Commonplace: student survival guide



University of the Arts London’s (UAL) Siobhan Clay manages the digital platform ‘commonplace’ that has had over a quarter of a million hits. Here she discusses the project.

“When asked to write about commonplace for the Digital Present Blog it seemed like particularly good timing. I was due to give a short presentation to Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon student ambassadors, so this was a good refresher, and it had also been some time since I’d been asked to articulate the project to colleagues and students – so a great opportunity to engage with a potentially new audience who might not know about it and might want to get involved, so here goes…

Commonplace is a UAL student web platform that was launched in the summer of 2011 to support students across the university in getting to know one another, to share stories, advice and insider knowledge about being at the institution and in London. It was created by the Centre for Learning and Teaching in Art and Design (CLTAD) and was supported by the colleges, central services and ADS, and is funded by the central Widening Participation department.

I think as a university we can appear huge, sometimes unwieldy and disjointed and possibly a little bit intimidating – particularly to a newcomer. These concerns formed the underlying rationale for building commonplace; to provide an open, online space that could offer a friendly and inclusive platform for discussion about real issues and practical tips that was built for the whole student community. It has a massive range of content such as recipes, maps of different areas of London, loads of video vox-pops, tips for cheap places to eat, study info, a vibrant notice board, and loads more.

We went live in July 2011, after a five month project collaborating with a small team of LCC students on the Design for Graphic Communication FdA at LCC. The course leader, Darren Raven, was a massive supporter and gave us the ‘in’ and access to his students who worked on the name, branding, content and layout ideas. They were fab and formed the basis of what commonplace has become.

A small point on that – for me there was never any question that this would be a collaborative project with students. I’ve been quoted as saying that ‘you wouldn’t test cat food on humans’ and it’s a bit like that. Why would the largest creative university in Europe, FULL of students, outsource this project or give it to staff to create? I make this point because some departments considered this a radical project model. Whilst they were impressed and supportive, the fact that they considered deep student involvement to be unusual…scared me! Guess what I’m saying is let’s never forget our audience, let’s include them in planning and discussion and really try and share the ownership, that way hopefully it will be sustainable and most importantly, used.

Commonplace: digital platform for students

Commonplace: digital platform for students

So, some technical stuff, it’s programmed by my lovely colleague Paul Tabak and is created on Drupal, an open source content management system – which to a thoroughly untechnical person like me, is the most user friendly wizardry that you could ever dream of using. Students can post an article directly by using the Join in tab at the top of the page; there are several templates to make this uniform and straightforward. We thought long and hard about encouraging contributions and a clean, easy process was important. Once uploaded, we look it over and publish it. It’s that simple, so simple in fact that I’ve often published stuff while sitting on the bus or out and about, straight from my iPhone. Zoe, an alumna of 3D Design at Camberwell, administrates commonplace with me but essentially it runs beautifully without too much intervention.

We’ve had over 258,000 hits since launch – not bad given our institutional ‘difficulty’ with communications. Our ‘Swap Shop’ noticeboard has around 200 active ads at any one time, and I’ve met students who have found housemates, sold something or collaborated from the Swap Shop. This makes me very happy.

Thinking about the future, we definitely need to be more strategic about promoting commonplace so that as many students as possible know about the platform and feel like they can use and engage with it. We go out and about during Freshers Weeks and through the year, but we’ve probably reached 10% of the student population and we’d love to encourage more to get involved as it seems to have a place in the community. We also have commonplace advocates who tell their students about it, put info on induction documents and say ‘yes’ to projects such as the Camberwell Guide, but we need more of it if we’re to sustain it long term as a vibrant and relevant resource for students coming to and through HE study. So on that note, please do check it out, tell people about it, get in touch if you want to do a project or *contribute something today (and did I mention that a published article receives a small *Amazon voucher thank-you…).”