It seems almost paradoxical, but online communities require a lot of offline work. Although they exist in virtual space, digital communities are created and maintained through the hard real-world work of people like Brenda Rose, project manager for PLEI Connect, an interactive online public legal education (PLE) website. Rose works at Courthouse Libraries BC, one of four partners along with PovNet, Éducaloi , and CLEO , who have made PLEI (pronounced ‘plea’) Connect a reality.
“PLEI Connect is about using technology to develop and deliver [public legal education] in Canada; it’s about connecting PLE providers across the country so they can learn from one another and discover what others are doing,” Rose explains. As program coordinator for ClickLaw, a law information website for British Columbians, Rose is deeply immersed in the world of web-based PLE. She suggests that Canada’s expansive geography and differing sets of provincial laws create a challenging environment for public legal education providers. These constraints mean that web-based solutions are key to information sharing for this specialized audience.
Rose refers to PLEI Connect as a “community of practice” and it’s a fitting term for the bilingual website (La Connection VIJ en Français), which hosts a forum and a blog that are open for any member’s contributions. Members must register before they can view and participate in the online community, a decision made in order to create a space where people would feel comfortable sharing their experiences or asking for help. Rose stresses that the registration process isn’t exclusive: anyone affiliated with a PLE or social justice organization or anyone with an interest in this area is welcome to sign up. Once your information is verified (by a real person, so it can take a day or two) new members receive an invitation to sign-in.
The online community of practice now has over 170 members “from every province and almost every territory,” Rose says, adding she has been getting “good feedback” from members who have found value in the conversations happening on the website.
“There are some very cool anecdotal stories of information sharing. There is great sharing around, for instance, live [web] chat services,” says Rose, relating a story about how a community legal clinic in northern Ontario shared their experiences and gave their technical perspective on using live web-chat programs for providing legal advice. This information proved to be “very helpful to staff here [at Courthouse Libraries BC] and to some of the other PLE providers in Vancouver.” In another example, a small organization in Vancouver received web design advice from someone with IT expertise in Toronto. Looking through the blog posts and forum threads on that make up the website, I see these examples (and many others) of information sharing and best practices. PLEI Connect’s specialized audience means that the overall volume of conversation is moderate, but the exchanges seem meaningful. Another important component of information sharing on PLEI Connect takes places through regular webinars, which are later posted on their YouTube channel.
PLEI Connect evolved out of the Just A Click Away initiative, which kicked off in 2010. Supported by the Law Foundation of Ontario’s Access to Justice fund, the initial project consisted of a series of conferences and webinars, held by Éducaloi and Courthouse Libraries BC, examining the intersection of technology and PLE in Canada. After a two-day conference in Vancouver in 2011, Rose says that there was “such great energy and enthusiasm at the conference and a desire to continue,” that the next stage of Just a Click Away was launched, with PovNet and CLEO coming on board as partners.
“We put together a project plan for [what became] PLEI Connect by doing requirements gathering—we asked PLE providers what they were doing with technology, and what they wanted to do,” Rose recalls. “At this point the name was changed from Just a Click Away because [the old name] didn’t resonate.”
Laying the groundwork for the PLEI Community of practice was an intensive process wherein the background information was gathered by means of a long and detailed survey sent out to PLE groups.
“We had a pretty good return rate [on the survey], and people told us lots of thing about what they were working on, and what they wanted to see in the online community of practice. This process kept us grounded—not making things up as we went along,” Rose says.
PLEI Connect is wrapping up its funded phase (the project is currently supported by the federal Department of Justice), and is looking for additional funding to publish the best practices gleaned from the webinars and online community. In the future, Rose would like to see more of the legal community involved in PLEI Connect, as the website contributes to access to justice by offering lawyers advice on subjects such as connecting with audiences and plain language writing. Rose would also “love to do the outreach that needs to happen” to spread the word about PLEI Connect. This community of practice might be online, but as Rose says, “to develop relations you need the human element to connect to people.”