Questions regarding Discourse features

I’ve been using computer conferencing systems and forums since the early 1980s, and am one of the founders of online education in the world… I teach online, engage students in collaborative learning and teamwork online, as well as conduct research, publish my studies, and have also built the Learning Theory Collaborativism. Generally, over the past 30 years we have discovered that calculating time spent online is not necessarily a great indicator of the quality of engagement. But if you do use it in a comparative way (user v. group) it can have some value.

Far better is comparing the # of messages or message volume/pp in a particular period. Comparision of the individual to the group discourse is also helpful.

Best of all, I believe, is to study the quality of the messages/discourse. I’m personally far more interested in discourse analysis, not just the quantity of messaging. Of especially important and interest is to code the transcript to sstudy if there a demonstrative change over time (i.e., progress in the quality of the discourse, the arguments used, references made, the positions taken).

Hence I am concerned tht the nature of the “discourse” in this forum is quite primitive (or perhaps I have not yet really seen its full features). Here is a brief list of features that I feel are essential…are they in the software? Are they easy to build in? 1. Are messages in a topic numbered? 2. Can I search by key word? chronology? reverse chronology? subject? sender? 3. can I sort the messages into various perspectives? 4. How are replies linked to comments? 5. Can I easily see/sort # of messages by sender? 6. Can I include a space for a keyword by each sender?

Can someone help me, pls? Thank you very much.

Cheers, Linda


Hi Linda,

Here is my attempt at your questions, I do have a bit of trouble framing some of them into Discourse concepts, but here is my shot nonetheless.

Yes they are, we do not expose this in the UI, if you click the link glyph under the post, :link: you can see a link to a specific post with the post number.

A theme could add numbers if it wished, but we always opt to decrease visual noise on the screen by default.

Check out our advanced search page for most of the options Search results for '' - Discourse Meta

You can both tag and categorize topics, as an administrator you can also tag messages. That allows you to split related topics into buckets.

You can quote stuff ^^^ like this or just reply and we carry a relationship

This is an email kind of concept every user has a user page that covers full user stats, additionally you have Discourse Meta

I think tags is what you are after, but I am not sure.


Hi, Linda. I started grad school in Instructional Technology at Vanderbilt 1995 (back in the days when Bransford, Kinser were there) and remember your work. I left academics for my wife to take a tenure-track position. She does Discourse analysis and uses Discursive Psychology. I have some experience pulling data out of various fora into forms that work with tools like ATLAS.ti.

I started using Discourse as a tool to teach my online classes. I promise that it’s worlds better than the discussion tools I’ve seen in Moodle, Sakai, or Canvas.

I think that Discourse’s measure of time spent reading is a bit more nuanced than some earlier measures of “time online”, so it may be more useful than you think. Rather than “how long was the modem on”, Discourse can sort-of tell if someone is reading stuff and for how long, a measure that I have not really seen in any other forum software. If someone spends all of their time posting messages and never reads any, they are not likely to be a very valuable contributor. I’m not aware of research that looks at those values, but I’ve been out of that game for a while.

I don’t think that it would be quite possible to use Discourse’s tags to mark posts the way one might with tools like ATLAS.ti or NVivo. Discourse’s tagging granularity is at the topic level, not even the post level; I’d think that you’d want to be able to code at the level of a sentence or paragraph.

Your questions seem to be from the perspective of one wanting to analyze discourse, not participate in it. From a user (not Discourse analysis) perspective, Discourse does a lot to support discourse. The searching features are as good as I have seen in other forums.

As mentioned already, for a participant, numbers are superfluous and noisy. I’ll admit to sometimes numbering things that I am talking or writing about, but if I get past 5, it’s a good bet that people have stopped listening.

The way that threading is indicated is confusing to people at first, but all the information you need is there. Each post is put at the end of the discussion. Which message one is replying to is made clear by links back up to the message one is replying to, and those replies also are indicated back up where the message one is replying to is.

A big win is that whether there are 8, 80, or 800 posts in a topic, one can just keep scrolling down to read the entire discussion. You don’t have to continually click to the next page to keep reading. (And don’t get me started on how many clicks it takes to read a discussion of more than 10 messages in Facebook).

If you haven’t seen it already, check out Discourse features | Discourse - Civilized Discussion.

