Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

A comparison of some Web-based discussion tools

Geoffrey Rehn
Lecturer, Teaching and Learning Centre
Murdoch University
This session presents an overview of the exploration and use of several web-based discussion tools used at Murdoch University, including a discussion of the ease of implementation, some advantages and disadvantages of each, as well as feedback regarding the response of end-users to the various packages explored.

The software packages come from both the freeware and shareware domains, as well as proprietary packages. These include the Discus software, the NetForum package, Matt Cruse's comments.cgi script, as well as Lotus's Learning Space. It will be seen that the interfaces for these vary in their friendliness and ease of use, as does the support provided the "monitor" or "moderator" of a bulletin-board.

Reference will be made to the real-world application of these discussion and bulletin-board tools in teaching at Murdoch, with a summary of the features of each. Thus, the session will be of interest to those considering the implementation of a discussion board in their teaching and how such discussion can develop a sense of "on-line" community.


This short paper outlines some of the tools used at Murdoch University, in the development of collaborative Web-based discussion environments.

Matt Kruse's "Comments Page"

First experiments in web-based discussion / feedback / comment pages at Murdoch utilised a fairly simple CGI (Common Gateway Interface) script written in Perl and running on the unix web server cleo.murdoch.edu.au.

This script is relatively simple to set up, requiring its own directory within the required web space on the server. A user who is familiar with the use of telnet and some basic unix commands such as the chmod command can set this script up and get it working. The script itself (comments.cgi) can be customised to generate custom pages.

It is certainly not a fully blown bulletin or discussion-board, but simply allows the posting of comments or feedback. Thus, if it were to be used for say the discussion of a variety of topics, each topic would require its own directory and separate script.

An example of this shareware script's use at Murdoch can be found at:

http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/women_with_cancer/comments/comments.html

The establishment of this open forum was immensely satisfying, with a sense of community and sharing being built up.

An example of the script's use in an academic context, whereby students were encouraged to respond to provocative topics, is to be found at:

http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/A150/

This space is password protected; to enter this space, the username: A150 is required with password: inventOZ!

A variety of topics are listed; this was the first use of such discussion at Murdoch within a unit of study and was perhaps not as successful as might have been hoped, partly due to inadequate student orientation to the technology, perhaps insufficient student access to online computers and perhaps because participation was not compulsory! Future use of online discussion will be assessed as part of a student's workload.

For further information on Matt Kruse's script, see:

http://mkruse.netexpress.net/www/scripts/comments.html

http://mkruse.netexpress.net/www/scripts/comments/comments.txt

Discus Web-based discussion software

Discus is free and quite powerful web-based discussion / conferencing software and is available at: http://mulliken.chem.hope.edu/discus/home/

Discus can be installed on a unix box such as cleo.murdoch.edu.au or under Windows NT. Discus has an easy to use interface with quite powerful administrative functions. Installation on the host cleo.murdoch.edu.au was not as straight forward as the developers would have indicated but this was in the early days of the software's release.

To see an implementation of Discus at Murdoch, see:

http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/discus/

For an earlier implementation, see:

http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/~rehn/discus/

Discus is frame based and is basically menu driven, as opposed to clickable buttons. It is possible to restrict the posting of messages to users who have a password, as well as restrict the creation of new topics or "conversations". It is not possible to prevent the public from reading messages posted by others, unless external password protection is implemented.

One feature that could be said to be lacking is that the messages and postings are not listed hierarchically or by say subject line alone. A neat feature is the ability to post graphics.

From my experience, the major attraction of Discus is its ability to create private and public posting areas, whereby postings from the general public can be restricted. The public however can see read such areas.

You may wish to explore the use of Discus by looking at the 1998 Teaching & Learning Forum discussion space created on cleo:

http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/discus/board.html

You may wish to create new "topics" or "conversations" as this is a public area or respond to others messages.

Netforum, a Web-based discussion forum

Netforum is available at http://www.medsch.wisc.edu/netforum/

It is not free but costs around $US50; the software can be downloaded and evaluated for 30 days prior to purchase.

An implementation of Netforum is available at:

http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/help/netforum/netforum.html

It is worth noting that this page above is created manually; that is, Netforum does not create a listing of topics or discussion areas in one central place, as does Discus. When creating a new "forum", it is necessary that the URL of the new forum be noted for future use and reference.

Netforum uses a semi-hierarchical approach reminiscent of news groups on the Net. However, a disappointing feature is that it is not possible to post a reply to a reply. Tools such as Hyper News do allow this facility.

Netforum is administered from an interface different from the discussion board interface itself. To administer Netforum from within cleo, one accesses the following:

http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/cgi-bin/netforum/admin/admin.cgi

A test forum for the use of participants is available at:

http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/cgi-bin/netforum/tlf/a.cgi/1

You can post new topics and messages to this open forum.

At Murdoch, academics who have been experimenting with web-based discussion have, as a rule, opted for the use of Netforum as opposed to the Discus software. The prime reason for this choice has been the appeal of the interface for Netforum, with its use of buttons. Another plus has been the possible use of Netforum's inbuilt mailer so that students within computer laboratories on campus can follow "mailto:" links without having to reconfigure the mail settings in their web browsers, such as Netscape.

Reference

A guide to software that powers discussion forums on the Web:
http://www.freenet.msp.mn.us/~drwool/webconf.html

Author: Geoffrey Rehn, Teaching and Learning Centre, Murdoch University
Telephone: (08) 9360-6308 Fax: (08) 9310-4924 Email: rehn@cleo.murdoch.edu.au

Please cite as: Rehn, G. (1998). A comparison of some Web-based discussion tools. In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. [web only] http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/rehn.html


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