I’ve written recently about why it’s important that we find out what students want and get them involved in the SLC project as early as possible. Sadly, none of us already involved in the project were blessed with the ability to read minds. We need more effective ways of engaging students, and our foray into this area will be to run a focus group.

First and foremost, a focus group is about communication. It will allow us to learn from the students how this project would work for them. It will also be an opportunity for us to get some students excited about the project: maybe they’ll mention it to their friends, paving the way for when it’s finally launched; maybe they’ll even be inspired to get involved themselves.

Now, it’s very easy for us to get carried away with that second part; we’re excited, and when you’re excited about something you just want to pass on the excitement. A useful piece of advice to remember here (one of Stephen R. Covey’s 7 Habits) is “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. In other words, the best way to convince people to listen to you is to listen to them first.

Bearing this in mind, I propose to break down the focus group into the following three parts:

  1. Brief motivating discussion, leading directly into a discussion of what would make a student learning community effective;
  2. Students getting their hands dirty and playing with some examples of what the SLC might look like;
  3. Back together to share impressions of the examples and how they relate to ideas generated in 1.

Initial discussion

The introduction should be as minimal as possible: just enough to motivate the discussion without prejudicing it. The point of this initial discussion should be to prompt the participants to ask useful questions in the second, hands-on part. A useful tool here might be to split the participants into groups and ask each group to write, on a large piece of paper, a list of ways they feel the web could help to support their learning and university life in general. This could lead on to a list of questions which it’s useful to ask about these ideas to decide how useful they are. The end result would then be usable directly by the participants to aid in part 2.

Hands-on examples

Having generated their lists of questions, the participants will be suitably armed to investigate the examples we’ve provided. I’ve already set up three different examples: one on an installation of Elgg, an open-source social networking platform; one on the university’s test installation of Clearspace, a commercial collaboration, platform; and one on the free wiki site Wetpaint. I’ll be asking other members of the project to contribute to these examples between now and then, and if you’d like to have a look round or add something, leave me a comment below and I’ll get back to you.

Final discussion

The final part of the focus group will be to bring the participants back together for a discussion on what the different groups thought was important and how they found the examples. It might be helpful at this point for a facilitator to put suggestions from the floor up on a flip chart for the participants to argue over.

What can we take away?

The main point of the exercise will be information gathering, and by the end of the focus group we’ll potentially have three valuable sets of artifacts:

  1. The lists of ideas and questions from the first part;
  2. Any content added to the examples sites by participants;
  3. The ideas and conclusions agreed by the group as dictated to the facilitator with the flipchart.

Hopefully, we’ll also have at least one or two people who are interested in getting involved further, or who know people who know people who might be interested. If we’ve done our job right, we will have earned the right to pass on some of our enthusiasm! The next step will be to look at what we’ve got, and I’ll write more here about that as soon as I can.

If you’ve got any thoughts on the focus group plan or disagree with what I’ve said, I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment on this article. Thanks!