We need new online discussion tools

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We have to face it – online discussion tools are mediocre at best. They can be very useful, engaging and lead to collaborative and interactive learning, but there’s always a feeling of pushing against the grain — that discussions work despite the tool and not because of it.

This is a big problem that deserves serious study, research, development and experimentation, but this brief blog post is as good a place as any to get the ball rolling.


The basic threaded model that most asynchronous online environments use has not changed substantially since its inception in the 1990s (see this Wikipedia entry on online forums for a good overview).  Developed in 2000, phpBB is still the most ubiquitous open source online discussion system, and though the forums bundled into proprietary MLSs might look a bit prettier, there’s not much difference in the way they work. And the problem with the way they work is that they developed haphazardly on the…

Wrong model

Notably, the online discussion tool originated as a “bulletin board” – a place to post messages for others to read, rather than a space for interaction. This is one of the fundamental problems with the tool in its various manifestations, from phpBB to Moodle to Facebook to blogs (when used as discussions) – it’s designed for announcements and not conversations: the first posting, whether a question or statement, is prioritised as the important utterance, and everything that follows is subsidiary and not necessarily connected to anything other than that originating announcement or question.

This is a typical phpBB style online forum:

Forum structure example

It’s well-organised with categories, topics and sub-categories also known as “threads” – you can follow each independent thread to delve more deeply into the topic and find the precise topic you want. This structure is suited to Q&As – you find the right place to ask and answer a specific question, and forum moderators and experienced users spend a lot of time pointing people to the right thread and re-organising the structure to make it a manageable resource – to  impose a linear structure onto information that would otherwise be chaotic.

Example threads

The linear threaded structure depends on explanatory titles for every new thread in order to get a clear view of the whole discussion. In a text environment, we expect to see this as the discussion is seen as a resource that can be revisited, searched, re-organised and it also provides lasting evidence that it took place. All of this is incredibly useful in the right context. But, more often than not, titles are not specifically created or edited to provide the signposting necessary for understand the content or following the threads.

Similarly, the more recent use of tags to label the topics or subjects mentioned in posts provides a way for readers to go back through to find relevant information. But, again (and moreseo), this requires understanding, buy-in and diligence from the post-writer to take a step away from the flow of writing to reflect back in a detached and clinical way to index the contents for future readers before clicking “submit”.

Most of these benefits are about the after-use of the forum, in similar ways to a written report, which is not so much about what the writer learns while writing but what the reader learns from going back over it.

But how does this bulletin board / information resource style of tool encourage and enable the act of collaborative and interactive learning? Does it help or hinder?

Technical Limitations?

How do we map a haphazard multilinear pattern onto a flat environment?

How can we create an interface and underlying structure that allow true conversation to flourish — that don’t impose linearity, priority and hierarchy?

How do we create a clean, inviting online discussion that is open enough to allow for interactive connections across “threads” while still managing chaos and complexity?

Some people would argue that Twitter solves the problem, but it doesn’t — Twitter is a personalised world stage: a bulletin board that allows for haphazard contact but not deeply developing conversation between two or more people. The public nature of the tool encourages grandstanding over learning.

Twitter feed visualisation

I don’t have the anwer, but I hope there are great minds working on solutions.


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