Monday, July 13, 2009

Learning about upscaling of dairy development online and face-to-face

Heifer in collaboration with Agri-ProFocus organized a learning event on July 2nd about dilemmas in upscaling of dairy development. The idea to start online was born a few months earlier. The organizers felt starting online could help with the following 4 things:
  1. Get to know each other so that a positive climate is created for learning together
  2. Better content-wise preparation for the learning event with the participants by sharing and discussing case studies online before the event
  3. Help to organize the logistics, in particular transport
  4. Disseminate and validate the draft toolbox developed by Heifer

A team of three facilitators was formed with a variety of skills; one was a dairy specialist from Heifer (not familiar with online exchange), one process facilitator from Agri-ProFocus and one consultant online facilitation (external). As always, time for preparation was short and the team met only once for about 2 hours to get to know each other, plan and divide tasks – and actually started the next day!

The design
There was one month left before the learning event, so that was the maximum time that could be used online. A dairy and development Ning platform was put together and a group of roughly 100 registered people from all over the globe were invited to the platform. The team chose to start parallel discussions: (a) the cases, (b) a thread of introductions, (c) an online game (two truths and a lie), (d) to ask for learning expectations and (e) logistics. The team agreed to communicate via mails and skype instant messaging and try to react within 24 hours to each others questions. Every week a message was sent out to all registered participants on the platform, tips from the facilitators were put on the homepage and updated when necessary and we made sure to welcome all participants with a personal note.

What happened?
Roughly half of the invited people responded (50) and signed up for the platform. Immediately, they started to invited others working in dairy development, so we reached a total of 94 participants on the Ning. The cases and introductions were very active threads and all cases received comments from people who had read them carefully. We noticed that we had to invest to get a first reaction to a question, after which more people followed. Almost half of the ‘Ningers’ could not participate in the event in the Netherlands. That brought us to the idea to make short videos to post back for the others who were not present. Unfortunately this person fell ill and nobody could take over. Therefore summaries were made and posted back to the Ning. The online facilitation took each of us 12-20 hours of online facilitation over the course of 4 weeks.

In the evaluation 62% of the participants in the learning event indicated they logged onto the online platform. The comments were appreciative: “It got me involved in the subject”, “I contributed and learned a lot”, “Everybody has a chance” and “Good preparation, great introduction, up-to-date information”

What did we achieve?
The online participation and discussions far exceeded the expectations of the organizing team, given the fact that most invitees are busy and not familiar with this type of online exchange. The case presenters on the learning event noted that people went deeply into the cases and they were able to go beyond trying to understand the case to a real analysis. There was a open, safe atmosphere which allowed people to be provocative and give constructive criticisms without others feeling attacked.

It is hard to measure the effect on the networking on the Ning. The online exchange allowed some acquaintance and dairy people are already well networked. Both factors helped to create a good atmosphere. Many people recognized faces from the ning and it probably helped to reduce anxiety levels because people had a clearer idea of whom to expect.

Most people carpooled- but it is hard to say whether that was a result of the ning. Only one person offered the carpool through the ning. We didn’t get a clear picture of the transport needs online. The draft toolbox was disseminated during the last week. Unfortunately we don’t have data how often it was downloaded (and less how often it was read).

What would we do the same and what to do differently if we’d had to organize it again?

We’re quite content and enthusiastic about the results, so we’d basically do the same thing we did. Investing in welcoming people, making sure a first person reacts online to questions, tips from the facilitator on the homepage and weekly summaries for all seemed to work well for this group of people with little online exchange experience. The focus on cases worked very well for the dairy professionals because it allowed them to go straight to the heart of their profession. The combination of skills within the team worked out well, as did the weekly or so skype teleconferences within the team. And of course part of the success can be contributed to the cases that appealed to the participants. Things to improve:

  • Plan enough time to make summaries of the ning discussions as an input for the face-to-face event. Since the reactions exceeded our expectations, making summaries was time consuming.
  • The icebreaker is good because it is low threshold activity for some participants. However, the ‘two truths and a lie’ was too complex. An easier icebreaker might get more reactions. One participant recognized the exercise from a face-to-face event, so you might go for a familiar icebreaker and translate it online.
  • Don’t combine two questions in one thread. One of the two questions might be ignored. Be very clear what your question is.
  • Navigation remained difficult. The lesson is to give priority to a very clear structure. However, for people who are new to ning or other online platforms the experience may remain chaotic, it is a learning curve for the participants. So it might also be good to allow more time for learning to navigate the online space, both for participants and facilitators!. An idea for participants may be to organize an online scavenger hunt on the forum or a teleconference for those who feel lost?
  • It might work better to focus attention of participant to plan case discussions one after the other rather than simultaneously. For instance, 2 cases per week. This helps to focus everybody’s attention. In our case, the period of 4 weeks was short for that because it takes more than a week to get a substantial amount of participants online.
  • Install analytics (eg. Google analytics) or ensure downloads via other sites that monitor the number of downloads so that you can monitor those data. For instance, you can upload a document on and link to it on the Ning.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Working with wikis in Development Organisations

Friday the 13th, ICCO invited all interested to an afternoon in Utrecht, the Netherlands, about working with wikis in development organisations. Some interesting and honest stories from ICCO, Euforic and IICD were shared, and David Weekly, the founder of pbwiki was around to share tips for power users of pbwiki and get input from his customers so that the service of pbwiki can be improved. David seemed really committed to doing that and kept on asking everyone what their wishes were. Unfortunately for David, but funnily enough for us the following happened: while trying to convince everyone that he was not only focused on the USA, he called Dutch Danish or rather Dutch coffee Danish coffee. Well, Europe remains hard for Americans :).

Maarten Boers already shared the ideas behind the compart flowers adopted by ICCO in an earlier blogpost. Compart flowers have their basis in the compart wikis, that work as a kind of starting page for themes and teams. It was interesting to hear current experiences. 180 staff has been trained so far, and 80 staff of partners in the south have been trained. 58 wikis have been created, with more than 8000 views/month. There are only 40 editors, which shows that not many people are co-editing on the wikis so far. However, the wikis work as a referenct point and moved part of ICCO's harddisk online, so that this information is now accessible. Challenges are to make the wikis digestable and manage scale. Examples were shared of the Educafroc wiki, a private wiki to support a conference in West Africa. The wiki was used for participant introductions, upload 'blips'= videos, and have a Question and Answer sessie. Hence, it became a multi-medial report for the conference. Henk Gilhuis shared another example of a wiki about landrights in Brasil, also a private wiki. Lessons are that you focus on a concrete need, use a simple structure, manage access levels, provide timely support and make sure there is some fun too.

Euforic, the network for European NGOs is basically doing everything in a wiki. From intranet, via making presentations, to making project proposals, annual reports and archiving. I guess this only works if everyone is raving about wikis. Euforic created a great wiki as introductory to their web2.0 training called web2share. You can go their to find introductions into all kind of web2.0 tools.

For IICD, pbwiki worked as an easy entry tool, people experimented with it, and now wikis are part of their intranet. (zwicki wiki part of plone), replacing slowly the hard disk. A realistic example was the inetwork wiki from Uganda. It was a success at the time, but hasn't been updated for a year. This shows how hard it is to make wikis into living documents, if they are centered around a one-off event. An example is the web2fordevelopment wiki, which worked well around the conference, and is a repository, but not a dynamic, continuously updated resource.

