The “Learn” Adventure — More on Tools: Discussion Forums

Welcome to my LJ!  I think I’m going to like it better here … and I hope you will too.

I know “more” sounds a bit strange, given this is my first LJ entry about my Sakai/Learn online course redesign/independent study adventure.  I’ve published previous instalments over at my site, but I’ve been finding that interface a bit clunky.  I hope LJ will prove friendlier.  And not that I’m expecting multitudes of comments, but if there are any … they can be threaded.  Which, given this next set of postings, is appropriate.

The general question ending my last entry on was whether my assignment designs and my use of course tools within “Learn” (i.e. Discussion Forums) facilitate teamwork and community building for students of Rhetoric and the World Wide Web.  My next few entries focus on the Discussion Modules tool. 

Tony Bates and Gary Poole (2003) note, “[t]he main instruction or tutoring … is likely to take place in the instructors’ discussion groups …. Good discussions take time to build …” (p. 220).  It would be in Sakai’s interest for its collaborators to create tools that make it as easy as possible for asynchronous discussion “to build to a point where students are fully benefiting from the discussion” (p. 220) Indeed, one collaborator asserts that “[u]nlike traditional CMS tools, Sakai promises to provide a flexible framework where students and faculty can convene to engage in active learning”  (Foothill College, CA).

As an instructor, I’ve found the “Learn” tool fairly easy and flexible to manipulate.  I’ve created general arenas of activity (“Assignments,” “Class Participation,” “Team Seminars”) and within each arena created distinct forums, such as a forum for each team working on a collaborative project.  It’s also easy for me and the students to create our own personal profiles, complete with iconic avatars; to post messages using a basic editor; to create a new topic or thread within a forum; and to send up to 3 attachments (with a range of allowable suffixes) per posting.

So far, students are “convening” in the forums and engaging to some extent with the topics (with some teams doing a lot of work in their forum).  But the “Learn” discussion forum tool doesn’t allow nested threads.  That’s a very basic issue … to thread, or not to thread?  Bates and Poole favour threaded discussion groups for the following reasons: 

Threaded discussion software allows an argument or discussion to build over time … A good discussion topic will often generate several single threads with over twenty or more comments and generally, the longer the thread, the better the discussion, because the topic will have captured students’ interest and the thread of argument builds a momentum of its own (2003, pp. 226-229).

We probably all know what nested threads look like.  Check any popular LJ entry and see the hierarchical pattern of topic, sub-topic, reply, reply to the reply … all speaking to a lively and sometimes almost synchronous exchange. 

Here’s a sample of discussion topics within one forum in Rhetoric and the WWW:

Response to Module 1       
My thoughts on module
A Few Days Late.    
Rhetoric is…    
a good man speaking well…    
some thoughts on rhetoric through time        
Response to Module #1        
The power of time on rhetoric    
Rhetoric is…    
The foundation of rhetoric…    
Evolution and variation of the term Rhetoric        
My opinion of the evolution of rhetoric    
The Malleable Definition of Rhetoric    
late night with textual rhetoric.

Columns show the original author of the topic, how many responses the topic has received, and the name of the last person to post. Users can choose to “Watch” particular topics and/or to read the most recently posted topics first.  To see the direction of any discussion within a topic, you have to click on that topic, and all the conversations will open up.

I find it fascinating that there’s no nested-thread capability in this “Learn” platform—somewhat flying in the face of what Bates and Poole, for example, assert above about the role of threaded discussions in building argumentative momentum.  In my own experience with threaded discussions in teaching and being a student online, I’ve found them useful for tracing the pathway or evolution of a discussion, seeing at a glance how much “weight” participants give a topic, and noting interrelations of sub-topics with major topics.  It’s also handy to be able to reply directly to a posting without worrying about “quoting” it or being concerned that your response, even with quote, will get lost at the bottom.  At the same time, I can see that nested topics are somewhat hierarchical, whereas a PHP-based system like this is “flatter.”  Is it possible that the Sakai designers considered and rejected the incorporation of the “hierarchical” pattern used in traditional CMSs?

And if so, does that matter?  Especially for teamwork and community building in this site, is it significant that we don’t have nested threads?  I’m very much hoping to hear more from students about this, but will also be pursuing this, and other online community-building issues, further over the next few weeks.




Filed under Online Learning

2 responses to “The “Learn” Adventure — More on Tools: Discussion Forums

  1. Anonymous

    That nested feeling
    Hi Amanada,
    Having grown accustomed to threaded discussion environments, I’m always a bit disoriented when I encounter a flat, non-threaded structure within a discussion space. Threads do help to provide a visual track of relationships between postings and replies, and also quickly indicate where students are engaging most in a particular discussion. At the same time, I’ve had requests for more flat-structured, PHP style discussions in some writing intensive classes (for instance in a low residency Masters in Creative Writing). Whereas I argued that it is easier to trace discussions in a threaded space, the developers of that program found that the concatenated structure met their needs.
    Another discussion environment you should look at is called Knowledge Forum, and it was developed out of research conducted by Scardamalia and Bereiter into how learners build knowledge. You can find a demo of their environment at You might also find it useful to look up some of Scardamalia and Bereiter’s articles on the subject (which can easily be found online).
    Finally, since we’ve been talking a bit about Sakai’s philosophical underpinnings, why might the Sakai developers have rejected a hierarchical structure (or the option to toggle such a thing) within their CMS? What might be the rationale?

    • Re: That nested feeling
      Hi Jeff,
      I’ve been off on a Bereiter and Scardamalia hunt. 😉 As I’m sure you expected, I found at least one eyebrow-raising ref to the role and/or value of threaded discussions in their piece–Knowledge building environments: Extending the limits of the possible in education and knowledge work. In describing a KBE space (as opposed to a Computer Supported Collaborative Learning space), they argue that what doesn’t support higher-level, improved ideas is a learning space in which ideas are represented by “nondescript entry in threads, folders, and repositories, where [ideas] are lost amid information glut” (2003). In other words, a standard CMS–if I’m not reading too much into this.
      I’d certainly classify the Sakai/Learn as a “folders and repositories” CMS, even if it doesn’t have nested threads. And while I haven’t heard strong signals yet that students working in teams are floundering in info-glut, Learn’s flat forum structure does mean users have to work harder to piece related conversations and ideas together. Indeed, several teams are branching off into their own RL or other virtual spaces (which we fondly call “going off-Learn”) and using the forums only to summarize/report progress or sign off on project phases. As for teams who are using “Learn” forums for all of their teamwork, I wonder if they’re constructing innovative ideas in spite of the forums rather than because of them.
      Cheers for now …
      Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (2003). Knowledge building environments: Extending the limits of the possible in education and knowledge work. In A. DiStefano, K.E. Rudestam, & R. Silverman (Eds.), Encyclopedia of distributed learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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