I quietly installed new forum software at the end of our academic first quarter on Friday. The main motivation was to upgrade to a different forum package that would use a more robust database backend. Our old forum, YaBB, used a flat file database, which became corrupted when a server log file filled up. The new forum, phpBB, uses mySQL, which should be more robust. Amusingly, those students who were attempting to “break the post limit” claimed victory with the recent forum crash.
I made my usual modifications to the new phpBB forum, such as hijacking the login/registration scheme to automatically tie in to the auth_user environment variable, and modifying the default skin to use UHS colors and logos. I took the additional steps of disabling post counts and re-ordering the forums to place the more serious ones at the top. It will be interesting to see how much of an effect (if any) structural changes have on the quality of discourse in the forums.
The largest effect by far has been starting over again. While I provided links back to the old forum (which is still running in read-only mode), most students have focused on the new posts (or lack of them). In comments to me, some have characterized this as the loss of all of the old conversations, whereas others have seized the opportunity to set new precedents for thoughtful discussion in the new forums. As has been the case over the past three years, time will tell whether thoughtful discussion will maintain a critical mass in the new forums.
Another surprising result has been the poster-lurker ratio. While only a few dozen students are active posters, fully 180 students visited the forums over the weekend. I tracked this by observing the number of new forum accounts created as students logged in for the first time. Apparently, three to four times as many students are reading the forums as are posting.
Thanks go to Tobias for responding to the call to create the new forums logo. I try to operate these forums with a light touch, and student leadership is the best way to determine their character.