Online tools provide the means but it is people who communicate, collaborate and create communities. They will not use these tools unless they know how to use them effectively (for their purpose, in their context) and derive some benefit.
The trial projects designed interactions to keep their communities ‘on-board’ and a synopsis is given here. More detail can be found in the trial project final reports and in the videos recorded at the project showcase event.
Whilst developing a community of practice for photojournalists, the University of the Arts found that by varying the activities and information available, they were able to keep people engaged.
We have run webinars approximately every two weeks during the project, with a variety of times and days of the week to allow different participants from different global locations too more easily participate (note that this has not had a clearly noticeable effect on attendance at the webinars).
University of the Arts London
…people are willing to accept a certain degree of imperfection in the delivery if the content is relevant, engaging, contemporary and challenging.
University of the Arts London
Of particular importance to the webinar format is the power of narrating experiences, as Wenger confirms: ‘sharing tacit knowledge requires interaction and informal learning processes such as storytelling, conversation, coaching and apprenticeship of the kind that communities of practice provide.’ (Wenger, McDermott and Snyder, 2002).
‘Flipbites’ is a term coined by Paul Lowe, University of the Arts, to describe short videos, taken on a Flip camera or similar, at conferences and meetings. They have been used to capture immediate ideas, thoughts and stories that are then shared via the CoP collaborative site. These have proven to be very popular.
Keep in contact
Regular updates (within the collaborative network/community and with the wider stakeholder groups) are important as not only do they maintain interest but can help mitigate against arising problems or risks becoming major issues. With specific regard to the collaborative activities see the ‘building online communities’ and ‘keeping interest’ (above) sections and for the stakeholder group see the ‘engaging stakeholders’ section.
The trial projects used the following approaches with success:
- Use existing communication channels to keep people informed of progress, for example the staff newsletter and specialist newsletters (e-learning, enterprise)
- Regular meetings with for example IT services, LTech (Northumbria University), marketing (for branding), user groups
- Use a wiki as a support tool and due to its inclusive nature this will encourage buy-in from users
- Document (perhaps using a wiki) suggestions, actions
- Consider using Twitter and Skype (the University of Leeds found this approach worked with their community)
Work with people, not against them
For the collaborative activities to be a success, it is important to work with college or university support services. They will have already have been identified as a stakeholder group and so receive regular updates but usually they need to be party to early discussions in the collaborative process; this will mitigate against later issues.
At Northumbria University, the IT services director was a member of the trial project board and e-learning support staff worked with the academics running the trial project on a daily basis. Without the involvement of the IT director it was felt that several of the more contentious aspects of the trial, for example the use of Skype, would have been impossible to implement.
Staff from e-learning support (technical side from IT services) worked closely with the academics and this facilitated a fast turnround of fixes for technical problems. This internal collaboration has paid dividends as a virtual server for collaborative work with external partners has been made available to all academics.
Another important lesson we have learned from the project was the importance for IT services working with the academics and e-learning support staff (such as LTech) in order to trial academic (user) led development of how ICT might support teaching and learning.
The project demonstrated the importance of having the IT services director on board, which was paramount to the success to this project. The project contributed to enhancing the relationship between IT services and LTech. This is important as it has led to increased collaboration between these two services.
Similarly the University of Glamorgan trial project had a senior multimedia developer as a member of the team and this ensured that the learning and corporate support services (LCSS) department of the university was involved from the start.
Sometimes, despite having local people on-board, procedures mitigate against innovation and speedy responses.
Birmingham Metropolitan College came up against this when wishing for members of the consortium to hold online meetings using Elluminate. Some staff (National Health Service (NHS), College and University) are not allowed to download software onto their local PCs and NHS staff are not allowed to use cameras (webcams in this instance).
In the NHS permission had to be sought from a committee and this did not happen before the trial project had ended. In order to overcome the problem of not being able to download software, laptops with internet dongles were provided; this workaround is just that and not a permanent or sustainable alternative but in this instance it did enable the trialling of collaborative tools in this context.
Mechanism for reporting errors
All systems need a mechanism for the reporting of problems and collaborative online systems are no different. When working collaboratively it is important to make it easy for users to log comments and errors and to keep this updated with error-fixes.
Knowledge House use 3 mechanisms for enabling users to report bugs:
- Automatic bug reporting mechanism
- Open source TRAC
- Monthly KHIS champions meeting
Mechanism for supporting errors: Bug swatting - Knowledge House blog