Weblogs and Threaded Discussion Forums Together

Lee Lefever of Common Craft is looking for a hosted combination of weblog and threaded discussion group. This would indeed make it easier for a learning director to monitor discussions that may be springing up in various places as a weblog for a course grows.
For example, the course I'm running now has multiple discussions going simultaneously. With one weblog front end that shows the most recent comments users can see which threads are active and who is contributing. We started by listing the five most recent comments just to try to limit the length of the list in the sidebar. But as discussions get active comments get pushed off the list very rapidly, and it's possible that a comment could get pushed off the list before anyone sees it. We've extended the list but clearly there has to be a better way to alert people that a discussion is active.

Let's just get them all using RSS

In the course I am running for the fourth year for a large financial services firm, we have always had difficulty getting the participants to visit the course web site. This led us initially to use only asynchronous discussion boards that had the capability of functioning entirely through email. Participants didn't have to visit the web site ever – they received one anothers comments by email and could reply that way with all communication automatically posted to the discussion board.
Now that we are using a weblog instead of a discussion board we are experiencing multiple threads of very rich discussion.
We face a paradox in this course. Some participants like to write long winded comments but most participants don't have time to read anything longer than a paragraph. If they start to recieve lengthy emails from the course on a regular basis they will start to tune out the entire discussion.
So the learning director has the job of filtering and excerpting and re-posting comments to make sure the most interesting information gets in front of the participants. The ones that are interested enough can go to the blog to read more and ideally comment.
To ensure participants see the discussion we have three choices:
1. Use the notification feature built into Movable Type.
2. Manually send out an email version of the post with links back to the blog
3. Provide all the participants with a newsreader, subscribe them to the blog, and teach them to use it.
We've opted for option 2 in this course because we wanted to use an nicely designed Outlook template instead of the bare bones MT notification email. We didn't want to add the hurdle of newsreader software to what is already a very demanding course for people with very little time.
But this leads to a dilemma: When a participant has commented and then some time goes by before anyone responds, how can I, as the Learning Director, be sure that the first participant is going to remember to check back to the post that he commented on to see if anyone has followed up?
In the ACS discussion board we used to use (and in many others), you can subscribe to a particular thread so that you get an email notification when anyone responds.
Maybe we need the same feature on the blog. Once you comment on a post, you would be automatically subscribed to receive a notfication when anyone else comments on that post.
Better yet, we should just get all the participants using the RSS feed which would include both posts and comments.

Conference Calls

Our learning design regularly incorporates breakouts into synchronous sessions and this week we got a reminder that if the technology isn't transparent then it's like having a wall in the middle of your classroom.
For the past two years we've been using Premiere Conferenceing to handle the conference calls and provide the synchronous platform (VisionCast, their branded version of PlaceWare now LiveMeeting) for one of our programs. Their execution after a little roughness in the first session or two has been virtually flawless to the point of anticipating what the presenter and participants are going to do next. Moreover, their customer relations have been fantastic. Our conference manager, Matthew Fleming, couldn't be better.
Well, this year our client asked if we could use MCI instead because they had an enterprise-wide contract. What a disaster. It took them five minutes to get the 27 participants into 9 breakout groups. Premiere takes about 30 seconds. The MCI operator never let us know when we were in a private call or when the participants could hear us. On at least one occasion the particpants were brought back from their breakout session and were joined to the presenters private call without any warning. The operators couldn't get participant lines open in a reasonable amount of time which dramatically slowed the interaction.
Needless to say, Premiere is back on board to do the rest of the sessions.

Threaded Discussion versus Weblog

In the course I'm managing currently for MIT and Merrill Lynch I'm starting to run up against the difficulties of using a weblog to handle class discussion. We had to choose what should be more prominent – comments from the participants or the posts from the Learning Director and Teaching Assistant. We're using a 3-column layout – static documents like participant biographies and syllabus and schedules on the left, dynamic lists of recent posts and comments on the right. In the middle we started with the five most recent posts with the plan of excerpting and linking to the comments when we wantto be sure they get read. We're also emailing out the posts by cutting and pasting into a nicely designed Outlook template instead of the bare bones MT notification.
Now that the discussion has gotten rolling, we want to give more prominence to the comments themselves. So how do we do that without pushing the most recent post too low on the page? I just start excerpting the most recent comment and putting at the top of the center column. I have to do this manually becuase MT has no CommentExcerpt tag that works and the comments themselves are too long to include in their entirety. This has cuased problems also in the dynamic lists of comments. On the main page I can list the most recent comments on the whole weblog. But on an individual archive page and I can only list the most recent comments for that post.
So my as yet unempirical observations show there seems to be a core group who have caught on to the weblog and are checking it frequently. Then there's a large group who rely on the emails.
The dilemma comes in how the thread of the discussion gets divided across multiple posts. We could do subsequent posts in a particular thread as comments but it would then seem redundant to quote myself in the digest post that gets emailed to everyone.