A significant part of my living comes from moving communities from other platforms to Discourse. I think it would be a very interesting study to look at the structure of conversations before and after the transition. It could be an interesting study, as you could get data from multiple communities and the coder would not even need to know when the transition happened (since all data is now in Discourse). One could then see if there was some point in the data that conversation patterns changed.

Does that help?


Dear Sam,
Thank you for your time and generosity in responding to my questions. I have been in the field of online education and discourse for over 30 years, and I have seen and used many systems. I am not a techie but an educator and researcher of online discourse, so I apologize for my simplisitic questions.

I want to congratulate you as co-founder of this software, because in my 3 decades of work in this field, DIscourse is coming back to the key principles of online discussion and supporting key features for productive and progressive discussion and effective collaboration. I plan to devote more time to get to know your system, and to assess it for educational application. I think it could really be a winner.

Two last questions for now:

  1. how does tagging work? Can there be a set of tags, which could be applied to each post in a topic (or conference—I don’t know yet which terms you use). A tag as a pre-set annotation, and/or a tag as an open annotation? If so, are such tags visible to the group?
  2. Is it easy to download parts of the forum? To a printer? to download just the tags, for example into a word or excel document?

I invite you to read my next message, responding to Jay…in which my educational focus is more clearly set out. Thank you,
Cordially, Linda


Dear Jay,
Thank you for your thoughtful responses to my questions. It is a pleasure to have responses from someone who knows both the technology, as well as having insights into the educational applications. This is a real treat.

As you may know I am one of the inventors of online education, having designed and taught the first fully online university course in the world (1986, University of Toronto). For the past 32 years I have been teaching online, building a theoretical approach entitled Collaborativism (Harasim, 2017), whereby to study learning effectiveness in online education, and developing a Collaborativist pedagogy and a research methodology based on discourse (transcript) analysis.

Until 4 years ago I was using the learning environment that we developed in the 1990s, called Virtual-U that had a very powerful and robust forum as its centerpiece. For me, discourse is the heart and soul of learning. However, when the system went down there was no one @SFU who could reboot it and I have been stuck using Canvas for my online courses.

I have been seeking an alternative system for many years, since as you say, Canvas, Moodle, D2L, Blackboard are horrible and are utterly impossible for real learning because they do not support collaborative discourse. I have looked at blogging software, general forums, Slack, etc. Nothing that can support state-of-the-art online education, training, collaboration, knowledge building, etc.

The idea of developing my own software remains alive but that is another story. But then I came across @Discourse, which has triggered my interest.

As you guessed my questions were posed from the perspective of the researcher (in which I include the student and the teacher as researchers) who can benefit from the formative analytics. I have developed a research methodology to visualize and study learning online. So the nature of the messaging system is very important.

Also, clearly, I am equally interested in how well @Discourse could be shaped into a learning environment for instructors and learners.

So, given that context, I will respond to your comments and questions:

  1. I’m interested in what you mean by Discursive Psychology, and your wife’s methodology for discourse analysis. Let’s share papers. I just completed a chapter on my discourse analytics methodology.
  2. Your work with nVIVO and ATLAS.ti sounds interesting. I invested a lot of money in the 1990s in training researchers and students to use ATLAS, and nVIVO. Our work did not lead to promising results. Did you have a different experience?
  3. BIG Question: Why number posts??? I am incredulous at the response by you and Sam Saffron, which dismissed numbering posts chronologically as “noise”. NO way! Not noise but very informative cognitive markers and meaning makers. In my courses, discourse is the single key learning activity—one of my favorite pedagogies is what I call: SOS (Student-mediated Online Seminars). In a class let’s say of 16 students, around 120 messages per week are posted. Automatic numbering of each post is very important for many reasons such as: message number helps the student discussants locate where they are in the seminar, understand the size of the seminar to date, and determine their pace of participation. Also, student moderators get a sense of the volume and progress of the seminar and are better able to facilitate movement and advancement.
  4. Of course my analyses are not only quantitative, but primarily qualitative. To do qualitative analyses (or retrospective analysis), we code each message according to learning type, date, sender, message size, etc etc. Since Canvas does not number the posts, students have to print out the transcript, and then reorganize the posts chronologically, and then manually number each post in order to code it.
  5. My students have written many critiques of Canvas because the Discussion forum does NOT automatically number each post, and students find it infuriating. So do I. The pioneers of online education in the 1980s and early 1990s used computer conferencing systems such as EIES, Participate, Confer, *Forum, CoSy. Messages in the conferences/forums were always numbered, and many provided multiple perspectives on the discourse. This is ESSENTIAL, imho. (FYI: my Virtual-U system numbers each post, and could also scroll without stopping at each page. These features are not mutually exclusive)
  6. Finally, a brief comment on time: truly there is not much valuable information that you can wring out of this indicator, imho. Time on a post can signify SO MANY things: looking up a reference, using a dictionary, taking longer to understand the post, taking longer to compose a post, being interrupted by something external, getting a coffee, becoming distracted, ……Time on a message is very subjective and attempts to analyze the reasons are assumption which cannot be empirically proven. Participate, the system that I used at OISE, actually showed which user had read a message. Simpler, overall with roughly the same (few) gains.

