Forums Diary, Part 1

The UHS forums (bulletin boards) have been the most used online tool besides email in the short history of our intranet. Within months of their introduction, nearly all students had contributed to thousands of messages in hundreds of topics, and the forums were the talk of the school. In December 2003, I started keeping notes on the history of their introduction, in the hope of learning lessons about the forums’ successes and shortcomings. Here is part 1 of that story, with more to come later.

December 8, 2003

Let?s try to remember how the UHS Forums got started. I suppose that the service was part of a larger idea hatched a month before I started at UHS. While at Gateway High School, I had created an internal web site that I wished would service the internal needs of the school community in a way that a public web site designed for external consumption could not. Student.gwhs.org did not contain any significant community building tools, although it did boast a course registration tool at one point. When I interviewed for the UHS tech director position, I articulated that one goal I had was to build an internal web site that would help build the school community. At the time, my mind was mostly on the classroom community, although I recognized that such a site could potentially reach beyond the classroom to other school issues.

After I accepted the job but before I officially started, I met with the department heads just before the end of school in order to choose between two community web site models that I had in mind. The first was the commercial model popularized by Yahoo! Groups, Community Zero, and Topica. The second was to build it ourselves, piece by piece. The department heads who had any opinion at all opted for the latter, because they were not fond of advertisements and a preset site architecture. In the end, this proved to be an excellent choice, as we were able to tie our internal web site to our computer login system, making it possible for a wide range of scripts to identify the user from his/her single (Active Directory) login.

Email and course web sites came first, but by the beginning of the second semester of my first year at the school, I was searching for good bulletin-board tools, so that classes could have asynchronous discussions. An asynchronous discussion tool seemed the best way to encourage the maximum amount of student participation and reflection, because it afforded students the opportunity to read everyone else?s responses on their own time and to think as long as they wanted before writing. The CGI Resource index had YaBB as one of the most highly rated bulletin boards in the PERL scripts section. If I had been a master of PHP, I would have gone with TikiWiki instead, as it provided more services than YaBB. However, I successfully modified the YaBB scripts to disable YaBB?s built-in registration and substitute the UHS username, so that students would be automatically identified as themselves on the boards and not have to remember a second username and password.

At first, the Forums were used only by classes, and only a few at that. At the end of the spring semester of ?03, Ernesto made a presentation at a faculty meeting promoting the positive effects of the forum on his classes. I had created a Spanish-language version of the forums, in which the entire interface was in Spanish. Even as late as the beginning of Fall ?03, I was wondering aloud to people why there weren?t more people using the Forums, because I thought they were such a great tool. Clubs didn?t fare much better, as their forums were poorly commented. Partway through the fall, things started to pick up slightly, as Chesley started a Film class forum and Anisha put one together for her Youth Rights class. Rob and Rebecca practiced a highly structured version of group discussion, in which the topics were assigned, and Rebecca?s even worked on their posts during class! Joe made an ASM presentation, in which he put the Forums up on the big screen and showed everyone how to make a post. However, things still didn?t pick up until November or so. At this point, the Film forum had really taken off ? theirs was probably the first forum to go ?freestyle,? with students posting quite a few messages in long, rambling conversations about silly topics such as sticky movie theater floors. Even last year, students had talked about wanting to raise their post totals, in a small competition with each other but also to shed the ?newbie? title that they disliked so much. Christien made an ASM announcement encouraging everyone to go to the forums. I think that a critical mass was beginning to build up, and we began some see some forum junkies come out of the woodwork, students who would post in forums just because they liked them.

Things exploded when I decided to create an Open Forum. This freed students from the topical constraints of the existing Forums, and kids started posting about a whole bunch of topics. The Wall, the mayoral election, gender bias at UHS, free speech, dress code ? this forum gave students the chance to determine the course of the conversation on their own.

Success factors:
? Personalized interface (students choose icons and add instant messenger addresses, choose signatures, etc. Just about everyone is doing it before they even make their first posts.)
? Kids can edit their own posts, so as to improve them before leaving them to be up there permanently.
? Kids are held accountable by their peers. For the most part, the forums are self-moderated.
? Adults are the official moderators, so that the students know they are being watched, if from a distance. I have only had to edit one post so for, today, for a student who called ?some teachers? ?biatches.?
? Kids love to talk! It?s a group thing.
? Open Source software ? modifiable
? Built by a community of people who understand these kinds of interfaces. One of a genre of online community tools.
? Succeeded where the listserv failed ? would be interesting to consider why.
? Versatile tool ? the kids can even determine how the tool is used. Last year, one class conducted test review on it, with kids posting review questions and requests for help.
? The students are spread out around campus and have few discussion venues that can accommodate a lot of people. They are also very short on time, very wired, and don?t mind participating in school activities while outside of school, all making it possible for them to enjoy participating in the forums so much.
? Time/date stamp proves useful for classes.
? Sarah and Christien found it exciting and stumped for it in their own ways.
? Forums are organized around topics, unlike blogs, which are organized around individuals.

Diana has expressed a lot of hesitation about the Forums, but I think she is feeling better about them now. She was nervous of the consequences of kids posting in an unmoderated setting, until Sarah told her that adults were, in fact, reading and moderating when necessary. Up to this point, the adults have steered clear of the conversations, except for Chesley, but that?s his style in the classroom, too. I?m not even convinced that most of the moderators are actually doing their jobs. Diana a.sl thought the Forums would spell the end of UNI Times, but I think I convinced her that the two could not only coexist peacefully together but even enhance each other. If the kids don?t realize this themselves, however, we may need to encourage them to find the differences between the two vehicles and use each appropriately.

Of all of the new web services I have introduced, the Forums have been by far the most successful. Course web pages have not grown nearly as quickly ? Rob even replaced his class web pages and even his class web project with an extensive reliance on structured discussions in his forum. Listservs became limited almost exclusively to administrative uses.

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