On Feb. 25, Jeff (see comment beneath Feb. 18 entry) asked:
… 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?
An interpretive approach to this question would take me back to my earlier rhetorical analysis of how the Sakai web site constructs ethos (posted at blog.ca). I showed that Sakai places a positive value on such terms as open, free, collaborative, and ad hoc. A discussion tool that implicitly weighs some topics or ideas more heavily than others would contradict those values. Thus, Sakai’s expressed commitment to flexibility and freedom (for institutions, instructors, and students) likely influences the integration of an unstructured discussion tool.
But it seems obvious there’s an equally strong practical rationale. Sakai’s discussion tool (JForum for Sakai) was developed by the ETUDES Consortium using the phpBB open-source graphical user interface (and this is the one we use in “Learn”). The php interface is easy to use and favoured by groups and organizations that want to keep expenses down and processes simple. So from this perspective, it makes sense for Sakai users/developers to integrate ready-made, popular, user-friendly open-source systems (Jeffrey Young –see full ref below–notes the easy integration of other open-source products in his analysis of Sakai’s costs and flexibility).
So I consider the “philosophical foundation” argument weak because the more you look, the more you notice these principles walking hand-in-hand with cost and development issues. In a 2005 Sakai Project discussion about discussion tool development and pedagogy, “practical” terms and concepts occur quite frequently: innovation, lightweight development, tool interoperability, concerns about the expense of adding new features, and whether it’s worth adding more features if they’d appeal only to a small fraction of faculty or “niche” market. Essentially, as one participant put it,
We believe that in some situations, we can enhance the teaching. . . . But we cannot afford to develop all the tools we would like. Developing a tool that ‘plugs in’ to Sakai/Bb/WebCT has advantages; (1) we can save a lot of user admin interface-type development and (2) we can exchange tools with other universities and reduce the average cost.
This same discussion noted that some faculty wanted what could be considered more “hierarchical” features, such as discussion “grading” tools to mark participation. I also picked up (and may be reading too much into this) a Sakaiian (!) distrust of “hierarchy” from this comment:
If faculty have to fight with setting up groups, facilitators, etc; to come up with work-arounds with software tools that are built to support old top down teaching methods, and to spend an extra 10 to 25% of their time for a course to carry out the new methods—the instructors burn out in a few years and scare away other faculty . . .
But what Sakai thinks and what faculty or students might want don’t always mesh. One disgruntled user (2006) found Sakai’s flat, featureless discussion structure hard to work with:
I find working with the “basic” LMS features within Sakai to be extremely frustrating. Given that it is a tool designed to support online and distance education, it is far from “user friendly” and has done little to create a sense of community with class members. As a prime example, the discussion feature is a disaster. There is no way to track previously read posts from one session to the next. I literally have to “expand all” then squint to read the date posted to guess which I have seen – a real treat now that we are in our 5th week of class with hundreds of posts to scroll through. In one class I am taking, the students actually set up a Yahoo! Group to facilitate our communication needs.
However, the newer version (featured in “Learn”) redresses these problems somewhat:
It sounds like this instructor is using the older Sakai discussion tool rather than the new one that does in fact track read and unread posts between logins. The newer tool was designed at IU and is called the Message Center as it has private student messaging as well like the old system.
Moving back now to my Rhetoric and the WWW course, I sense my students are managing the non-hierarchical discussion structure adeptly. Near the beginning of the term, two or three expressed mild puzzlement about how to use the forums and private messaging. As mentioned in an earlier entry, many are supplementing the forums with “off Learn” tools like MSN and good old-fashioned phone calls and face-to-face meetings. But as students pound down the home stretch of completing their team projects, they’re using the forums actively and, I feel, productively. I’m getting no indications that students are losing threads of conversation or are finding the experience frustrating.
But are they forming communities … whatever that might mean in online teaching contexts?
Next up: invoking Franklin, Rheingold, and other advocates and critics of technologically mediated community building!
Young, J.R. (2004). Sakai Project offers an alternative to commercial/course management programs. Chronicle of Higher Education 51. (24 September): B12–B15.