Professor Stephen Heppell, director of Anglia Polytechnic University's Ultralab team, argues that virtual communities must have a purpose and be able to engage teachers in areas of interest to them. "It's a bit like organising a party," he says. "It takes more than having sandwiches and music - it also needs a good host. The key is to have highly qualified facilitators who host the community and know who everyone is. Just as a good host introduces guests who share common interests at a party, so does the facilitator of an online community."
Heppell has helped create "Talking Heads", a virtual community of headteachers. They have their own Web pages within the community and create articles, inserting their own images and sound, send email and even attach "sticky" notes with messages. "This is the place for headteachers to contribute their own ideas and share them with others. They are not simply recipients of information," says Heppell.
Talking Heads is a new addition to Oracle and Ultralab's Think.com site, which began as a site for children. Providing a safe community, pupils can send emails, publish articles and take part in debates. There are now some 12,000 users.
"Every child in our school has their own Think.com email address and Web space. We've even created our own communities within the school. For instance, I hold online homework sessions on a Tuesday evening where we discuss questions," says Alastair Wells, head of ICT at Netherhall School, Cambridge. To encourage Afro-Caribbean students to go to university, Wells and his colleagues have also set up an email group between them and mentors at Cambridge University. "The university students offer suggestions to improve the quality of their school work. It's a great opportunity for our pupils to find out what being at university is like," he says.
His colleagues in the school's art department have created a forum with pupils at a school in the Czech Republic. "Language is a barrier, so we use art to communicate. Children send storyboards of images, like drawings of scenes around Cambridge," he says. "It helps children understand other cultures. We have even exchanged illustrations on how to make a pot of tea."
Some virtual communities even offer a stake in their success. When you join TagTeacherNet, a teachers' online community, you are awarded units which, on a sale or flotation, will be converted into a share subscription. This sounds good, but how good is the community? Will Wharfe, editorial director, believes this can put like-minded teachers in touch. "Email is great, but it doesn't find people for you. Our site puts people together based on their professional interests as well as their hobbies." Teachers make contact through discussion boards, newsletters and email. So, if you want to meet, say, geography teachers keen on cycling, this might be the place to do it.
BECTA is managing the Teachers Online Project (TOP), a virtual community of thousands of UK teachers. They believe that being online can iprove classroom practice and management. The TOP site contains hundreds of online projects and links to online communities by topic. There is also a monthly newsletter, to which teachers can contribute.
"The Internet is a powerful tool and ideally, it shouldn't take much time for teachers to get in touch with one another," says project leader Nathan Dodd.
Another quick way to get help from others is through email groups. Tony Poulter, ICT co-ordinator at Hugo Meynell primary school, Staffordshire, is a member of "Bectans". This teachers' email group emerged from the DFEE's Multimedia Portable Computers for Teachers Scheme in 1998. Some 300 teachers belong. "If someone wants a policy on health and safety agreements or worksheets on times tables, or say, a useful website on the Tudors, they can get it within hours," he says. "It is like an online staffroom. So you can also learn how to put up a dado rail or find a recipe for chicken Kiev," says Poulter.
Susan Kozicki, a former teacher in Scotland, is a regular user of AngliaCampus. This is a subscription website with discussions on topics including teacher training, numeracy, bullying and discipline. "I found it great for getting viewpoints from English teachers. There is more in common between the English and Scottish systems than many people realise and issues such as discipline cross all boundaries," says Kozicki.
There are different approaches to creating communities. But the successful ones share a common feature - a well defined purpose. "You can't set up a discussion forum and say: 'OK what will we talk about today?' You must have a focus," says Nathan Dodd.
This is what separates the conference halls from the broom cupboards.
Ann Logan is a freelance writer
Teachers Online Project
http://top.ngfl.gov.uk/ (select forums)
ePALS - connect with schools globally
ICQ - have split screen chats with several people at once,
Schoolmaster - Make your own discussion forums even shop online and raise money for your school
UK-Schools - post requests for online projects
BBC live chat
Schoolsnet - online discussions
Apple Learning Interchange
Association of Science Education
The Guardian (select "Talk" and register)
Mailbase - promoted for higher education
National Association of Head Teachers
VTC meeting area
Early Language Learning Forum
fforwm-aaa - an SEN discussion group in the Welsh language
SEN and Inclusion - discussion areas for those working with children with special educational needs