January/February 2002 // Spotlight Site
eLearning Forum
by Stephen Downes
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Stephen Downes "eLearning Forum" The Technology Source, January/February 2002. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Sometimes simple is best. Sometimes the in-person component of an online community is as important as any technological innovation. For these reasons and more, eLearning Forum is a viable, valuable, and interesting online community dedicated to studying aspects of online learning.

Founded in 1999 as the Silicon Valley eLearning Network, members of eLearning Forum include corporate learning officers, eLearning executives, investment analysts, researchers, and developers. The purpose of this self-styled community of practice is to promote understanding of online learning in government and industry, to address issues in the field, to identify and develop best practices, and to inform members of emerging trends.

eLearning Forum is grounded through a series of monthly meetings. Each meeting has a specific theme or topic, but also includes updates and information items from the field. Meanwhile, eLearning Forum also fosters a virtual community; membership in the community is free and may be obtained by filling out a simple form on the site.

The eLearning Forum Web site is deceptively simple. The front page consists of highlights and background reading for the forthcoming meeting. A simple menu on the right hand side of the page offers a link allowing readers to join the Forum, a link to the Forum's mission, and a link to meeting archives. A bit harder to find at the bottom of the page is a link to the Forum's discussion board ("Ask") hosted by QuickTopic, an online service similar to Yahoo Groups. A pragmatic FAQ is also available.

Clicking on the "Past Meetings" link reveals a treasure trove of resources. The Forum has been meeting monthly since October, 1999, and each meeting is recorded in exquisite detail. Clicking on the June 2001 meeting on Peer-to-Peer technology, for example, takes you to a brief summary written by Jay Cross. Though terse, this discussion is packed with authoritative links to services, background information, and personal resources (such as Cross's own weblogs, or "Blogs").

The August 2001 Forum meeting looked at online learning opportunities in China. This summary, written by Sarah Ooka, contains an overview of the information presented, more links, analysis, and some useful representations of the alliances between major e-learning vendors. Supplementing this and many other pages are enormously useful graphics and flowcharts by Sharrin Bennett, drawn by hand on large sheets of paper during the meeting (see Exhibit 1).

Reading the pages on eLearning Forum's Web site is a pleasure. The text is in a large, simple font, with a lot of white space. The text is supplemented with numerous photographs of the meeting in progress, drawings, graphs and tables. The writing is clear and to the point. Links abound and are clearly highlighted. Contact information and search fields are present at the bottom of each page. The design is simple but flawless.

eLearning Forum offers a model of an effective online community, a model educators would do well to emulate. The community is built around a major theme but addresses each meeting to a specific set of topics. The meetings are well planned: guest speakers are invited, a webcast is organized, and volunteers are recruited to record the proceedings. The members of the community participate in the organization and design of the Web presentation.

Administrators and staff wishing to keep up on the latest in e-learning (or simply to observe a successful online community in action) should plan to spend some time with this site.

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