Teachers’ online communities

Stephen Downes wrote a pretty hard critics on the European SchoolNet’s SchoolPlaza“the unique collaborative environment where teachers sharing similar interests or teaching the same subject can meet, communicate and work together”. Stephen wrote:

“the Flash interface is just awful; it took a long time to load (the photos never did finish loading) and the text is tiny (really really tiny) on my screen, and the animation jittery and slow ….”

I have to say that I was testing the site already some weeks ago and we also discussed about it in our research group. Our experience of the interface was pretty much the same as Stephens: it is unusable. I didn’t pay much attention on it because I thought that it must be one of the many EUN’s research projects.

I am happy that Stehen wrote about the bad usability of the SchoolPlaza and I am pretty sure that the message goes all the way to the EUN office. I know many people from there and know their expertise. This is also why I do not understand what went wrong with the design of the SchoolPlaza?

The EUN already has pretty well functioning collaboration system called EUN community. Basically any teacher can start there a project and can use the basic online collaboration tools (members, web page, discussion forum, file sharing etc.). The tools are not necessary the latest and greatest available, but they work and are available in five languages.

Also the ETwinning is one kind of online community for teachers.

The SchoolPlaza seems to be an ambitious project. The aim must have been to develop Flash-based “teachers’ online desktop”. I do not have anything against ambitious projects – that is what we try to do all the time. The problem is that if one is doing experiments, one should also clearly communicate the matter for all. If the project is a research project one should do testing and piloting with group of teachers and not to “launch” the site with fanfares.

A relevant question is also what is the point to design specific tools for teacher community and why not to use all the great tools already available (blogs, wikis, forums etc.)? On the other hand the daily life in school is very different from the daily life of computer professionals who are actually the people behind the design of all the great online community tools. For instance, most teachers are not that use to write longish texts – so blogs, wikis and also the discussion forums are almost out of question. Maybe this is the challenge what the SchooPlaza project is trying to solve with picture, audio and video services. I really hope that the SchoolPlaza will contribute to the process of finding answers to these design and research challenges.

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