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Collaborative research and learning using everyday productivity and social software tools

February 6th, 2012 by Graham Attwell

The main reason I have been so quiet on this blog in recent weeks has been the European bidding season.

Pontydysgu receives no regular funding and although we have some small consultancy contracts and do some teaching, the majority of our income is from project work. In the past, we had considerable funding from various UK agencies, this largely dried up with the onset of the recession and government cutbacks. This, we have become more reliant on funding from the European Union.

There are two main programmes for education and training in Europe, the European 7th Framework research programme and the Lifelong Learning Programme. The Research Framework funds larger projects than the LLL, but has historically been more competitive.

For both programmes, the application process is not straightforward, requiring completion of long forms and documents. In general both programmes are targeted towards innovation, however defined, and both tend to set priorities based on current EU policy directives. Both also require multinational project partnerships. Both have been on call recently – involving many hours of work to develop proposals.

In the past, the reality was that one or perhaps two partners would prepare the project requiring only limit input from other project members. And whilst this is still sometimes the case things are changing fast. For large and c0mplex projects especially in the Technology Enhanced Learning field expertise is needed from different disciplines and from people with different knowledge and skills.

Technology for distance communication and for research has allowed the dispersed and collaborative development of project proposals to become a reality. We have recently submitted a large scale proposal to the Research Framework IST  programme on learning in Small and Medium Enterprises. This project has some 16 partners drawn from I guess around ten countries. And whilst the input and hard work of the coordinator was central to the proposal, the work was undertaken collaboratively with many of the partners making a major input.

What tools did we use? Google docs were used for collaboratively producing earlier versions of our ideas. Doodle was important for setting dates for meetings. Flashmeeting was used extensively for fortnightly meetings of partners (in the latter stages of the proposal weekly or even daily meetings became the norm). Skype was also used for bilateral meetings. And Dropbox was used as a shared file repository. Dropbox proved to be a little problematic in producing somewhat confusing conflicted copies which then has to be edited together. But overall the system worked well. I think what is important is that the tools do exist. And we do not need any big research infrastructure, rather what is needed is the imagination to share through the use of everyday productivity and social software tools.

And it seems to me that if we are able to use such tools to develop a complex and collaboratively produced research proposal, the same tools can be used for collaboration between learners or for small businesses. The barrier is not so much usability fo the applications themselves, but a willingness, understanding and appreciation of how to collaborate!

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