Tag Archives: online discussion forums

“Learn” Discussion Forums, Knowledge Sharing, and Privacy, Part 3

On Apr. 8, I commented on one student’s concerns about accessing each other’s online assignments.  Today, I’ll wrap up thoughts about knowledge sharing and privacy in the “Learn” Discussion Forums by commenting on a second student concern about privacy.  The question (paraphrased):  does assignment sharing make it easier for students to steal each other’s ideas?  This is of course, a form of plagiarism.

From an Australian site—Academic Knowledge Development—I found a useful link inviting viewers to compare two views about whether or not online assessment increases the risk of plagiarism.  I favour the first view:  I don’t believe that assignment sharing within a close-knit community encourages plagiarism.  In fact, a degree of transparency around assignment submissions reduces the chances of plagiarizing, either from scholarly sources or from other students.  In Rhet&WWW, the fact that students could (and in fact were encouraged to) look at others’ work in process and final assignments made it far more difficult to get away with passing a fellow student’s work off as their own.  It would have been an egregious violation of not only academic ethics but of the community and social standards (tacit and explicit) governing our course site—standards the students themselves had some say in creating.

That’s all very well for me, but what about other online teaching practices or policies?  I found not much linking plagiarism concerns with online discussion forums until I added “assessment” to my search and found, among other sites, the Australian Flexible Learning Network’s guide to assessment and online teaching.  Here is one of the Network’s guiding principles:

If teachers are to engage in new forms of teaching and take advantage of the greatly enhanced teaching options now possible through online and mixed-mode teaching then it stands to reason that we need to unpack assessment options and issues if online teaching and learning is to be maximised.  (Assessment, 2004)

One option for assessment is making assignments available for other students.  Mind you, I didn’t require students to assess each other’s work in any formal way; I just provided opportunities for peer feedback (which few took advantage of) and encouraged students to comment on anything they found useful in another’s work.  For that reason, plus the fact that only two students out of 24 expressed concerns about “open” assignments, I’m not sure whether most students in Rhet&WWW found it disconcerting to reconceptualize “private” as “public.”

A text aimed at students—Learning online:  a guide to success in the virtual classroom (2004)—explains that online instructors employ several valid methods to help prevent “cheating on assessments.”  One is cooperative learning:

Assignments are made that require some degree of cooperation and coordination among students … [and] make it difficult for a student to find consistent [outside] help throughout a project of some duration and complexity.  (Lynch, 2004, p. 179)

Another method is to make all assessments (assignments) “open book” as well as substantive (p. 179) … which, in a way, describes the open-forum assignments in Rhet&WWW.

Explorations of online assessment, such as the Australian Flexible Learning Network guide, make it clear that an online syllabus must spell out policies and requirements around academic honesty, crediting each other’s ideas, and using online resources ethically.  Institutional boilerplate used in most course outlines may or may not address the “knowledge sharing” issues that arise in courses based on cooperative learning (online or otherwise)—in which case, the instructor must.  I relied on some boilerplate for my syllabus, but also developed my own description of knowledge sharing and privacy issues, some of which I’ve shared in this series of three entries.  I also embedded requirements about citation and ethical use of sources within assignment descriptions.

Could I have done more?  Undoubtedly.  Scaffolding, scaffolding, scaffolding!

Now, privacy of the web site itself, as well as instructor feedback and marks, constitute separate issues.  The institution and instructor must ensure the security of the course site, and information about individual grades has to be kept confidential (a departmental requirement that fulfills Manitoba’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act).  During Week 1, students found this information in the course syllabus:

While you need to post assignments in forums rather than submit them to me privately, the larger public will not have access to any work submitted in this site.  All instructor feedback and marks for assignments are private information and will be conveyed to you within “Learn” via your personal Drop Box (which only you can access) or by Private Message.  No one but you will receive this information.  For team assignments, each member will individually receive instructor feedback and the mark for the team.

 To respect privacy requirements, then, the following basics must be in place:

  1. The institution must ensure the security and privacy of the web environment. 
  2. Online instructors must be aware of and follow departmental and legal policies concerning information and privacy. 
  3. On Day 1, online instructors should clarify for students what materials and topics are private between the student and instructor (and why), and what materials form part of the community’s knowledge base (and why). 

In retrospect, that might have been an excellent conversation to have with my students as we explored the rhetoric(s) of the web:  the rewards and the risks of making each other’s work freely available within a learning community via discussion forums.  Among other things, an open-assignment pedagogy seemed to me a valid way of enhancing accountability.  While much is made (and rightly so) about reciprocity, engagement, and collaboration in online community building, I think we need to do more work around accountability and consider “best practices” that will enhance it.



Australian Flexible Learning Network.  (2004).  Assessment and online teaching.  Australian National Training Authority.  Retrieved 9 April 2007 from http://www.flexiblelearning.net.au/guides/assessment.pdf

Lynch, M. M.  (2004).  Learning online:  a guide to success in the virtual classroom.  New York:  Routledge.

~The End~


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“Learn” Discussion Forums, Knowledge Sharing, and Privacy, Part 2

After the Rhet&WWW team presentations and seminar discussions were completed, I asked my 24 students to submit a private individual reflection to me about their team process, including any comments they might have about how the Learn environment shaped their experience.  One purpose in this blog entry is to respond to a couple of concerns expressed about the openness of the discussion forums—concerns that inspired me to reflect more on why I chose to use open forums in this course.

