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The time has come to release bluecloud (formerly known as the Student Learning Community 2.0) on an unsuspecting public. We’ve created a space for the community on the University’s new uSpace social networking platform and seeded it with a few interesting ideas, but what we’d really love is to get more students in reading, writing, chatting and generally making themselves at home. Any suggestions how to do that?

Because uSpace is still in its pilot phase and CICS would like to keep the numbers down for now, we’ve only officially made an announcement to the postgraduate research student mailing list, but hopefully the news will gradually trickle out. Particularly, if you already know where to access uSpace (it’s available to anyone with a UoS login), feel free to drop by the bluecloud space and see how it’s going. As soon as possible we’ll announce it to undergrads and taught postgrads as well.

The launch is accompanied by a questionnaire on the use of social web tools to get some intelligence on how best to develop the project. The data will also contribute to my second assignment for the University of Sheffield’s Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education. I’ll make a link to that questionnaire available here in due course. If anyone would like to give us their views, feel free to leave a comment here. You can also now follow bluecloud on Twitter as @bluecloud_uos (and if you like, follow me: @jezcope).


It’s been a little while since I posted, so just to keep you interested, here’s a brief summary of what we’ve been up to.

Learning and Teaching Conference 2009

Mark and I, introduced by Patrice, presented a showcase session on the project at the university’s annual Learning and Teaching Conference. Mark gave an overview of the motivation and inspiration for the project, and then I gave some examples of some of the technologies we’re hoping to get students using. Feedback from the session was very positive. Interestingly, several members of staff seemed quite keen on the project as a way for them to learn more about innovative uses of the web — proof, if ever it was needed, that education is a two-way process! I was impressed with Mark’s use of Vuvox, a Web 2.0 slide show creator (more on that on his blog). There’s a summary of the session with a link to the presentation here, and Mark also wrote a blog post about the conference.

uSpace pilots begin

For the last few months, CICS (the university’s Corporate Information and Computing Services) have been setting up a university-wide social networking platform to support collaboration in learning, teaching, research and administration right across the university. It’s called uSpace and a few pilot projects (of which the SLC is one) began testing it out properly today. I’ve been lucky enough to get to play with it over the last few months and I have to say I’m pretty impressed. It’ll take a while for people to figure out what it’s good at and how to use it, but I can see it becoming a central part of the university’s IT provision. After some months trying to decide on the best way to get the SLC 2.0 project properly started, we’ve chosen to set aside the focus groups for now and concentrate on putting together a proof of concept within the uSpace environment. We’ve picked a fairly abstract-sounding name, “bluecloud”, and started work. Hopefully we’ll get a few interested parties to contribute, and we’ll be sending out a questionnaire to gather opinions from the whole student community soon. Since uSpace is still early in the pilot phase, CICS are trying to keep the server load low, so I won’t publicise the address. For those of you who don’t have access to it yet, I’ll post a more detailed run down here soon. For those of you who do, check out the bluecloud space and let us know what you think, either here or through uSpace itself.


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!


So, we’ve got this great concept for a grassroots community of students sharing advice and resources to improve their learning. The big question that needs to be answered is this: “How do we make this thing float?” We can feed it all the resources and great ideas we like, but if the students don’t take to it in the long run it’s not worth doing.

Staff driven

At least initially, the project is staff driven. This is a fact; it’s already, inescapably true because the project has been conceived by members of staff. The reason we’ve initiated this project is in three parts:

  1. We really want our students to be the best they can be;
  2. We're excited about the possibilities for learning presented by new technology;
  3. We're concerned that it's relatively difficult to find out what tools are available to improve learning.

We are able to see the need for a project like this because as teaching and support staff (I include in this category postgraduate students with teaching duties, like myself) we are well placed to see overall trends in student learning behaviour. Having spent some time in the academic environment, we tend to have a grasp of the differences between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ learning behaviour (though we may often be bewildered as to how to encourage the good).

But in spite of all this, it’s not our place to tell students how to learn. The best we can do is support and encouraging them in discovering how learning works for them.

