A funny thing happened on the way to the…

We don’t have a forum at our POT Certificate Class SMOOC (Small-to-Medium Open Online Class). Nor a Google Group (though that’s been suggested and may appear), nor a Moodle forum, nor a Ning.

When I took EC&I 831 from Alec Couros last fall, I felt we needed a forum, and he and I looked for one we liked, but nothing we found had the particular combination we wanted (no ads, free, nested comments and the ability to post multimedia), so we gave it up. On his current page for this semester, he’s listed many types of communication, but not a forum.

And now I notice that the Change MOOC, co-hosted by George Siemens, Stephen Downes, and Dave Cormier, has a forum, but it’s kinda awkward. Not like a full-featured thing at all. On the main page, there are three Participating links for blogs, two for the newsletter, one for the backchannel, and one for threads. The class starts tomorrow and there are three posts for a class of hundreds.

And yet, all my college history classes feature forums as the heart of the action. I couldn’t do without them.

So why no forums for these classes? I think because the idea of distributed communication has become something we’re all taking seriously.

If we’re going to focus on the wonders of learning on the web as our topic, it makes sense that our participants should be communicating there rather than in a central location. We not only want them communicating via blogs, wikis and Facebook, but we also want them creating their own places and spaces (which is why the potcert11 class may yet have a Google Group, because the participants may be creating it — and they’re starting the Twitter thing, not me).

From Rick Schwier’s Pursuing the elusive metaphor
of community in e-learning environments

I also think there’s more staying power to a distributed community. If you have one space, as we all know from using learning management systems, the course seems finite. Even if the space is available after the class is over, the feeling is still that the class is over. But if the conversation is distributed (our class has a very active Facebook group, which surprised the heck out me), there’s a feeling of perpetuity. The river continues and you step in and out when you wish.

As Rick Schwier has noted, informal communities have higher levels of engagement over time. I wonder whether de-emphasizing a formal location for conversation makes these classes lean more toward informal learning, even though they are organized as classes, with set timeframes.

So come on, hit me with the research. Do distributed communities last longer? Are we right to “force” them instead of offering a rich place for a single discussion?

8 comments to A funny thing happened on the way to the…

  • Lisa,
    I love the idea of more staying power to a distributed community rather than a forum. I run a very similar setup to you for ds106, and what I have noticed over the last 9 months we have had that site up is that very thing, people still blog to that space, the community is still there loosely, and the staying power is apparent. What’s more, it is the persons to take with them, that becomes harder with forums, and while they can still be valuable, it seems harder and harder to archive or make sure the teacher or the 3rd party service doesn’t go away. Same thing can happen to 3rd party blogging services, but that is why we need to push folks to get and maintain their own space. I know you were annoyed with setting up your own WP when FeedWordPress went haywire, but in the end you have that much control over the archive, and for me that is awesome. I have FWP is an awesome archival tool for ds106 blogging.

    • Exactly. We may think of “the space” as the aggregated area with the “instructions”, but of course it’s really their own blogs, their own spaces. Kind of like an ongoing pot-luck, with everyone sharing dishes. And yeah, I persisted, bought space elsewhere so it would have a better chance to be sustainable, but we can reformulate a problematic central location more easily anyway if everyone has their own space. Totally inspired by what you did, man, obviously!

  • Lisa and Jim: it would seem to me that distributed comms works extremely well for some, but maybe not for all. Some students (at least to me) need the structure a forum provides. So, is it an all or nothing case, or can one run a course with both forums and distributed communications?

    • Hi Britt! George and Stephen’s monster MOOCs have always run both together, and many would say successfully, although the need for the Daily (Stephen’s daily newsletter) means a central thread was still very important. Even then some people felt overwhelmed. That seems to be typical of a MOOC (or indeed any self-directed web-learning experience) anyway.