One set of reflections focused on assignments, which the student defined as personal and private transactions between student and professor.  The reflection expressed discomfort about students being able to access others’ assignments.  This is certainly indicative, I think, of tension between educational paradigms.  On the one hand, posting assignments to forums within an online class is hardly a new or radical element of online learning, as this online teaching guide from Flinders University attests:

By posting assignments, via e-mail or the Discussion Forums to each other, students can give each other feedback before submission to you.  This assists in promoting the critiquing of other people’s work, collaborative work practices, and increasing the quality of submissions.  By using the Discussion Forums or e-mail, you can also trace the amount of feedback given and used.  (Emphasis mine)

On the other hand, for some students (not to mention faculty and institutions), it’s still a radical move to redefine assignments not as strictly private student-professor transactions but as tools for building knowledge sharing communities.  I’m sure more than two students found it unsettling to move from “closed” to “open”; from “teacher has knowledge, student doesn’t” to “open and transformative group of individuals interacting” (Peters, 2004, p. 30).

Now I don’t want to imply a simplistic dualism between “traditional/private” = lecture hall and “new paradigm/shared” = online.  At least one of the ETEC courses I took used the WebCT Assignment Tool, which uploads work directly from student to prof.  There are legitimate pedagogical reasons, depending on the course goals and outcomes, and (unfortunately) compelling institutional reasons why online courses would want to use private assignment submissions.  There’s also an assignment tool in Learn—though if you go a few entries back in this blog, you’ll see there was some tension among Sakai designers about incorporating tools that perpetuate “hierarchical” pedagogy.  But I decided early on that the Assignment Tool wouldn’t fulfill my outcomes.

Why?  As Caplan (2004) notes,

Instructors and other members of the online course development team should strive to create learning environments that exploit the features inherent in computers and the Web, in order to promote active learning that resides in the control of the student, and that can effectively lead to the development of high-order and critical thinking skills.

In an online course that defines the web as social discourse and explores relationships between these discourses and community, I’d argue it makes sense to promote active learning and critical thinking by making our research, results, and arguments available to each other for learning and constructive critique.  As Bruffee argues, such sharing

… is one way of introducing students to the process by which communities of knowledgeable peers create referential connections between symbolic structures and “reality,” that is, by which they establish knowledge and by doing so maintain community growth and coherence.

Would it have helped, I wonder, to emphasize these benefits and principles more explicitly in Week 1 – or perhaps even moot the topic in a discussion group?

In my final entry about knowledge sharing and privacy in “Learn” Discussion Forums, I’ll respond to the second concern raised:  the possibility of plagiarism.



Bruffee, K. A. (1984).  Collaborative learning and the “conversation of mankind.” College English 46, 7: 635-652.  Electronic version available from JStore.

Caplan, D.  (2004). The development of online courses.  In: Anderson, T. & Elloumi, F. Theory and Practice of Online Learning.  Athabasca University.  Retrieved 8 April 2007 from http://cde.athabascau.ca/online_book/ch7.html

Peters, O.  (2004).  Distance Education in Transition: New Trends and Challenges. 4th ed. Oldenburg: Bibliotheks-und Informationssystem der Universität Oldenburg.

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“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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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!


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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More on Collaboration Tools–Forums or Project spaces?

Just a quickie entry …

Scanning cyberspace for any evaluations of Sakai and/or the role of discussion forums in promoting collaborative writing, I found these comparisons of various open source CMSs:

An Evaluation of Open Source Learning Management Systems According to Learners Tools
Hüseyin Uzunboylu, Fezile Özdamlı, and Zehra Özçınar (2006).

3.2 Student Community Building
Atutor: Students can create study groups. Students from different courses can interaction system wide
using shared discussion forums.
Bazaar: The system allow user to create collaborative spaces for students.
Bodington: The system allows users to control access to certain areas and documents. It lets user create
usernames for external collaborators working on projects. Committees can create their own private areas
to hold minutes prior to publication.
Claroline: Teacher can create study groups. Once uploaded there, their documents can be published to
the public area of the course website.
Coursemanager: The system does not allow to users to create any type of group.
ILIAS: Students can send e-mail to their groups, use a shared chat space and notice board, and share
material privately within the group.
Moodle: Moodle has a large and diverse user community on main site.
Sakai: Students can create project sites. It includes a calendar, announcements, e-mail list and discussion

My first reaction to this was dismay that I hadn’t thought of exploring Sakai’s project-space capabilities in my current course or invited students to create their own project spaces, especially since these spaces can be made accessible to any course participants.  On the other hand, the project spaces are fairly limited.  They let you do what it says above:  upload files, send messages and announcements, and in the case of Learn, present a “slide show”– a tool I cannot for the life of me figure out!! I understand could be very cool, allowing participants to display visuals to the entire site.

However, a creator can’t add any other Sakai/Learn tools such as a wiki, and project members would still have to go “off Learn” to do anything fancy like collaborative writing.  Also, given that my “not so secret” agenda behind creating open team forums was to make it easy for everyone to view each others’ process and best practices–i.e. share knowledge–then I’m not sure whether or how setting up team project spaces would have been an advantage.

Or perhaps I’m just rationalizing my initial oversight! 

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