Student owned

Now, we may have an interest in student learning, but it’s abstract. Students have an interest in their own learning, and theirs is immediate, concrete and very personal. In addition to this, they have several attributes which can be used to great advantage:

  • They have a grip on technology that most of the current generation of lecturers and professors can only dream of;
  • They're incredibly creative, especially when they understand that their contribution is valuable;
  • They want (like most of us) to make like as comfortable as possible.

This last point is a double-edged sword. If you can convince someone that doing something will ultimately make their lives better, it will be much easier to persuade them to actually do it. On the other hand, if we hand down an artifact from on high, it will likely be accepted at face value, used as-is for a while and ultimately end in stagnation; it is easy to believe that ‘the university’ is an authority on learning and there is no point in questioning its judgements on the subject.


The solution to this dilemma seems to be thus:

  1. Involve students in the planning and decision-making process as early as possible;
  2. Form a core group of students to carry the project forward:
    • Drawn from as diverse a range of backgrounds as possible, to encourage 'cross-pollination';
    • Preferably as excited about learning and technology as we are!;
  3. CICS/LeTS act as consultants to this core student group:
    • Providing expert advice where appropriate;
    • Supporting/maintaining infrastructure where requested;
    • Providing access to resources which would otherwise be unavailable.

In this way, the university can provide a comforting background feeling of continuity while maintaining a respectful distance and allowing the students to go wild and create something amazing.


In hindsight, my previous post on the subject of SLC 2.0 seems rather vague. It’s definitely a worthwhile description of the motivation behind the project (or at least my motivation) but it doesn’t really describe what we’re actually doing. I’ll seek to remedy that a little with this, part II of my introduction to SLC 2.0.

To start us off, here are a couple of quotes which sum up the ethos of the project. First, one from the original SLC 2.0 project proposal (emphasis mine):

This project aims to develop partnerships between CICS, students and departments to encourage the use of Web 2.0 tools in student learning and research.

Second, one from the Theory of Change document put together at the very start of the project:

Students creating a sustainable way of sharing tools, processes and ideas, and knowedge on how to best use and adapt them for their learning and research.

I think between them, these summarise what we’re about pretty succinctly. Recent student feedback suggests that students are genuinely surprised that we don’t support this. The reasons that we’re not currently doing this are quite clear:

  1. It spans departmental boundaries, so no individual department sees it as a priority;
  2. There is no central support for this type of personal development, either from the University or the Students' Union (other than the Careers Service, which is tightly focussed on the job application process).

Bearing in mind that, as in any large institution, there is a great deal of inertia in this state of affairs, the most effective approach will therefore be a grassroots one.

Involving students

We believe that we are most likely to be successful if the project is run both by students and for students. For this reason, we will be involving students heavily in the planning process, and aiming to pass overall control of the project to the student body as soon as possible. The role of CICS and LeTS will be to provide support and advice where requested.

We will be running focus groups in the upcoming (Autumn 2008) term, to find out:

  1. What students want from the SLC;
  2. What students are already doing which can be adopted by the SLC; and
  3. What support students are prepared to give to the SLC.

At the same time, we will be recruiting student volunteers to fulfil roles in the project as they become necessary. In particular, we’ll probably need a network of ambassadors to represent the project to the students and the university, most likely on a departmental basis. The existing student course representatives may be a useful starting point.

There are also several groups of students who will be worth involving, both because they have appropriate insight and expertise, and because they have an interest in the outcome. These include:

  • Students' Union
  • CILASS Student Ambassador Network
  • PGRC/Progress
  • Departmental societies (particularly Computer Science, Education)
  • Other relevant societies (e.g. Free Software)

Likely directions

Although we have yet to begin polling the students, we’ve already started coming up with ideas for how to proceed with the project. Here are some of them.

Online home for the community

This will provide a central point of contact for students; it will be a place to share and discuss tools, processes and ideas for students actively contributing to the project, and a work of reference for many others. Discussion forums and a wiki of some description will be required for this. Some social networking features may also be useful.