      That’s why my current thinking is leaning toward the topic being of utmost importance in the format for conversation. For deep focus on a particular academic subject, I’m thinking a forum is needed. For sustained exploration of web-based learning (where the environment of distributed conversation is part of what’s being taught), blogs/comments may be more appropriate. Which begs the question about how to handle that, which I’ll be working on more over the next few days…

  • Lisa,

    (I started responding to this last night and then realized how perfect you would be to help Jim Groom design his new American Studies course. Hence the digression, delay, etc.)

    First, I want to say that although I am not actively involved or connected in a visible way to your POT Certificate class, I often refer to it in my daily work. OFTEN! So, thank you for that, and for all your work. I find it very professionally relevant and I love your analysis on many topics.

    I have a project (which keeps stalling) that involves a very similar thing to your POT certificate; basically getting faculty up to speed to teach online but focusing within the context of our university.

    Ostensibly, this means we need to set them up within our learning management system. We use Sakai, but no matter, the distinction is irrelevant. The point is that I have been charged with getting faculty acquainted with a closed system, locked behind passwords, which in turn, are locked behind bureaucratic nightmare set of hoops (contracts, forms, signatures, more contracts, more signatures) just to get a username.

    “SECURITY!” our IT dept bellows.

    This, I think is a major downfall to the Discussion Board Forum. It must be hosted by someone. This means that the content therein becomes the responsibility of someone.

    “LIABILITY!” administrators bellow.

    Username obstacles aside, I have found that running courses with faculty that require them to access the LMS have been largely unsuccessful. They have to go to the space. One more thing for them to do. I like the way you are connecting your faculty, creating a community. That certainly will help.

    And please, don’t get me wrong, 99% of our undergrad courses are run using discussion boards. But from course evals I’ve skimmed I’m not entirely certain learners find this a really beneficial way to interact with each other, wrestle with ideas and deeply engage with their learning.

    I am clearly a fan of the distributed community. If I think back to how I found your blog; it was about a year ago via Alec Couros’ open course EC&I 831. If we had only interacted via discussion board I wouldn’t have a place to come back and read more from you on many topics beyond EC&I 831.

    Absolutely, I know that for change11 and ds106 I prefer the distributed community because I can seek out and maintain my affinities. Especially with over 1000 participants, we will need to find groups of people that resonate & challenge us the most. Ideally, these connections can thicken beyond the constructs of the course.

    Of course, having said that. I still need to develop a course largely based within an LMS that facilitates faculty in online teaching and this largely conflicts with my own personal experience and excitement over the distributed community.

    How do I bridge the gap? I hope to find out.

    • Giulia, I don’t know the extent to which this is possible for you, but the point where you are is the point at which I become Subversive Educator.

      If the exact details of your task REQUIRE the LMS, then you’re stuck. But I’m curious as to the reasons why? Is it a formal project where they want to track faculty progress? If so, perhaps only training things could go in the LMS (we do that with Blackboard training modules, which are located in Blackboard). Is it because of branding? Perhaps you could create a new brand (that’s what POT is, really). Or, one could set up an outline with the menu in Sakai, but everything links out anyway, and you can give faculty a direct URL so they can go around (to me, roadblocks are permanent structures, therefore you can quietly GO AROUND).

      My mind is spinning with ways to get around your predicament in a way that makes things more open. You could even keep stalling on the formal thing and set up an informal thing “for the time being” that would become the big thing. Like a Facebook group or something, explaining all the while how the bigger project is so complex it will be awhile before it’s up, but in the meantime…

  • I do wonder if the potential staying power of a distributed community has to do with the students (or whoever) having to actively build that community. In a class, a forum is a given, preexisting community. The students go to the centralized space and interact. In a distributed community, however, they have to make the effort to set up the network and build the connections and continue the dialogue.

    Personally, I have to admit that I have never so actively read blogs as I have in the first two weeks of potcert11. There might be something to this 😉

    • Oh! Yes, yes, yes. It’s not just that they have their own space, it’s that participants must create their own space. We always value the things we have created more than the things created for us. Great insight. Might have to use it some day. Like tomorrow morning on the COOLcast. 😉