Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Applying technology somewhere else! HotSquash

I'm putting my money and reputation on the line! I'm setting up, HotSquash, a new women's online clothing brand with a difference. Thanks to hidden technology, our women's fashion not only looks great, but feels great too - no matter what your day has in store.

Due to launch in early 2011, our special fabrics keep you refreshingly cool in summer and toasty warm without looking bulky in winter. See - please, please spread the word! Recommend friends (you get £5 off for 5 friends) and sign up to the newsletter to win clothes from the first Collection.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

thanks Nancy (Communities of Practice)

A big thank you again to Nancy White for the series of blogs on Communities of Practice (CoP). The series has been going since early August, and give a marvellous overview into best practice on CoPs. Nancy’s fab website is

As I said back in August, for me CoPs are about the people and communities. They are not about technology or platforms. Too many people think CoPs can be a panacea to all the worlds problems, but in many circumstances a CoP is not required (and something else is better). When CoPs are the right route, you can’t just click a switch and believe you have done your part.

Communities of Practice take love and attention to get right!

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Stewarding Technology for your Community of Practice (with Nancy White)

Elearning is growing and evolving hand in glove with a constellation of technologies that have their roots in a number of places. One is in collaboration software. If we look back to the origins of the internet (ARPANET) through to today's big emphasis on "Web 2.0" tools, there is a constant thread of the dynamic interplay between technology and the groups using it. The early software was written because scientists needed better ways to collaborate. Usenet evolved as more and more people started using it, creating both technological and social demands on the system. Personal publishing - while easier today with blogs and wikis - has been around since the early nineties, giving voice to people in new ways that ranged wider than their geographic communities, creating learning connections that span the globe. Community influences technology and technology influences community. This is true in the application of technology for learning.

The second root to the technology supporting elearning is the traditional structures of teaching, particularly of the western world, with the notion of "course" and "classroom" guided by the hierarchy of the "school" and the "teacher." As people developed technologies to support learning, they often recreated these same structures in their software.

Today the world of community technology and learning technology offer us something beyond the classroom metaphor. They offer us affordances for group,community and network learning. There is an interplay between the technology and those who use it, driving the evolution of the tools forward every day. Further more, there are so many different tools and technologies that our heads start to spin like that scene from the Exorcist!

We can't cover all of this in one blog post, but let's get a few of the issues out on the table. This is a very high level "skim." This is a complex area. So take my words with a grain of salt! :-)

1. We are not simply deploying technology. We are designing for social learning and interaction.
First, from a CoP perspective, the platform is NOT the community. It is the people. Second, it is easy to reduce technology selection to a set of features and pick the platform that seems to have all the features we need. But what we really need to understand is how these tools can support social learning and interaction. This is both a technological and social design issue. So before going into a technology selection and deployment path, be clear on your goals. This is not a content warehouse, nor simply a tracking system to account for student activity.

You are designing a "place" where people will learn together. Do you go to where they are already online (sites like Facebook and Meebo) and connect those sites with your material, or create a space you invite them into? Does everything have to happen in one place (via something like a portal) or can it be spread about the net a bit?

What attracts people to a place? What makes it easy and enjoyable - yes ENJOYABLE! You are designing a place where people need to "show up." Is the place easy to navigate. Are the tools organised in a way that reflects the content, learner and course needs?

How does the technology support the type of group? If you are trying to foster a CoP, there needs to be attention to both community, domain and practice. If however, you are supporting a course a learner works through by themselves, you don't need to support sociality between learners.

How is the learner's identity expressed? What control do they have over their experience? How are you designing for multiple learning modalities?

Answering these and other social design questions is the starting place for technology exploration, not things you think of after the software is installed.

2. How do we select in the jungle of technology options?
How often have you heard the debate. "Oh, you should only use a blog for that!" Or "wiki, use a wiki!" People have strong opinions about what a tool is useful for. Let me share a hint. Don't start there. Start with what sort of activity you want to support, then evaluate the context. THEN start thinking about software. Not an instant before. For example, here are some learning activities and some potential tools to support them.