So Jay, I would very much like your assistance in helping me to consider transferring my online courses to @Discourse.

And Sam Saffron, I hope that we can continue our discussions about the messaging features of @Discourse. So far, I think it is great. As I said earlier, I can see lots of ways to make it a winner for educational adoption.



It’s great to have someone systematically assess discourse for use in education. You might also be interested in this topic about discourse in academia more broadly:

and this blog post (if you have not already seen it):

It’s important to emphasize the “discussion tools” part here. In other words: discourse clearly can’t replace a complete LMS. And the problem is that if you are already using an LMS (for whatever reason, but most likely because your school is using it) adding discourse into the picture just makes everything so much more complicated, both for students and for teachers. This raises the question of integrations or “integrability”. What would it take to integrate discourse into Canvas so that it could be used instead of Canvas’ native discussion module?

There is an excellent (and perhaps better) alternative solution, though, which already integrates into Canvas:

I love hyposthesis and I think it might be more suitable a tool for online discussion because it turns the entire WWW into material for students to annotate and discuss. However (!), hypothesis’ main mission is annotation, not discussion (though the two are very closely linked and hypothesis does a decent job at facilitating discussion). So I’m dreaming of a better integration between hypothesis and discourse, in which hypothesis would be could at web annotations and discourse would take over once the discussion gets bigger.


I think Discourse accomplishes that with the “page navigation” widget on the right. It shows the number of the currently visible post, not a label on each individual one, but that should be enough to give them a sense of place. It also shows the total post count, and a “progress bar” of your progress.

Data Explorer Plugin will give you a CSV if that’s good enough for what you need.


Actually, Discourse does expose post number within each topic:

  • It’s in the slider widgets on the right side of the screen. Your post was 2/7 (at the time before I made my reply).
  • It’s listed in the editor when I quoted you, above.

Kinda, because the scroll bar numbers are relative since they don’t count whispers, deletions, etc.


That’s what I do for a living these days, @eLinda! Please contact and we can discuss how I can help.

Here’s a syllabus that I used when teaching with Discourse. I developed scripts to help pull data from Discourse and upload to Sakai’s grade book. I could probably do something similar to ease some of the pain of Canvas.


We use this even though the more astute may notice a sequence discrepancy (eg. 3 and 4 are missing in this topic) * disregard the red box, that’s a link highlighter {
    content: " #" attr(data-post-number);



Dear Michael Downey,
Thanks for the info on the csv. That is good but not enough. Users need to be able to code each message, at least for education and learning analysis—and that info is what needs to be exported.

wrt numbering of posts: Yes I see the number of the currently visible text. Why then not put it in the message header? To do any kind of DISCOURSE analysis, one absolutely needs message numbers to be in the header. To view messages from multiple perspectives, one needs numbers in the headers. This feature is essential unless you expect students and teachers to input message #s by hand.

Just curious to know what is the basis of the DISCOURSE structure? Was it based on theory? user experience with other fora? Field experience? Guess work? What kinds of businesses would use Discourse? A forum without message numbers would be unnecessarily difficult to organize, view, make sense of…in my experience. Canvas does not provide message numbers and hence the system is useless for “discourse” activities such as seminars, discussions, teamwork.

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Dear Michael Howell,
Thank you for your response. I kind of responded in my message to Michael Downey…the "page navigation"widget seems like a flirtatious feature. It shows some form of numbering, but not in a useable way. When I do Discourse Analysis I need the real message number and I need it to be exportable, along with other info and coding. I think that this feature should really be taken seriously by the Discourse team, and incorporated into the software that people buy/use. I truly do not understand the reasons that message numbering should be omitted. Certainly, for educational applications, numbering is essential.

