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Simonides: A faculty-led, student-centered technology initiative

November 24, 2009

In the spring of 2009, the Liberal Studies Program within the College of Arts and Science partnered with Information Technology Services (ITS) to develop Simonides, a web-based student portfolio of tools that is unique in its flexibility and academic focus. This project, funded in part by a Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, was developed using Sakai, a “community source” collaborative learning environment (CLE)1, whose NYU implementation is known as Advanced Learning Exchange (ALEX). Simonides offers a selective and adapted set of Sakai's collaboration tools, including one custom tool, called the Memory Palace, that was designed by Liberal Studies.

Simonides is an alternative to traditional student portfolio tools in that it was designed to (1) enable students to perform critical thinking, analysis, and synthesis within their own personal web-based work space, and to present their learning in self-determined organizational schemas, using the Memory Palace; (2) enable faculty to participate in these learning processes and to review the outcomes in the Memory Palace, acting as a non-authoritative guide; and (3) encourage academic networking.

First an Educational Philosophy, Then a Technology Solution

Traditional portfolio tools, more often than not, are designed with a top-down administrative focus in which learner outcomes are predetermined by an institution's educational programs and/or faculty. Students are then expected to respond to prescribed portfolio prompts that align with these outcomes. Simonides' unique, nonhierarchical approach to using portfolios in teaching and learning derives from Liberal Studies' educational philosophy, which focuses on active, self-directed learning. Each student is given his or her own Simonides portfolio space within ALEX to keep throughout their academic career at NYU. Each student determines the selection, organization, and presentation of materials included within his or her Simonides portfolio, emphasizing a student's agency in their own academic development.

While Simonides cannot be understood solely from its technological features — an educational philosophy drives its use and design — it is useful to understand the portfolio tool's tangible system features to better comprehend how Simonides supports this educational philosophy. Simonides comprises the following tools and system capabilities:

  • Memory Palace
    The Memory Palace, a custom tool that serves as the Simonides portfolio, was designed by Liberal Studies and then developed by Liberal Studies, ITS, and an outside consulting firm, Unicon. It provides a reconfigurable, taxonomic portfolio space presented as an architectural floor plan. This visual representation of space is laid over conventional file storage functionality, in which files are uploaded and downloaded to a metaphoric file cabinet. The file storage functionality was built using the content repository API for Java (JCR) so that the custom application will readily integrate with NYU's Files, a file-storage and -sharing service that also uses the JCR specification.
  • BlogWow blog tool
    The Simonides portfolio uses BlogWow, a blog tool that is a part of Sakai's core-supported tool set.
  • Customized Sakai site dashboard
    The out-of-the-box dashboard that serves as the landing page of each Sakai site was customized for the Simonides portfolio, so that a student's blog is embedded in the dashboard in a social network presentation style.
  • Social Networking functionality
    Liberal Studies decided to include within Simonides sites a Sakai feature that enables students to “join” and “unjoin” each other's sites using an interface in which students search for and add sites to their personal membership list. Students' public pages, which contain the BlogWow tool, are publicly accessible and allow them to create a personal profile.
  • Custom Sakai site template
    It is possible to develop in Sakai customized site templates that package desired sets of tools and features so that they are readily reusable by other organizations. A custom site template called Simonides was created for the selected set of Sakai tools and functionality, the customization to the Sakai dashboard layout, and the Memory Palace.

By using the Memory Palace, students are inherently involved in taxonomically organizing media, including personal images, documents, material from the University and the Liberal Studies' content repositories, and any other files, articles, or other materials the students acquire during their research and learning activities. Students' self-conscious creation of taxonomies and hierarchies of information builds on the critical thinking and analytic skills that are also encouraged by traditional research and writing assignments.

While students are given full autonomy to create their own taxonomies as a means of representing their learning, faculty members are given the ability to comment within every level of a student's Memory Palace (only faculty and advisors within Liberal Studies have access to a student's Memory Palace). This capability reinforces the Liberal Studies educational philosophy, as it enables faculty to participate in a student's learning process by providing guidance in a non-authoritative manner.

Students maintain their Memory Palace throughout their academic careers at NYU, giving them a means to evolve and synthesize their learning over the course of the program and thus to overcome the learning silos that can occur between the different courses a student takes. It also provides faculty and advisors with material to facilitate their guidance of a student's growth and academic interests.

