I am knee deep in my assessment of eMentoring tools. So far I’ve explored the Ning platform and the Tapped In web site. These explorations, combined with feedback from some helpful folks and my own background reading, have led me to reconsider and reshape my rubric for assessing eMentoring tools that I posted a few weeks ago.
First of all, issues common to traditional software assessments — licensing, cost, system requirements, usability — seem to fade in importance when the focus is on web-based tools. It’s still good to consider these factors (and I am), but here is the kicker: start up is amazingly accessible and affordable with this new generation of tools. It’s an important aspect of what drives the phenomenon that some call “Web 2.0.”
As concerns for installation, hardware upgrades, and user manuals recede into the background, the users (in this case, teachers representing all levels of technical expertise, from non-existent to superior) can really focus on the features that best ensure collaboration and innovation.
This is really exciting!
So, on the one hand, we have these tremendous platforms for creating virtual “hubs” or learning communities to support mentors and novice teachers. A school community might choose Ning, Tapped In, or one of the many course management, blog, or wiki applications currently available online.
Or, a school might elect for a combination of these.
On the other hand, each platform includes a variety of user features. It is this menu of customizable components or “accessories,” if you will, that will figure most prominently in the choice of platform.
A post by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach at the TechLearning Blog titled Virtual Communities as a Canvas for Educational Reform includes a number of helpful tips, tricks, and questions to guide a physical community in their virtual journey. I used her list of questions along with some input from Sarah Stewart to tweak my rubric. Sarah reminded me that user features must be judged by the degree to which they foster collaboration and relationship-building and by how well they enhance the moderator’s role. (Nussbaum-Beach provides an excellent description of how virtual communities live or die by the quality of the facilitator/moderator.)
As I mentioned before, all the other factors for reviewing software are still up for consideration, but I’ve fleshed out a more thorough checklist for user features. Here is that checklist:
- demos or online tutorials for new users
- secure login, privacy settings, and passwords
- user-generated content and interactivity (reviews, forums, chats, discussion threads, blog posts, file uploading and sharing, etc.)
- link sharing
- file uploading and sharing (documents, movies, photos, slideshows, etc.)
- archives for webcasts, chats, discussions, etc.
- search by categories, keywords, or tags
- customizable layouts, themes, and templates
- member profiles
- polling or surveying capability
- voice capability for synchronous events
- support for multiple languages
When a community of educators, bound together by a common interest or passion (such as nurturing the next generation of teachers), decides “to go virtual,” they should think long and hard about what they want to be able to do, see, create, and share online. Then, they should select the tool (or tools) that will allow them to accessorize their virtual home accordingly.
What do you think?