Yesterday the 2010 Edublogs awards “eddies” were announced. Congrats to the winners and runners up. In some ways the real significance for me is the increasingly established self-organising nature of teacher community and resource sharing. (True, this is the 7th year they were awarded before but the use and userbase of Twitter over the last year has given them a lot more prominence – and relevance). Last month’s launch of a redesigned onestopEnglish, Macmillan’s leading ELT teaching resource site, was flagged up in Twitter, Facebook and blogs. These tools and channels, resources in themselves, either didn’t exist or weren’t nearly as popular when publisher sponsored teacher resource sites first appeared more than five years ago. In the ‘eddie era’, do publisher run teacher resource sites / community site still have a role?
Disclosure: I have either worked or advised on the configuration of Onestopenglish and British Council sites mentioned amongst others in this post.
Then and now
When Macmillan and other publishers first set up resource sites, the attractiveness from a teacher perspective, lay in getting more of what was already available on paper – usable resources, teaching tips, professional updating through methodology articles – but more wide-ranging, topical and up-to-date. What wasn’t available off-line was ‘ community’, however we define that.
Then, sites such as the ‘one and only’ Dave’s ESL Cafe took care of the above in addition to the occasional requirement to change jobs. Then, the online population was a tiny fraction of what it is now and the education world was only beginning to be disrupted by technology.
The audience now
Six or seven years on it would be very surprising, and even worrying, if the lay of the land hadn’t changed. First of all the size and nature of the audience: the size of the teaching population active online, which is not the same as the online teaching population, has exploded. They are far more mainstream and representative than the early adopters. Their needs are more sophisticated with in many cases the web being a companion to their everyday, off-line lives. Many of the services to the educator community have moved online. The jobs market for example is catered for by a sophisticated professional online services such as TEFL.com but there is a lot of specialist competition.
Comment is freed
Web 2.0 is why teacher resource sites had to stop looking like a dusty web catalogues and more like a flexible, searchable, shareable set of resources. But that is only about the usability of content. The real story is what has happened to comment and community. Once upon a time, the best way to structure a conversation was through mailing lists or forums. That still has a role but so much comment now takes place as a discussion following the content or on a different platform completely, often Twitter. So much so that many blog posts are really just conversation starters. When the post post discussion burns brightly such as when Gavin Dudeney of the Consultants-e blogged about his reasons for pulling out of Second Life, it can be a fantastic crystalisation of community and important issues through a conversation. It’s not just blogs –what’s a blog anymore anyway? All the standard content management systems can open up any text for comment, polling etc. British Council websites do this successfully for millions of users every month.
Twitter adds another element. Many UK newspapers, for example, have embraced the idea that the role of the content is to kick start a conversation, much of which which may happen off-premises. The ELT chats on Twitter are a very curious beast. Judged on content alone, some of these conversations are pretty light. However, they are really about community and connectedness. It’s often not what is said but the fact it is said in real time which makes it a real conversation. The retweets and exclamations look lame in the transcript when it’s all over, but are part of what makes it engaging as it happens.
The importance of the Edublogs awards is that this community is now not only self organising, it’s also self certifying. The removes another potential role publishers have had as they were gatekeepers for all content. Does this mean now they can only speak for their own content?
Getting (even paying for) supplementary content
The question though is whether that content is even required any more. Twitter, Digg, Diigo and others are often cited in support of the idea we can now all find our own content and publishers are redundant, at least for supplementary content. Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) can handle it all. I think that really depends. If there is a large enough group with a similar set of needs, they can be very self supporting. UK teachers of French or Spanish for GCSE or a particular key stage may only need a Yahoo group to meet most of their needs.
The PLN co-ordinated by Joe Dale who I came across at FOTE 10 is another example.
If the argument is there is enough authentic material ‘out there’ already, probably but, it may take so long to find, filter and adapt that it isn’t worth your while. I put together a short course on English for Social Media Marketing for English 360 earlier this year. (I don’t think it’s published yet). With my co-author Pete MacKichan we were determined to use authentic materials. Shouldn’t be hard, right? A 15 hour course about the English needed to talk about Facebook, Twitter and Youtube should just fall together. Several books and hundreds of YouTube videos, blogs and Facebook sites later, we got our course together but that involved a very time-consuming trawl through a lot of content before we found the nuggets we were looking for. Which still needed exploitation materials writing for them, of course.
