March 03, 2008

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?


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It's a powerful argument, Ewan, and an entirely valid one, but I can't help thinking we're talking about two different things here. Perhaps it is my use of the word 'community' that is at fault, because the meaning I had in mind when I wrote the piece is quite different from the self-organizing, internally dynamic and loosely-bound community you describe.

I wonder if a lesser term such as 'collaborative grouping' makes more sense in the context of Glow (or similar ventures). The ability to bring together a grouping on the fly, for a short, medium or long term purpose, to work together, learn together, to share knowledge and experiences, could be a key aspect of learning in the connected world. A national authentication core makes possible a mode of collaboration that simply cannot be replicated easily, or so flexibly, outwith such a system. That is not to say that one is better than another (although many will argue one way or another, of course) - but they are different. Whether they both have validity in terms of their vaue to for learning and teaching is something we can debate.

I guess my point is that the two definitions are by no means mutually excluding in any way. I fully comprehend, and agree with, your definition here - I just think there is another model that is not currently possible with the 'loose' social technologies that are in other ways so powerful, but which is certainly possible within the tighter functional integration of a Glow-like system.

By the way, Ewan, to typify Glow as:

".... like many 'VLE' online filing cabinets of content before it..." would be to sell drastically short the range of tools and services integrated within the Glow environment.

All the way through the process of specc'ing and developing the Glow concept, my own view was that the VLE 'corner' of Glow is likely to prove the least useful in the longer term - but it had to be in there as an enticement to those who see the VLE as a core part of what is on offer. I disagree with them, but the fact that is is there is a reflection of the nature of a 'democratically' developed initiative such as Glow.

I think we need to get past this stuff - we were having these conversations a year ago, and the fact of the matter is that Glow is coming.

The only sensible thing to do at this stage is put our shoulders to the wheel and do whatever we can to ensure that Glow does benefit the teachers and pupils of Scotland. That's certainly what I intend to do as a Glow mentor, despite whatever misgivings I might have about aspects of the Glow project.

The Access Network community of learning/practice that I have facilitated for the last 5 years, is, as I'm sure you're aware, now operating solely online (via and fortnightly Flashmeetings).

The effort to keep this group functioning (ignoring the 'blocking' of Flashmeeting, teachers' personal/school commitments), being a full-time teacher, is considerable.

I have said all along that there IS a demand (need?) for sustainable online communities, but that there are questions over the extent to which Initial Teacher Education and the Standard for Registration will encourage such relationships beyond the staffroom.

Finally, you mentioned there is some powerful community building in broadband-less communities. There certainly is. I'd recommend keeping an eye on Northbay township on Barra which, collectively, is exposing the dreadfully poor Connected Communities internet access throughout the Western Isles, that they are to be 'gifted' (for £25 per month); countering with reasonable and sustainable proposals of their own.


i was looking for the 'chastened' emoticon, but couldn't find it. :-)


Didn't mean to pontificate John (well maybe a wee bit!). I'm trying hard transform myself from a concerned critic of Glow to one of its champions, so the message was aimed at me as much as at anyone else.

I don't think we will ever get everyone contributing but we do have a very unique opportunity to move whole pardigm on.
I tried to build on-line communities of practice for FE Staff in 1990's - they really just became topdown information distribution channels to groups of subject specialists. I had no problem in quickly reaching around 60-70% of staff in some subject areas across Scotland.

The why not Skype or use the host of other tools falls down at who or what is driving this. We have some genuine policy drivers in CfE which require collaboration on a broad front. The benefits of greater collaboration for schools teachers and local authorities should not need to be spelled out , the benefits for organisations like my own of getting faster and slicker at tweaking the assessed bit of the schools curriculum will be huge. HMIE for sharing best practice reviewing inspection frameworks , list goes on ..

It does not follow ofcourse that everyone will initially leap on board Glow groups but I think if we ensure that all of our small educational community is plugged in then the chances are that it will work a lot better and more efficiently than anything that has been there before and most importantly give learners a much richer diet than is currently available.

There will always be other shows in town or globally but we do all have a commitment to make Glow work for Scottish Education.

Hi Ewan, I like the photo. I have stayed in that bothy a few times and walked into Loch Coruisk and climbed in the Cuillins from it. If you take time to wander around in that area it is amazing what you see; disused crofts, stone circles, single track roads, high tech holiday cottages and large victorian estates. In other words you can see a complex amalgamation of present and past communities in the landscape.
I suppose communities have always been difficult to define becuase they are never static in time or space.
With new online communites there are more new spaces. How can we begin to define the complex use of a wide range of types of virtual space and at different scales of use? These can not be easily disentangled from what we know and value in real space and not least for educational purposes, for better or worse.
Ownership of space and boundaries between spaces are two essential ideas that I think will follow us from concrete to virtual communites. I am off to think about space more: having started talking about Glow as a mansion house of many rooms with a big front door and a vast kitchen with Glow Learn, I am now thinking about, pavements streets, estates and bothies.

