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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

eLearning Discussions - An Attempt at Better Discussions in the Blogosphere

Happy New Year (with usual caveats for Chinese New Year)!

Let me ramble a bit here and then there's something really good at the end (at least I think so).

A really great comment came in during the holidays relative to the post: eLearning Technology: Move from Discussion Groups to World of Blogs? Craig said something that has troubled me for a while:
Blogs are not that great as a platform for discussion.
I partly agree with him in that I've felt for a long time that the Blogosphere is a loose conversation and lacks the single location effect that you find in discussion groups. Craig highlights this with an example:
Case in point: If I have a tech question and I post it on my blog, my chances of getting a response are fairly low. If I post it on a blog where they talk about the tech I am interested in, my chances are higher. However, if I post to a tech forum, I am almost guaranteed to get a good discussion going.
And, I would tend to agree. However, if I have an eLearning Question, I think I'm much more likely to get answers to it by posting in my blog right now than posting a question in a forum. Especially a question around something like eLearning 1.0 vs. 2.0 - Help Needed (and I got lots of great help). On the other hand, if I want to find out something more specific around ROI, I would definitely post on the ROI group. They may change the question entirely and answer something else, but I would be more likely to get a response.

Craig then comments:

I also think that the relatively low numbers of individuals in elearning who participate in blogs and discussion groups may be in part to the fact that:

a) They are so busy developing / launching their elearning programs they just don't have the time to participate outside of the job.

b) The number of individuals in the elearning industry embracing the newer technology is still very small.

c) The elearning industry as a whole is very competitive and they haven't warmed up to the idea of transparency like Scoble evangelizes. Sharing best practices may be frowned upon from a competitive / corporate standpoint.

Just sharing my thought. Am I completely off the mark? Would love to get a discussion going ;)

What's interesting about this is that its a case-in-point of what is wrong in the world of blogs. Craig may not have his own blog and if he did, likely he doesn't draw a large crowd (who in eLearning does?). How can Craig ask this question in the world of blogs and get a response? Also, there are all sorts of posts and prior conversation around this that relate, but how could this question and those poeple be included in the conversation?

Instead, what will happen is that because Craig asked his question on an older post (its at least a few days old now - gasp - so old), it will be buried only to be seen by the Blogger who may put in a response, but no one else will come in to discuss it. The only way it will surface is if the blogger (me in this case) highlights the post by creating a new post (oh I just did that, eh). If not, Craig will get a response from me only - so he won't get his questions answered - which proves the point - not a great discussion vehicle.

So, finally, to the good part. I've been a casual CoComment user for quite a while and have used it to track my own conversations, i.e., to see responses to comments that I make on other web sites. However, Dave Lee did an interesting thing with the LCB that uses CoComments to collect comments around the Monthly Big Questions so that we can keep track of it. That inspired me.

Starting today, I'm going to start to track lots of interesting conversations as I see them occur using CoComment (where CoComment works) so that a question like Craig's will at least surface to those who are tracking these conversations. In other words, as I find interesting conversations (IMHO) going on around eLearning topics that I'm interested in, I'll track the conversation. That way you can see a little bit of the conversation in the right column of my blog or you can visit my CoComment page. Better yet you can subscribe to the RSS Feed which should link you back to the blog and so you don't have to visit my CoComment page.

This is partly in response to comments in eLearning Technology: How Do People Interact with Blogs? where several people said that they visit the blog in order to see the comments. That makes sense, but it's not all that efficient. I hope this turns out to be useful.

A couple caveats - CoComment is not the cleaness or prettiest feed out there. It also doesn't really do a very good job of "threading" the discussions - you'll need to jump around to follow the discussion as it rambles through the blogosphere. Further, its not always easy to know where good conversations are happening, although normally people will post about them. So, it is what it is. Finally, this is still a mess. If someone else finds interesting conversations and links them via CoComment - how do you filter the overlap? But, its the best I can figure out for now.

Now a couple of questions (an assignment):

1. Is Craig right? Are blogs a bad vehicle for discussion? For asking questions?

2. Is Craig going to get his questions answered? Do you have any answers for Craig?

3. Any thoughts on better ways to surface the conversations that we all know are going on but that are happening in such as scattered way?


Anonymous said...

Pardon the rambling nature of my comments -- my brain is moving faster than my fingers this afternoon.

RE: Blogs & discussion --

I noticed a few distinctions made in your post that I find interesting.

Tech questions directed at techies get better responses when posted to a techie forum, i.e., techies don't do blogs, or if they do, it is on a site that is known for being tech-focused.

ELearning questions get addressed more frequently on your blog by others (ipso facto your blog is focused on eLearning(?)).

Should we say that blogs seem to incorporate a specific identity based on the focus of posts? In other words, if you author a blog that focuses on CSS you're bound to see some discussion of CSS related issues/problems, and possibly others will feel more comfortable posing questions, comments, concerns as long as their CSS related?

I think what I am deducing from your post is that blogs can be good for discussions if they have or maintain a clear focus or have a definable audience.

I also think a lot has to do with how posts are presented, i.e., is the author asking questions regularly? Or only occassionaly.

There's also the question of the author's authority on a given subject, their writing style, their popularity, etc.