I agree that what you need is probably already ‘out there’ but it can be too much hard work to find. It is easy to forget that for every Hootsuite user keeping track of multiple accounts and flows, there may be a thousand people wondering if it is worthwhile getting on to Twitter and put off by the idea they will be overwhelmed once they do so. Web resources do need to be designed to take account of the significant and influential minority who want to embed it in their PLN but there is great comfort for many (the majority?) in going to one or two places called websites which are just there and reliable. Increasingly people are prepared to pay for this as well: Onestopenglish and Teachitworld have paid-for services which a sufficient number of people clearly find useful.
Curate not create
In addition to the ability to create content, publishers have lots of filtering / editing / adapting skills. Content authoring and editing have traditionally been two sides of the same coin. The sheer amount of information ‘out there’, makes that worth revisting. Publishers are best placed to select, grade, extend recommend other people’s content. (They aren’t the only people who can do it but are probably the only people who can do it full time). That is potentially a very valuable service. This doesn’t take away from the importance of social selection i.e. content rating nor indeed that it is potentially threatening for publishers. But it takes time to categorise and select from a wider variety of content in order to present a range of choices which can then be rated. Onestopblogs is a good example and they also tout their editors’ choices on the front page.
So, yes, I think these sites have a role but they need to be careful what that role is:
- Resources to extend coursebook use: There is lots of stuff on the web supporting this but often inside different microsites. OUP is quite good on this.
- Find supplementary materials: There is a role for banks of reliable, quality resources. Onestopenglish is the king (queen?) of sites but to have that range and depth it has to be paid for. Teachitworld is another. British Council’s / BBC’s TeachingEnglish and their regional teacher sites is the public service aspect of this. Going this route needs a lot of resourcing though.
- What sort of materials: mix of ready to take into the classroom (photocopiable / audio / video) , tips, methodology / targetted at specific user groups. It would be interesting to see how this affects subscriptions to Practical English Teacher etc
- Community is tricky. Almost certainly shouldn’t be the main aim given the self-organising principle above. Certainly don’t rely on forums alone. Community is helped by content for people to discuss / rate. Pearson’s revamped site appears to set out its stall as a ‘community’. Each subgroup community has a promising tab for ‘content’ and ‘ documents’ but appears very light on both and the overall activity level is low. Even OneStopEnglish’s forums aren’t buzzing but they are careful enough to make their ‘community’ section around a magazine of which the forum is just one element.
- Interfacing with other people’s networks. Making content shareable (Facebook likeable, tweetable etc) is very important. Allowing people to sign in or associate their other social media accounts is very useful.
- Make content social: let everyone see what is popular and trending. Let them rate it
- Curate as well as create: act as a gateway for other resources. An excellent example of this is the paper.li site which can magically create a polished newspaper/ newsletter look from all the resources cited in Twitter hashtags. OUP’s ELT ‘Global daily’ is a brilliant example.
- Court controversy or at least debate with a blog. British Council / BBC’s TeachingEnglish does this to an extent with monthly guest bloggers but Delta publishing are a case study in how a smaller organisation can use social media to punch above its weight. Highly engaging guest bloggers with a brief to get the conversation going. This month Nik Peachey is addressing the ‘crisis’ in digital reading skills.
- Just run a good blog – with practical teaching tips and light methodology articles. OUP’s Global blog is a good example.
- Twitter: of course but how to pitch it? How much to do? What tone to adopt? Pushing resources out is good provided there isn’t too much self promotion which is off-putting in the increasingly cosy world of Twitter communities.
And the gaps?
Opportunities and gaps there certainly are but this post has gone on for long enough.
This is a general think piece about teacher communities illustrated with examples. It isn’t intended to be a complete survey so I’m sure there is plenty of good practice which isn’t mentioned. Please get in touch if you would like specific, in-depth reports.