“Learn” Discussion Forums, Knowledge Sharing, and Privacy, Part 1

In the first iteration of Rhet&WWW on Web CT, I followed the lead of a Fall 2005 ETEC course I’d just taken on WebCT in which we had to prepare team projects.  Each team was given its own private forum, open only to students in that team and the instructor.  This seemed to work very well from a student perspective, so for my Winter 2006 course (using WebCT) I did the same thing.  I stressed as an advantage the fact that each forum was a safe space for members to let the messiness of project planning hang out.  This seemed to be a perfectly sound practice; students used the spaces productively, and no one misused the privacy afforded them.

In that same ETEC course, only the team assignment was available for our classmates to read.  Each team posted its work in an unlocked discussion forum serving as the team’s “seminar room.”  Everyone had to read each team assignment as preparation for posting in a team’s “seminar room.”

I’ve incorporated this “seminar room” process into both versions of Rhet&WWW—both times with very good results.

Then … I took another ETEC course in Fall 2006 in which we had to prepare team projects.  But in this case the team planning forums were not restricted.  Any one of our classmates could peek into another team’s forum.

At first I found this voyeuristic slant a little odd.  But I quickly realized it didn’t really matter in terms of maintaining “privacy” and “originality” of ideas.  In fact, being “voyeurs” enhanced one of the course goals, which was knowledge sharing as a constituent of and motivation for forming a viable learning community.  While I’m confident none of us “stole” each other’s content (and in an upcoming post I’ll discuss concerns about plagiarism), I found it fascinating and edifying to scroll through others’ planning threads and get a sense of their best practices and processes.  It helped our team planning in material ways.  In turn, I hope others picked up a few helpful ideas from our forum.

I was impressed enough by this implicit collaboration that, for this iteration of Rhet&WWW, I decided to move to open team planning forums.  I articulated this pedagogical choice for my students during Week 1 as an explicit course goal:

From the Rhet&WWW Syllabus…

“Knowledge Sharing”:  You will normally post each assignment as an attachment within a specific Discussion forum. According to standard practice for many online courses, and in the spirit of knowledge sharing and community building, you need to know and be comfortable with the fact that all your assignments can be read by your classmates. In the case of the online team presentation and seminar discussion, such sharing with classmates is a requirement. (Emphasis added)

It can be disorienting, when one is used to assignment preparation and submission as a private matter between student and professor, to have your process opened up and your product available for an audience larger than one.  So you may notice a slight undertone of warning in my explanation.  I wanted students to pay attention to this and approach me if they had any concerns (two did at the very end, as I’ll discuss in my next posting).

When I later provided more guidelines and preparatory readings for the team project in the form of a learning module, I described the team planning forum as

your team workspace:  use it to stay in touch, discuss process and tasks, share documents and research, bounce drafts back and forth, and evaluate and monitor your work as a group.

I also encouraged students to “go off-Learn” and communicate via other means whenever they felt it convenient or necessary:

As well as checking in with your team forum X number of times per week (and putting those dates on your calendar), it’s a good idea to arrange synchronous (real-time) contact.  This helps you remember that you’re all human, not just bits and bytes!

Finally, I required that each team use its forum to summarize “off-Learn” activities:

If you’d like to use other means to communicate during this project (see above), or collaborate in ways other than exchanging attachments, please post the gist of your exchanges inside this forum for the record.

As it turned out, even if I’d wanted to, it’s not possible to restrict Discussion Forums in Learn.  All forums are open to all users in a given course space.  But as I noted in an earlier entry, Learn is set up for both public sharing and private work:  each user has a Workspace that they can convert into a restricted project forum.  They can invite certain individuals to join their workspace, chat in that workspace, and upload docs and other resources.  (I erroneously noted earlier that one couldn’t create a wiki in a private workspace.  A a member of our Learn team informs me that one can, so I stand corrected there.)

I confess I didn’t see the potential of these Workspaces when I planned the team projects this time around.  But even if I had, I wouldn’t have substituted them for the forums, for the whole point was to make it easier to share knowledge and best practices.

Did it work?

Tune in again tomorrow for Part 2!

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