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Adding a virtual community to a f-2-f one

For months now, I’ve been trying to figure out how to develop an online community to enhance our programs within the Department of Educational Leadership at VCU.  Currently, each course has its own Blackboard space.  We also send lots of e-mails to students, though sadly we don’t even have good e-mail groups in our e-mail client (that’s pathetic, I know).  So, communication across courses, across programs, and across the years is impossible.  It’s a sad state of affairs, and I’ve spent way too much time trying to figure out the best way to establish an online community for all of our students, faculty and even alumni.

I suppose my biggest problem is that I’m looking for the perfect one-stop solution.  I’m very familiar with Ning and I’ve been playing around with various wiki systems that work nicely as places for collaboration and communication.  Those are fine ways to create a single online community.  One problem for me, though, is that our department consists of many different groups, cohorts, etc. Here’s a graphical representation of our department:

I want each group, cohort, etc. to be able to communicate privately with each other, but to also be a part of the larger community.  So, I could, for example, setup a department-wide Ning and then setup each cohort as a group.  However, the groups within Ning don’t have the full functionality of Ning (e.g. they can’t setup their own document repository or a separate page for anything, really).  And, the groups are not private.

A second problem is that I want to be able keep track of activity with an RSS feed.  But, as you may know, private spaces (Ning, Wetpaint, etc.) don’t allow for RSS feeds.  This limitation also stops me from setting up a Ning or Wetpaint for each group, cohort, etc. and then setting up a department-level aggregate page via NetVibes or Pageflakes (a la Steve Hargadon’s approach here).

So, where am I?  Right now, I’m leaning towards a department-level Ning as the hub of our online community.  From there, I could setup groups for each cohort, group, etc. with a link to a private wiki for each cohort, group, etc. (leaning heavily towards WetPaint for that).  In the absence of RSS feeds, I’ll have to subscribe to each site via e-mail and then setup routing rules so that my inbox doesn’t get flooded.  It’s also going to be a naming nightmare.  But, that’s my best current solution.

If any of you smart people have better ideas, I’d be more than happy to hear them.  Thanks in advance!

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