Finally David Weekly talked about how he started pbwiki and that it enables easy online collaboration across departments or companies. Within companies, there may be easy solutions, or wiki functions, but across companies it was always difficult. PBwiki wanted to solve that problem by making a wiki as easy as making a peanut butter sandwich. But this is also a great service to organisations that are too small to have their IT-department.

A great power user tip that David shared was page translations. By adding this to your wiki you offer can page translation to your wiki visitors with one click:
1. go to language tools
2. select website, source and destination language
3. paste the url by clicking on add link to your wiki page
4. you have automatic translations with one click

If you want to hear David Weekly talk about pbwiki, and how he likes to interact and improve pbwiki to meet customer needs watch the video below.


Monday, November 24, 2008

Online project management by Agriterra for more transparency

Collanos is a free tool for project management. It integrates all communication you can have within a project, so documents, discussions, notes, etc. So, instead of e-mailing to and fro or having to find documentation in several places, you can collect it all within this tool. It also allows for creating different project teams and you can assign tasks and deadlines to the team members. On the website you can take a tour and get a better idea what it is all about.

The basic features are easy and useful. If you would want additional functionality, they will charge you. During our meeting there were some questions about where the data is stored. It appears that all data will be stored on your own hard disk. So, in case Collanos would cease to exist you will not have lost all your documentation. It works as such that all documentation will be saved/copied to the hard disk of all team members and updated whenever they log on. A negative result of this is that you cannot log on to the tool from different locations and see all documents. For example you work with Collanos at the office, but you’d also like to work with it from home, you will have to create a second account for your computer at home and add that account to the group as well. As such you can have access to the team-documentation as well.

Agriterra's project management tool
Agriterra is an organisation working with and for farmers in developing countries. To register all the projects, Agriterra has developed a database that functions as our project-management tool and as such serves as our management-information tool as well: . We highly value transparency about our work, so the information is accessible for anyone interested. Through we can also offer a website to the producer organisations (farmers) we work with. These websites are a copy of agro-info and as such a simple solutions for producer organisations to be represented on the web. All the projects Agriterra is involved in are being registered on and they can be followed step-by-step and in detail from application until they are finished. All participating organisations are added in the system as well the planned budgets and logframes. Once a project reaches the execution phase the contracts are added to the database. To monitor our actual activities we created a Results tab where we register per year what the results are, what was spent, how the project scored on some key points of our programme (participation of women in the projects, outreach, etc.). All information in the database is interrelated. So, if there is a news item about a project, this can be linked. Or when the report of a mission has been completed, it will be added to the documents and linked to the mission itself.

Collaboration with other organisations
We are now in the process of increasing the quantity of information we can register in the Organisations-module to have the information about our customers in one place, but also to organisations we do not work with (yet) but are active in a country where we also work. The aim with this database is to become a resource site for and about producer organisations worldwide. So, if you would like to add your projects with producer organisations as well, you are more than welcome. Or if you are interested to see if the set-up of this database fits the needs of your organisation, you are invited to contact me Marjolein Hondebrink (


Friday, November 21, 2008

Twittering for development

Twitter provides you the possibility to exchange short messages with a large number of people. You can follow people, or otherwise, people can follow you. Twitter can be used in many different ways.

For example, you can use your twitter network to help you do your work. If you are looking for a guest speaker on a certain topic, and you can not directly find this person, than you can distribute your question to your network of twitter friends. It also provides possibilities to exchange your emotions, questions and other experiences. By spreading your message to a group of more than 30 people, you can always expect some responses from some people. So, in some situations this tool can be very helpful. But ofcourse, you have to build your twitter network first. When you start twitter as a new twitterer, it may seem like a stream of useless messages.

Nancy White: "So the bottom line, the value of Twitter depends on who you are connecting with, not the totality of the twitterstream (though that probably has value if you had the time to understand it and the patterns it holds.)"

Gerrit Visser from ICCO: "In itself Twitter may not seem all that valuable. With Nonaka’s old paradigm that knowledge management is essentially ‘connecting people to people’ I do think that Twitter in itself has an enormous potential. Yes it’s value may depend very much to the people you are connected to. I even dare to say to the ‘quality of your network’. The content that people share on Twitter differs as much as the people one is connected to."

Kwami Ahiabenu II from Ghana has set up an twitter account for the upcoming Ghanaian elections: Ghanaelections (see picture). Kwami explained that they did so with the following objectives in mind:

1.micro blog the upcoming elections providing short and concise news items

2. to direct more visitors to our website about the elections in Ghana

3. for Ghanaians living abroad, since they can not connect to our local short code service, an idea for them is to follow us on twitter and then linked it to their mobile, effectively having updates on their mobile phones using twitter instead of direct messages we will send to subscribers in Ghana

4. lastly we wanted to use the twitter to connect with other twitter users providing content on the elections unfortunately, there are only very few twitter accounts from this part; see a short announcement about our twitter and SMS service, wondering whether twitter is the right tool.

The Ghanaelections twitter account so far has:
36 Following
But it is too early to know whether it is valuable.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Surveymonkey helps Agri-ProFocus to organise meetings

At the Agri-ProFocus support office, we organise exchange meetings between professionals from research, private sector, NGO and government. Registration and feedback are very time-consuming and prone to errors, so this year we started to use SurveyMonkey, an online survey tool. We tried out the free version and then bought a Professional Annual Account for $ 180 a year. This allows for our logo, and the other 10 advantages you can read on their website.

Our experience with SurveyMonkey has taught us the following lessons:
1. we need to test a new invitation in our team;
2. we have to check people who misspell their email address;
3. we should allow for more than one response per computer;
4. after completion we direct to a website or a wiki for background information.
5. manual data entry is used for the odd participant who cannot enter the registration screen.

In our events too, one problem is with no-shows, especially if there is limited room available. We do politely ask people to cancel their registration by e-mail. Our events are free, we don’t think that an entrance fee would reduce the no-show problem.

One of the advantages of using surveymonkey for our registrations is that we can ask some additional questions about interests for certain topics etc. Surveymonkey registration allows us to ask for their priorities beforehand and their feedback and follow-up afterwards. This way we can link the learning with the doing. Network events then contribute to more and better cooperation in Agri-ProFocus.


Friday, November 07, 2008

David Jacovkis on anonymous browsing

David Jacovkis works for the Free Knowledge Institute and explained why and how you can browse and contribute anonymously to the internet. He tell us it is a basic skill that parents should teach their children. There is a open source software that you can download on TOR. TOR is an anonymiser tool. It makes use of a network of intermediate computers so that nobody knows from where you are connecting and to which websites. You will find the instructions- which are quite easy on the website of Torproject.

You can watch David explain this system:

If you want to know more about anonymous blogging, Global Voices has put up a technical guide for anonymous blogging which you can find here. It explains more steps like choosing pseudonyms.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

SNV's experiences with e-learning

Again I'm reblogging a post from the ICCO blog. Its written by Gerrit Visser from ICCO, who visited SNV in the Hague to learn from their interactive (online) learning spaces for SNV staff, e-learning.

