Click-Scheduled Forum Posts

Course writing always seems to take me forever for a wide variety of reasons.

The first is the learning. You’re presumably familiar with the old saw about the teacher being one page ahead..? That’s the teacher as expert learner modeling the learning process, the teacher as “teaching on” something they’ve just learned. The teacher-as-learner experiencing just where the stumbling blocks are, or noticing afresh the really big idea… That’s me, learning on the one hand, and on the other trying to justify with footnotes and references the things I’ve learned by experience and that just feel right!

The second thing is the process of course production, the tooling used to support it, and the things we could try out. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about virtual machines and containers recently, because I think they could be good for the OU and good for the School of Data. It doesn’t surprise me that Coursera courses are using virtual machines, and that Futurelearn isn’t. I think there’s interesting stuff – and not a few business opportunities – in looking at ways of supporting the organisational and end-user creation of VMs, particularly in education where you’re regularly presented with having to find tech solutions – and support – for cohorts of anything between 15 and 1,500 (or with the MOOCs, 15,000). I’ve also spent a lot of time pondering IPython Notebooks – and need to spend more time doing so: literate programming, conversations with data, end user application development, task based computing, and a comparison with the attractiveness of spreadsheets are all in the mix.

The third thing is time spent keeping a learning diary of what’s been going on in the course production process. I haven’t done this this time and I regret it (“no time to blog” because of “deadlines”; course goes to students in 15J, October 2015, (sic, i.e. next year), so the pressure is on to make the deadline (I won’t) for a full first draft handover by tomorrow). So f*****g that for a game of soldiers, I am taking an hour out and writing up a thought…

In particular, this one…

I’m struggling (again) with ways of trying to encourage sharing and discussion amongst the students. A default way of doing this is to have a call out (a “call to action”) from online teaching materials into a forum or forum thread. You know the sort of thing: read this, play with that, share your findings in the forum. Only hopefully a bit more engaging than that.

The problem is, if you are going to link out to a specific thread from course materials, you need to seed the forums. Which means if you have a lot of callouts, the forums can start to get cluttered with stub posts, and overload a nascent forum with irrelevant (at the then time) content.

doodling threads

One way around this is to schedule posts to appear in the forums for around the time you expect students to be reaching out to them. This can make hard linking difficult, unless you can publish a post, get the link, unpublish it and schedule it, and then hope when it does get re-released that the link is the same. (If the URL is minted against a post ID, this should work?) A downside of this approach that if a student clicks on a forum call out link and the post hasn’t yet been republished according to its scheduled date, the link will be broken.

Reflecting on the way wikis work, where you can create a link to a wiki page that doesn’t exist yet, and that page is created when it’s clicked for the first time, I started to wonder about a similar mechanism for links to forum based social activities. So for example, I create a forum post with a scheduled date that publishes the post on a particular date if it hasn’t already been published yet and check the clickpub box. I’m presented with a URL for the post that is guaranteed to be the URL it’s given when it the post does get published.

In my course materials, I paste the link.

If no-one ever clicks the link to that forum post in the course materials, the post is published in the forum on the scheduled date. The post should contain a description of the activity and a reference back to the activity in the course materials, as well as act as a stub for a discussion around the activity or sharing of social objects associated with the activity. In this mode, the post acts as call-to-action from the forum to the course materials, supporting the pacing of the course.

Some students, however, like to get ahead. So if they click on the link before the schedule date they need to see the post somehow.

The first way to achieve this is to use the link in the course materials a bit like a new wiki page link: if a student clicks on a link to a post before the post is scheduled to be published, the click sends a hurry-up, clickpub message that fires the publication of the post. This actually signals two things: one to the course team that someone is that far ahead in working through the course materials, the other to the rest of the cohort that somebody is that far ahead in working through the materials.

(Note that we need to defend against link checkers (human or machine) that might be operating in the VLE accidentally triggering a clickpub event!)

Problems may arise in the case of the student who tries to do the whole 30 week course in the first 10 days after it is opened up. (Unless such students are anti-social and don’t post to such forums, in part because they know it’s unlikely that anyone else will be as far on and keen to discuss the topic. That said, even posting with no hope of reply is often beneficial in the way it forces a little bit of reflective thinking at least.)

To try to mitigate against early publication of a post, we could try a more refined strategy in which a social activity thread is only viewable to students who click on the link to it before the scheduled release date, but is then released openly to the forum at its scheduled time.

We could balance this further with the proviso that if more than x% of the cohort have accessed the thread, it’s scheduled release date is brought forward to that time. In this way, we can start to use the social activity posts as one way of trying to keep the cohort together, for example in cases where the majority of the cohort is working through the course faster than expected.

[Unfiled patents: 3,487; 3,488; 3,489 …;-) – Unless of course these sorts of mechanism already exist? If so, please let me know where via the comments below:-)]