Learning Activity 1) Conversations between learners. This supports discovery, meaning making, group work and building relationships. Tool = could be discussion boards, email lists, wikis (not for all groups, but some make it work), synchronous chat rooms

Learning Activity 2) Learner relflections or assignment portfolio. Tool = blogs, file sharing tools, e-portfolio's

Learning Activity 3) Co -writing. Tool = wiki, google docs

Learning Activity 4) Feedback, testing closure on a discussion, decision making. Tool= polling tools

Learning Activity 5) Sharing of course materials (written, audio, images, video). See
Will the material be provided, or are you supporting learner contributed content? If the latter, they have to be able to contribute, not controlled from a central webmaster point. Tool = File sharing, Content management system, Podcast and vodcast tools, Photo sharing tools

Learning Activity 6) Finding other learners with something in common. Tool = Profiles, Personal pagesS, ocial networking tools

Learning Activity 7) Finding content. Tools = search engine, tagging tool

Once you have identified the activities you want to support, you can either look for a platform that brings the required tools together (like an Elearning platform, content management system or a hosted site like Ning Part of the decision making here also includes your need to host a system or have it hosted, privacy and security issues and cost/or free with ads. This is where working with your IT team is really critical.

You don't have to have one single platform. You can assemble bits and pieces into a unique configuration. This is trickier and does not scale out, nor does it work well for groups who won't tolerate multiple accounts and sign ins, but it can be very rewarding for groups who want to be flexible and experiment with tools during their course work. For examples of this, see the work of Leigh Blackall with Wiki Educator ( and Stephen Downes/George Siemens for their recent Connectivism Course ( is easy to get really wrapped up in technology selection. The three things to remember are: keep it simple, keep it flexible because things WILL change, and finally, remember it is the people, their interaction and the course content that matters. The platform is the means to the end, not the end!

3. There is a new job out there - Stewarding technology for the learning community

In our "roles" blog post ( we talked about the role of Community Technology Steward. This is, according to the work I (Nancy) have been doing with John Smith and Etienne Wenger, the person who knows enough about the community and enough about the technology to help pick, configure, and support useful practices with that technology. ( In large organisation, there may be an IT department that makes the big decisions and supports the back of a set of technologies, but there is always that place where "the rubber meets the road" and someone has to make easy the path of using technology. Let's look briefly at each of the parts of this role in the context of a learning community. We'll make the assumption that in this case, the steward isn't making the technology selection decisions, but that is often part of the role.

  • Provide input into the selection of technology. While the IT people are going to be the go-to people for issues such as security, reliability and scalability, there is that ticklish piece of USABILITY. It is important to have input from people who know the social side of using software for community oriented learning. This means knowing what the community needs (see picking above) and a sense of what the community can do technologically. Knowing how many tech barriers they will tolerate. As a community technology steward, you want to test any proposed software and map the learning activities you need to support to the tools and features provided. This means that just because an elearning platform has a blog, doesn't mean it is a useful blog. So test, test and push for ease of use.

  • Configure technology. With so many software packages like Moodle and hosted platforms like Ning, you are often given a ton of options. Start simple and activate JUST the features you need to support the learning activities you identified. Don't get carried away. And remember, you are designing for a group, not just yourself. We have a tendency to design for our own preferences. Get some potential learners involved at this stage testing and giving feedback. Listen to and respond to the feedback.

  • Support useful practices using the technology. Once your technology is selected and configured, think about onramps for learners. Create some simple initial learning activities that have meaning to the domain AND give learners a chance to use the technology. Debrief the initial activities and identify any barriers or changes that you need to make. As learners discover useful practices, share them across the community. People are creative and inventive and figure out things the software designers never even thought of. Use that as part of the learning.

4. Security, Open and Closed

Finally, there are many issues around what levels of privacy and security are required (by law), by culture and organisational convention. Traditionally we have designed closed learning systems, but there are experiments to open up learning, creating online courses that anyone can join, but only those who enroll and pay get specific support. (Again, see the Connectivism course If we advise clearly that a course is open, is that acceptable to institutions and students? When does openness contribute to learning? I suspect it is more often than we might initially imagine. But there are times when closed and private are needed, especially for students who are concerned about their lack of preparation or skills, or have special needs that might not be well understood in an open situation. This suggests that we are transparent about what is open, what is closed, why and under what conditions. But it is useful not to assume closed and private all the time. We learn in and with the world.