Some of their lessons:
  • Take into account that one of the biggest bottlenecks can be the diversity in bandwidth at decentralised locations. Even after investing in the availability of satellites this problem occurred.
  • Start small and let it grow as you may gradually learn from evaluations or glorious mistakes.
  • Provide learning modules on a USB stick instead of downloading huge files in the various decentralised situations.
  • Keep the technology for the learner as simple as possible
  • Enhance the learning results by making optimal use of the visual as well as the auditive learning components.

SNV found that the advantage of the e-modules are the consistent messages in the initial phase of ones career within the organisation. A last tip:

  • A big variety of off the shelf training may be obtained from NetG, Microsoft and the Distance Learning Centre (UK). A provider in the Netherlands of video material for training purposes is the Training Facily Center (TFC).


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Three lessons of a year of trying to introduce web2.0 tools in a research institute

The webtastings weblog has a blogpost written by Pete Shelton reflecting on the introduction of web2.0 tools for researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute IFPRI. I thought it was a perfect match with the subject of this weblog, that's why I'm reblogging it here, but you may ofcourse check out the full blogpost too.

What did they do?

They offered a series of weekly trainings in web tools for interested researchers at IFPRI. Wikis, Social bookmarking, RSS readers, etc. The participants had not heard about the tools before.

What happened?

The participants of the training did not use the tools in the months following their training. So the team started asking why the participants did not use the tools.

What are the three lessons?

The 3 lessons they learned from this experience are:

1. Focus on the job rather than the tool.
In the training the team was focusing on the tool rather than the application. Yet, it turned out that researchers wanted to see how this tool could be applied in their daily lives.

2. Researchers liked to hear experiences from other researchers.
When a fellow researcher gave a presentation about her blog, it had a much higher impact than examples given by the trainers. People can relate to the lives and stories of their peers rather than others.

3. Don’t assume you know what researchers need- go out and ask them.
When asked about their interests researchers gave answer based on what they thought the training team could offers, eg. wikis, social bookmarking etc. Yet, when they rephrased the question into: " What are some common communication bottlenecks you face in your work?" Many researchers complained of email overload. Others expressed the need for collaborative work spaces for posting data, figures and working versions of research. So then you can start raising the interest from there.

Personally, I always have the impression the way the tools are introduced matters too. If you get people excited about new possibilities they will go a long way to learn about it by themselves. However, if they get the feeling they have to use a new tool because someone else wants them to do so, they may not be interested at all. Lastly, these tools are social media, so it is hard to start a journey on your own, but much better to do it in a group.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Moderating for development

‘Ontwikkeling is verandering’ (‘Development is change’) is the name of the so called ‘beleidsdialoog’ of the Dutch Foreign Ministry. In this dialogue the ministry tries to get input of Dutch civil society organisations and other stakeholders who are related to development, like the private sector, scientists, other ministries, and individual persons. It’s a process of several months which started in May and includes two live conferences (in a cinema, close to Ede), papers written by specialists on development issues and an online discussion via the website This dialogue will be rounded off with a report that combines the input of these sources and that will be presented to Bert Koenders, the Minister for Development Cooperation. During a feedback meeting in October 2008, Koenders will indicate which aspects of the report will be integrated in a new policy document for civil society that will be drawn up by the Ministry. The implementation of the dialogue is managed by MDF training&consultancy together with internetplatform OneWorld and specialist journal Vice Versa.

Internet forum
The design of the online discussion was very straight forward. It is embedded in the official website ( which provides a lot of information on the ongoing discussion: reports (written, audio, video) on the conference meetings, written papers by specialists on several development themes and – centrally located – access to the forum. The forum itself is divided into six different themes (Enabling environment, Accountability, Learning capacity, Complementary roles, Tasks 'North' and 'South', Public support) which start with a short introduction about what this specific theme should be about, so participants know how to focus their contribution.

Phone facilitation
The online discussion didn’t start very spontaneously, the first week less than a handful of people contributed. Therefore it was decided that some old fashioned handwork was needed: about fifty people were approached by telephone to ask them personally if they would have time to contribute to the online discussion. The names of these people came from the participants list of the conferences. If a person wasn’t available at the time of the phone call, an e-mail with the same request was sent.The round of phone calls – about a days work - paid of: slowly but surely responses were added to the forum. A few weeks later about a hundred contributions were placed. Part of them were contributions of an other online forum, organised by Partos, a platform for Dutch civil society organisations in the international development cooperation sector. Their members had a (closed) pre-discussion on the same issues as the ministerial discussion. After we were given permission we were able to publish also contributions of some of these members on the dialogue forum.

The pre-discussion of Partos, though useful for this platform, appeared to interfere with the official discussion. Participants didn’t want to contribute for a second time to a digital forum. Even though their individual contributions would be lost, as Partos decided only to publish summaries of the several discussions on the dialogue website.

While the forum was running, a few remarkable developments could be noticed. First: quite a few contributions were long, some of them more than 800 words. Although in-depth arguments were appreciated, it might have put other people off to write. The sought for dynamics of the forum – with short, quick reactions like a real face-to-face discussion – hardly ever took place.

Second: the forum only rarely lead to a debate where people responded to each other. Instead people often just published their posting without referring to earlier remarks of other contributors. It’s a guess why. But maybe two things might have helped: the structure of the forum could have been more transparent. In order to see if a posting had provoked a reaction, you had to follow the thread in the discussion and look for (a not so visible) number to see if/how many new responses had come to an initial posting. It happened even to me, as one of the moderators of the site, that I missed three responses to an initial summary I had written. And another tool which might have helped would have been an automatic notification to participants of the forum, when somebody sends a new posting. This way you know instantly when somebody reacts on a theme and you are reminded that you can react (again).

Third: the participants of the congress advised that the website should not only support Dutch but also English as ‘working language’. Rather than being spokespeople for them, the Dutch organisations wanted Southern partners to be able to give their own input directly. The original idea was to keep the site as simple as possible and only in Dutch because the target audience of the dialogue are Dutch organisations and individuals. Because of this shift, the website was extended with an English ‘mirror’, after which new contributions were made both in Dutch and English. Existing postings though, remained untranslated. Although there has never been an obligation to write postings in English, potential contributors who write more easily in Dutch might have been made shy to participate after the language shift took place.A last observation that could be made is that some people didn’t want to participate in het online discussion because they also would attend (one or more) days of conference and share their thoughts in the debates there.

Author (see picture): Eugène van Haaren (web)editor Vice Versa

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Google docs as online monitoring system

Recently I worked with a South African organisation to set up a monitoring system. The requirements were:
  • Compatible with requirements of several donors
  • Suitable for two project locations and headquarters of the organisation
  • Possibility for monthly management overviews for headquarters and for the Dutch partner organisation
  • Version control
  • Not too expensive
The solution we used, was Google Docs. A spreadsheet developed in Excel and uploaded on Google Docs with the following elements:

  • A worksheet with operational definitions of indicators used
  • A worksheet where overall target and baseline figures were filled
  • A worksheet for location 1, and a similar worksheet for location 2 where project staff will fill monthly realisations for all indicators. They see the target and base line figures as they fill the white cells.
  • A worksheet where monthly totals for the two locations are being calculated, compared with targets.
  • A worksheet where 6-monthly totals are automatically being calculated and compared with 6-monthly or annual plans.
  • A worksheet with some graphical representations, e.g. some key results expressed as a ratio of targets, compared with the time past. See second picture.

