Agora was an online scholarly community proposed by Student Affairs Caucus of the University Senate in 2003-2004. After two years of discussion and study, the project was effectively killed off by Provost Alan Brinkley who said the proposed features would be included in Sakai, a replacement for Courseworks. As of the 2010-2011 school year, over seven years after Agora's proposal, Sakai is still in development.
Agora is a prime example of Columbia's chronic failure to leverage existing technologies in a timely fashion.
Below is a chronological history of Agora based on publicly available Senate reports and minutes.
In response to a University-wide concern about the decentralized nature of
the scholarly community, the Student Affairs Committee (SAC) developed the Agora
proposal: an online gathering place for Columbia University faculty, students,
and alumni to freely exchange ideas across all academic disciplines. The SAC, in
partnership with the Online and the Libraries & AcIS committees, will continue to develop a proposal that would provide a free online-forum to engage in transdisciplinary matching of scholars.
-2003-2004 University Senate Student Affairs Committee Report
4. The “Agora” Project
The Committee heard presentations on the initiative to set up a project enabling members of the Columbia community (students and faulty and researchers) to indicate their research interests and network with others who shared those interests. (This project was also the subject of a presentation at the full Senate meeting in March.) The Committee’s support for this initiative was sought by its sponsors. Committee members asked a number of questions about the value and implications of this project, and resolved to discuss the matter, without the need for any further presentation, at an early meeting in Fall 2004.
-2003-2004 University Senate Libraries and AcIS Committee Report
--Report from Student Affairs on the
Agora Project, and other issues: Student caucus co-chair Nathan Walker (Stu.
Obs., TC) said the caucus would report on its Agora project,
as well as on on two other resolutions that the caucus had passed in a meeting
just before the plenary.
Joined by other student senators at the podium and projecting slides onto the screen from his laptop computer, Mr. Walker said the Agora project was a yearlong student initiative to use the University’s online resources to seek a transdisciplinary integration of knowledge available at
Columbia. The name of the project derives from the Greek word agora, or gathering place.
Sen. Coilin Parsons (Stu., GSAS/Hum) added that Agora would be an online forum bringing together people from all over the University in new ways. The only such forums now, aside from the University Senate, are institutes with scholars from different Columbia schools. But institutes rely on already established relationships among scholars. Agora will encourage new relationships. The group decided that in order to make Agora a comfortable, productive space, it will remain within the boundaries of the Columbia community, and will not include other scholars or alumni.
Sen. Parsons said the Agora initiative would be part of a plan to create a web portal with a unified log-in page, based on people’s log-in and password. This would provide access to the online tools people are already using, including e-mail, libraries, course works, student services, a university calendar, the center for career education, and Agora.
Sen. Parsons showed a slide with a basic scholarship profile of a Columbia person. The first five details provide simple information from the University directory, but each person’s profile can
be as deep as he or she wants, including research interests, a curriculum vita, publications, etc. He said it would also be possible to conduct searches using these profiles.
Sen. Noah Raizman (Stu., HS) gave an example of a search in Agora, combining two research interests, which provided a half-dozen profiles on the screen. Another approach would be to invite people with similar interests to join a new project. Someone interested in, say, HIV research, could link to professors throughout the University, or students who have traveled in countries with the AIDS epidemic, and create a page where these people can come together, with a message board, opportunities for chats, links to other sites, a calendar function, and a capability to conduct polls of people in the project.
Sen. Bulliet, speaking as a member of Alumni Affairs, said excluding alumni would be a disservice to them but also to current students, who may be alumni by the time they have mastered Agora.
Mr. Walker said the reason the population to be served in the proposal was limited was that the data source for the project was the Columbia University directory. He added that his committee would take this point
Sen. David Bayer (Fac., Barnard) cited two design concerns, based on a previous experience at Barnard. One was about pitfalls of unified log-in and a single portal.
Minutes of University Senate Meeting March 2004]
--Student Affairs: Nathan Walker (Stu. Obs., TC), co-chair of the student caucus, summarized issues from the last Senate session that the group is still pursuing:
- Agora Project: Last year students proposed a technological solution to Columbia’s “disconnect,” an online space to connect Columbia scholars based on their broad academic interests, and to provide a trans-disciplinary model for new scholarship. Committees now working on Agora will prepare a stakeholders’ document to the Provost, with a budget, and hope to start developing the project at the end of October.
-Minutes, University Senate Meeting September 2004
The Agora Project, led by Noah Raizman and Nathan Walker, is an online collaborative space and networking tool designed to foster collaboration between scholars in the Columbia community. ‘Agora’ was conceived and elaborated by members of the Student Affairs Committee last year and has been making great progress towards moving from the theoretical realm to the practical. Since the April 2004 presentation to the Senate, which met with great enthusiasm, the SAC worked with
several members of the information technology division of the University as well as with the Committee for Online Learning and Digital Media to develop a proposal for allocation of resources. The proposal is now awaiting approval by the Provost and Executive Vice President of the University.
The Agora would create an unified web interface for students, integrating CourseWorks, Cubmail, SSOL, bulletin boards and a customizable university calendar using the open-source Sakai
platform currently in development by a consortium of Universities, including Columbia. The centerpiece of Agora is a scholar-matching and a project creation module, allowing any student to create a collaborative space centered on a specific intellectual interest and post links to resources, integrate events into the calendar, and communicate with others who share the same interest. The goals of Agora are to foster collaboration with scholars in different schools of the University and overcome the insularity and fragmentation of individual schools or degree programs. With the Provost's support, we hope to develop a working model in the next academic year.
-2004-2005 University Senate Student Affairs Committee Report
Agora Project: Student caucus co-chair Adam Michaels (Bus.) asked Provost Alan Brinkley (Sen., Admin.) about the implementation of the Agora project, an initiative launched by former senator Nathan Walker to develop an online portal for sharing research and interests across disciplinary boundaries. He asked for a timeline for setting up the project and for the name of a point person for the project in the administration.
Provost Brinkley responded that Columbia University Information Technology (CUIT) has been
developing a software called Sakai that will enable most of the proposed Agora functions. The administration will revisit Agora once the rollout of this sofware has occurred.
Sen. Sharyn O'Halloran (Ten., SIPA), chair of the Online Learning Committee, also commented briefly on the Agora project.
-Minutes, University Senate Meeting November 2005
In 2004, several Student Senators developed a model for increasing interdisciplinary collaboration and providing a virtual space for students, faculty and staff to form groups based on intellectual, research and social interests; the project was called AGORA and presented to the full senate with an overwhelmingly positive response. Core aspects of the AGORA project include searchable profiles, the formation and management of interest groups and an integrated calendar system for managing events. Despite interest in furthering development on the part of ACis, AIS, DKV and the Provost’s Office, the reorganization of the IT infrastructure delayed movement. Recently, Candace Fleming, VP for Information Technology, met with Student Senators as well as members of her staff to become acquainted with the AGORA proposal, situated it within the larger context of IT needs, and determined which aspects of the AGORA proposal could be developed and piloted within a reasonable time frame. Attention has focused on the development of a personalized calendar that could draw upon university events based on group membership, student and faculty interests and academic program. A group of Student Senators will continue discussions with Ms. Fleming and others over the summer with the hopes that a deliverable product can be piloted by the end of the next academic year.
-2005-2006 University Senate Student Affairs Committee End of Year Report