I have just touched VERY lightly on these issues and there are many more associated with technology in online learning and with communities of practice. So consider this just an appetizer. But we now know that not only is technology important, but HOW we select, configure and use it, and within what context, that creates the sum experience. Not just the software.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Community Heartbeats - when synchronous interactions matter (Communities of Practice series)

Online community learning is great in that it provides us the opportunity to learn anytime, anywhere we have connectivity. But that is a pretty rosy view when we consider the competition a course has against everything else going on in our lives. Often "oh, I can do this anytime so I'll do it later" leaves a course to be done in the wee hours of the night or on weekends when we really might like or need to be doing something else. A learner who stays away too long may begin to feel they have fallen too far behind, or isolated from their community. That's where synchronous events can help. They can keep the heartbeat of a learning community going strong. For some, they create a sense of community, relationship and "realness" -- voices and not just words on a screen.

What are synchronous events?

Synchronous online events are when some or all of the learners are online at the same time and interacting using tools such as Voice over IP (VoIP), telephone bridge lines, chat rooms, web meetings and instant messengers. They can be discussion based, or can be a presentation by a guest or tutor with time for questions and answers. They can be large group or small group breakouts from the larger community. Some examples include:
  • Weekly online tutor "office hours." Learners can log on and ask questions, get support and just check in. These could be mandatory or voluntary. I find that if you do one first that is "all hands" people can get a sense of the value of the office hours, then are more likely to participate in the future.

  • Presentations and guest speakers & lecturers. First of all, if you aren't planning any interaction with the learners around lectures or presentations, don't make them synchronous. Provide them as web content. But if you can bring in a special guest, that is worth a fixed meeting time and it makes it -- well - SPECIAL. But this is not about pushing powerpoints. A good online presentation will mix presentation with interative activities - a good mix is 7 minutes of content, 7-10 of interaction. An hour is good, and 90 minutes should be the maximum. Include audio, text and visual elements. Some of us are not so good at just listening!

  • Small group meetings. Is there small group work? Encourage learners to set a time to meet each week. This builds full participation and helps reduce procrastination. They can meet in a web meeting room or even just on an instant messenger or Skype.
How often are they useful?

How often are they useful?
For new learners, it is helpful to have regular synchronous events until they have figured out their learning and participation rhythms. Virtual team expert Martha Maznevski likens it to the heartbeat of a runner. New runners' hearts are still weak so they beat fast early on in their runs. But trained runners hearts beat slower. So experienced learning communities may not need to meet as often, unless meetings are their preferred mode of interaction.

How do we bridge between the synchronous and the asynchronous?

How do we bridge between the synchronous and the asynchronous?

Synchronous meetings don't work for everyone due to schedules, internet access and personal learning preferences. So we need to have strategies that bridge between the synchronous and asynchronous.

  • Post recordings, notes and artifacts of synchronous meetings. Make sure your learners know where they are and how to access them.

  • Follow up on synchronous action items in the asynchronous interaction spaces. Notes taken "live" in a web meeting can be shared right afterwards, with action items highlighted. If additional conversation is needed, continue in a discussion thread, blog or wiki area.

  • Prepare for upcoming synchronous meetings by involving the group in planning, again using the asynchronous tools you have at hand. You can even use scheduling tools like to pick a meeting time!

Finally, check in with the group as to how the "heartbeat" is going. Ask for feedback and use that to improve the meetings and the timing of the meetings. Each group is different and we can use iterative planning to make the most of that diversity, rather than stifle it with set plans.

Synchronous telephone conference tips
Designing and Facilitating meetings:

Image Credits on Flickr/Creative Commons:

This is part of the Community of Practice series of blogs with Nancy White

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Content and Community (CoPs with Nancy White)

We have talked throughout this series on communities of practice about "content." Well, what the heck is content, why is it important and how do we make the most of it - especially when there is a LOT of it. First the what and why, then one idea about how to work with volume.

