Sakai and “hierarchical” discussion forums

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 [2004]–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.

(From http://bugs.sakaiproject.org/confluence/display/ENC/Sakai+and+Pedagogy )

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.

(From http://zacker.org/sakai-project-vs-moodle#comment-66 )


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.

(From http://zacker.org/sakai-project-vs-moodle#comment-85 )


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!

=======
Reference:

Young, J.R.  (2004). Sakai Project offers an alternative to commercial/course management programs. Chronicle of Higher Education 51. (24 September): B12–B15.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Sakai and “hierarchical” discussion forums

  1. Anonymous

    Hierarchies
    Hi Amanda,
    >>
    … 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.
    >>
    I’m at a loss to see how a hierarchy that visualizes relationships between postings and responses to postings in any way undermines flexibility and freedom for instructors or students. It really isn’t about weighting; it is about connections. I think the practical and economic rationale you track is stronger than the philosophical one. It is a shame, though, as it makes things harder to negotiate.
    It would be very interesting to do some research into the manner in which discussions evolve within a space that supports threads and one that does not. I’ve noticed, for example, that discussions within Weblogs feel quite different than those that take place within threaded discussions (at least they do to me). The concatenation of comments below an entry take on the feel of a series of sound-bites at times, especially when there are a lot of people making comments. In comparison, threaded discussions feel more cohesive, and the contributions of the successive postings often build off of previous postings as well as evolve the initial ideas or comments made at the start of the thread.
    I’m glad that you find that your students are managing well in your course discussions, but since you prompt the question yourself, I just have to ask you to say a bit more about how you see evidence of their community. And, just as importantly, what does this community mean in the context of your efforts to support a collaborative writing space? I’m sure that Franklin and Rheingold will have some ideas on these issues!
    Best,
    Jeff

    • Re: Hierarchies
      Hi Jeff,
      One more “interpretation” about threads/hierarchies … given the tensions with Blackboard, from Sakai’s perspective they might prefer a tool that doesn’t “look” like Blackboard. But ultimately, I couldn’t dig up any concrete evidence to show that Sakai has taken any kind of principled position about threads and hierarchies, except around the cost issues as noted. I think practicality wins out.

      It would be very interesting to do some research into the manner in which discussions evolve within a space that supports threads and one that does not.

      In Google Scholar, I found ONE lone entry containing “Sakai” and “threaded discussion groups”. Here’s the relevant bit:

      “New embryonic forms of online learning communities will emerge that support the dynamic forming and reforming of cliques as well as ‘cocktail party’ behavior. This will be much friendlier than threaded discussion groups and much less taxing on reading time than blogs. From this will emerge new study groups for students, creative knowledge exchange for teachers and researchers, and new business teaming opportunities.” —Richard Larson, Professor of Engineering Systems and Founder and Director, Learning International Networks Consortium (LINC), MIT

      (Bolding mine.)
      This comment raises another speculative question for me: Could it be that as online teachers and long-time users of WebCT, we’ve become accustomed to such navigational patterns as nested discussions–therefore we find it easier to make connections than in a more concatenated space … or a “cocktail party” … ;– )
      Re “threaded discussion groups,” I found (as perhaps expected) a good couple of dozen promising-looking scholarly articles written since 2002 that explore their uses in online teaching. But I can’t tell at a glance whether any of those compare “nested threads” with a PHB-type structure. Researching that would be interesting, but first I’ll forge ahead with exploring evidence of students’ community building, as promised!
      Thanks for your comments!
      ~Amanda

  2. Anonymous

    Scaffolding discussion forum postings
    Hi Amanda,
    In one undergraduate course at UBC that deals with the psychology of gender, two instructors regularly teach the course. A few years ago, they were a bit anxious about how to kick-start the forums and to get students to fully appreciate the importance that they placed on the forums as engines that drove a lot of the learning process in the course. We had placed textual descriptions to that effect in the intro materials for the course, but we always found that some students were slow to assume an active role or an appropriate style of posting.
    The two instructors then wrote a brief dialogue across 8-10 postings that we then placed at the start of the course as a model for the type of postings and interactions between postings that was expected of students. It had a very positive impact on the students in the next run of the course, as they had a concrete sense of what was expected and a model to consider when making their own posts and replies to the posts of others. We also built out the protocol statements for discussions, too, to help students to think about their shared responsibilities in the forums. These devices helped quite a bit.
    I agree with you that a students previous experiences with online discussions will have a bearing on how comfortable they feel. In a course that makes a lot of use of forums, the process of asynchronous discussion can seem overwhelming, disjointed and very chaotic. So it is often important to either provide some guidance or advice or hope that other students in the course will pitch in some comments to calm down those students who are feeling uncomfortable.
    Another aspect to this is to consider statements an instructor might make about their own role with respect to the forums. In some courses, instructors are quite active. In others, they are in the background. In either case, students need to have some sense of what to expect, as that can also influence how they will engage with the forums.
    Cheers,
    Jeff

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