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We have numbers displayed next to posts because for us (SitePoint) it happens very often that it is convenient to refer back to a particular post within the topic. Discourse is geared towards “discussion” not necessarily referencing posts. For example, for some forums there would not be a need to specifically reference “the fifth thing said in this discussion” i.e. the discussion is more like an experience than documentation.

That said, much information, including post ids and post numbers within a topic are in the JSON eg.


Dear Christoph,
Thanks for the pointers to your “Discourse for Online Education Communities”. Interesting to see the educational disciplines that are currently using Discourse. It seems that computing and coding schools predominate; I thus encourage your group to proceed with caution because the nature of discourse in the coding/computing field is very different from that in online courses in the rest of the university. Applied sciences have their own epistemology, and that is why ventures such as Coursera, Udacity, edX are able to profit most easily (low hanging fruit…altho Udacity did make some pivotal improvements). Other disciplines such as social sciences, pure sciences, learning sciences, medical education, dentistry, and fields of law, etc. approach discourse in a very different way. Do not lose sight of how discourse is used to augment learning in different fields or you will lose attraction to to those very large fields which are currently seeking online presence.

One other comment to consider wrt online education. You noted that Canvas might get muddled if Discourse was introduced. That possibly should be the last of your concerns. Canvas is a leaking ship: the model of education that they support and enable is a cookie cutter of the mid-twentieth century classroom. The first 10-15 years of online education used only computer conferencing, because we want to highlight discussion and not memorization and obedience by the learners. Many people today (including me) believe that the “invention” of the LMS has been a huge set back to online education. It was premature, and by providing professors with the primitive didactic teaching tools such as quizzes, lecture (videos, lecture notes, slide shows), that the very worst of 20th century didactic education was transported online and now holds north american universities in captivity. An LMS made it too easy to just upload existing “stuff” and teach in the old factory style. Discourse (and by that I mean discussion, debate, knowledge building) is where learning really takes place…quizzes, grade books are just add-ons that are mistaken as educational. Discourse, the software and company, should take heed and seek to provide true learning environments and forget Canvas. Unless Canvas et al, advance with their forum software they are DOA. Discourse will kill it. Cheers! PS: I like the notion of connecting annotation software with discourse software. That is heading in the right direction, imho.


I feel like you are conflating the requirements for two different use scenarios here. For participating in a discussion, Discourse-the-software provides UI tools that are intended to obviate the need for (visible) post numbers:

  • For “orientation” within a discussion, the progress widget shows how many posts are in the topic, and approximately how far down the discussion one has progressed
    • The software also automatically bookmarks your location in a discussion, so no need to note or memorize your location when moving on to another task.
  • For posts that require more detailed context, you can reply directly to a specific post. The discussion remains chronological, but the context is linked. (You yourself have made good use of this feature in this very topic!)
  • Quoting part of a post allows the same linking, but at a finer level of granularity.

Numbers-on-post-header are noise from this perspective because no one in an active Discourse-the-software discussion should need to refer to “post #3.” It your comment is directed at the person who made the post, reply to the post. If it is about a specific statement in a post, quote the post. The software will provide a visual annotation without adding the cognitive load of an abstract post number.

It sounds like you need to attach meta-data to the post after the discussion is completed. I’d expect that this could be done through a custom plugin, but I’ll let the tech types go into the details. Anything stored in the forum database via plugin should be eminently exportable.

You’ve used the phrase “from multiple perspectives” a couple of times, but have not defined it. I’m assuming that you mean “slice, dice and reorder” based on various criteria, including the above meta-data. This should be done by an outside tool after export, and should not need to have post numbers added to the Discourse-the-software UI.


Also, take a look at the print view for this topic: Questions regarding Discourse features

Look: it’s got visible post numbers! Because the other affordances - quote / reply linking, the progress bar, etc - are not available in physical format.


Connecting annotation software with discourse software

Dear @tophee and @eLinda,

Tonight, we had a fruitful discussion with friends about how to connect best-of-breed software with each other these days. We were rambling about how efficient and smart integration layers might spark various convergence effects to assist humans in collaboration, conversation, discoverage and exploration of content and data resources.

After giving a quick search - bet you! - we just found your eloquent discussion about topics which resonate very much with the ideas we are having in mind here.

We hope to be able to catch up on that in order to elaborate further what we are being up to. In the meanwhile we want to thank you for already starting that kind of discussion here.

With kind regards,