In order to skip some initial hurdles for using the system, I created the Google accounts for each location and had some training sessions with all who had to work with it.

The Dutch partner got viewers' accounts. The result: if data are filled from any one location at the end of the month, South African headquarters and the Dutch project officer can both see the gauges going up.

Version control is integrated in Google Docs, you can download the file back to Excel and upload a new excel version if needed. No more emailing wrong versions and retyping monitoring data. And all for free.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

“If you can’t open it, you don’t own it” – Owner’s manifesto

On 22 May 2008 the e-collaboration meeting, Going Open! took place in Amsterdam. Hosted by the Transnational Institute (TNI), the meeting aimed to acquaint participants with “open source” and “open content” principles and case studies, and discuss the pros and cons of “going open”. The meeting was facilitated by Simon Koolwijk (Facilicom Consult), with contributions from Rolf Kleef (Drostan), Anne Sedee (Milieudefensie), Karsten Gerloff (UNU-Merit), Riny Heijendael (Milieukontakt International), David Jacovkis (Free Knowledge Institute) and Peter Ballantyne (euforic).

Following a brief, lively introduction by Rolf, Anne explained some basic concepts behind open source. She suggested we think of three layers:

  • Services (applications, web browsers)
  • Standards (e.g., HTML)
  • Devices & Software (hardware)

Open standards are a key part of modern society. For example, no one owns the specifications for a shipping container, such as you see stacked high in the Rotterdam harbour. They are “open” for anyone to use. Similarly, the Internet has open standards – a common language without which it would not exist in the form we know today. Given that the computer is the printing press of the 21st century – the tool we use to create, publish and distribute almost all information – the hardware and services we use on it have great importance. They are a form of knowledge and “when you give knowledge away, it multiples!” However, closed licenses for software are most common, which means you can access only the computer language/code; with open source software, you also get the source code. A “copyleft” license allows you to study, modify and share the source code. Economic benefits including stimulation of local business, positive impact on prices and knowledge transfer. However, many obstacles exists such as existing contracts & vendor lock-in, lack of an open alternative (e.g., with Skype) and ease of access to pirated versions of popular software like Microsoft Office. Despite the challenges, she encouraged us to remember that software’s functions are not the only consideration. Open solutions and user rights are a natural choice for non-profit organisations, she said.

Two group workshops followed, with Karsten leading a discussion on free software as a tool for social and economic development and Riny giving a “crash course” on open formats. See the Monday 23 May post by Joitske for a sound bite on the former.

David’s contribution on Open Education Resources began with the question: Can ideas have an owner? He explained the difference between copyright (all rights reserved) and copyleft (all rights reversed). Copyleft:

  • Guarantees the freedom to use, copy, modify, redistribute;
  • Transmits those freedoms to copies and derivative works;
  • Does not imply renouncing authorship attribution; and
  • Cannot be closed – once a material distributed with a free license, it’s open!

Using a free license encourages collaboration and feedback, helps disseminate your work, and adds it to a pool of existing free resources. There are many types of free license, which can be applied to a range of materials including software, technical designs, learning materials and artistic works. In most European countries, if you publish something without explicitly licensing it, all your rights are reserved. Otherwise, you can explicitly state what kind of license you are using, with a link to the copyleft license you have chosen. Be aware that in other countries, your work goes into the public domain if not otherwise specified! David particularly encouraged the production of Free Learning Materials, which optimises resources and efforts, provides independence from publishers and promotes truly global sharing of good practices. He closed with the following advice: choose a free license, build on what’s already out there, don’t “freeze” your work in an unfriendly format like PDF, and choose a suitable tool/platform.

The last portion of the meeting was a second set of group workshops. One was a debate game on open source led by Simon Koolwijk. In the other, Peter Ballantyne led a discussion on “Making Knowledge Open & Accessible”. He hypothesised that development information and knowledge that wants to travel and migrate needs open borders (or ways to cross closed ones). This means removing “border controls”, strengthening a system of “ passports” (open formats and licences) and “ visas” (open tools, standards, systems), and fostering a change of mindset whereby people are more motivated by the benefits of sharing than by fear of plagiarism, for example. He asserted that Web 2.0 is not only a collection of tools, but also a perspective recognising other people’s knowledge and helping it migrate to new places where it will be used in new ways.

What did we learn? Participants said:

  • Definition of open source clearer.
  • Obtained new, economic and security arguments for open source.
  • Better sense of balance between ideological and practical debates.
  • Learned of new organisations during the various presentations.

Useful links:

Planning ahead

The day ended with some discussion of the next e-collaboration meeting – anticipated for October at MDF – and more generally about the future of the group. Possible topics for the next meeting included computers for development, e-Governance, awareness raising on Web 2.0 tools and peer review of members’ organisational tools. Some participants recalled that the original purpose of the group was to share practical experiences with other colleagues using e-tools for collaboration. People queried whether the group needs a mission statement, concrete objectives and additional financial support for 2009.

Friday, May 23, 2008

euforic workshop on web2share

In April I participated in a 2-day workshop by euforic on Introducing Blogs, Wikis, Newsfeeds and RSS, hosted by ECDPM in Maastricht. The purpose of my participation was to increase my knowledge of web-based collaborative tools for use in equalinrights’ work, particularly in relation to building relationships with and among human rights and development practitioners in our network. The workshop complemented ongoing research on such tools that I had been conducting. The workshop was very hands-on. The trainers made the sessions fun and interactive, and welcomed questions.

The first session of the workshop established the main differences between the World Wide Web in the 20th Century and in the 21st Century. The trainers highlighted the following in regards to using the “new web”:

5 Basic Approaches: Management - Tools
• Publishing online – Blogging
• Working together on a document – Wikis
• Keywording your work – Tagging
• A new interface – Feeds
• Bringing info together – Mashup (e.g., euforic website)

5 Important Points
• All about people – collaboration and shared understanding
Access – keep in mind that not everyone has high bandwidth
Motivation – key to help people understand the benefits
Content – still same issues of content management, e.g., risks, guidelines
Impact – measure what you’re doing

The next day and a half we explored four main tools of the “new web”. Descriptions of these tools and more can be found on the nifty euforic-ICCO web2share wiki.

Finding information – let it come to you!
RSS, Feeds, Tagging, Googology

Making the news – blogging, video blogging, podcasting
120Mill created since 2003; Appeal to high # of small audiences

Social bookmarking – creating/sharing knowledge and information
The favorite of the development field is – store, organize, share, search, manage!

Wikis – creating content collaboratively
A wiki is a collection of web pages designed to enable anyone who accesses it to contribute or modify content, using a simplified markup language. Wikis are often used to create collaborative websites and to power community websites.

