to search directories to find each of these, including highly specialized repositories that curate collections of media such as “pictures of trans and non-binary models” and “music remixes under Creative Commons licenses.” I highly recommend navigating to this page as you teach this semester and look for new, creative, online tools to enhance your pedagogy. Using multimedia is important to meet the needs of different learning styles, and the library has done us all a great favor by highlighting these resources and search tools.

I also recommend following the O.E.R at City Tech News blog which, highlights “one O.E.R relevant to each school at City Tech in every (weekly) post.” The O.E.R featured here are exemplary and can inspire your teaching in a remote semester.

Curious about O.E.R.? Visit the site to learn more. Note also that if you’d like to get more involved in developing O.E.R at City Tech, the site lays out different workshops and faculty development programs to help you do so. Happy exploration!