Edublogs, Twitter and the changing nature of ELT community sites

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.

Self-certifying

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.

Where ELT teachers have a common agenda such as certain types of business English or ESP, maybe, but most people teach too many levels and age groups. All the lesson plans of Sean Banville, Nik Peachey, Jamie Keddie et al are excellent for ad hoc materials but what if people need a range and depth of content within a particular area? i.e. 12 – 15 year olds, level A2 on the topic of X; listening materials for adults at B1 level with a focus on topic Y. That is where the content creation strengths of a publisher come in. Since they don’t work for free, we have to pay for a service or there is a quid pro quo. Pearson got deservely slapped for inserting ‘Simon Cowell’ types  IP clauses into their community site’s terms of use. At the time it seemed more cockup than conspiracy with a legal dept who didn’t understand what was required and so it has proved (both from Jason Renshaw’s blog).

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.

Joe Dale blog / PLN

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.

Their role

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.

Disclaimer

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.

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Showing 4 comments
  • Hugh Graham-Marr

    Hi Paul, a nice overview… though I’m still not sure to what extent I find ‘community’ in the online world, I know an increasing number of teachers who do.

    On your point that much of the interesting conversation is going on outside of our publisher sites would add that this is how it should be. But thank you for recognizing company blogs as blogs. This isn’t always the case!

    • Paul Sweeney

      Hi Hugh, I’m glad you added the bit of knowing a teachers who do find “‘community’ in the online world” – otherwise you could find yourself on the receiving end of some virtual vilification. You do have a point about defining ‘community’ as it can be taken for granted on one side and mystifying on the other. For me it is a virtual communication space a) which feels alive due to frequency of type of messages and b) is relevant to you. It becomes your community where you feel recognised, known and valued. You probably have something to contribute either pro actively or feel you can help others out with their problems or queries. There are differerent levels of participation across virtual communities with people opting for passive role in some which making a lot of running in others. Some tools/ platforms support ‘community’ better than others but there is no definite correlation between the communication possibilities of a platform and the likelihood of finding ‘community’ there. So a mailing list which allows people to go back and forth can have a vibrant feel to it (I have worked for organisations which stomped on any sort of back channel so lists were one way only) while a ning isn’t automatically a community just because you can upload your photo and ‘friend’ people. I know of a few Yahoo lists which were ticking along nicely, turned into nings and began to look very bare. Sometimes the original purpose of a list such as webheadsinaction - ICT knowledge exchange and support – becomes almost secondary when such a warm spirit develops that you are as likely to find swapping of conference photos as support requests. Even blogs if regular enough and the author is provocative enough, develop their own ‘community’ as readers begin to tune as much to see what the comments are going to be and comment back as read the original post.

      On the second point about when a blog is a blog – company blogs can be surprisingly difficult to do. The drivers are often marketing related which can lead to a one way channel of puffery and promotion instead of genuine and useful posts and (shock!) mentioning 3rd party products and even (double shock) sounding human about our own. Certainly not the case with Delta and OUP mentioned above.

  • Laura Austin

    Paul,

    A great article, you cover a lot of ground and really give shape to what I also think the future of ELT in terms of community sites and online interaction will hold.

    Your initial question ‘do publisher run teacher resource sites / community site still have a role?’ – I think the answer is yes. The role of the publisher is going to need to change with the digital era and as long as there are people in place within the organisations who are following the online trends and have make time to interact with community sites, then they can still take a leading role in the provision of resources.

    However, it seems that with edublogs and twitter – there is more scope for individuals to take a stronger footing in the market place and compete with the ‘publishing giants’. This is why I like your comment ‘Make content social: let everyone see what is popular and trending. Let them rate it’ – it gives the best content the best chance of being promoted and being used.

    • Paul Sweeney

      Laura,

      glad you found it relevant and useful. Re the role of publishers and resources, one of the Web 2.0 myths is that the more searchable content / better UGC schemes etc there are, the more likely publishers are to be replaced. The thing is that creating content is hard and most people can’t do it to a publishable standard so what is more likely is that publishers will be displaced rather than replaced. One of the rules of thumb for technology uptake in any aspect of modern life is people will use it provided it helps them do what they wanted to do, but makes it easier. Teachers will always need content, yes, but publishers need to be wise to what formats it is produced in, how it is distributed, how it is reused and accept their role in all of those contexts has changed. More than a year ago I had a go at thinking through how Kevin Kelly’s generative values changed things here which I should probably revisit.

      I sort of half agree with you on what twitter and edublogs allows people to do. Gain a voice, exercise influence, competing for attention – yes. Instances of ‘competing’ more substantially are harder to find. Any examples?

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