Is anyone using Discourse in higher ed for courses?

(Jeff Pasch) #1

Hi there. I work for a university in IT. We’d like to create private discourse categories (which would map to courses), where only members of the course and the instructors would have access.

Wondering if anyone else is doing this currently and could share their experiences. Thanks!

(Joshua Rosenfeld) #2

@pfaffman is your man…

(Matt Palmer) #3

Given the quality of the forums included in the LMSes I’ve had the misfortune to be exposed to over the years, Discourse would be an intergalactic leap forward in user experience.

We’ve got plenty of educational institutions amongst our hosted customer base, although I don’t see any obviously listed on our customers page. I’d be surprised if some of them weren’t using Discourse as a course discussion system. Hopefully one or more admins from those sites hang around here and can add their thoughts.

(Felix Freiberger) #4

We’re currently doing this for multiple courses.

We have two approaches that both seem to work out:

For a mathematics preparatory course, we have one permanent Discourse instance that we re-use every year. This makes sense for us, because the course is organized by a team of volunteers, and there is both a large overlap between two consecutive years’ teams, and often a bit to discuss between courses. We archive and tag all topics before the preparations for a new course start. You can read a bit about my journey to do this here:

For other courses, we use one Discourse instance for each iteration. So far, we’ve been simply shutting them down in the end, but in the future, I want to use multisite so I can keep the old instances running without causing significant additional load.

We use a custom course management system that manages submissions, grades, exams and so on. This CMS has a built-in phpBB-based forum, but also supports Discourse SSO – so in the courses where we use Discourse, the “Forum” link in the CMS simply triggers an SSO login to the (login required) Discourse instance for this course. The Discourse instance has a site customization which adds a navigation bar on top, allowing you to get back to the CMS.

I’m sure one large Discourse instance with subcategories could work too, but we’ve made a really good experience with our one-instance-per-course approach.

I’d be happy to answer any questions you have :slight_smile:

(Jay Pfaffman) #5

Hi, Jeff. I was once an instructional technology professor in colleges of education. In my last gig, I taught my classes with Discourse (which is part of why I now make my living with Discourse).

I organized assignments (or quests) in read-only categories and instructed students to reply-as-linked-topic (now on the link icon below a post) and put their post into the category for their class with a particular tag for that assignment. This made it easy for students to comment on each others work and for me to see whether students had done the work. I would :heart: their topic if they had completed the assignment, and wrote a script that would see that students had done the assignment and gave different grades if I had liked it and if other students had. It’s probably not helpful, but you can have it.

Having the assignments in their own categories made it easy to re-run a course and to use an assignment in multiple courses. The other cool thing is that when it was obvious that an assignment was badly worded or otherwise needed changing, I could change it immediately, making life better for the slackers who did the work late, and meaning that all those changes to assignments that I might otherwise have intended to do before next semester were, in fact, done.

You can see a syllabus for the last class I taught and this one too. This also worked really well, since the assignments were separate from the course, there wasn’t the copy-the-old-course-to-the-new-one at the start of each semester. All that was needed was to copy the syllabus and change the dates on it.

My courses were all (and remain) public. Changing that is just a matter of changing the permissions on the categories, though. I think that I just put a link to the course in the school’s LMS to get people to sign up. You could use groups to invite students to the course and control access.

(Jeff Pasch) #6

Thank, all, for the info! Very helpful.

Still getting our feet wet with the tool, but leaning toward making each course a private category (or maybe sub-category?), with permissions granted to a group that contains the students, instructors, and TAs for that course.

We could be running hundreds of courses each semester, which means we’d end up with loads of (private) categories. That could eventually be a problem for us, as it looks like there could be issues with having much more than 1000 categories (?), based on what I’m seeing in this topic:

So perhaps we’d need to archive these off at some point…but we’re not going to hit that limit overnight. :slight_smile:

We’d definitely need to bump up the default character limit for group names to accommodate unique names for courses/sections, and it looks like this is doable. Hurray!

@pfaffman thanks for sending along your examples! We’ll give those a closer look and let you know what questions come up. And thanks, @fefrei for sharing how you’re approaching this at your institution. Plenty to think about!

(Jeff Pasch) #7

Totally agree with you, @mpalmer!

We’d eventually like to look at creating an LTI integration:

…but one step at a time. :slight_smile: