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What do you think about Discourse?

Please share both early and more considered thoughts about using the Discourse software for Saylor Academy discussion forums/community.

You are welcome to share thoughts as new topics that might deserve their own spotlight, but sharing also (or instead) as a new post to this topic will help us to keep track. Please also feel free to reply to others’ posts in this topic, of course.

Note this is public feedback; if you would prefer to get in touch privately, please use our contact page, as always.

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I prefer this version over old forum.

I think it was useful to have Categories to refer the different courses and grades that we can use when posting.

One note for “global notice”: I’ve needed to manual refresh the page to see the banner. Using PC, I was into discourse before you active the banner, writing a reply and moving into different post and the banner not show until manual refresh (I had notice of banner because I was using the phone testing and see the banner on new logging).

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What follows are very much first impressions: how it performs once it is under load remains to be seen.

  • The system is much more slick and visually attractive than the current/old software.
  • It is good to see that there is a ‘flag’ option–assuming that the staffing at Saylor allows for review and action on reports–this is long overdue
  • Hopefully there is some more robust SPAM filtering behind the scenes, it gets a little tedious working through a dozen offers of help with black magic problems every day.
  • The notification options for activity are welcome. The default setting seems a fair balance between overloading users with reminders and keeping users in touch
  • Threaded discussions at last–let’s just hope there are enough users to make it necessary!
  • I like the reply as a linked tropic option although I strongly suspect that most users will simply reply in the same thread
  • Similarly, the quoting in reply is a nice feature that is easy to use once you know about it (which reminds me, will there be full user documentation added at some point?)

A couple of downs, actual or potential:

  • Is it intended to implement a single log-in with ePortfolio and/or Testing Centre (ie Moodle)? The latter will become more imperative with the planned transition of courses to Moodle.
  • Assuming that a single log-in will be managed, what will happen to the accounts (and posts) created in this open beta? I’m not clear whether this is simply a test platform or whether it will roll over directly into the production system taking users and content along.

The last point is really about the design concept of Discourse. The design is very flat and open–which is all to the good when traffic levels are as low as we currently enjoy on Saylor–and relies on the (proper) use of categories for any sort of structure. What concerns me is the future development as use, hopefully, grows.

Looking the the HowToGeek site, offered as an example of a fully developed and mature board, I see even in that presumably technically aware user base, around 15% of posts are uncategorised. The most popular categories have thousands of posts and so the chance of hitting something interesting while browsing casually is remote–we are really relying almost entirely on search to access the content. The problem with any search is that it requires users to have a clear focus of enquiry, which is often not the case, and it discourages more casual, community-building conversations.

Systems such as Discourse require users to be fairly disciplined in their posting: use appropriate categories, branch off discussions and use descriptive titles. Few users seem to be motivated to follow such ‘rules’. Even something as apparently obvious as identifying the content to which a post refers seems to regularly evade users, for example, on Open2Study (who do at least have Community Boards–even if the software is appalling) I regularly see posts with titles such as “Q6 is wrong” which give no indication of course or module. On the other hand this HIST104 link change posting is a great example of a well-titled post. But… can we really hope that every post will be so well signposted?

I’ll write more fully when I have the opportunity to explore more and see how it operates under load.


Discourse is awesome!

However, personally, my top request from Saylor, is that the learning process is tracked by the system, so that:

  • A student knows his overall progress in course (student marks each subunit item as completed), and in Area of Study (Major , Minor, and custom learning path should be supported)
  • Last location should be set to home-page for students signing back in

Best regards,

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Yes! Either by us collectively, by someone else, or both. Well, full enough, but probably with gaps.

Not right away or necessarily, although this is a somewhat uncomfortable tradeoff. A lot of the headaches we have had recently have had to do with the CAS sign-on server, and we don’t want to try to implement that right away. Discourse does play nicely with common identity-based logins (basically Google, Twitter, Yahoo, Facebook, GitHub, and general SSO). You might have noticed that I single sign-on isn’t working great lately, but when we get that part of our house in order, we’ll consider bringing in these forums. Long story short, we don’t want to break these right away; direct login works, so we’re not messing with it yet.

This particular instance would/will become the production version directly. I do not know this positively, but I think we would be able, if implementing single sign on stuff, to associate existing accounts with at least some new sign-in methods, so long as the associated email address remains the same. @jazinheira knows all this light years better than the rest of us on Saylor staff and can shout me down if I’ve said something ridiculous. A known unknown with some risk, but our current primary risk aversion is to expanding the control of our somewhat fickle CAS system.

Good points here and further below in your post. I think wisely implementing categories will help a bit, but wisely pinning certain topics could help. is a bit busier than we are and seems fairly well structured, though I have some critiques.

One interesting possibility, although this could make some people cringe, is that we could probably create a sort of static, structured index (optional but a click away) to guide browsing or created a custom Google search engine that better supports those who lack “a clear focus of enquiry”.

All my thoughts here are subject to ongoing critique, of course

FWIW, the top layer of the header and the entire footer are pure HTML and very flexible…the main area is a bit harder to tweak. In any case, though I want to avoid junking things up, there is opportunity to play there.


Many of our courses are going into Moodle, which will make the individual course progress piece possible; I don’t know about the last-location piece, but your courses should be served up in a more tailored fashion.

Major/minor tracking is available, but building that out to include custom tracks involves re-imagining eportfolio, which we are only just beginning to do. We’ll try to be as detailed as possible in our live office hours hangout on air.


All the questions of the old forums will be imported here, right? Then why not do it already?
I liked the way the previous forums were clearly categorized by course.

There has to be a way to avoid duplicate discussions by identifying and offering similar questions before posting new one.
Am I missing something?

Yes and no. If you mean that the existing content will be migrated here then the discussions in the recent Hangout were absolutely clear in ruling that out. The intention is to produce a static archive of the existing content, indexed and possibly somewhat filtered to remove obsolete or irrelevant content.

If you mean that the existing course discussion cues (ie directions in courses to make a contribution to the forums) will be redirected here then that is the intention but it is not going to happen overnight, at least in its final format, for two reasons.

First is the matter of scale: I’d guess there are well over a thousand discussion prompts, many of which are in courses which are no longer being actively developed. Each will need to be redirected (and given past history here, I suspect that a lot of that work will need to be done manually). Secondly, there seems to be an intention to redesign the while system of prompts to encourage discussion rather than just asking people to post samples of work. That will take considerable time even if the changes are only implemented in the ninety or so ‘Select’ courses

So did I–but many course forums had no contributions and tended to discourage new participants. Saylor needs to make some decision about how discussion is going to be structured here. It simply isn’t possible to use a hierarchical structure, that is not Discourse’s design model, and categories are inevitably (and deliberately) broad–typically there are around 10-12 categories in active forums. Given the lack of tags it seems that serving hundreds of different courses in a single forum will need considerable discipline in explicitly mentioning course identifiers when posting.

My concern is that when (or if) the forums become busier it will be impossible to pick out the relevant discussions from the background noise. I’m not at all sure that Discourse is up to supporting even a hundred different courses in a single forum–unless, of course, the situation persists where there are only a handful of regular posters!

The nightmare scenario would be coming to the forum to find an endless stream of posts entitled ‘Missing reading’ or ‘Broken link’, all uncategorised or in some catch-all ‘Content Query’ category, none of which specify the course to which they refer. Equally, how many postings might we see simply entitled ‘Unit x Discussion’?

This is addressed, in part, by the notice of a ‘soft’ freeze on new content in the old forums. This requests users to move their discussions here while leaving them free to continue or conclude a discussion on the old board. Unfortunately, the notice will not always be seen, particularly if users jump straight into old discussions.

At some point the old forums will be ‘turned off’ and the problem of duplication, at least, will be solved.

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I meant duplicates two similar questions addressing the same issue, like when you’re asking a question in StackOverflow it offers you with potentially similar questions.

Discourse does offer a ‘similar discussions’ pane when raising a new topic. At the moment it doesn’t offer very useful hits–probably because there are so few posts.

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There are some “new user training” type prompts that pop up when creating and replying to one’s first few topics. We can both make those more explicit re: search before you post and extend how many times they will appear for new users.

There is also broader freedom here for everyone to take on a moderator role (once their trust level goes up a level or two). Admins and mods can be better at splicing topics that should be together.

Interestingly, the folks behind Discourse are the folks behind StackOverflow (or there is meaningful overlap, at least). I expect good improvements to the core Discourse code.

Indeed. We do not have a solution for that, unsurprisingly. Some of our ongoing thoughts:

  • A single category with area of study (not course) sub-categories. This is relatively clean, but certain homepage view options might still be overwhelming
  • Course-specific discussion in Moodle (or perhaps only assigned discussion prompts in Moodle). Bifurcation like that is risky
  • Reinvest and improve eportfolio study groups, which are limited and difficult to use (not very likely)
  • Have hidden or unlisted categories that are fairly discrete that embed or link from courses…I have to investigate how possible that even is
  • ???