What do we mean by "content?
By content, we can mean many things. Books, papers, self-paced learning modules, resources, learner discussions, reflective logs/blogs, images, audio, video. All the "stuff" that carries both the subject matter information and the artifacts of our interactions to make meaning of those subjects. Today we can capture both the resources and the interaction artifacts. We can draw from a closed, defined set of resources, or tap into the larger set of resources on the world wide web. The content may be dynamic, changing and evolving so one set of static resources that works for todays course is outdated in six months. So content is never fully "done." It is alive in our learning communities.

Why is content important?
From a communities of practice perspective, it is important for two reasons. Content embodies or captures what we know about the domain (see

Second, the creation of content during the learning process is a key part of that very process. In CoP terms, this is "reification." Here is a bit from the upcoming book by Etienne Wenger, John Smith and I that talks about reification.

"Members of a community of practice need to interact with each other as well as produce and share artifacts such as documents, tools, and links to resources. Sharing artifacts without interacting can inhibit the ability to negotiate the meaning of what is being shared. Interacting without producing artifacts can limit the extent and impact of learning. Indeed, the theory of communities of practice views learning together as involving the interplay of two fundamental processes of meaning making: Members engage directly in activities, interactions, conversations, reflections, and other forms of personal participation in the learning of the community; members produce physical and conceptual artifacts—words, tools, concepts, methods, stories, documents, and other forms of reification—that reflect their shared experience and around which they organize their participation. (Literally, reification means “making into an object.”) Meaningful learning in a community requires both processes to be present. Sometimes one may dominate the other. They may not always be complementary to each other. The challenge of this polarity is how successfully communities cycle between the two."

So not only do we have the content provide us a base resource or curriculum of the course, we have the content created by the members as part of their learning. As Etienne likes to tell us, the community becomes the curriculum. This is why content is important!

Members Creating Content
Over time, learners create content related to courses and their learning communities that may have value beyond the "course." Learners may wish to track and organize their own content. Portfolios, particularly ones that are not bound up in a proprietary platform, allow this portability. There is also the value of the content to other learners and communities of practice. Contribution of articles, blog posts, links to external resources that learners or tutors have tagged can all enrich the content of what used to be viewed simply as a course, and is now an ongoing potential learning hub.

Bringing in New Content
Learning content is not a static element, particularly for topics that are deeply embedded in our rapidly change society. So a childcare course may need to have a "line of sight" to changing policy, or local trends. We need a means of identifying emerging and related content and weaving it back into the more traditional "course" is a newer role. This curation of content can be an organisationally drive or user generated aspect. Probably both. This is where technology and human beings combine to make a strong contribution. While we have human bees in platform, particularly in the community context mentioned "across courses" in the last blog post (see, we can use technology to scale human curation. Consider things like aggregated content pulled in by persistent searches and tags, Amazon style interests. The ability to use these tools to find and aggregate content can also be used to link people to that content. This could be organised by the instructors and/or the learners. In fact, it has been my experience that learners who find their own content tend to be more deeply engaged with it. Plus learning how to find and critique external content is a core skill in today's world. So rather than be afraid of what "junk" students will find, equip them to be critical assessors of content and find the gold among the dross.

In the new Ufi learndirect Childcare portal pilot, learners can create "their learning plan" and can draw on learndirect content and bookmark and rate content. Through technology (Amazon style), there is also "suggested content" based on their interests/previous use.

Organising and manage their own content
The mechanics of finding, labeling and sorting content have direct impact on the later findability and usability of that content. Does your learning and community software enable easy tagging of content so learners can find it on their own terms later? Do you organise external content so it can be aggregated into course domains? Let's look at tagging as a specific example. Tagging is when a person associates some key words of their own choosing to a piece of digital content. This can be done outside of a learning platform using a social bookmarking tool like, or (the latter is specifically designed for research and education contexts). These allow a person to embed a bookmarking tool in their internet browser, and then when they want to tag something, they click a button in the browser and a pop up screen appears, and the person fills in the fields. If individual learners are tagging on their own, you can pull in their tags into your learning platform using the RSS feeds provided by most of these tagging services. This way the learner maintains control and ownership of their bookmarking, but the learning community benefits from the activity. This build longer term learning and finding capacity, rather than locking the content (and the learner's access to it) inside the learning platform of your organization.

