Wrestling with social networking

I am continuing to puzzle over the best way to integrate social networking tools within the Emory Law School community. I spent a fair amount of time getting familiar with Jive Software‘s Clearspace platform and was very impressed by its refinement, scalability, and the overall support of the Jive eco-system/community. Unfortunately, it was just too expensive for us. That left us with a variety of new opportunities to explore. 🙂

Recently, I’ve spent a few days diving into ELGG. We installed it on a virtual machine running CentOS 5.4 and the standard LAMP stack. I made a few basic notes over here: NotesOnELGG. While ELGG is really interesting, it seems to be in a state of flux currently, with big changes promised for the 1.7 version, which has just launched. One of our challenges is that any solution that we implement will need to have tight integration with LDAP (actually Microsoft’s Active Directory) as that is the University’s preferred single sign-on solution. While there is an SVN version of an ELGG LDAP plug-in, I was not able to get it to work with my limited testing. I am sure that this was my issue and not an issue with the plug-in itself. One of the appealing features of ELGG is that it is/was targeted at learning environments. Also, it is less complex that some of the larger projects, such as Alfresco, discussed below.

So, what are a few of the other alternatives out there? We are fans of WordPress here. The University has recently rolled out an expanded WordPress offering. This blog is hosted on that service. BuddyPress is a social networking add-on to WordPress that could be really interesting. It also provides the added benefit of giving students experience with a highly regarded tool that they are likely to see again out in the world. I will probably go ahead and set-up a BuddyPress instance so that I can get a sense of the current state of affairs with that product. Additionally, BuddyPress/WordPress has solid LDAP integration and I’ve successfully set up the LDAP integration in the past without too much difficulty.

Image via Wikipedia

Lawyers are document-oriented people. This takes us back to a product that I’ve been looking at for ages now – Alfresco. Alfresco is enterprise-grade, Java software. Here’s the blurb from their site:

Alfresco was founded in 2005 by John Newton, co-founder of Documentum® and John Powell, former COO of Business Objects®. Its investors include the leading investment firms Accel Partners, Mayfield Fund and SAP Ventures.

Alfresco is the leading open source alternative for enterprise content management. It couples the innovation of open source with the stability of a true enterprise-class platform. The open source model allows Alfresco to use best-of-breed open source technologies and contributions from the open source community to get higher quality software produced more quickly at much lower cost.

Our goal is to not only provide an open source offering but to surpass commercial offerings such as Documentum or Microsoft® SharePoint® in terms of features, functionality and benefits to the user community.

Pretty bold statements. 🙂 It’s a document repository – think database for documents – written in Java and designed with extensibility and web-integration as core goals. Luckily for us, it’s also got some basic (but expanding) community features bolted on to it as well.

Image representing Alfresco as depicted in Cru...
Image via CrunchBase

I’ve got a copy of the “Alfresco Developer Guide“, written by Jeff Potts and I was fortunate enough to hear Mr. Potts speak at a presentation here in Atlanta. I’ve also purchased “Alfresco 3 Enterprise Content Management Implementation” by Munwar Shariff and others. One of the things that is most impressive about Alfresco is its extreme customizability. This is also one of the things that is most intimidating about the product; especially if you’re in a very small shop like mine! In any case, we will be pushing ahead with Alfresco and we’ll see what we can produce. The quality of the documentation on Alfresco and the writing about Alfresco is extremely strong – this will certainly weigh into our decision as far as how to proceed. I like the idea of exposing parts of the Alfresco repository as an e-portfolio solution, as well – perhaps allowing our students to control what and how they share writing samples and the like with others outside the law school. Incidentally, on the e-portfolio front, there is a new project that looks interesting: mahara, which I haven’t used, but hope to take a look at at some point.

I would love to hear your comments – how are you adding social networking features to your law school or other similar professional school environments?

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