Community-building - fine, but why should I?
John Connell puts forward some sound reasonings behind why a national intranet like Glow is still needed in 2008, even with the permeation of free, accessible collaborative or community tools such as Skype. In his closing comment on the post he points out that, for him, the safety aspect of having everyone authenticated as a bona fide student or teacher plays second fiddle to the potential for kick-starting more collaborative work:
For me, however, the central function of the authentication system within Glow is nothing to do with security and everything to do with the collaborative power it generates. We need to see past the ’safety’ aspects of authentication to the more important capabilities for community building that it infers on the overall system.
But here's the question that's been bugging me for the past few years with Glow, VLEs and online community projects in general: why should I put the effort into building a community at all?
I discovered the joys of having a burgeoning online community almost (OK, completely) by accident, having started blogging with students on foreign trips to keep the parents back home reassured. The community we tapped into through this was a happy accident, not the intended outcome but a welcome one nevertheless. At that point, we started to worry about how to cope with tens of thousands of visitors per week to our school blog and podcast, how to cope with hundreds of comments each week.
Being in a community doesn't mean you're part of it
The same is true of the face-to-face communities we live in through meatspace. Some communities are burgeoning, others are dormant. We are either born into or move into villages, towns and cities for reasons completely unconnected to the wonderful-or-otherwise communities that can be found there: employment, to get away from/move closer to family, the proximity to places of work, we can afford it... Only after we have entered the community do we experience the real reasons for 'joining' the community - or sitting psychologically outside it.
An example: In my own community of Leith, in Edinburgh, I am limited to the psychological community of three restaurants, two pubs and my stairwell. I do things for me and my family, not for the community at large. That's just the way I feel about things. In London, even though I don't live there, I feel part of a burgeoning, exciting community of like-minded individuals with a common aim, for whom I am ready to give up my own time and effort for the greater good.
The problem with large-scale education 'community' projects and even television programmes, as Matt Locke was saying over a drink on the Parliament terrace last week (had to get that in), is that those proposing, creating or running online communities spend months or years worrying about scaling participation without every considering how they're going to get people there in the first place.
A virtual community can be close to work, cheap and contain all the conveniences we need to get through our day, but so can some pretty dead meatspace suburbs, where there is no inclination to declare 'community spirit'. Glow, like many 'VLE' online filing cabinets of content before it, could become like this, though I hope and believe it will not. Likewise, some of broadbandless villages in Scotland, where nothing seems to work properly on a windy day and the 'conveniences' work on a timetable all of their own end up having some of the most enviable community building I've ever seen. For me, this type of village is the socially connected, rather messy world I inhabit online, made up of people living in blogs (houses), wikis (bothies) or Twitter (village notices).
So, what is it that a national intranet offers teachers that they don't or can't already have with existing web technologies? Is it a convenient but boring suburb for the 21st Century or an exciting village for the future, with its gossips, town halls and bothies? And how are you going to explain this to someone who's never gone beyond the BBC homepage?