Student-led seminars

A lunchtime seminar series (with free cake) will help to further disseminate the ideas being developed by the project. It will also give participants a chance to discuss, challenge and improve these ideas in an informal, face-to-face setting.

Raising awareness

There are a wide range of ways in which the community can be publicised to the student body. These may include:

  • Taster sessions (e.g. Give It A Go)
  • Union stall
  • Intro week booklet
  • Posters around campus
  • Leaflets in strategic places (e.g. libraries)
  • Word-of-mouth/viral marketing
  • Sheffield Graduate Award

So, that’s what the SLC 2.0 project is all about, and what we’re doing so far. What do you think? Share your opinion in the comments section below, and subscribe to the RSS feed for updates as they come.


I’ve recently become involved in a new project, under the University of Sheffield’s SeeChange initiative, going by the name of “Student Learning Community 2.0”. What’s this all about? Well, it’s to do with using social networking and other Web 2.0 ideas to support student learning at the university, but that sounds more fuzzily defined to me every time I read it. It’s quite a blue-skies project, so I guess a certain amount of fuzziness is to be expected, but I think it will be helpful in the coming months to have some more concrete aims. I’ll be using the rest of this post to try and clarify the project goals, or at least how they look here at the outset of the project.

What's in a name?

First and foremost, we wish to benefit our students. With any project involving new teaching methods, and particularly those involving new technology, it is easy to get excited about the techniques, but less easy to see how they are relevant to the learners. If this project is to be successful, we must have a positive impact on students.

Second, it focuses on student learning. Children learn “how to learn” from a very early age, and it is a sad fact that the current school system fosters learning behaviours which are far from optimal. Learning “ability” has a direct impact not only on academic achievement but on life generally; it is therefore in the University’s best interests to ensure that its students are the best learners possible, despite the poor training they may have received previously.

Third, we aim to do that by fostering a community. Encouraging students to collaborate in learning has two major benefits:

  1. It will leverage peer pressure, increasing the impact of the project;
  2. It will avoid re-inventing the wheel by many independent students, increasing the efficiency of the project.

Finally, there is an expectation that Web 2.0 will play a role. The focus of most of the new technologies which come under the heading “Web 2.0” has been on social networking in various forms. There are now web-based communities with memberships ranging in size from a handful to over 100 million (source: Facebook statistics), and many young people use such social networking sites daily. We therefore anticipate that this will be a key factor in developing the student learning community.

Pictures of success

So, how can we say whether the project has been a success? For me, I think the key aim will be an improvement in student learning behaviour, particularly an increase in deep learning and a more collaborative approach to learning. In addition to this, I think the project has potential to do some or all of the following:

  • Improve quality of life for students and graduates;
  • Provide students with new skills;
  • Make students more employable;
  • Encourage trust (in all directions) between students, staff and the university;
  • Make teaching a more enjoyable occupation; and, of course,
  • Make the university more attractive to potential students.

These are, naturally, difficult to measure objectively. However, I feel that by keeping these aims in mind it will not just be possible for the project to succeed; it will be impossible for it to fail. Call me idealistic if you like — I’ve got a good feeling about this.

That’s all for now. In my next post on this subject, I’ll start to address the following:

  • How might we go about this?
  • Where are we now?

I’ll also be elaborating on the issues I’ve touched on in this first post soon. Until then, let me know what you think by leaving a comment below.


Welcome to my shiny new* blog! I’ve decided it’s about time I gave the world the benefit of my fascinating and wise opinions. In an attempt to place realistic limits on myself, I shall in particular be writing on the subjects of:

  • My research
  • Teaching and learning in higher education
  • Productivity in academia
  • The use of the internet in all of the above

I hope you find what I have to say interesting enough to follow me on a regular basis; if you’d like to do so, please consider subscribing to my RSS feed and/or bookmarking this site. Feedback in the form of comments on blog entries is positively encouraged.


* Well, not quite that new — I first registered it over a year ago but never got around to writing anything until now.