BlogWow, the blog tool included in Simonides, also gives students a means of personal expression. BlogWow and the Memory Palace both include content editors, enabling students to synthesize a wide range of web-ready media into a single document. This mix of personal autonomy and multimedia support offers points of connection for diverse learning styles — verbal, visual, conceptual, tactile, and so on.

Simonides' academic networking capabilities also support the Liberal Studies pedagogy. Liberal Studies faculty will model appropriate uses of online academic profiles. In addition, students will have the ability to join special interest affinity groups within ALEX, promoting an active, self-determined means of creating their own academic networks and connecting to personal interests.

A Next-Generation Enterprise

Academic Application Research data indicates that faculty and students are looking for greater flexibility and functionality within the software applications that support their teaching and learning activities. ITS has been exploring Sakai since 2006, including a small pilot study in which faculty and students provided feedback about the system, to determine if it can serve as one cog within a multi-application, next-generation IT framework that will attempt to address many of the needs expressed by students and faculty at NYU. This future framework will provide new ways to store, manage, and share media content; enable a do-it-yourself approach to displaying and creating content; and promote integration among technologies, global localities, and the social subgroups that surround research and learning communities.

ITS is highly interested in new developments that are emerging from the Sakai community around its Sakai 3 code base. This next version of Sakai focuses heavily on academic networking, self-determined content authoring capabilities, and the ability to integrate widgets throughout a site (think academic Facebook). A new, robust infrastructure is being built for Sakai 3 that will allow a high degree of granularity in permissions and object definition.

A New, Faculty-Led ALEX Service for NYU

With Simonides' unique nonhierarchical approach to using portfolios in teaching and learning, combined with the academic networking and content authoring capabilities being developed within the Sakai community, the Simonides project has been aptly positioned to tap into and expand the enormous potential of instructional technology. In addition, one of the greatest strengths of the Simonides project is that the technical work was directly driven by academic initiatives and an educational philosophy.

For these reasons, ITS and Liberal Studies have concluded this project with the joint formation of the Sakai ALEX Working Group (SAWG). SAWG is a cross-divisional leadership group, composed of faculty, staff, and academic administrators from the Faculty of Arts and Science, Gallatin, ITS, Liberal Studies, and the College of Nursing. SAWG has been charged with the oversight of the development and implementation of the Simonides portfolio and advising tool and the Sakai 3 academic networking features at NYU. The committee's charge has been given by ITS' .edu Services Executive Director David Ackerman and Dean Fred Schwarzbach of Liberal Studies. Each of the SAWG partners has contributed financial resources to hire a contract programmer for at least one year. This contribution ensures the dedication of information technology (IT) resources to achieving the priorities established by SAWG.

SAWG's primary mode of oversight is twofold. First, SAWG members will provide the vision for the implementation of Sakai 3 at NYU, which will guide the development and use of ALEX to support academic networking, project sites, and cross-departmental advising. Second, to ensure alignment with this vision, SAWG members will set priorities for the SAWG-committed IT staff who will develop ALEX to meet the needs of NYU community members.

SAWG seeks to develop ALEX to align with and facilitate the following principles:

  • shape and guide academic community members in a non-authoritative style
  • enable NYU's academic sub-communities to easily connect and collaborate, unrestricted by technical or geographic boundaries
  • provide ubiquitous access to personal and shared content (for example, media, datasets, library collections, etc.)
  • give NYU community members responsible personal autonomy to create, manage, and share content
  • support the personal synthesis of the complex and potentially enormous quantities of content, data, and media created or used by each individual
  • develop an IT system that incorporates enterprise application integration principles and the University's policies and best practices
  • adhere to best practices for software usability and client service to encourage and support community adoption 

SAWG's charge began July 1, 2009. Finalizing the direction of the development work will continue through the 2009-2010 academic year. A small-scale implementation of project sites and academic networking features is planned for fall 2010, and a fully supported ALEX service, based on Sakai 3, is expected for fall 2011.

More Information


  1. For more information about Sakai & Sakai 3, visit
  2. For more information about JA-SIG, visit


Lucy Appert is Associate Director for Educational Technology within the Liberal Studies Program (FAS), and Barbra Mack is a Faculty Technology Specialist within ITS Academic Technology Services.

This Article is in the following Topics:
Connect - Information Technology at NYU

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