[Digital nations in the making: Update Page 6 – Community Grid for Learning]

A couple of weeks ago I was at an event in Oxford evaluating a beta version of Phoebe, a learning design tool which could have substantial potential for adult and continuing education and FE. When there’s so much out there already, is there room for more? Yes I think so, but I’ll backtrack a bit to explain why.

When we set up a server and website in the WEA Manchester office in 1996 with a high speed JANET link, I was excited at the prospect of developing a distributed learning network. Our tutors were isolated, working in many separate centres. Our small staff team, spread thinly, was stretched to provide even limited support.

The potential was there to build a new kind of learning community – sharing resources, collaborating, swapping experiences, building on good practice. An early diagram showed how we intended to link up provision in unemployed centres, libraries and community venues.

Bringing life to this early adult education electronic network was stimulating but slow. It led however in 2002 to our setting up with partners the Community Grid for Learning (CGfL) to develop networked learning with a strong social inclusion focus.

The CGfL website (www.learners.org.uk) still has good interactive courses, games and activities to stimulate learners, but funding dried up; and although over 2000 people enrolled for this online learning, there’s been only limited use of the material by tutors.

Since then learning platforms like Moodle and Blackboard have been widely introduced across all sectors and these have started to make us think how best to use a distributed network, holding course modules, video clips, assignments, web links etc. But they still haven’t gone far enough to transform the way that most tutors plan, design and run their courses.

Which is where Phoebe comes in . The tool has been developed by Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education (DCE) in response to a JISC Design for Learning (DfL) funding programme,  where DfL was (2004) described as “an appropriate balance between  e-learning and other modes of delivery.”

Liz Masterman from the University’s Computer Services Department describes its intended use as being for “initial teacher training, staff development and as a productivity tool and source of inspiration”.

As Marion Manton, the Phoebe coordinator at DCE explained, the central focus of the tool is the Design Template area. One of three existing levels can be used – basic, medium and advanced – or these can be altered for individual needs. Users can save their design for themselves – or for public use, allowing others to build incrementally on what they have created. In short there’s a learning community in the making here.

It’s a simple idea, but this is its strength; and the different sections of the tool are supported by help and context material immediately available. There’s a link to a del.icio.us Phoebe site for educause updates; and there are sections like “What can I do with a particular tool?” with alphabetically listed answers and “What technology can I use for …?”. Examples in the latter list include ‘Receive information’, ‘Define problem’, ‘Research’, ‘Analyse information’ etc and then indicates the technologies to consider using for each instance.

Discussions at the meeting indicated that most participants could see a use for the tool. It was better than a Word document or spreadsheet because it had so much other support material available to draw on; and enabled users to build on others’ work. It could make more use of social networking tools to encourage more sharing and communication between tutors – similar to what I was describing in my last post about LiquidPlanner – but these features could be added at a later stage.

Phoebe will be available for institutions to download onto their own servers and customise according to their own needs, but a question arose here about how that would affect the availability and updating of the help and support material. This issue will need a resolution. Phoebe is still in its design phase and will require additional funding to support this in the short term; as well as a business model to ensure its sustainability in the long term.

If you want to take a look, contact Marion Manton (marion.manton@conted.ox.ac.uk) at DCE, who will be pleased to supply you with a password for reviewing Phoebe.