Distributed Conversations

These posts last week by Lana and Eduardo got me thinking about the way different online spaces impact student interactions and I think those thoughts dovetail nicely into this week’s topics. [I was talkative this week.  I start with some theory, but I get practical at the end here.  Skip the first part if you want, I won’t be upset ;)]

See, in my experience, there are several different ways that students can interact in classes asynchronously: blogs (and tumble blogs),  forums, twitter, Facebook (and the like).  I’m only going to focus on blogs and forums here because they are the one’s I use the most (Twitter some and tumble blogs and Facebook not at all–no judgment there, just experience).

Blogs and forums differ in the kinds of space they create for conversations.  Forums are centralized locations where all participants are (generally) given equal weight.  Conversations take place in a linear order in one easy to absorb space.  In contrast, blogs are spaces owned by a singular individual or select group of individuals.  Conversations there are either imbalanced (outsiders’ comments be parasitic on the main post) or severely distributed (individual conversation points taking place in each individual’s personal blog space).

The benefits of forums are clear: (1) the student needs to only visit one online space to take part in the conversation, (2) all participants have equal visibility, and (3) students are generally familiar with the threading forum format (through Facebook).  All this makes conversations in forum spaces generally painless.  The same kind of format in a blog space (i.e using a centralized blog with all posts being hosted at that blog and students commenting on those posts; see here for an example) does not work as well.  I’ve run that linked course (Medical Ethics) twice in an online space.  The first time in a Blackboard forum space (which is a poor example of forums, but nonetheless . . .) and the second time (the link above) in a WordPress install.  The forum was better.  Now, there are many reasons for this (and the next time I run it I’ll be rebuilding the course to address these problems), but one of them appears to be that comments on a post tend to promote less insightful and engaging comments or, at least, less prolonged examination of a topic.

Why then do I still prefer blogs?

I like blogs precisely for the distributed conversations.  They provide two ways to respond to another student: (1) the comments of a post, for when the student only has a little to say or (2) the responding student’s own post, when the student wants to expand at great (or only moderate) length on the same topic.  The idea of personal spaces is particularly useful in a class context (although it has to be taught, it is not something that simply is).  In a student’s personal online space, they are able to tailor the look and feel of their space and make it more their own–signify that this is their space.  This, in turn, can be used to reinforce the idea of respect for others in conversations by highlighting visually the personal nature of the space.  Additionally, ownership tends to produce higher quality posts and better engagement because the student views the work as more representing them (again, this has to be taught/reinforced).

However, when these conversations are distributed across . . . oh . . . 90 or so spaces, you run into the problem of these conversations becoming too distributed.  We want (as was brought up in the Couros video) “individuals alone, connected”, a new way of forming communities, not simply “individuals alone.”  How do we deal with this?  One way is (surprise, surprise!) feeds.

The most daunting part of these distributed conversations is that they take place everywhere.  There is so much information.  Without it staying in one centralized place it is difficult to track.  Feedreaders help with this by allowing you to control the information coming to you in one place.  [Some examples: Google Reader, Netvibes, Bloglines, Feedreader.] You don’t waste time cycling through bookmarks–you know when new information arises and you can use your search time to find new conversations and info.

But you risk losing the feel of personal space, which I, at least, value so much about the blog medium.  So, here’s how you get around that.  Follow this link for instructions on how to use Google Reader (my personal choice, mostly from pure momentum) to create a Google Reader Bookmarklet.  Using this, you can scroll through all of your new reader entries or just ones from a single category/folder at the actual blog they come from.  And to help with this, you can have a nice bundle of POTcert ’11 blogs right here from my personal organization.  I’m updating this as blogs pop up, so it might be incomplete (it only has 48, so it must be!).  If you use Google Reader, just click “Subscribe” at the top of the page through that last link.  If you don’t, you should be able to add it to other feedreaders using the OPML file link to the right.  I’ll leave that for you to figure out.  After all, education is something we figure out for ourselves 😉

Comments 6

  1. avatar Bonnie K wrote:

    Thanks Brandon,
    I just added your POTcert ’11 bundle to my Google Reader. I have had the Reader for a long time but it’s been gathering dust.

    For me, this course will be good to reconnect with tools I’ve used and put on the shelf. The house cleaning and rethinking about them will be a great learning experience.


    Posted 11 Sep 2011 at 6:53 pm
  2. avatar Brandon wrote:

    @Bonnie: Glad to help!

    For me, I think this course will push me to use tech I wouldn’t have considered before. I’m looking forward to the possibilities.

    Posted 11 Sep 2011 at 7:47 pm
  3. avatar Lisa M Lane wrote:

    I’m so glad you’re putting together the bundle – it was my backup idea if the aggregated blog went down, because I did want a some sort of central space where people could skim, even if everything linked back to everyone’s own space.

    It’s a constant conversation about which types of technologies work best for what you’re trying to do. I’ve also used both forums in my own classes and blogs as a student. Perhaps a forum is better when one wants greater focus on a particular topic or task, but blogs when one wants greater exploration and ownership.

    Posted 12 Sep 2011 at 12:45 am
  4. avatar Brandon wrote:

    @Lisa: I think your right that it really does depend on what you’re trying to do. I like blogs because of the exploration and ownership, but I do think that forums generally allow a more sustained discussion for a larger number of students. There’s definitely a tendency in blogs for discussions to become very atomistic. And then there’s the matter of how to present comments! Threaded or unthreaded? How does that impact discussion?

    Posted 12 Sep 2011 at 8:53 am
  5. avatar Lisa M Lane wrote:

    Thinking more on this, I just posted on my blog, but not with the tag — it follows this conversation, tho: http://lisahistory.net/wordpress/2011/09/a-funny-thing-happened-on-the-way-to-the/ .

    Posted 13 Sep 2011 at 2:19 am
  6. avatar Kim Mc wrote:

    Hi Brandon, I think I am following what you mean by ‘ distributed conversations’, I made mention on my latest blogpost http://kimsthinking.blogspot.com/2011/09/engaging-readers-means-you-have-to-give.html
    Kim Mc

    Posted 13 Sep 2011 at 8:11 am

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