This week we move into the second phase of the UdG Agora project. After two face to face one week long “studio” sessions of 150 University of Guadalajara faculty, we move into an 8 week online phase where they are asked to develop and implement 3-4 challenges with their courses, creating activities that are student centered and leverage mobile technologies.
Having some experience using it for Connected Courses (looks like that redirects now) and Mozilla Webmaker I made a case for using discourse the open-source civilized discussion platform. The other plug for it was that it could be installed for us by our friends at Reclaim Hosting.
Before we left Guadalajara I asked our team and especially those fluent in Spanish, to help suggest a name that would make for a good URL. Something other than “forum” (yawn). Something short so the URL is not awkward.
And so I just loved the suggestion from our UdG colleague /facilitator Kike of “dilo” which means “Say It” in spanish. in a few iterations, I had a nice logo that repeated the style and color of the main site title with the dilo overlay in a comic bubble:
Discourse is often used for diverse open communities (meaning people sign up themselves) and often have a lot of areas listed in the front page, usually driven by the current activity (something discourse does well)– like the Discourse Sandbox or it’s support community.
I’m not a big fan of threaded discussion forums, straight out of the internet 1980s. They always feel unwieldy and demand a lot of reading and opening threads, and the structure is really driven by the tree shape. Discourse has a lot of unique features, it’s designed for mobile (I think it’s all driven via json), editing is simple but handles media as slick as anything, there are unique community and trust building affordances.
That recommendation was sort of a gut hunch.
Then I saw the admin interface. Yikes. Lots of settings. Lots.
A Layered Community Size Approach
For Dilo, I set things up to that it would be open to the world to read, but only participants in the project would be able to create accounts (done via invitation). We also had a design system for “levels” of ways participants would connect:
- The “300” or the entire community Like the plaza of the project metaphor of an agora, this can be crowded, noisy, and where everyone can talk to everyone, but you cannot really do this well in a group of 300. We have some of that now in the way we use our #udgAgora twitter hashtag
- The “42” or class sized groups To have a smaller community, we would put the participants into groups of about 42 each assigned one of us as a facilitator/coach. This is a smaller space to ask and answer questions, and ideally would develop some identity or personality.
- The “3” or Triads On the last day of the face to face session we asked participants to work in groups of 3 (they sometimes heard this as 4 or 5) in a Liberating Structures activity called Troika Consulting. In our face to face session this was a chance to try out one of their new ideas and get feedback from two colleagues. We also then asked them to submit their triad names and emails to a google form; we suggested they become a small scale support group– and left it to them how to organize and meet; this could be email, facebook, whats-app, text messaging, actually meeting physically.
I really like this multi-layered approach and that the triad part is put onto the participants as a thing to figure out the best way to communicate, rather than forcing a means upon them.
The Public Front
My goal with the dilo site was to make it less noisy on the front. After a lot of fiddling and a little cussing, I got this sorted out (sort of). Discourse lets you organize discussion areas as categories. The first part is two open areas; anyone can read the discussions here whether they have accounts or not:
Noticias are our announcements; this is where we communicate what is going on, and I added a subcategory for Using Dilo where we provide tips, suggestions, etc. Our registered participants can reply to something posted in Noticas (e.g. asking a question about a scheduled event, or asking how to modify their profile), but that cannot add new topics to the area; thats for staff to do.
The Open Agora again is a place to reply to other people’s conversations, but everyone with an account can also start new topics (which are the same things as “threads” in other software).
We set up 3 subcategories, one for sharing and describing resources (because sharing should be more than link shoving), and one for discipline focused discussions so we can connect people who teach the same subject. The third one is the one discourse creates for collecting feedback.
You might notice I am using photos of our participants from the July sessions as category icons. Discourse has this display option to show summaries of subcategories at the top, then all of the activity (usually what discourse sites do) below:
You might notice how this display indicates by icon the participants, as well as indicators of the activity– reply and view count, and how long since the thread was last active.
The Smaller Groups
Discourse has a feature to build groups of users, and this is used (at least the way I did it) to control permissions for the “42” size group areas. There is a tad bit of internal confusion because on the site, each of these discussion areas is a “category” in discourse terms, but I call it something like “Alan’s Group and “Ken’s Group” to indicate what it means to participants.