I found the workshop very relevant for equalinrights’ work. Other than providing an opportunity to enhance my familiarity with online tools, and that of our staff in general, the workshop has led to several proposed changes in equalinrights’ way of working and some new potential projects. Thanks very much to euforic for a great learning experience, and to ICCO for facilitating my participation!


Why is Open Source Software a good option for developing countries?

The ecollaboration meeting in Amsterdam had the title: Going Open! and focused on Open Source, Open Access, Open Content, etc. Karsten Gerloff of the United Nations University UNU-Merit explained why open source software is a good option for developing countries. Watch the 1,5 minutes video by clicking below:

Karsten explains that Open Source gives you the opportunity to adapt the software to your local needs (eg. in local languages!), to the local culture, or to include certain functions that are important to you. It gives you the fishing rod rather than the fish. It lets you build businesses on top of the skills developed and those skills remain in-country. This as opposed to proprietary software where money will flow out of the country.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Workshop Podcasting for development

On January 15th 2008 some e-collaboration collegues explored the possibilities of podcasting during a workshop facilitated by Marlies Bedeker from PSO and Mark Fonseca Rendeiro, alias Citizen Reporter.
A podcast is an audio (or video), distributed over the internet with RSS feed. The use of RSS allows for easy subscription by readers (listeners). It is a relatively new medium of communication, it was only invented in 2004! Listeners can download new episodes automatically, for instance by using itunes.

During the workshop we concentrated on being a podcaster. How to produce a podcast? Why podcasting in development cooperation? How could we do that and what are the benefits and challenges?

A great advantage of podcasts is that they do not necessarily follow official media. Anyone can podcast so they provide excellent opportunities for personal messages and storytelling, such as those from Christian Aid relief workers reporting on field visits or Ryanne who communicates her experiences about her visit to organisations in Thailand. Listening to these stories immediately creates a feeling of closeness, like your listening to a friend. I personally experienced that this personal, friendly atmosphere adds power to the message, simply because it is personal.

These and other examples provided inspiring food for thought for our discussion on possibilities, benefits and challenges when podcasting for development. It seems that podcasts have a lot to offer. Addressing those who prefer to listen, let beneficiaries report on development results and enhance the personal character of information.

In Dutch: During the workshop Angelica Senders, Programme Specialist Capacity Development for the Economical Programme of ICCO, and Wilma Muns, webmaster at ICCO, enthusiastically discussed the advantages of podcasts and the possibilities they see to apply them in their work for ICCO.
Click her to listen to their discussion

In Dutch: Simon Koolwijk, Senior Advisor in Capacity Building for Facilicom Consult, explains us how he was inspired today and why he believes podcasts can improve knowledge sharing worldwide.
Click here to listen to his thoughts about podcasting

In Dutch: Joitske Hulsebosch, freelance consultant social media and learning environments, shares her vision on why she thinks podcasts can make a substantial contribution in the communication for development.
Click to listen to her vision on podcast as a tool for communication

Mark is an experienced and dedicated podcaster. Why should development organisations engage with podcasting? Joitske Hulsebosch posed him this question. If you click on the video you can see his 3 minute answer.

Producing podcasts can be easy and quick. With a computer, headset and the free audacity software it is easy to record a conversation, story or interview and add some background music if you like. Interesting for the sector of development cooperation is that conversations, interviews or stories can be pre-recorded with voice recorder for later production with audacity. Anyone can produce podcasts; professional knowledge on broadcasting and podcasting isn't necassary. According to Mark imperfectness is even the beauty of podcasts.

More inspiration on podcasting for development can be found on Global Voice.


Friday, November 16, 2007

Communication system of the ICCO-Alliance

By Maarten Boers

During the October 12 meeting of the e-collaboration group I presented the communication system that is being developed by and for the ICCO-Alliance with the very appreciated help from Euforic ( We cal this system the “ComPart-flowers”, where ComPart stand for COMunication with PARTners.

It is a collection of web-based tools, or perhaps better said mash-up of several WEB2.0 applications like Wiki’s, Blogs, Delicious, Dgroups,, slideshare, several google applications. The idea is that all these applications will be - and actually already are - used for communication among colleagues within the Alliance and of course also with partners in the South. In that way a basic condition for collaborating, Capacity Development and learning is set up.

We called it a flower because the whole setup can be seen as a sunflower. The heart would be a wiki, surrounded by petals with different functions, which can be accessed by links on the central wiki. So in fact it is a web space, which enables information sharing and finding, which supports reflection and learning, which enables communication and discussion, which is the place to document experiences and ideas. The by far larger part of the flowers are public, so anybody can view the content. But for adding new information or to make changes you need to know the shared password that is the same for all applications. The social tagging tool Delicious is an important element of the flower, because by tagging, various feeds can be “fed”. These feeds are used to share information with all interested and also to make it possible to “filter” information one wants to get and in that way kind of tackling the well-known overload we all have to deal with. Most of the tools also work with low-bandwidth conditions, but of course this is less applicable for lets say video sharing. In the design of the wiki’s we try to take into account the accessibility for those who have lesser Internet connections.

To make it easier to access the different flowers and its components – by one click - we have installed a “Compart toolbar” on all computers in the ICCO offices (see

If you want to have a look at the Compart flowers you can find them
here. And if you would like to hear more about the background and contents of the flowers you can look at the recorded PowerPoint presentation of the flowers: To see the whole presentation of about 30 minutes follow this link. You can also have a look at the part where it is explained why the flowers should be cultivated. And if you are only interested in the slides of the PowerPoint you can find them here.
Anyhow we are very interested in your comments, questions or suggestions!


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

VSO’s experiences in setting up Moodle

By Leonie Meijerink, VSO

It can be challenging for VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) volunteers to access adequate learning support once they are in their placements. Conditions in the field are constantly changing and volunteers need support that is flexible, adaptable, and timely. To maximise our support in the field, VSO’s International Training Team has been working on a strategy called CLIC (Continuous Learning in Country). The strategy is a combination of building an online learning environment and a face to face implementation strategy.

Distance modules and e-courses are part of a repertoire of blended learning methods designed to let volunteers access information at their own pace, and to maximize the distribution of shared learning. VSO has selected Moodle as our online learning environment. Moodle was selected because it supports low bandwidth and has a lot of social and interactive features. At the same time we will be making Moodle available offline on USB sticks so that volunteers who do not have easy access to Internet can still benefit from it.

In November 2007 we will launch Moodle to our volunteers. Moodle will contain online modules that feature information exchange forums and home-grown "wikis". We will also experiment the use of wikis to find other volunteers with similar expertise areas, and to share videos via YouTube links. We will launch Moodle as a ‘baby’ that will need to be fed by the contributions of volunteers.

A bit of History
After exploring different open source tools, and getting acquainted with Moodle in the January e-collaboration meeting, we decided to choose Moodle as our new online learning environment. We created a test Moodle environment on a Dutch server in February 2007 and since then we have been training staff in competency-based learning and how to develop distance modules. In the period July to now we have contracted an e-learning designer who has been adding e-learning modules to Moodle. We copied the test version to a hosted environment in September. We are working on the final touches of the web design (with the help of our partners in India), and have started to do functionality and usability testing.