Ewan, controversial and provocative stuff here. Thanks for raising the issues. I often feel that a good way of getting a perspective on questions like these is to translate them out of the online context to see if that possibly uncovers some of the argument's assumptions.

So, being devil's advocate for a minute, let me recast your question: would you say that since individuals can organise useful offline networks and conversations and communities for themselves - just as individuals might build and hook into networks online piece by piece - is an argument against the existence of some of our larger professional or governmental institutions?

Of course some will gladly argue yes to that, but (from my position inside just such an institution, England's NCSL) I'd argue that to refrain from any attempts at establishing or nurturing national networking services is to abrogate the responsibility we have to spend some public money wisely to use our positions of power to influence the culture of our profession in a way that groups of motivated, networking individuals can't really hope to achieve.

So we go into these sort of initiatives with our eyes open, conscious that one of the reasons for our existence - the potential scale and reach of what we can offer to the profession nationally - also creates one of our greatest challenges: communities don't fall from the sky. They are built from the ground up, often piecemeal and on small scales where purpose and trust coincide with what you call (in a lovely phrase) the inclination to declare 'community spirit'.

I guess my argument is that there's no single way to create or enter into or benefit from networks. Large, nationally-run initiatives are successful too if they influence the culture in a more ambient fashion, if they encourage people to learn from what can be found within them - creative tools and the opportunity to connect with like-minded people - and then they go off and build their own networks, spaces and connections online. But let's not pretend that one size - predicated on the model of your motivated, dedicated blogger and social bookmarker - is going to fit everyone in our profession who has a curiosity about life online or who simply wants to hook up with others to do their job better. There's a role for institutions modelling and supporting these tools and behaviours, giving teachers a kind of first class ticket into a network they don't have to build from scratch like lego. Isn't EduBuzz an example of just such an initiative to kick start a networking culture? And a great example too.

Talking of physical communities, you say: "Only after we have entered the community do we experience the real reasons for 'joining' the community - or sitting psychologically outside it". So .. we've got to make these sorts of places easy to get into and get to grips with, allowing multiple forms of conversation to develop along a private /public spectrum, places where some rewards are instant and curiosity can be satisfied and, crucially, our 'neighbours' can be found in a way that we might find more difficult as individuals on the frontiers of the wild west web.

Easy to say. Difficult to do. Not an alternative to the other models you propose, but I'd rather that our public institutions were lending their weight to some of the cultural changes we might both wish to see, than lumbering along as if nothing had changed.

Just a couple of minor points.

To my mind the Glow VLE could be a let out to some teachers. It could be used as a high tech Homework vehicle - set the work, gather it in, mark it, hand it back. This is really no different from today's method. My hope would be that the VLE is used as a minor part of a Glow Group which is set up to cover a subject topic but which also involves internet research, a presentation or such like as an outcome and peer group collaboration including the final assessment of the outcome.

As for communities, the dynamic is extremely difficult to predict. The Masterclass online community was not a huge success whereas I gather that Heads Together was and is well used, and yet they both came from the same stable.

Dundee has already set up one or two Glow groups which have not been used at all and to my mind never will be. Groups should spring out of necessity not dictat.

Absolutely - I feel groups are only worth anything when they are wanted and needed, and die when they are not. That means that 99% of the successful groups in Glow WILL be user generated. My hope is that Local Authorities don't try to control this too much, or even set up groups in the hope that they will be filled. The very act of setting the group up is a powerful kick starter that helps populate and keep discussions going long after the initial 'facilitator' is gone.

An interesting question position, does all successful groups "spring up" on their own? A previous comment mentions Heads Together as a successful online community, this is a community which owes its start to visionary people in central positions, however key elements to its continued success has been

1) that it has always been run as a community owned project (ie headteachers) and over the 5 years have changed according to how the community wanted it to change.

2) A continuous funding ensuring professional facilitation of the community.

3) A continuous attention to the legitimacy of the community by ensuring only headteachers had access, therefore the community feel "safe" to participate.

This last point has over and over prooved itself to be key to the participation of members, they are worried about Local Authority staff/ HMIe even other staff from their school participating in their conversations. Though I am sure technically this can be achieved similary with Glow Groups the challenge will be to ensure participants understands and appreciate that their privacy is protected within the groups.

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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?

Module Masterclass

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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