For each discourse group, I use the permissions to control it’s access:
- All Admins can see, reply, create topics
- All Moderators can see, reply, create topics
- For participants, only member’s of Alan’s (discourse) group can see, reply, create topics
This means that this area is not publicly viewable. Also, it can only be seen by logged in users assigned to my group. A logged in user in my group will see this when they enter dilo:
Someone logging in who is part of Nancy’s Group will see that one in place of mine.
I think this works well. Time and futzing will tell.
Importing And Setting Up User Accounts
This is the “ugh” part our team has been dealing with. The triad groups all submitted their names and emails via a google form. Many emails just had typos, the ones with Spanish accents failed on import, some just did not fill out the form. So there was ALOT of spreadsheet wrestling to work with this information, and once assigned to facilitators, we had to reach out to participants to find which emails bounced. We could check their name (often spelled differently because many Mexican people have like 4 surnames) against the registration spreadsheet we got from UdG.
The whole thing here was to get it in a form where I could use the bulk invite from a CSV file for all participants. All we needed was a CSV that looked like:
The second is just the name of the group that would be assigned to. What is 64? Well I found out I could specify a discourse content id for a URL a new user would see on first login, rather than the home page. I assembled a welcome topic based on the info discourse sends new users, and some more information– this is where they will go http://dilo.theagoraonline.net/t/welcome-your-first-steps-in-dilo/64.
I ran a bulk invite for 309 users, and got 8 error messages (extra spaces and Spanish accents in the email address). Not bad. And we saw about 45 sign up in the first 2 hours.
but then we started finding more errors in the email addresses, and as it turns out, I still do not know why, a lot of people are telling us they have not gotten the invite email. We are trying to ask them to check spam folders, and to search on the email address the message should come from.
Right now we have 142 people who have joined the community, but that’s just a shade over a third. It’s quite a challenge to figure out why so many are not finding (or maybe are not clicking a link) in their email
It’s giving me a bit of an ulcer.
I know my colleagues are worried but they also know what a first week in an online space can take to get rolling. I hope we do not have to reach for a Plan B, because there is much that makes discourse a more lively experience than most other discussion board systems.
But What About the Mambo?
One of the first topics I started in The Open Agora area was really meant just to have something there besides blank white space. So I wrote But Why Did We Choose “dilo”? to explain again the reason for the naming.
The first reply, by Moises, informed me:
And this word was used by Perez Prado in the Mambos. The shout to his orchestra was: “DILO”
Need some mambo? Perez is here with “Norma De Guadalajare”
I love that; a Latin American music leader would shout “dilo” to his orchestra. I just decided today to look that up, and as it turns out, one of his albums is called Dilo (Ugh!)
(here is where I got distracted, created an account on discogs, and ordered a copy of this disc plus two more pieces of vinyl, setting me back $13 with shipping in there).
But I am looking at that album cover, and thinking… hmmm, this will make a good UdG Daily Try activity to make a meme out of it. And thus, I am Photoshopping the album cover…
But the stream of connections does not stop there.
Among the box of vinyl I brought back form Florida when we cleaned my Mom’s house, was some old vinyl that was in the basement of the house we grew up in. Among them were maybe 10 of Latin American music, a lot of Herb Alpert. So I went back into the back room– lo and behold (how often do we get to say “Lo and Behold” anymore!) — two of them are Perez Prado discs!
I shall be digitizing me some mambo really soon.
Dilo (Ugh?) or (Ugh!) ot (!!!)
I’m still working to figure out why people cannot find the invitation emails to our discourse site. Everything is showing the messages going out. I’ve got three or four end around ideas; I hope we do not have to bail on this, because I think ti will be way more vibrant than your grandmother’s discussion board.
DILO! DILO! DILO! DILO! DILO! DILO! DILO! DILO! DILO!
Top / Featured Image Credit: My own remix of Perez Prado’s album cover for “Dilo (Ugh)” – I categorize this as parody. Who knows what the lawyers think?