Whatever we do, there has to be supports in place for newcomers and there has to be a developed culture that (positively) enforces (positive) norms; e.g. if we had area of study sub-categories – history, mathematics, etc. – then post naming conventions would be important.

I like and don’t like, equally, the approach that Duolingo and Codecademy take to forums, in which there are lesson-specific, immediately accessible discussions as well as site-wide, more general-interest and meta discussions. The easiest implementation from our perspective is probably to have immediate, contextual, academically-oriented discussion available in Moodle with a link out to these more general community forums. That still is worrisome to me, and privileges the Saylor-supported courses (which is fine from our policy perspective but doesn’t provide obvious tools for the community to use.

At the risk of splitting this discussion across two topics, having already posted on your ‘Time for some categories’ topic, I wasn’t aware that Discourse supported sub-categories. They don’t seem to have been used by the other boards I’ve looked at.

I wouldn’t be very supportive of course specific forums, whether on Moodle or elsewhere, simply because that maintains the Balkanisation which was said to be stifling discussion under the old system. Running forums on different platforms can also get rather confusing for new or less frequent users.

Open2Study use such a system with class forums that are visible below every video and (different) ‘community’ forums accessible from the main dashboard. This results in endless course specific (but unidentified) postings in the general forums while class discussions are not even visible from one iteration to the next–much less to the wider student body.

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That’s why I think all the content from the old forums should be imported to discourse, to spare people from asking those questions that have been asked once ago, by redirecting them right to the suggested duplicate giving them their answer immediately.
I’m still not sure whether I understood correctly what’s intended to be done with all the old forums’ discussions. I really hope the intention is not to neglect it.

I vote for the first one. Mainly because we’re already got used to it, and I think it worked fairly well. However there SHOULD be sub-categories for each course.
As for separate moodle or eportfolio groups & discussions for each course - Just as @Paul_Morris said, I vote down, why not have all the discussions searchable from one board?

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It has already been confirmed that this is not an option. The best we can hope for is some sort of static, indexed archive.

I do wonder how much useful content there actually is on the old forum system. A great many of the posts are outdated–referring to broken links or system problems now solved–or simply not of much enduring interest.

If the discussion prompts change (as Sean has indicated is likely) then even the posts referring directly to course materials will become less relevant. It’s also worth saying that many of the course ‘discussions’ seem more like a series of widely separated monologues!

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I actually did try to import the old posts and users into discourse during testing. Unfortunately, the old forum is set up in a strange way and the usernames were set to things like epuser_xxxx or fbuser_xxxx. Trying to set the discourse usernames to match up with either the first name and last name or the email address didn’t always work; some people used different names and the same email addresses between accounts, others used the same name but different email addresses. There ended up being something like 5600 users preloaded into discourse, an untold number of which were duplicate accounts, and an even greater number users who likely wouldn’t make it back to the new forum.

Between the different username convention causing orphaned posts and some corrupted posts, the post import process would just continually fail. And even with only 20% of the posts imported into discourse, you could tell a lot of things were out of date and there was too much cruft. In the end, starting fresh with discourse seemed the much better option.


I’m not thrilled about Discourse. While it is much more slick and modern-looking than the old forums, I don’t think it will scale as more users get to use it.

I would have much rather performed a modern, hierarchical board with different majors as the forums instead of individual classes. As classes got busier, subforums of popular courses could be created.

I am also wondering how well Discourse will play with Moodle. Doesn’t Moodle have its own type of forum integrated in it? It’s been a while since I’ve looked at it.

I’m sorry if this sounds harsh, but overall, my conclusion is “meh.”

I have some of the same concerns–although they may never be significant unless traffic grows an awful lot more than has happened in the last three years.

While my preference is for hierarchical structures, if only because that is the design to which I am accustomed, it is not fair to imply that non-hierarchical structures are less ‘modern’. This design decision, hierarchical or flat, has been an active point of discussion for some years and the debate appears far from settled with new platforms continuing to be developed under both models. Discourse itself is only about a year old.

I’m not sure this is really an issue. Two approaches seem to be in consideration at the moment: to use the Moodle forums separately for course-based discussions (not an option I favour) or to use Discourse only–in which case all the Moodle needs to support is a hyperlink!