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How not to set up a learning network

Not all online learning networks actually thrive, here’s a tale of a failed attempt by myself:

Ghost Town

I have been involved with a couple of projects in Manchester as part of a collaborative of schools from across the city. Part of this was the continuation of the LEMA project and the creation of some great resources that I have discussed elsewhere.

During this work the idea of an online space for sharing links, ideas and resources was mooted.  I jumped at the suggestion and went to work looking for a solution.  A Ning was the first obvious idea, I’ve been part of some excellent examples over recent years, although my use of them has dwindled since Twitter invaded my time.

One of the key requirements for the website was the ability to store files, Ning can’t do this inherently.  We could have used another online file hosting service and linked to it, but many of these are blocked by school and LA filtering systems.  Having ruled out Ning, I found a similar competitor called Grou.ps .  This startup seemed to offer all that we needed, a space for sharing links and resources, a forum and blog posts if things really took off.

I floated the idea with the group of Maths teachers I had been working with, they were all keen so I went ahead and spent some considerable time setting up our very own grou.ps group.

Unfortunately the day it came around to launching the site, I was busy at parent’s evening and couldn’t attend the collaborative meeting.  None-the-less it was launched in my absence and requests to join starting to come in.  I put up lots of posts with links to resources and examples of how each section worked.  We made some good old-fashioned paper booklets to distribute to schools and waited for the site to take off.

But it really didn’t 🙁

I think the main problems were two-fold:

Grou.ps is just too slow.  The technology behind it may be sound, a clone of Ning with some extra features, but it takes an AGE for pages to load.  I had noticed this during my building of the site, the  Grou.ps forums had reassuring messages from the owners saying that they were working on the problems, but things didn’t really improve.  I suspect that this put a lot of people off before they had even got started.

I’m in a minority, as are most of the people reading this blog.  I don’t think the teaching community at large is yet in the habit of making time to go online and share the work they’ve been doing.  I certainly don’t think they’re selfish, I just don’t think those habits have been formed yet.  A learning community is only as good as the time and resources people put into it.

If we’re going to encourage more people to share their time, expertise and resources online then the spaces for this to take place need to be well designed, efficient and enticing.  In this case I don’t think my end product ticked all these boxes.  You also need a core of dedicated users, it’s a shame I wasn’t at the launch of this, I think I needed to encourage a couple of people from other schools to have the share enthusiasm for the concept that I myself had.

As I look at the job of choosing and launching a VLE at my new school in the next school year, these are important lessons.  The system will have to work well and reliably and I must ensure there is a core of VLE ambassadors, from both staff and pupils.

I hope the group takes off next year in my absence, I think they will try relaunching it in September.  I will have moved to Trafford LA by then, I’ll miss working with such an enthusiastic bunch of teachers and I’m sure they’ll have many more successful projects in the future.

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