A spate of almost aimless Googling and browsing yesterday (it started with a purpose but sometimes I just get swept away with the journey and forget about the destination!) brought me eventually to a new education based, web 2.0ish, start-up based in Bristol – Beanbag Learning. Now this alone was enough to pique my curiousity but the discovery that one of the guys (Jon Ellis) running things is a fellow Monks Park escapee focussed my attention (for the record Monks Park holds a special place in my heart – as well as me, my brother, mum, two aunts, two uncles and four cousins all attended the school and my grandfather even worked there for a while!).
The site aims to match parents up with qualified tutors for their children – in many ways it would be easy to compare it with School of Everything but I think it has much more of a focus on enhancing compulsory education rather than giving a shop window to more adult and community learning opportunities which seems to be the goal of School of Everything (it has to be said I think SoE is flippin’ brilliant and just the kind of start-up I approve of so any comparisons should be seen as a compliment!).
The site was built by Jiva Technology and seems to be built on Ruby on Rails – just like my favourite service Twitter – though it has to be said Twitter isn’t exactly the most stable of services so maybe thats an issue with using this technology? Anyway it certainly gives it a big tick in the web 2.0 box! As does using Getsatisfaction for customer feedback and helpdesk. This is a great idea – Getsatisfaction is a wonderful service that helps build a community around an application and offers a much more user friendly resource than small companies could manage on their own.
Beanbag also has elements of social networking about it – actually a bit more than I think is useful. The ability to recommend people is a real benefit – but I can’t see why adding friends is appropriate here? Just seems to be a feature for the sake of it. The use of profiles is obviously appropriate for tutors but maybe there should be more (mandatory) information relevant to a parent deciding if they are an appropriate tutor – as I’m neither a parent nor a teacher I’m not sure what this would be but I’m sure in these days of (over) protective parents the more info the better?
I’m also not quite sure if the site is supposed to be live really – there is a pretty obvious issue with a link on the homepage (Looking for help?) which I’m sure should go to some kind of form to create a Want Ad but instead goes to a list of current Want Ads. Also the current profiles and members seem to be mainly people involved in the company and the ‘tour’ is still coming soon so perhaps I’m a bit early to the party!
The search and browse of tutors works well though perhaps an additional filter by level (GCSE, A, BTEC) might be helpful? However I find the Learning Resources section a bit muddled – its hard to see how its sorted even after a subject filter is applied – of course that might just be me! Also the handful of videos on the site at the moment (produced by the Jiva team I guess?) are great but maybe a bit too slick! I wonder if something a bit more DIY in nature would encourage people to add their own video/audio resources in the future. The videos are hosted on Blip.tv which is another big win for me as I have long admired them ahead of the other providers in the online video arena – however I would guess that most videos would still be hosted on YouTube (or slides on Slideshare or Authorstream) so the ability to embed stuff in from other sites might be cool (it might also already be available and I just missed it)
All in all I think it has the makings of a really useful service and its current focus on Bristol seems sensible. I mean with the education system in the city in such a shambles despite a high percentage of people working in education (almost 9% of the working population of the city in 2001) there must be a market for this kind of offering – and Bristol is hardly alone in the UK as far as struggling with education. Any given week there is a story in the media about the failure of schools and the Governments latest plan to save things. While there are other web services doing this kind of thing already – a quick look around shows that most of them are quite old fashioned (in web terms) and Beanbag seems to be the main one learning lessons from the social web and implementing them in this environment.
It has to be said though it does have a pretty small Google footprint at the moment. I would have expected to see more blogging about it, maybe some action on Twitter, contributions to other blogs and networks but there isn’t really anything I could find beyond the Jiva blog. There is a big community of edubloggers out there and it seems that tapping into this community could only be good news?
So all in all I’d declare beanbag learning ship shape and Bristol fashion and wish them luck!