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andrew feenberg
san diego state univ.

Online education has become a standard feature of our universities in the past few years but the software we use is not well adapted to the needs of students and teachers. This is a report on a project to create new software for online discussion forums.


Online education, newsgroup software, bulletin board software, World Wide Web, Online community


The hot debate of a few years ago over the automation of higher education has died down. College administrators have come to terms with fact that teachers and students are not enthusiastic about substituting mechanical simulacra for more traditional personal relationships. As unrealistic dreams for the Internet fade, colleges find themselves pouring money and technical support into online classes. After initial resistance, many teachers are doing their best with low tech solutions, delivering courses by email or discussion forums. Online education has not transformed the university, but has become a standard educational experience based on human interaction, albeit in a strange new medium.

The question is not whether universities are technologically obsolete in the Age of the Internet. Instead, we need to improve online learning in a traditional academic setting. Much of the current software, unfortunately, has been supplied by the very companies that inspired the dream of teacherless classrooms. Although these products have many excellent features, they are not designed for the discussion-based pedagogy that thrives online.

Software for online education will surely evolve. The first programs in any new field are usually ill adapted to the needs of the very users they were intended to serve. Gradually, clumsy interfaces give way to better designs that make it easy to perform complex tasks. Helpful innovations spread quickly to competing programs. Features such as spell checkers or the style sheets and templates of word processors become standards. Professor Andrew Feenberg of San Diego State University has received a three year grant to develop new software for online discussion forums. The grant is supported by the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, an agency of the US Dept. of Education. The goal of the TextWeaver project is to establish new standards for online discussion forums, adapting the software to the needs of teachers and students meeting on the Internet.


Today’s discussion forums resemble the newsgroup software devised in the early days of the Internet. Newer programs run nicely in Internet browsers, a significant advance, but they lack specific features responding to the needs of teachers and students. These include easy ways to keyword material for later review, to reply to multiple messages, and to work offline. Teachers also need a better way of filing the most important messages they write for reuse in later offerings of their courses. TextWeaver will make all this far more convenient. And as we have learned, convenience is the ultimate feature in consumer applications of the computer.

TextWeaver looks a bit like email clients such as Eudora or Outlook, but adapted to the discussion forum environment. These email programs have accustomed us to filters, address books, mailboxes, and quoted messages in the reply window, all features it would be hard to live without. But there is no comparably efficient interface for discussion forums. TextWeaver will make working with the messages and threads of a discussion forum as natural as managing email.

Discussion forums usually thread messages by subject or author, but messages in an online forum may refer to multiple topics and authors, associating a variety of ideas and sources. Threads and search programs are sometimes useful for finding items for review, but quite often fail us because authors are not consistent in their use of the reply function and choice of keywords. The helpful automatic quotation of messages in the reply composition window we have grown accustomed to in email clients becomes impractical when participants are replying to several messages at once. Clearly, we need new tools to deal with online discussion.
TextWeaver solves these problems by means of reader implemented keywording. Instead of a mailbox window as in Eudora or Outlook, TextWeaver posts a keyword window alongside the user’s browser. This window contains a list prepared by the teacher and sent to all students in the class. Students can make their own additions as the course progresses. As the user reads, he or she drags and drops these keywords onto the text, marking it with a hypertext link for later review. When the time comes to study for the test, to prepare a summary of the discussion, or to grade students’ contributions to the forum, the material is all there, classified neatly and easy to access in a user created keyword thread.
Replying to multiple messages is also difficult at present. Discussion forum software assumes that each reply addresses a single message, but that is often not the case. TextWeaver allows the user to review and quote from several messages by enabling drag and drop of selected passages from incoming messages to the composition window. In this way, users can build a context for their own comments on current discussions.

Teachers complain that managing online discussion is time-consuming. TextWeaver addresses this problem with easy-to-use filing. A tab on the keyword window opens a simplified version of Explorer to which messages can be saved at the time of composition. Teachers can store useful messages such as opening comments and topic raisers in this convenient location. When the course is offered again, the texts can be pulled up easily and sent to the discussion forum.
Most teachers and students still use dial up connections when off campus, and many have Internet access only through a personal telephone line. When composing and sending messages to the forum, they must block access to friends, family and business associates for long periods. If their connection is lost, their work is lost too. Moreover, users outside of the United States face additional problems and costs as phone service is often less reliable than in the U.S. and offshore Telecoms charge users by the minute.

Clearly, working offline is the answer, but it's not easy with typical discussion forum software. TextWeaver offers a seamless solution in which users need not even be aware of whether they are online or offline. The software can be set to automatically move them efficiently between working on their home computer and connecting to the university server.

TextWeaver's distribution strategy encourages widespread adoption and adaptation. The program will work as an add-on to existing online educational software, so colleges will not have to abandon familiar server based programs such as Blackboard and WebCT. Under development at San Diego State University, the basic version will be a free open source product running under several operating systems and available sometime in 2002. Its designers and developers hope to see the program improved and customized as it circulates in the educational and commercial community. With time, TextWeaver will set new standards of organization and convenience for all online discussion forums. To learn more, check the web site at www.textweaver.org

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