Getting Started on the CUNY Academic Commons

Developed by Laurie Hurson

The CUNY Academic Commons, a WordPress teaching and learning platform based at the Graduate Center, is being used by faculty in a variety of graduate and undergraduate courses across CUNY. This workshop will go over the basics of teaching on the CUNY Commons, introduce several course models, and provide guidance for getting a course up and running.

Learning Goals

  • Understand the basics the CUNY Academic Commons
  • Register as a Commons user
  • Explore teaching models
  • Begin developing course website and/or group


Founded in 2009, the Commons was created to “support faculty initiatives and build community through the use(s) of technology in teaching and learning” (About). Hosting a course on WordPress or the CUNY Academic Commons presents opportunities for instructors to increase the openness of their teaching by integrating open educational resources (OER) into their curricula and engaging students online through various digital tools.

The CUNY Academic Commons is built on WordPress, a collaborative, open source web project developed by millions of individuals contributing to shared source code. CUNY faculty and staff created and maintain the CUNY Academic Commons, our own CUNY-dedicated WordPress platform for the CUNY community. The platform facilitates connections across the CUNY system and can be customized to meet the needs of instructors using the platform for teaching. By moving digital work off of closed systems onto more open platforms, instructors can use increasingly open and digital pedagogical strategies in their courses.

To become a member of the Commons you must be a part of the CUNY community (student, faculty, staff) and have a CUNY email. On the Commons members can create Groups and Sites. Currently, the Commons has over 20,000 members who have created over 4000 sites and 1000 groups on the Commons.

To get started with the workshop you will need to register for the commons and create an account (video directions and text directions).

Workshop Reading and Documentation

Workshop Steps

    1. Create an Account and log into the commons
    2. Join our Commons Group. Ask questions and get help in the forum thread “Getting Started”.
    3. Complete activities below to:
      • Explore the commons and begin creating your
      • Visit the creation portal to begin developing your course. Determine if you want a group, a site, or a connected group-site
        • See example courses (below and in courses tab) for ideas on how to build out your course site or group


Activity 1: Explore


Activity 2: Reflect

The CUNY Academic Commons provides several options for hosting courses. Faculty members can set up a course website (“site”), a course group, or both (linked). Use the information below  to determine if you will create a group, a site, or a connected group site.

Commons Groups: A group offers a private or public space with varying functionality. In a group, faculty and students can post in a Forum (and have threaded discussions), upload documents to a common Files section, collaboratively edit Docs, post Events to a common calendar, and access shared, collaborative Papers. If the Group is “Private” documents, forum posts, and other group functions are not visible or accessible if users are not logged into the Commons. See Group Basics for more info.

Questions to consider when exploring course groups:

  • Why can you see some groups and not others? (Hint: public vs.private groups)
  • What areas of the group are in use? (Forum, Files, Docs)
  • What is written in the group description (at the top of the group page)? Would it be helpful for a student trying to determine if this was the right group for their course?
  • What image was selected for the course group? Is it catchy or indicative of the group topic or course? Would it help students quickly identify the group or find it in a list of groups?

Group Examples:

A few notes:

    • You’ll notice you can’t see into many of the groups on the commons. That is because most professors make the groups private to their course. A Commons group offers similar features to Blackboard including a place to store files and engage in a threaded discussion.
    • You’ll also notice that all groups pretty much look the same – gray sidebar, group image and description at the top. Getting your course up and running with a group is quick and does not require much customization.

Commons Sites: Sites are much more customizable than groups, and that is why there are so many more examples below! On course websites, faculty can make the course syllabus and assignments visible to students in a dynamic format (with links and multimedia). Students can also take advantage of multimedia composition possibilities when posting their own work and/or commenting on their peers’ writing. Sites can be private (visible to site members only), semi-private (visible to Commons users only), or public.

Course sites can have “pages” for static content (Syllabus, course information) and “posts” for dynamic and multimedia content. Faculty can customize course site menus (to link a group, for example) and add widgets (add users to the site via sidebar) and plugins to expand site functionality (ex: pdf annotation). See Site Basics and OER-Related Functionality for more info.

All of the courses below were chosen because they offer great ideas for how to design your course site on the Commons. View a couple to get an idea of how much freedom in design and customization sites offer. To find more examples, visit the courses tab on the Commons.

Questions to consider when exploring course sites:

    • What are the menu items on these course site?
    • (How) does the professor welcome students to the site?
    • How can students find information about the course? Can student’s find the professors contact information?
    • Is the site only a space to share course materials or do students interact on the site? How are students interacting (commenting/posting)?

Course Site Examples

Linked Group and Site: By connecting a group to a site via the “Group Site” functionality, users can ensure that any posts made to the blog are distributed via email to members of the group.  “Group Site” pairings can work well for classes where both public and private spaces are desired. Pairing a private group with a public site can allow faculty to make certain documents available only to members of the class, while also allowing members of the class to publish for a broader audience via the affiliated WordPress site.

If you decide to use both, you can link the group and site during the creation process.

If set up correctly, when a student is added as a member of the course group, they are automatically added to the course site.

Connected Group-Sites Examples

Group: English 111-22048 (Fall2019) (Private Group)

Site: English 111-22048 (Fall2019) (Public Site)


Group: CAP 200 Bronx Beautiful (Private Group)

Site: CAP 200 Bronx Beautiful (Public Site)


Group: BC Soc of Sci & Tech (Private Group)

Site: BC Sociology of Science & Technology (Private Site)


Activity 3: Create 

Okay, time to do the thing. Head over to the Commons Creation Portal to begin creating your course. For step-by-step instructions see “Creating a Group and a Site” in this Getting Started documentation.

Remember: you can always post in our Commons Forum “Workshop: Getting Started” to ask questions and get support.

A few notes:

    • If you decide not to create a connected group-site, you can always connect a group to site or a site to a group later.
    • If creating a site you can use the Teaching Template (example of template) to get up and running quickly. More information on the Teaching Template here.
    • When creating a site, think carefully about the “domain”. This is the URL web address for the site and is the only thing that cannot be changed later. All site URLs are going to be the domain you specify + “” For a course, I always try to make my URL something short but memorable. For example, when I teach Principles of New Media I always include the abbreviated course title and semester in the URL. My spring 2018 course domain would be pnmsp18.


    • Exploration and familiarity with the CUNY Academic Commons
    • First steps completed for building out your course (group/site) on the Commons

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