Train. Teach. Share.

Back in 2005, Sharon Abbott was looking for a resource to help her FE training and found there wasn’t one. So she created it. She explains to us how PCET Network’s unique virtual meeting space can help teachers, business trainers and lecturers share their experiences and resources in ways that the real world could not

You may not have heard of the Post Compulsory Education & Training (PCET) Network, but you might want to consider adding it to your bookmarks.

It’s not just for teachers. It’s for anyone in training. Not necessarily education – it could be business training. A place for them to speak to other people in their field, to exchange resources and collaborate

explains Sharon Abbott.

If you’re in education or training, it’s a no-brainer. But those resources are now so varied that almost anyone who has to stand in front of a group of people and explain something whilst keeping the audience engaged could benefit from it. And who in business has not had to do that? If you need fresh ideas for your next a presentation – free – could be the place to head.

Ask how and why it was set it up, and she laughs.

It was kind of an accident! When I was studying for my Cert. Ed. teaching qualification in 2005, I was quite new to teaching. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was Googling everything, and really there was nobody in the UK at that time who could help. There were lots of American sites, but nothing that related to the UK market. I was struggling and decided that there must be other people struggling

Fortunately, Sharon’s husband Jay is an IT specialist, and was able to provide a practical solution to the problem.

Very kindly he offered to build me a website where I could just post things, so – hopefully – other people who were experienced within teaching could answer my questions

That site – just requiring the user to go through a simple, free registration process – now has over 3,000 members, all of who can collaborate, speak to each other through private email within the site, and add links and resources to the forum. Its great strength is it also allows  groups in different sectors – who wouldn’t necessarily be talking to each other – to exchange ideas freely.

It would be very difficult for some of these people to meet in the real world, because they are from such different backgrounds. So, for example, you could have an FE teacher who works in a prison speaking to a primary school teacher, or someone who writes training books

It’s a huge success, by any standards. But that success did not come immediately. “The ethos around the whole site was ‘If you build it, they will come’. And they didn’t! At the time, it was very frustrating, because I knew that if I needed this, there must be thousands like me who needed similar support. So, the site got built, I started putting content on there, but nothing happened – and the reason was, no one knew about it.”

So, what was it that finally made it take off? “Perseverance,” says Sharon. Well, that, and some distinctly old-school marketing tactics. “I made A5 postcards. They were very simple. The front of the card said ‘’, and the back just basically said: ‘Teaching resources. Support. Join
now. Free!’ And I literally sent them to every education manager and basic skills teacher in every college in the UK. Basically, I spammed the UK – using first-class stamps – with these ridiculous cards that had almost nothing on them. It all looked quite random, with no name or anything on these hundreds of cards. It must have made the Royal Mail postman wonder.”

Overnight, membership of the site just exploded

It was just amazing. The day after they went out, we must have had 150-200 people register. And from then on, every single day we’ve had registration. Some days have been better than others – some days we’ve had 200 people, others there might only be three – but there hasn’t been a day since the launch that we haven’t had people register. So there are always new people coming with new experiences and new knowledge that they can share

In these days of tweets, gestures and the cloud it’s reassuring to know that a piece of card with something intriguing on it can still strut its stuff. So, how did the current, winning format come about?

It grew into that, to be honest. I would post something up there that I needed the answer to, and people would come to the site – it got ranked very highly very quickly – and after a while started putting questions to me directly. Well, I didn’t know, so a forum was added to the site where others could post their questions and answers. It just grew organically from what the members wanted

User need was also what drove the site to grow beyond its original remit.

It had started as a website for FE teachers working with adult learners, because that’s my speciality. What ended up happening was that people who were involved in training within companies would ask for teachers’ help in planning presentations. So, although that wasn’t FE-based, they wanted to know what we did as teachers to help them plan, perform and deliver a message. So then it expanded out further to include people involved in training

The site is now a great resource for providing new ideas, involving people from all manner of different backgrounds.

For argument’s sake, if you’re a trainer in a business and you have to write a presentation, and don’t want it to be same-old and want ideas, it’s a great place to come, mention what you’re doing, and there will be somebody somewhere who says ‘Have you tried this..?’ So, it’s great for collaboration, and it’s great for creativity. A lot of the people on the site are teachers and trainers, but there are also university lecturers, people who write teaching and training manuals – real experts in their field. It’s not just about one teacher or trainer helping another, it’s also about expert help from renowned people in the field

It’s worth remembering that these are all people who wouldn’t normally have a place to meet and speak to each other – a factor that can take users out of their normal comfort zone, but with very positive results.

I think the issue is, this wouldn’t work in the real world, because you become quite insular. You do what you do, and you think you do it well, but that’s not necessarily the case. What you find when you go onto the website is that someone will put up a lesson plan that they’ve done, and they will say: ‘This is a great lesson plan, I got a great response from the learners…’ And someone else will pipe up and say: ‘Well, it’s OK. However…’ It’s fabulous for that.

The other thing that makes it work, of course, is that it’s free.

There is no monetary gain in there for anybody. The whole point of setting this up was to provide a network, not to make money, and I think that also appeals because it’s very easy to sign up – an email address and a password – and then you’ve got a wealth of knowledge available to you

The benefits are obvious – but doesn’t this have costs for her?

All it takes is a little bit of time. At first, I was hunting around for information to answer people’s questions. But as the site has grown and grown it doesn’t actually need me anymore. I just keep an eye on it and make sure the members are happy with what’s happening

Sharon is keen to stress that the site brings no commitment with it. It’s not the sort of site that you have to contribute to once you join.

You can join and say nothing, just to read what people are saying, because it might just give you some good ideas

There’s also no bar on who joins – in fact, the wider the pool from which it draws, the more effective it seems to become.

It’s a strange array of people who have a common goal, which is sharing their experiences and supporting people in teaching and training. Everyone from primary teachers to lecturers. We have people on there who write books about hypnotism, which may sound bizarre, but there are people out there who get very stressed about standing in front of a group of people, so they help with that. It would be great to have more trainers on the site, because I think they could really benefit from the experience of trained and qualified teachers – how to engage audiences, how to plan a presentation. It’s great to have that crossover

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