E-collaboration meeting
In the e-collaboration meeting of October 12th we have conducted a usability test of VSO’s Moodle. This gave the members a chance to see how we have set up the Moodle environment for our volunteers. It gave me the great opportunity of testing our Moodle site with some experts in the field of e-collaboration. A grasp from some of the conclusions from the testing:

- Participants tended to get lost between Moodle sites and internal links. Changing the colour of the Moodle site, and opening other sites in pop-up windows can prevent this.

- There’s many different ways in which participants explored the environment, which is good fun to observe. For example, not everyone scrolls down automatically. This meant some testers didn’t find the editing functions in the wikis.

- Moodle offers a ‘search courses’ function. It’s easy to mistake this for an automatic search the site function. It’s quite a disappointment for participants if they can’t use the function as they expect to.

- Is the environment too course oriented? Do I need to focus more on the interactive functions?

Furthermore it was extremely useful to have experts around to give me some creative suggestions. For example: connecting to maps so participants can spot where everyone is located, discussions on building in security tools. Or how about using a package that can build a module in Moodle offline, and who knows… pod casting may be an interesting new project to explore, next to our YouTubeWiki.

Of course I hope this has also been useful for the testers. For those of you who haven’t been able to attend the testing, and would like to find out more about how Moodle is used in VSO, or about our tests, please send me an email:

Meeting a Moodle expert of Ned-Moove, Pieter van der Hijden
Now that we have our own Moodle environment, I felt it was time to get in touch with more experts in the world of Moodle. The Dutch Moodle union was the right place for me to connect to. Pieter van der Hijden talked about this group of 80 members who are all using Moodle, varying from administrators, to teachers, and aid workers. They organise at least one big event annually. This means easy access to a lot of Moodle experts. You never know when that might be needed! Individual membership costs € 25,- a year. More information can be found on their site or moodlemoot.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Experimenting with Twitter

We conducted a week-long experiment with Twitter, for 12 people who were not yet familiar with the tool. In this blogpost, we'll describe the experiment, and we'll summarize the reflections and new ideas for applicability of the tool. I'll also share my own ideas about Twitter in more detail.

Twitter is: A global community of friends and strangers answering one simple question: What are you doing? Basically you update your information continuously with short messages (max. 140 characters) and you can follow/be followed by others who read those messages.

Our experiment was introduced with the following instructions (here summarized):

  1. Sign up for a twitter account at (in the right upper corner) and add a photo of yourself by clicking on Your Profile and share you twitter account (eg. in the wiki and Add the other participants to your twitter to follow them.
  2. Twitter away during the week…. You can twitter by logging in to Twitter.
  3. Experiment with messages for the whole group by using @ecollaboration
  4. Type of content: Share what tools you are working with, what tasks you are busy with in your organization, and ask the (stupid) questions you never dared to bother others with.
  5. Write down your experiences in the wiki.

The experiences summarized:

Though the interface looks clear, people needed quite some time to find their way. How to find the message? Where to reply to a direct message? etc. Someone felt like she might have missed some opportunities in the tool. It doesn't take a lot of attention, but needs frequent attention, hence people felt that it is time-consuming. People differed in their opinion of seeing added value: "it's fun to know how the others spend their time, but not really helpful" someone said.

Possible applications of Twitter:

It's interesting to see that people have very different opinions ranging from "The additional value of use isn't big", via "I would focus to use it for information exchange such as questions or recommendation and not to exchange moods or any kind of actions" to "I can see the potential for project teams that need continuous communication, or organisations or people that want to communicate to their "followers" about a conference, a campaign, or general news and progress. Also for theme focused groups (like e-collaboration)".

For me it has shown again that a new tool can be very uncomfortable in the beginning, especially if you don't know how it's going to help you to do your work. It may actually take longer than a week before you get at a certain level of comfort. Personally I started to enjoy Twitter after some days, because I really got to know some people better by what they are doing. I also got some interesting links to blogposts etc. but to follow that up takes time. So it easily diverts your attention from what you were doing. A colleague in Ghana added me to twitter too, and that experience made me realize that you can be very close with a group of people anywhere through twitter, much closer than through mailing lists, online forums, or an occasional chat session. Knowing his concerns, and frustrations (eg. with uploading) reminded me of the different context in Ghana.

But as someone said: it needs discipline to exchange and have added value. And it seems that this is not for everyone. That brings me to the observation that tools like twitter can bring new linkages and communication (I learned quite a lot more about the 3-5 people who were very active!) but you have to be carefull not to create too many divisions if people who don't find a tool intuitive are left out. On the positive side, almost half of the people who twittered, were not at the face-to-face meeting, so it is a way to engage a different group of people than with a face-to-face meeting.


Monday, October 15, 2007

Mashed potatoes: mixing google earth with wikis

Riny Heijdendael has given a short introduction on how to use mash-ups
of different techniques to connect existing Wikis to Mapping tools like
Google Earth.

Milieukontakt International supports a global network of environmental
NGO's. Since 1.5 year they deployed a Wiki for their network development. They use it to connect countries and (mainly) environmental themes, exchange professional experiences and develop project proposals and intern(ation)al strategies.

Riny Heijdendael explained during a meeting what he is working on right now: One of the major problems I encountered was that more and more the network faced the problem of finding the relevant information, both on a geographic as a thematic scale.

Questions arose like these:

  • How do I know what other themes are being addressed in my region or

  • Who is working on the same theme as I am?

  • How can i quickly connect to the part the network that can enhance my strategy for my own region or theme?

  • How do I present my local knowledge to a broader audience without having to set up a "website", including all the hassle?

  • How can I setup a joint strategy with my local network about a certain case (without learning any new system)

The Milieukontakt International already used a wiki for a time, so it seemed to be good idea to try to integrate these questions with a more "visual approach". Maps perfectly fits this vacancy. Connecting the geographical oriented and visual approach of Google Earth with the existing wiki was a logical step.

For this an online database has been created, that collects locations and themes, and could be presented it in such a way that you can browse countries and themes in Google Earth and Google Maps. Once you see the selected regions or themes, you may see public information about this location. The public information is handled by the wiki, and the content is delivered by anyone in the network, mostly the people that reside in the area of this location.

But once you are a member of the network, you have the ability to use the location as a starting point for joint strategy formulation with other NGO's that operate in this region. This information though is not visible to the general public. In this way it is possible for local NGO's to both present public information about the specific location, as well as to define a joint strategy on how to deal with this location within the network.

Of course these mash ups already exist, like wikimapia and countless others. What we try to show here, is that restricting the information to a certain domain (in this case, environmental issues) and combine it with a restriction of access (general public versus network members), you can use these mash ups as a strong tool for public participation.

A concise diagram below explains how the dots connect..

A short visual on how this could look in Google Earth: Since I just chose a country and a theme, I think you'll forgive me that
this is only a sample :-)

And even as an author you have some remarks (who hasn't..):

Worldkit, an alternative mapping application framework, was my favorite because it has the opportunity to "timestamp" locations: in this way it would be possible to record issues
and locations at a certain time. As you may know, a lot of problems occur because of the history of a location like: "did you know in the 50's there used to be a chemical factory here?". Even better: for strategy formulation the knowledge about future plans is invaluable, and
this type of "future mapping" is possible as well with worldkit. I decided however (for now) to comply to KML standard, because I expect that a lot of other institutes might provide their data layers soon as well. In this way we can combine quickly environmental data from, let's say UNDP or FAO with our own data, which could provide valuable insight in causes and effects. In the future I am thinking about transforming KML to be available to Worldkit as well, hopefully by XSLT conversion.

