On Jan. 20, 2022, one week before the start of the spring semester, a Queens College WordPress platform known as QWriting was suddenly disabled, leaving many professors across the college blindsided and scrambling to provide crucial information to students and retrieve their materials, many of whom had been using the platform since it was launched in 2008.
QWriting was a platform used to support many departments throughout QC with course management, departmental websites, student projects, and a platform instructors used to build websites for their classes. As of January 2022, QWriting had 8,195 sites and 22,538 user accounts, consisting of college staff, students, and faculty. In addition to English, Urban Studies and the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation were all hosted on QWriting. It served both pedagogical and administrative purposes.
The shutdown was unexpected — and unannounced — and professors had nowhere to direct their students if they needed information about their classes and any required materials. On January 24th, Information Technology Services ITS cited “multiple high priority cybersecurity incidents” as the rationale for the shutdown.
Professor Siân Silyn Roberts, Director of Undergraduate Studies in English, told The Knight News, “Professors who had planned their entire semesters around using QWriting in their classroom had to suddenly figure out what other platform they could use and whether or not to migrate their content because we couldn’t access the QWriting site.”
The initial message faculty received was that the platform was gone and it was not coming back. “We went into triage mode at that point,” Silyn Roberts explained. To make matters worse, the window in which QWriting went down also happened to be the window in which QC’s MFA program was accepting applications and all instructions were on the website. “There was no way for students to upload their materials,” said Silyn Roberts.
Finally, after an uproar from faculty, ITS restored “read only” access to QWriting on Friday, January 28th, the start of the spring semester. Instructors could not modify anything on their sites, but were able to access their materials to migrate to the CUNY Academic Commons — another CUNY WordPress platform.
With the help of Chris Coleman, an educational technologist for the Division of Arts and Humanities, professors were able to direct students to external sites. However, their access to QWriting ended this Sunday, February 20th.
Some say that this shutdown was expected. In the past few months IT has been swamped with service requests due to their limited staffing. Many IT staff left during the pandemic because technicians were in very high demand. This, combined with austerity cuts and the underfunding of CUNY, may have made the shutdown inevitable. Kevin L. Ferguson, Chair of the Academic Senate and Associate Professor in the English Department, comments: “It seems like exactly the kind of bad choice austerity generates: short-sighted, unconsidered, and without consultation with faculty.”
Karen Weingarten, Chair and Associate Professor of the English Department, also shared, “I can’t emphasize enough how upset I was about this news. I was one of the first users of QWriting, so I had more than a decade of work on various websites… It was heartbreaking to think that all of that would be gone.”
This shutdown also has very serious implications in terms of intellectual property, academic freedom, and the reputation of professors who relied on their sites to keep track of their achievements and research. Professor Ferguson commented, “It has been a fundamental principle of QWriting since its creation that users have complete control of their intellectual property — whether to modify, delete, backup, save—and this is no longer possible…Personally speaking, having a decade-plus evidence of digital pedagogy disappear could affect my employment opportunities, promotion possibilities, and scholarly reputation in my field.”
On February 22, Troy J. Hahn, Assistant Vice President for Information Technology and CIO at QC, commented, “No content from QWriting — which has been used for approximately 14 years — has been or will be lost. The QWriting platform hosted just over 8,500 sites, however many may not have been active. IT is working with active users to migrate content from QWriting to the QC Commons as soon as possible.”
Professors are still troubleshooting and taking the time to move their material to other platforms, but the closure of QWriting has disrupted many professors’ teaching styles and plans for the spring semester. We may be facing the repercussions of this event years down the line. After all, how does one even begin to move decades worth of materials at such short notice while classes are in session?
In response: “Letter to the Editor: Troy Hahn, ITS”