Northeastern University (NEU) is a forward-thinking university seeking to help define what a higher ed digital commons should look like. They wanted a system that could be easily adopted by faculty, students, and external experts while still maintaining the necessary functionality and security.
NEU wanted to build on the Commons in a Box framework and the open source work done for HCommons.org. In addition to creating a commons for shared research and discussion, NEU wanted a platform that integrated with their authentication system for a seamless experience for their students and faculty.
In order to create an effective commons, iWitness Design needed to create a unified experience for the various societies using the platform by implementing and customizing an advanced search engine. All the site data and activity needed to be available in a central location while also allowing for site-specific security and customizations.
The NEU Commons was intended to start out as a clone of the HCommons open source project. This gave us a great starting point, but with limited documentation, reverse engineering the customizations made for HCommons proved to be a difficult task. In addition to the task of cloning the HCommons project, they also required that we integrate with their Active Directory system to allow single sign-on and also allow for social login on one of the networks.
The Multi-Network site infrastructure also proved to be an interesting challenge. We were tasked with building a system that could scale to multiple WordPress networks and hundreds of subsites while also maintaining manageable administrative flow.
Describe the solution
iWitness Design worked closely with NEU’s Associate Dean for Digital Strategies and Services to build out a highly customized BuddyPress installation based on the HCommons project. We forked and customized many of the components from the original project while maintaining backwards compatibility for updates and future development.
iWitness Design integrated with their Active Directory system using Shibboleth and configured custom rules so that authenticated users would automatically be routed to the appropriate site in the network.
iWitness Design configured a custom Elasticsearch server to enable multi-network search and also provide a system for recommended content. This was a HUGE improvement over the default WordPress search both in terms of functionality and speed. This ElasticSearch integration now powers several recommendation widgets across the site.
- Public and private groups with discussion boards, events, announcements, file sharing, and member management.
- Advanced member interface with custom profile fields including academic and personal interests. These fields were leveraged by ElasticSearch to provide a powerful recommendation engine for connection recommendations.
- Multi-Network setup to allow for multiple WordPress networks with their own administration and subsites.
- Advanced search and recommendations built with ElasticSearch.
- Single sign-on with Google, Twitter, and the NEU Active Directory database.
- Page builder for administrators to easily create custom landing pages.
Upon completion of the project, the new commons was already adopted by several societies within the university and the project was working well enough for NEU to continue the management of the project internally.
View the project here at https://northeasterncommons.org.
“We’ve achieved what we wanted to achieve… everyone at NEU is thrilled!”
– Patrick Yott, Associate Dean for Digital Strategies and Services