Well thats it for now, I hope you enjoyed this explanation. Please feel free to comment to riny [ at ], and as a last remark: all this stuff is NOT about geekiness, but about

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Milieukontakt International’s wikis reduce work chaos

I interviewed Chris van de Sanden (in the picture) by Skype about Milieukontakt’s use of wikis and how the use of wikis support their work.

A colleague of Chris, Jacobien Ritsema worked with Riny Heijdendael to introduce wikis in the organisation in November 2005, and right now Chris can hardly recall how he used to organize his work before there were wikis in his life… Milieukontakt uses wikis for internal communication, but also started to use it with partners in Central and Eastern Europe. The first wikis were doku wikis and were used to develop project proposals collaboratively with a few colleagues; to take notes during meetings and to share notes. Recently, partners in 12 countries in Caucasus, Central Asia and the Balkans have been introduced to a doku wiki about about organizing support activities in their own countries in order to prepare a conference that will take place in Belgrado in October this year. The wiki incorporated an integrated chat, where basic discussions took place on how the guidelines should be. After this online conference, the partners continued their work on the wiki, where they wrote down their concerns and input in preparation of the Belgrade conference. You can see a screenshot of a wiki here:
Milieukontakt has used this video of Commoncraft to introduce the advantages of wikis, and so far the partners have reacted very enthusiastically to the use of the wiki. In comparison with the regular “open” character of public wiki’s this platform is restricted to the about 480 members. To see the video they used, click here:

The introduction of the wiki
I am not an early-adopter” stresses Chris, “I first resisted the use of new tools as doing my job is my first concern”, which in his case includes a lot of training and project proposal writing. Learning about new tools takes time, which is time away from your core job.

So how did Chris as a non-early adopter get convinced of the advantages of using a wiki? He learned about it through his colleague, and it helped that the director was involved in the wiki-initiatives. Notes of meetings were shared through the wiki. But Chris got really convinced when he realized that there is a lot to be gained from working through a wiki. First working jointly on project proposals through a wiki is made easy because all have access to add or change text and you always know what the latest version is. And from the beginning it was fun and special to work with the wikispace, having access through a password. He realized that it is ideal for gathering training materials. Before having a wiki, it could happen that you realized after conducting a training that a colleague had developed a similar training. With the wikis, it is much easier to know what training materials already exist. In getting used to working with the Wiki it also helped Chris to have someone nearby to answer his practical questions. Being referred to a manual doesn’t work for him.

Wikis stimulate more equal, creative ways of working together
Chris has the impression that working with wikis has had a large influence in changing the way people collaborate. The dynamics of collaboration change, working together becomes flatter, more democratic and more creative, and working through wikis seems to really contribute towards that change. For instance: ‘we had a new member from Moldova in the international training group. She introduced herself in the who-is-who part of the wiki, she had direct access to all materials that were developed so far and could start immediately contributing to the training materials.

Downside of working through wikis
The downside of our current way of working is that we have become very dependent on the computer. In fact, you always need a plan B. Once our IT staff took down our internet connection on a Friday, which really disrupted our work.

Things being worked on by Milieukontakt

  • Notification service: if you write a proposal for example, it would be nice to send an invitation by email to your country/thematic group for their input.
  • Integration with georeferenced data: We are building a system that connects the wiki with geographical data: in this way you can quickly see who is working on what themes in your own region, discuss plans and monitor progress.
  • Improving navigation: next step will be that menus will be dependent on which groups you are member of
  • Increase possibilities to convert HTML/Excel/Word documents on the fly.
  • Make a set of default formats available, so that postprocessing content to printed versions will be easier.

Things to consider while working with wikis:

  • Since there is complete freedom to structure your work, it can quickly grow out of hand. Make sure that the basic structure is discussed before.
  • Moving complete parts into an archive for example can be tedious work: try to organize your content in such a way that time-referencing is possible
  • Make sure every user has a personal page, and presents himself on a Who is Who page. This is an excellent training for new members.
  • Find one or two early adopters in each section: nothing is more frightening then talking in an empty space.
  • Let users use their own language. If you are curious, get a translation service.
  • Introduce some funny things: for example we have a list of “secret” words that will include pictures in the text, get RSS feeds on a page, start a chat etc. For example : DOGME includes a jumping dog picture in your text.
  • See if you can make meaningful statistics: what is hot, who writes the most etc.


Friday, August 24, 2007

How to get the Moodle motor started?

Our experiences with Moodle in a learning trajectory on Capacity Development

In the past six months we (PSO) experimented with Moodle, an online learning- and working environment we used in an action learning trajectory on ‘The how and what of capacity development’. And it seems worthwhile to share some of our first experiences with you in this blog. Mainly because we find it wasn’t very easy to integrate an online platform in the broader learning process. How to design an environment in which new users can find their way? How to integrate an online environment in the design of a f2f learning trajectory? And how to stimulate participants to actually make use of the online environment? To tempt them to use it for finding useful sources (like articles, working materials, interesting links), as well as collaborate on working documents, provide feedback, join a discussion or have a chat session with other participants. Our reflections, experiences, insights and first suggestions for follow-up…

Why an online environment?
The design of the learning trajectory consists of an action learning process for about 15 to 20 people from diverse organisations, all involved in capacity development. Leading in this process are the organisational questions participants work on. Questions that are important for their own organisation, pressing, and supported by the management. We organised monthly meetings, as moments for reflection, exchange of experiences and input by so-called ‘experts’. The experts were invited to make their contribution in an interactive way, in general they spent half a day with the action learning group, at times in the action learning sets, at times using others group formations. The approach to action learning we adopt assumes that the participants remain responsible for their own learning and for developing answers to their own organisational questions in between sessions.

As a lot of work in this learning trajectory needs to be done in between meetings, in their own organisation (doing some research, interview colleagues, explore new insights, apply ideas to own practice), it seems worthwhile to have an online meeting- and working place in addition. Moodle provides participants a place to meet each other, collaborate, give feedback, have a dialogue on common topics, and share experiences. As social learning is an important principle in this learning trajectory (the idea that people learn with and from each other by reflecting on and working with real organisational questions), the combination of f2f meetings and an online environment seems useful. And challenging as well!

What have we learned so far?
For our own reflection we used three perspectives: technical aspects of Moodle, Moodle for supporting social learning, and an online platform as one learning element in a broader learning process. What have we learned so far?

The technical aspects of Moodle
Moodle is an open software system, free available to download from the internet. Not too complicated, there are several very useful instruction videos, examples of Moodle environments, and online communities for help. Primarily designed as a course environment, which you notice by terms as ‘course’, and ‘teacher’. There is a basic lay-out which provides some structure in which you as a designer have a lot of freedom to design your own environment (with functionalities like a wiki, forum, assignment, questionnaire, and overview of articles and links). As facilitators of the learning trajectory we learned-by-doing. We designed along the way, discovering new options and possibilities, exploring the online system, as the learning trajectory progresses over time. The on-line introduction courses available for Moodle help late-comers to become more familiar with the Moodle.