Tags have another great application. They can be visualized as a "tag cloud" where each tag word shows up in a size related to the number of times it shows up in a list of tags. This gives a quick visual image of what is getting most attention from an individual in their tag cloud or, for tags associated across a group of learners, of the group itself. This visual "hook" can engage those who would otherwise skip reading a text listing of tags, engaging a different learning style. It has been very interesting to me to see how a tag cloud invites in browsing of content from people who would otherwise glaze over at a list of files or links. (By the way, if you like playing with any kind of word clouds, you may enjoy!). Ufi learndirect's new Childcare portal pilot utilises tag clouds as a vital element.

Now you might start getting worried about people tagging things "correctly." Don't worry. Tags represent the participants view. Yes there will be typos. Look for tools that allow you to fix that, but don't fixate on the practice. You WANT people to tag, which is better than no tags. You may also want to introduce some key tags and use those as navigation points across key course content. You will see that others may actually follow your tagging conventions, so set some good examples at the start.

A final word on content
Yes, content is important. But if people don't use it, interact with it and making meaning of it so they can apply it, it is not worth the electrons. When you design for content, make sure it is attached to people and their processes. Then you get the magic happening!


Monday, 6 October 2008

Roles and scalability (Communities of Practice series with Nancy White)

In the last blog we talked about some of the roles that support successful learning communities and CoPs (communities of Practice). But when we think of these roles in the context of organizations like Learndirect, whose strength is providing services at a massive scale, some natural tensions are going to emerge. We might say "yeah, all these roles are nice, but there is no way to provide them a scale."

How can we creatively thinking about scalability of roles? What might be the interaction between paid, formalized roles provided by Learndirect and the cultivation of roles within a learning cohort or an ongoing community? How might technology help us? Let's look at some options.

  • Within courses/intense support - assessment, content, and tutoring. Tutors with both content and pedagogical experience help students assess learning needs and pull together relevant resources (at Ufi learndirect, the pedagogy and much of the tutor support is in-built within the e-learning couse). They are a "first line" of support with explicit boundaries on what they can do. This may be more or less needed depending on the course. Some content lends itself to being a solo student experience with little support. Others are more complex and need more support. Technology may assist to direct relevant content to the right learners through diagnostic paths (a la Amazon's recommendation system) on the assessment side.

  • Across "course" offerings/building community support - community cultivation, connecting learners. While there might not be able to be an intense level of support at an individual cohort level, can there be learning communities that draw from multiple cohorts for the same course? For example, I may be taking a self paced module on childcare for infants. Within that course, there is no "community" per se, but I can log into the "Infant Childcare" community and ask questions of peers and experts, get access to more content and come back when I have questions about what I've learned in application. This might be seen as a set of domain specific portals. This offers the ability for both tutor and peer support on a more scalable level than at the course level (another way could be to take a generic course like numeracy or employability and build a niche community around say financial management that is a key issue for some of the learners. The same principle could work for leadership and management and many other more generi courses). All this can augment the automated diagnostics with a community of people who might have more diverse or contextual recommendations. Developing good critical thinking to evaluate and assess recommendations - automated or human, may be something important to foster within the community(ies.)

  • Learning support from the "wider world" - tapping into networks, professional associations and local organisations. An important learning bridge is that place between the formality of a "course" and the ongoing application of learning in the world. This ongoing learning is primarily informal. We can link students to external supports for their ongoing learning. It may be professional associations, guilds, communities of practice or local organizations. Linking learners to these ongoing support not only bridges to application, but it may also attract people from the community who wish to participate in domain communities sponsored by the learning institution, offering value in both directions.

The bottom line is that support roles are neither fixed, nor limited to paid, internal resources. If we look at the value chain across this ecosystem, each layer, each player has something to offer and something to gain through cooperating.



Friday, 26 September 2008

Community Leadership in Learning - bees, mentors, coaches, experts and friends (Communities of Practice series)

When we dream of community learning, we often have this idyllic fantasy that they just work. Automagically things get organized. Participation happens. But when we open our eyes and think of the wasteland of fossilized or never-really-happened learning communities, of the dead web discussion forums, reality hits. While it may take a village or wider family to raise a child, it takes roles to raise a community. And unless you have endless time or deep pockets to pay someone (or some ONES) these roles have to be distributed across the community. Lets take a look at some possible roles in learning communities or communities of practice. These are examples, and they are in my language. You may very well have different labels and different roles in your community. The point is to be able to describe them. Then a community can begin to step in, negotiate, and fill the roles.

