More than a Website: An Online Environment for Scholarly Conversation

This post is about another question that I’ve been considering for nearly six months. It’s actually come up in three different contexts, first the UMW Teaching Center, second the Economics Education Research group, and most recently the FSEM Workshop. I guess it’s time to make my thoughts public and see what we can do to make them operational.

One of the great pleasures I’ve enjoyed over the last three years I’ve been blogging is the opportunity to listen to and participate in high level intellectual discussions on teaching and learning by very bright members of the academy. I alluded to these in my previous post. A key element of the UMW Teaching Center should be to host similar discussions among UMW faculty. Discussions can, of course, be conducted in a face-to-face venue, but past experience at UMW has shown that these have only limited staying power. What we need is continuing discussion.

So here is my question: How might one design an online environment to support and facilitate a serious intellectual conversation among faculty across the internet, most of whom have little experience with instructional technology? The environment should have several characteristics:

• It should be easy to learn and use; participants should be able to tune in and tune out at their leisure, much like Twitter.

• It should record everything so that when participants tune in, they can quickly and easily get up to speed on the current conversation thread. This is also like Twitter.

• Ideally, it should push the content to participants, rather than making them go to the content. This suggests asking participants to use a feedreader. The problem with web-based feedreaders, such as googlereader or bloglines, is that they require participants to go to the website. As straightforward as this sounds to the Web2.0 savvy, faculty with little experience using social software will perceive this as a significant hurdle, and for many this will keep them from participating. Trust me on this. One way around this would be to recommend a desktop-based feedreader like SharpReader, which notifies users when they have new feeds. Would there be a way for email to notify participants who don’t use a desktop-feedreader? If so, we could avoid feedreaders entirely, which would make the system simpler, and therefore more likely to be used by the faculty at large.

• The environment should be a one stop shop, where all contributions to the conversation (e.g. posts and comments) should show up. While participants could subscribe to multiple blog feeds of those who are posting, for the reasons outlined above, this would be an additional and unnecessary hurdle.

• The environment should support different conversation threads, perhaps through categories or tags.

• It should enable participants to redirect or forward posts from other online conversations to show up in this environment. Ideally, it should allow content providers to write on their own blogs and have those posts show up in the online environment.

• It should enable participants to link to outside static resources, such as podcasts or videos of conference presentations. Ideally, these should probably be organized separately from the conversation threads.

At present, I’m thinking that this type of environment could be constructed using a WordPress Multi-User platform. We would need a small core of contributors who would commit to providing enough content to keep other faculty interested enough to follow along and hopefully more actively participate. Those contributors would have author privileges on the blog, and there would need to be an easy way for anyone who wanted to contribute to ask for those privileges. A couple of Jim Groom’s recent posts (here and here) suggest that these ideas may not be science fiction.

What do you think?

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3 Responses to More than a Website: An Online Environment for Scholarly Conversation

  1. Jim says:

    We can build this easily. I firmly believe the tools are in place and that the only real question is getting people to imagine them just like you have here. This is great stuff, Steve.

  2. Robert S Rycroft says:

    It seems like a splendid idea to me. One problem is whether there is a large enough group of faculty interested enough to keep the conversation going. It might make sense to partner with CGPS and/or another university or two so we can achieve a critical mass of engaged faculty. A second problem is whether the forum will enable multi-disciplinary discussion or else breakdown into a series of one discipline discussions. To avoid the later, participants should be urged to think about how their questions would impact other disciplines.

  3. Pingback: Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching » Blog Archive » Example of thoughtful thinking about advancing teaching and learning

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