As much as I enjoy pushing the blogging envelope, it still appears to me to be a one-to-many medium. There are numerous reasons why readers choose not to respond to questions posed on blogs as well.

I do think weblogs can serve a particular audience for a particular task, a community of inquiry or practice for example. These have a limited audience, clear goals and expectations, and feedback is readily and easily elicited.

I should probably think about this more.

RE: Craig's questions --

speaking totally extempore...

People are busy in the elearning industry and their time could easily be limited.

I don't believe individuals in elearning are not embracing weblogs, wikis, social networking tools, but I have no evidence to support such a claim. I think it depends on the culture surrounding the elearning professional. If her/his colleagues are not checking into the lastest thing, then the chance they are is probably slim.

Competition is part of the business culture, as Craig notes. I learn what others are doing by reading journals. I don't see to much innovation being shared except by a proud few. Again, business cultures tend to horde information and knowledge and only release it if there is money to be made by sharing. If a specific practice raises your bottom line, it's less likely your boss will want you sharing said practice. Once you're really successful, then you might be more apt to share your technique in Harvard Business Review or Fast Company, but only after you've clearly established your position or dominance in your market.

Thanks for posting this. I always enjoy reading what's on your mind.

Tony Karrer said...

Chris, interesting comments, not sure I agree with them all.

Techies do blogs as well as discussion groups, but I believe that there are better discussion groups around things like Linux, Java, etc. than there are around eLearning topics.

I do agree that blogs have a focus, however, many have a fairly broad focus given the wide interests of the author. There are a few exceptions like Judy Brown's blog on SCORM.

If you have a really narrowly focused blog, I'm not sure you get critical mass of audience for lively discussion. That's part of the challenge in the world of blogs - diffusion of the audience.

However, it would seem that if you take blog readers as a whole and we had a better means of handling comments so that we could see interesting discussions across the blogosphere much like we could in a discussion group (but filtered based on our interests), then I think we'd have something that felt less scattered. That's part of my goal with CoComment - but CoComment seems a bit clunky so far.

I'd welcome further thoughts from you on this topic.

BTW - I also enjoy reading your blog Chris!

Anonymous said...

"it still appears to me to be a one-to-many medium..."

I remember going online with an acoustic coupler and a TeleVideo 950, so this comment rings true for me. Some blogs (those with multiple authors) may be few-to-many (or few-to-few, but that's another post), but the basic framework is that the one (or the few) controls the steering wheel.

That's not bad,necessarily, any more than it's bad that a podcast is essentially a portable lecture. In either medium, you can still convey information.

For me a focal question is: what do I get out of reading, commenting, or even blogging?

Maybe I'm seeking income -- though If Guy Kawasaki made only $3,500 in ad revenue last year on his blog, I don't think I'll bother.

Maybe I'm gaining from the insights and the questions raised by people I enjoy or admire.

Maybe I'm doing distance networking, talking informally but with some focus (or foci) as I would when attending a conference.

Maybe I'm just thinking out loud and inviting others to chime in (which I'd put under distance networking, but didn't want to ignore).

Even with the somewhat quirky CoComment, I find myself wishing I could converse (as in, have back-and-forth) at greater length than a blog typically permits. Perhaps that's a skill I could develop, but like the skill of speaking fluent Gaelic, it may permanently elude me. And I'm also prone to longer-with-fewer conversations than with shorter-to-many.

Even so, I don't think blogging will go away; it'll just stop talking about itself so much (cf. the urgent need to stick e- in front of everything).

Stewart Brand said years ago of computers that they were like motors in the nineteenth century -- soon we'd stop noticing that computers were in things (car engines, camera innards, giveaway watches from McDonald's).

I see something similar likely for blogs: people will just put them to work but no more call themselves bloggers than they would Honda Civic drivers or spreadsheet modifiers.

Tom Gilbert was right: it's about valuable accomplishment.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the challenges of using a blog as an elearning community tool. I've fiddled with CoComment also. My main problem is a forget to turn it on before I comment (like just now). I recently visited a blog displaying their cocomments on sidebar. Bordering on information overload.
Now I'm wishing somebody would just buy up all these little web2.0 tool shops and integrate them into one interoperable system easy to use and more automated. Anybody got any extra money?

Tony Karrer said...

Sandra - I often forget to track the conversation when I post as well ... BUT ... you can often just go to the post and tell CoComment to Track the Conversation.

What's interesting about this is that there are systems designed as a unified platform for blogging, commenting, etc.... They are social networking sites like Elgg, MySpace, etc. However, locking us all into a single platform is probably not a good idea.

Instead, what we need is a standard for how comments get handled (and put into RSS) and for tagging so that we can easily find and consolidate conversations around the web. For example, I can't right now tell my RSS Reader to go collect the conversations that are going on in my reading list (off of my OPML). My guess is that this will start happening in 2007.

Tony Karrer said...

Dave F - great comments! I tend to agree with you that different people will seek different value ... and those interested in conversation will want different forms of conversation.

I actually think we are not particularly good at starting and keeping conversations going in the world of eLearning. We all need to work on the skills, but we also need to figure out the questions (which is a common theme on my blog).

We also need to specifically work out how blogs can serve as longer term conversations for topics where we have deeper interest.