Introduction of Moodle to the group
From the beginning of the learning trajectory we made it clear that the action learning content on capacity building and learning on how to work with Moodle, as a method would be combined and evolve over time. This is an ambitious set up and potentially makes for a dynamic learning environment. Latecomers to the learning trajectory show the digital divide, younger latecomers are quick to explore the Moodle environment and form opinions on it's use and compare features with other interactive software, such as Skype and Google docs and internal portals such Oxfams' KIC. Older participants, the 40+ age group both in the original participants and the latecomers show that they are reluctant to join the Moodle environment.

Gradually building the environment
Intentionally we gradually develop the Moodle environment. For example, we started with information on the first learning encounter and a wiki space to work on your own action learning plan. Later we added other functionalities, such as a forum, library and a chat function. Our aim was to allow the participants to gradually become familiar with the environment. It would possibly be too much of a challenge if the first entry/access to the Moodle would entail a large amount of time and effort to become familiar with the learning environment. By allowing participants and facilitators of learning to gradually add to the environment, there is an element of surprise and discovery involved, that hopefully motivates participants.

Structure in the design
On reflection it would probably be helpful to make our working design of Moodle more explicit. More design in the form of a plan or explicit ambitions, like what sort of processes do we want to stimulate between participants? What is needed to do that? This might have 'forced' us to share the ambitions and the intended approach more explicitly. In hindsight it is obvious that we have tended to let people drift. For instance, although we were upfront about combining the action learning on capacity building with learning on how to work with an on-line learning environment, we have tended to reflect on this as a sort of side show. We would collect feedback on the difficulties, and 'forgot' to celebrate successful experiences in plenary, such as chat forums or reworked action learning plans.

Mixed responses
For participants who are new to an online learning environment, the threshold can fast become too high. "Halfway, I lost my password and have not yet had time to retrieve it. It takes a while and effort before this is in working order’. Even though the Moodle has an automatic password replacement button, exploring such easy access options is not automatic for all. Others struggle with trying to arrange a face-to-face meeting. ‘As a result I pick up the phone to contact a fellow learner, as that is simpler and faster’. Such access problems thwart the use of Moodle, the open source origin implies that there are bugs and integration issues with existing computer and network settings within the organisations that participate. The great thing about the open source nature of Moodle is not only that it is free, it continuously improves and that online assistance and queries get a fast and rich response.

Benefit of success experiences
‘I joined the learning trajectory half way. The on-line environment was a stimulating way to get an image of the progress and achievements of the learning trajectory. The Moodle gave me an insight in all that and as an information source it was very effective. I tried to upload a document and that was unsuccessful, so after several attempts I gave up and asked one of the facilitators to do this’. Everybody needs easy access and some effective responses from fellow learners to realise the benefits of the online environment. Without those, the Moodle does not become part of routine work and easily gets shelved. For the facilitators working with Moodle appears to offer several advantages, such as publishing information e.g. programmes, questions to learners; sharing documents, chat forum and tracking access and activity for and of all learners. The 'special' rights e.g publish to all, that can be assigned to facilitators are very powerful. The reflection space for facilitators was used once. Could it be that the technical possibilities appeared to be overwhelming for first time users? Overall we struggled to combine supporting the action learning sets and using Moodle to collect our own observations and reflections. In this sense we, the facilitators, do not appear to be very different from the learners. An important lesson was that half way we removed the barriers between the action learning sets so that all would view the ongoing activities, in the hope that this would be inspiring or motivate actions amongst the observers.

Certain body for mutual inspiration
The participants were divided in three action learning sets, in order to allow participants with similarly focussed questions to be linked. We expected that this would encourage further focus in the learning questions. This division in three sets was continued in Moodle, so there were three separate working spaces within the overall Moodle environment. This approach proved to be effective in the f2f situations and less so in Moodle, possibly because fewer participants were active online. The fact that in the first instance the results (output) of the action learning sets were only visible for the fellow learners in the set, lead to divisions between individual participants and the action learning groups. This was changed as we realised the unexpected outcome of the divisions and the associated lack of synergy and mutual inspiration. We suspect that this was too late in the trajectory to achieve a surge of active contributions and significant change in the use of Moodle.

Peer pressure online
Another important point of attention in an online environment is peer pressure. This social dynamic is more present and obvious in a f2f work setting, online work creates a different setting. Such pressure can be of significant value when working in an action learning environment and with intensive collaboration. The personal encounter, a mutual relationship will make anybody more committed to agreements, people seem to realise that a worthwhile contribution to the learning of others is a serious commitment and then absence will be noticed. We sought to encourage such responsibility between participating learners by working in smaller groups and making such groups responsible for the time in between f2f encounters.

Your limits as a facilitator
We saw the Moodle environment as a place for Information gathering as well as for collaboration: sharing tools and experiences, having joint discussions, working together on concrete products. In the f2f meetings we regularly made agreements on ‘assignments’ we would be working on in between meetings. The Moodle environment seemed a perfect place for working on these assignment, share ideas, meet, provide each other with feedback (to us). Some participants made use of this option. Especially when you already have some experience with web tools as wiki or googledocs, Moodle is quite similar in use. E-collaboration is more effective when several participants use the online environment to share their materials. As facilitators we were sometimes struggling with our role: as we see participants responsible for their own learning process, how far should we go in stimulating them to work in a particular way? We can support them, provide them with the right tools, give them access to possibilities, help with problems. What are our limits? And when do you accept that something you would like to be working, is not?

What are ideas and recommendations for follow-up?

  • Participants mention their time restrictions to work in between meetings. ‘We are so busy, it is not easy to make time for learning in between. It would be helpful if online moments are planned as well.’
  • It is important to constantly ask yourself the question which tool is appropriate for the kind of process you want (dialogue, discussion, sharing, feedback, etc) to stimulate.
    Use of specific functionalities (e.g. chat, wiki, forum) asks for certain skills. For first time users it is helpful to have some concrete tips on ‘how to use…’, and to realise that having a perfect chat requires some experimenting and practicing.
  • Some participants prefer f2f contact above using Moodle. ‘In between meetings it was easier for me to grab the phone to contact someone, or even meet f2f. I feel more comfortable with that in stead of using chat or Skype.’ For facilitators to reflect on interaction and progress in between meetings it is important to not only focus on the activity in the online environment; lots of things might happen outside your direct scope (‘behind the scene’).
  • The next time we would pay much more attention to ‘getting to know the environment’. By practicing with it in the f2f meeting, having a simple exercise online, providing a short manual on ‘how to use..’.
  • Introducing a kind of rhythm for short and small events to get familiar with Moodle, combined with creating results with respect to the content of the learning trajectory. Just to get the Moodle motor started.
  • Make sure you have a certain ‘volume’ when you want to work collaboratively.
    And as facilitators make use of the Moodle environment in the same way as you ask from the participants. Your own learnings might be of tremendous help for others. And insights you gain from own practice can be translated to actions you ask from others.

Sibrenne Wagenaar & Russell Kerkhoven