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Cloudworks as a Social Networking System?

Can Cloudworks succeed where Moodle Forums fail in the creation of lively academic discourse?

Cloud created by:

Mark Pearson
4 November 2009

Using Cloudworks to establish a community of academic discourse


We've been engaging in a process of reflection about directions in the curriculum at Earlham College. But the way in which this has happened mirrors the fragmented nature of discourse on campus. So that although we are a small Liberal Arts College and everyone knows just about everyone else nevertheless there's no universal forum where one can get an overview of the sum total of what's been discussed. There is a 'curriculum visioning' committee (CVC) which oversees gathering of views, opinions, facts, etc and which initiates conversations about these curricular issues. Such conversations happen in disparate venues:
  1. Individual face to face. These are likely to be superficial in nature.
  2. Group conversations. These are meetings sponsored by CVC to draw out points of view expressed verbally by faculty.
  3. On-line discussion fora in a Moodle course
  4. Exchanges of messages on the 'Faculty' email list.
The first two are not of interest right now; rather, what intrigues me is why the computer mediated discussions are just not taking off. Despite some of the CVC making reference to the Moodle discussion fora, and despite my manually enroling all the teaching faculty into the Curriculum Visioning course to make it easy to find and participate the take up has been feeble. Indeed, more heat was generated by a comment from the President on the faculty email list which garnered several hot responses. However, this conversation about academic rigour is now effectively lost to the community since the email postings can only be retrieved by time consuming exploration and excavation of the mailing list archives. So, why is it so difficult to get faculty engaged in a debate online (to date only 12 postings total)? I don't think it's the way that the Moodle course has been set up. On the contrary, there's a single forum which is well labeled, top level postings have been seeded with leading questions and any faculty member of the course can create a new topic (but only two have). I'm thinking that perhaps it has to do with the nature of Moodle and the discussion forum, and faculty perceptions of these. Which is why software like Cloudworks could be more effective in establishing communities of academic discourse in general. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Why Moodle (or other LMS system) doesn't work well

This has to do with both Faculty perceptions of Moodle and the way in which it works. At Earlham we use our Moodle system for a variety of functions. Student clubs, campus committees, divisional groups, workshops, library workers, etc, all have 'courses' on the single institutional Moodle. But all these entities have an implicit and obvious focus. So, why does Moodle not work very well in empowering this kind of campus wide conversation?
  • Generally faculty view a Moodle 'course' as being a place where Teachers teach Students. This is a place where there are definite 'roles' (both explicit and implicit) which seem to engender an inner conflict with the idea of peer communication
  • The Moodle 'course' is a vertical silo. You have to log in to Moodle and then 'enrol' into the course. There's no openness. While this is necessary for class work it's a brake against open discourse.
  • The "effort for entry"
    Here's what you have to do in order to post in a course Forum :
    1. Given that you have just logged in and are at your MyMoodle page you need to find the right course (think) and open it.
    2. Find the discussion forum in the Outline:
      • Read through preamble (or skip)
      • Distinguish forum link from others on the basis of it's icon
      • Confirm by reading the title which not only describes the forum but tells you what to do : "CLICK HERE to View the Curricular Visioning Forum and add your comments."
    3. What was it I wanted to write?
    4. Decide whether the topic you want to write about is already there.
      1. If yes:
        • Open discussion topic
        • read through all postings
        • Reply
      2. If no :
        • Click [Add new discussion topic]

    into the Moodle course and then into the discussion forum is not repaid by the richness of the resulting environment.
  • At the end of the day, you really have to be familiar with the modus operandi of online discussion forums to feel comfortable in the environment and empowered to make postings and comments.

Cloudworks as a vehicle for academic discourse

So how might Cloudworks work better in this and other similar situations, if it were available as Open Source (please?) ?
  1. It's not Moodle or other LMS / VLE / Course Management system. That is, it's not focused around a 'management' or 'course' paradigm.
  2. It's relatively easy to get a handle on what a 'cloud' is meant to be about.
  3. The open nature makes it easy to cross reference and cross fertilise. It does not have the feel of a silo. All users are peers; there are no 'roles' as such.
  4. Is it another discussion forum? Kind of yes, but then again no.
    • The richness of the environment encourages both thoughtful responses and constructive interactions. Just the line "Improve this cloud:" where you can add more content to the original thesis, add a link, tags or reference makes you want to add quality to the cloud.
    • Moreover, the whole form, context and presentation of the conversation as a 'cloud' makes one desire only to add substantive content.
    • And the rich surrounding environment empowers and encourages thoughtful constructive interaction

So, in the context of the presenting problem, a Cloudworks , dare I say it, social networking system, could operate as follows:
  • The site would have to be readily accessible from all the College's portals (web site, theheart, Moodle, etc)
  • Authentication and automatic account creation via LDAP.
  • Earlham community member gets URL to Curricular Discussion Cloud or searches or logs in and is presented with a list containing said cloud.
  • Having logged in she/he can then add point of view to the Cloud. Students are treated as peers in this process. Links and references make it more useful.
  • Other Clouds are created addressing different aspects and these are all collected into a Cloudscape.
  • a buzz is created around the whole process and people think of it as cool

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Gráinne Conole
9:01am 5 November 2009

Hi thanks for starting this off Mark - excellent summary of the various aspects of this. Part of the aspiration behind the development of cloudworks was to provide a veihicle for academic discourse and in particular a means of working across boundaries, which we felt simply wasn't there before. Would be nice to open this debate up and get the views of others. Will tweet the link!

Juliette Culver
5:10pm 5 November 2009

Thanks Mark - lots of really interesting ideas.

We're definitely planning to make the code open source and in fact, was just yesterday, discussing drawing up a plan for what we would need to do in order to make it open source (for example we need to sort out which licence it would be under, and we don't have any user-friendly install scripts or documentation at the moment!) Once we've done that I might have a bit more of an idea of the possible timescale.

I'll keep you in the loop as to what is happening on that front.



Mark Pearson
6:26pm 5 November 2009


I operate my own server running FreeBSD 7 and would be very willing to create / contribute to documentation and beta test installation stuff. I am used to installing Open Sauce s/w with minimal instructions so throwing a svn, cvs, or at a pinch, git link at me would work.

Juliette Culver
11:11am 6 November 2009

Would be really handy to have a guinea pig! Will drop you a line.

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