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Projects, groups, networks, collaboration, sharing and social software

January 20th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

Pontydysgu is involved in a number of European projects. Typically, these projects involve partners from five or more organisations in different countries working together around a hared work plan. Projects can last from two to four years.

One of our main roles is to provide technologies to support project development. This is not unproblematic.

Whilst three or four years ago most projects were content with a simple web page giving access to project objectives and results, we have been trying to use technology to improve collaboration between the partners, who due to distance will usually only meet face to face two or three times a year.

Levels of experience and confidence in technologies varies greatly.

One of the biggest changes in the last two years has been the use of Skype and Flash Meeting for regular audio and video communication between meetings. Both are far from ideal. ‘Can you hear me?’ is still the most common sentence to be heard in many of these meetings. Talking participants through the Windows microphone and video set up panels is still a pain. But overall the use of such simultaneous communication tools has changed both the form and intensity of collaboration.

We have also seen a slow move towards using multimedia. The days when the outputs of projects were limited to downlaodable Word or PDF files is passing. More and more project members are experimenting with podcasts and video, although once more levels of expertise and confidence vary greatly.

Platforms have remained problematic. We experimented with ELGG and Joomla before moving to WordPress. The problem with all is that they were really too difficult for project participants to use. We largely failed to break the pattern to project partners ending us their content to put on the site. And without regular participation, project web sites remained largely static, with only flurries of activity as they were updated.

We have also experimented with social software platforms including Ning and Facebook. Ning is relatively easy to use, although limited in terms of design etc. And critically you lose control over your own data, when using externally hosted applications. Facebook groups are great for notification of events etc. but offer little else. Ownership issues are even more problematic.

We have also initiated a number of bulletin boards but these once more require a critical mass of activity before they really become of social use.

The reason we have looked at these platforms is the desire for more sociability in platforms for projects. That includes the look and feel and ease of use, but especially the foregrounding of presence. Who are the members of a project or network. Who are they working with? What are their interests and what are they doing? WordPress blogs are great but the reality is that few participants can be dissuaded to blog regularly on a project platform.We customised WordPress with a plug in called Freefolio and that helped in terms of showing presence but it was still hard showing participants remotely how to use the back end of WordPress.

Our latest experiment is with the Network for Trainers in Europe website.

The Network has the following aims:

  • Provide an opportunity for exchanging experiences and knowledge though an easy to use web portal. Enable policy makers, managers and trainers to access ideas, materials and opportunities for professional development.
  • Undertake a small-scale survey of the work of trainers and their professional support.
  • Provide access to research and ideas through the organisation of workshops and on-line conferences.
  • Enhance the quality of support for trainers by sharing effective practice.
  • Stimulate new approaches to the training of trainers related to the concept of lifelong learning, knowledge sharing and peer learning.
  • Encourage researchers and trainers to share information and materials based on practical experience.
  • Bring together research and practice from different projects and initiatives throughout Europe.

Essentially the network is designed to bring people interested in the training and support of trainers together to share materials and experiences. We have migrated from the previous WordPress Freefolio site to Buddypress. And although the site is by no means finished (especially the stylingl, NB setting up new accounts is suspended at moment but will be back on by the weekend), I am enthusiastic about the potential of Buddypress. Firstly Buddypress is centred around people and the activities of members, offering much functionality often associated with commercial social software sites. secondly it is easy to use, with little need for users ever to go to the back end. thirdly, through the affordances of the individual and group wires (walls), friending etc. it makes it easy for members to contribute through gesturing rather than being forced to write substantial blog posts.

The proof of the pudding is of course in the eating. Will members use the new site. To some extent that will depend of what activities the project undertakes. But it will be very interesting to see if the use of a full blown social networking application can lead to enhanced communication and collaboration between researchers and trainers drawn form every European country.

One Response to “Projects, groups, networks, collaboration, sharing and social software”

  1. Hi,
    There are a couple of tools I use on a regular basis. I find DimDim ( a great tool for web conferencing. You do need to download some software to share your desktop, but a lot of the other standard features work through a standard browser.

    I also find Huddle ( a great way to share documentation. While this doesn’t necessarily give the open social elements you mentioned in the post, it does provide an easy to use environement for multiple users.

    There are a few other I also like, but these two particularly stick in my mind as user friendly apps.

    Anyway, I hope that helps!
    Good luck with the new platform.

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