When I first started teaching EFL in the early nineties, I used to carry around all my materials in a couple of binders: a few handwritten cloze tests and song lyrics, articles from various newspapers for reading comprehension, notes from the CELTA course, some photocopies from well-loved coursebooks and activity resource books.
As time went on and I acquired more and more materials, this became increasingly unwieldy to the point where I was having to sacrifice clothing in my suitcase to fit in the extra binders. When computers became more readily available, it became a blessed relief to be able to store all these documents either on a laptop or a USB stick.
Fast forward though to the present and I’m not sure that things have improved a great deal since then though, and in some ways things may have got worse.
Where I work, the materials that teachers should have access to are scattered across so many different places. Some are on the internal shared drive that all teachers have access to through the university network. Some are just on the teacher’s private drive they have as part of their university account. In both cases these files are only accessible if the teacher is at work, they can’t be accessed, at least not easily, if they are outside the university network.
Other files are kept on the university VLE (in our case Blackboard) in special folders only visible to teachers. This makes sense to have the files close to the course that is being taught, but the VLE is so clunky that noone ever bothers to update or add to them.
And in many cases, the documents are so poorly named that it’s barely worth having them there in the first place. I would often come across opaque and cryptically named documents such as ‘exercise’ or ‘unit one’ or similar. Even opening the document didn’t always enlighten you as to what you were supposed to do with it.
We realised that there was a need for something better, a materials repository that was available for teachers anytime and anywhere, easy to navigate and search and with clear enough descriptions to make it easy to decide if the document was the one you needed.
So, over the last six months we’ve been trying to build such a resource and it’s been surprisingly difficult. To be honest I thought there might be some off the shelf software or online service that would make it easy to build this kind of thing but there is virtually nothing out there. Yes, there are various online file storage solutions out there such as Dropbox, Onedrive or icloud but they are not really designed for the kind of user interface we were looking for, something that would allow for rich descriptions and tagging.
So we looked around for examples of sites that seemed to have some kind of file management system and found a few that looked interesting. We looked at the Times Educational Resource site as one that had a really attractive interface and easy search function. The OER Commons site was another one we felt made searching for materials a pleasant experience.
One of our technical team, Sam Booth, did the real work on this and came up with a tool called Docman that seemed to suit our needs. We then got some web space from our university and set about building it.
Docman checked off many of our requirements, especially the need for a robust search functionality that searched not only document names but the text of the documents themselves. Tagging and document previews were also available and there was a lot of flexibility in how to lay out things on the page. So, for example, we could have boxes down the side of the homepage showing recently uploaded documents or any list of documents we wanted, great if we wanted to highlight certain documents during certain programmes or times of year, such as the summer school.
It took a while. Lots of little technical issues where things didn’t display properly or where we needed central computing services to authorise something so we could proceed.
But now we’re pretty much ready with the resource site and we’re in the process of uploading documents for some of the programmes we run so we can pilot it next term with a few of them.
In the process we did realise though that some decisions have to be made about how the resources are going to be managed. For example, would all teachers have the right to upload files to the system or only certain selected individuals? What kind of naming conventions should we follow to ensure there is consistency in the titles of documents? What kinds of tags would we use to ensure that searching for documents would be quick and easy?
We haven’t come up with answers for all these questions yet but this piloting phase should give us a chance to try out a few things and see what works.
I’d be interested to hear from teachers out there and find out how their place of work manages digital resources for staff to access. Do you have similar problems of documents being scattered across different digital locations and difficult to access? Or have you come up with a solution you’d be willing to share?