More than tutors and learners

At the moment many people think there is just the educational practitioner (expert; one role); and the learner. Teacher, student. Perhaps there is also the subject matter expert who comes in to create a course or determine the content pieces, and an instructional designer who organizes that content based on pedagogical principles and within the constraints of the technologies in use.

In reality, there are more roles. People often play more than one role or switch between roles. Some of these roles may be played by one person or many. Sometimes they are formalized (as in instructor) and sometimes they are entirely informal and ad hoc. It all depends on the context. Here are some examples. Notice the overlap!

  • Subject matter expert - in CoP lingo, these are the people who have a sharp focus on the domain (see In self paced elearning, the experts made their appearance during the creation of the course, then are essentially gone. A tutor (see next description) may take on this role. In many learning communities, the members themselves are to some extent or another, also experts. This means as a value we explicitly recognize, value and use the knowlege of the learners. This can lead to peer mentoring or peer tutoring. As humans too, we generally appreciate being recognized. So this build social capital in a learning group.

  • Technology steward - when we are learning together online, not everyone is as geeky as they might wish to be. The technology steward is a person who knows enough about the needs of the community and enough about the technology to help everyone use it well in learning together. This might be the person who naturally likes to experiment with web tools, or who is a good "explainer." Tech stewards are often unaware they have this talent, so it is important to notice them and asking them to help. In an organizational setting, we rarely have enough "tech support" so these stewards within the learning communities can be a huge help.

  • Community cultivator - These are the relationship people. In CoP lingo, they pay attention to community (see They welcome people into a learning group. They notice who might be interested in meeting others and makes the introductions. They notice when someone is missing. In an online environment where we lack many of our accustomed social signals (body language) this role is important. Look for the naturals - they love taking on this role. Technology can assist this role through the use of course member directories, social networking tools and even instant messengers.

  • Content scanners and filterers - we talk about information overload. These people see it as a candy store. They scan, notice and often love to share what they have found. Set up tools and places for these folks to bring in external resources into your course. We'll talk more about the HOW of doing this in a subsequent blog post.

  • Content creators - History has shown that between 1% and 10% of participants in online groups produce 90- 99% of the content. In a course situation, we often want to increase this as a way to know if people are participating. (See Lurkers below). In reality, if everyone produced, we'd not be able to consume it. We'd choke. However, look for those who create value. Encourage them, like the content scanners, to lead conversations, share their critical thinking skills and role model active participation. Often just recognizing their skills encourages them.

  • Lurkers - As CoP theory notes, some of us learn from the side, not in the center creating content, or leading conversations. This "legitimate peripheral participation" is often labeled "lurking" in online communities. Lurking means they are reading, but we just don't know it. So we need to encourage people to give us clues if they are happily lurking, or find out if they are disconnected and lost. This takes us back to the tutors and peer tutors.

  • Bridgers out to the world - Most learning within a course is the first step. Carrying that learning out into the world and applying it is the gold standard of success. It is my personal belief that nearly every course that has practical application as its goal should have an explicit activity that bridges out to the world. That may mean pointing out open learning communities interested in the same topic or domain, bringing in external speakers to add a touch of the "real world" or keeping learners connected after a course to support that learning in application. Members of the community can help create those links.

Not all of these roles have to be institutionalised. If you are providing elearning services, think about which ones are most important in your context. Prioritise the ones you can fill, then design your learning communities to support members taking on the other roles. This includes making space to talk about them, and recognising -- even rewarding -- people who take them on. Roles are a way for people to build their social capital. They another layer of identity for members in their communities. They cultivate a sense of ownership. The can raise the visibility and reputation of those who take them on successfully. So while roles most often equate with work, they also have intrinsic value to both the individual and the community.

Etienne Wenger: Scroll down to the section on leadership
Bronwyn Stuckey and John Smith, Sustaining Communities of practice

Image Credits on Flickr/Creative Commons
view photos Uploaded on September 20, 2008
by Jose Kevo

CoP Blogs

This is a series of blogs on Communities of Practice with Nancy White.