January 09, 2007

A few words on eduBuzz

I thought I'd take some time out to explain some of the proposed developments in Exc-el that David and I have been working on for the past two months. Exc-el is the online community developing in East Lothian and one of my principle remits has been to advise on how it can be made stronger and wider.

Another part of the remit is to try and show other Local Authorities where they can go and what they can do to have similar impacts in their own patches. If you need more detail, just get in touch with me.

Last night I was taken aback to see that there had been an Exc-el Board Meeting. Between December's mishap and a lack of online calendar syncing, I missed it. Thanks to the blog, however, I can belatedly put across some of our work and fill in some of the gaps in this initial post.

A change of brand

I hate the word brand with its money-making 'cheapness', but it describes pretty well what it is we are after in our community: "A brand often includes an explicit logo, fonts, color schemes, symbols, sound which may be developed to represent implicit values, ideas, and even personality." (Wikipedia).

The Exc-el community had a small but steady growth for a long time. The main barriers were that a blog or wiki was tricky to set up, there was a 'permissions'-based culture (you had to ask for a blog to be set up for you) and attracting audience was tricky, too, unless you spent your days commenting within the 'echo chamber'.

In the last three months we have seen relatively huge growth just by virtue of providing a system where you can set up your blog in a few minutes and where we know you exist - and we can, to some extent, feed you some audience.

This change is a small one but a huge change in culture - despite the old Exc-el's efforts it was still, to some degree, a club based on getting someone else to open the gate and manage your space for you. Now, the culture is truly open, with as much control - and help - as you need to get things they way you want them.

To shake the old culture a new brand is needed to reinforce the new culture. eduBuzz ("TalkShareBuzz" is the strapline) reinforces that idea of freedom of speech, the importance of sharing and the fun of it all. It'll also show up in search engines ;-)

Simplicity of use

eduBuzz is probably one of the simplest 'portals' (yuck!) around. It has two buttons to start off, leading you into either Sharing, by creating a new blog, wiki, Bubbleshare account (other tools will be added over time) or Exploring, by using our chosen search (Quintura) or news pages (see Creating an ever-changing learning resource, below). You can also alphabetically search for people by their first names or blog name, or by their area of interest or topics covered.

If you need help you go to our help page. The help page is a wiki, a webpage anyone can change, meaning that you can both get help but, importantly, offer it. The community will hopefully feed itself with some collective intelligence.

The feedback for eduBuzz will work in the same way, with a wiki of suggestions from users and where we are at in implementing or adjusting those suggestions. The management of the service will be completely open, open to speculation, alteration and new insights from the whole community, not just the small Board or even smaller group developing the portal.

Better Community Building

One thing that is really difficult is keeping track of what is going on across a Local Authority. Blogging about it doesn't really help either unless people can find each other easily, know each other exist even! Until now, the old Exc-el has made do with a list. The community has been small enough to sustain that. In the last few months that has become unworkable. The 'Ever-changing learning resource' (see below) will make that all much easier to track as well as the alphabetical lists for those who have a rough idea of who or what they are wanting.

However, a key part of community building for those new to a site is for the 'owner' or administrator of that site to know how traffic flows around the site. Is there an easier way to direct people to each other than pure serendipity? Using a Gladwell analogy, there are Exc-el's

  • Connectors (people who seem to read everyone in the community, but provide too much information over a too wide area of expertise for those with lower consumption or narrower interests);
  • Mavens (people might not write their own blog but who gather loads of information and release it on a 'need-to-know' basis when someone else asks a question on their blog); and
  • Salesmen (people who promote the latest ideas or initiatives and, by doing so, guarantee it a level of success). Some people are two of these.

How does a new member of the community or a reader know who to read? Who is going to give them what they want?

Reliable statistics on web traffic are essential to that - perhaps the most essential ingredient, in fact. Understanding how to read these webstats and use them for good is just as essential. Exc-el, in a trap into which most new web services fall, has been pretty poor on both accounts and this represents a huge area for growth and development. We don't just need to know how many people visit the community but we need to know why, for how long, where they leave, and why they leave. Once the eduBuzz portal is launched this will be the lion's share of our work. More on that later.

Safety made simple(r)

I am under no illusions that an online community will ever be 'safe' - there will always be that 'one percent' that will use a system for the wrong reasons. Nothing different from school classrooms there. But that should not stop the other 99% taking advantage of a more efficient way of giving and receiving information, ideas and thoughts.

For LTS I had developed some self-publishing guidelines, using a range of existing documents and practices from around the business and public sector worlds. Over the course of two weeks both LTS and Council stakeholders had a chance to alter the wording and messages on a wiki and this document now stands to provide some guidance. Hopefully it will also pass Council procedures to become policy although this, for me, is less important than it being in the back of people's minds before they click 'Publish'. The student guidelines still need some working and a snappy sum-up poster.

The community will grow and become healthier than it has been when all individuals know where they stand, what is acceptable in online communities and what is less so. There will still be interesting debates to be had about where we overstep the line - I can't wait to join in those! It's far from being an Acceptable Use Policy and remains open for tinkering, but it should keep people on the best track.

Creating an ever-changing learning resource:

One of the main challenges for students in this connected world is just keeping track of the connections. When the connections can help improve their depth or breadth of knowledge in a subject this challenge can get in the way of learning. Using PageFlakes, which we're hoping to adjust to an educational bent, we hope to do two things:

  • make it really easy to see, at a glance, what is going on across the eduBuzz community. We'll be organising PageFlakes into Teacher, Student and Parent pages to start with, just to break it down a little.
  • educate, through PageFlakes' intuitiveness and our own training sessions, how to set up your own news feeds or Technorati watchlists on as narrow a topic as you want. This will be of most help to students working on particular projects or teachers looking to develop a skill or curricular area.

Training, support and advice 24/7

Add to that a growing training calendar for the new session covering all sorts of social media use in the classroom and for professional development, as well as some talks on how social media can best equip education organisations to work more effectively (see my contributions), and we have the foundations for a really strong community to grow further still.

Don alludes to some ideas for commercial spin-offs from eduBuzz but doesn't go any further. However, most of what we use is open source or, at the very worst, free to use. How we've done it is very much open source, too. Over the next few months I'll be publicly preparing/blogging more on how we've been building our wonderfully chaotic community while also trying to make it have meaning for those who are new to it. The first rendition of these ideas will be publicly aired at the Building Learning Communities Main Session this July.


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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

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School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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