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Weblogs in Education?

By evro in News
Fri Apr 21, 2000 at 09:23:17 AM EST
Tags: Round Table (all tags)
Round Table

So today, while hacking on my project for my networking class, I started thinking that the message board that our prof installed was really a great resource. The way it works is that we email our questions to a certain email address, and the email is forwarded to the prof and ta, and is also added to this discussion board. People can reply to the messages on the board via email. This is a great idea, but I think it could be significantly improved if some weblog software were used, rather than the relatively "primitive" cgi.

My main gripe with the software my prof wrote for the message board is that comments aren't really threaded. All posts have the original comment as their parent. While this is somewhat trivial, I think there would be a lot to be gained by running a more standardized piece of software, like Scoop or Slash, or anything else that's got more features.

I'm a CS major, and this term I'm taking my 8th and 9th CS courses, and Networking is only the second to have a message board. The other one, a software engineering course, introduced the board towards the end of the course and nobody really used it. In the class I'm taking now, the prof encourages everyone to use the board, and has from the beginning.

The benefits of a discussion forum / message board for a class are many, but the one that first comes to my mind is that the professor doesn't have to answer the same question fifty times. Not coincidentally, this is the reason the prof stated for having written the message board software in the first place. Another benefit is that students can answer the questions as well as the prof. This is immensely helpful when getting a signal 11 error on your project at 2:31 a.m. on the day it's due, when the prof is unlikely to be checking his email (I, of course, have never been in such a situation... ahem).

In considering which of the two major "brands" of weblog software I thought would best fit an educational setting, I ended up settling on a combination of both of them. The "killer app" for Scoop (aside from the pleasant color/font scheme), as far as I'm concerned, is the ability for anyone to post a story to the front page. I don't know if the notion of "voting" would really be applicable in this case, because if a student submits a question as a "story," you don't want anybody to vote it down. So maybe a voting threshold of 0 could be set, causing all submitted stories/questions to appear as major topics.

The feature of Slash (or at least Slashdot, I don't know if it's in the Slash codebase or not) that I think would be most useful in an educational setting is the Sections. I think kuro5hin has this (I can either submit this as an article or a feature), but I know Slashdot does.

So what I am picturing right now is the department (I'm thinking specifically of the computer science department, but there's no reason any other department couldn't do this) has its Scoop/Slash server. The professors are the "editors," and can delete trolls and moderate themselves into oblivion, whatever. Each class that uses the site is its own Section. So I want to submit a question to CS23, I select cs23 from the pulldown menu. If I want to ask a question of the entire department, for example, "is cs 15 a required course?" I can post it to the main page. Departmental / class announcements can also be posted there to ensure everyone sees them (though email lists currently reach pretty much everyone).

The one really interesting feature that's in my prof's program and not in either Scoop nor Slash (and wouldn't be appropriate for either) is the ability to email questions to a central address and have them posted to the forum. I think the way the prof matches up incoming messages to existing threads is through the "re: whatever" in the subject field of the email. While this isn't incredibly robust, it does seem to get the job done. Putting a parent-id number in the subject field (i.e., "Re: in-reply-to-message-number-45") would probably enable complete threading, which I always like. The ability to email comments to the discussion sort of takes care of the technophobes. The prof can still get emailed copies of all questions, and of course, he can just be cc'd (or the list can be avoided altogether) if the question is extremely pressing. The sender of the email can get all the benefits of people reviewing their comments while not having to go through and read through all the comments (assuming that replies are posted to the forum as well as emailed to the the original author).

Anyway, I was wondering what everyone thought of this idea. I've been using a college setting as my backdrop, but there isn't really any reason a high school or even junior high couldn't do something similar. Well, that's not really true, since they may not have the funds to have a sysadmin running a linux box and keeping everything running smoothly. And the most prevalent idea in high school, at least the way I remember it, is apathy, so such a resource would probably go unused. Then there are also the problems in HS of students not having access to the internet (whereas it is almost a given at [residential, at least] colleges), so taxpayers may not want to pay for something their children cannot use.

Since both Slash and Scoop are distributed under the GPL, there is currently nothing stopping any school, or anybody at all, for that matter, from setting up a site like I described above. I think it can be a great resource in an educational setting. I'm really reluctant to suggest something like this to my current prof, since he may take it as a personal attack against his message board software, but perhaps in the future I'll suggest it. I've gotten a lot of usage out of it so far.

In what other arenas do y'all think weblogs can be used in new ways? I've heard that big corporations are now using software like Instant Messenger to communicate internally, since it's faster than email; maybe internal corporate weblogs could be on the horizon? What do you think? Also, are there any other "major" pieces of weblog software available? Please don't suggest the detestable UBB. While showing which posts are "new" since your last visit is cool, I find the way comments are displayed very annoying and not at all natural. But anyway...

(now back to my regularly scheduled hacking...)

Note to rusty: feel free to move this to "features" if you think it's more appropriate.


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Weblogs in Education? | 26 comments (26 topical, editorial, 0 hidden)
I think educational weblogs have a ... (none / 0) (#2)
by FlinkDelDinky on Fri Apr 21, 2000 at 04:56:16 AM EST

FlinkDelDinky voted 1 on this story.

I think educational weblogs have a great future. In fact in a lot of ways K5 already is one, it just doesn't have a concrete subject.

It sounds like you know what you want. You'll probably have to make significant patches to the code though. Interface wise / and K5 are (to me) near twins. But I think K5 is a bit nicer but the reasons for that are the moderation tools which you don't require.

I like your idea a lot though. I would've used something like it a lot, but them I'm stupid and need lots of help :-)

Re: I think educational weblogs have a ... (none / 0) (#10)
by Alorelith on Fri Apr 21, 2000 at 11:48:38 AM EST

I would also have used something similar to this extensively in my school, considering the draconian measures it (the school) seems to go to to prevent more 'Columbines' and similar situations.

My school had received a grant to improve the technology in the school, which was generally spent on a central server and computers and fiber optics and a T1 line, etc. I have no gripes with the basic idea behind it, but how they implement it baffles me. The school spends some decent money on each computer (at least $1400) but refuses to even configure some of the basic settings (Resolution set to 640x480 and 256 colors, in Windows that is UGLY). I think if I had some method to post a comment to the admins it would be a lot easier than to have to track them down and have them shrug me off as some kid who pokes his nose into too many things.

Besides just the network setup, I think it also could be used as a general feedback option where students could assess their teachers (probably anonymous would be better) and recommend ideas that the school could at least take a look at. I think a webboard of sorts could be used extensively in a school situation (I'm talking about in high school here, it might be more usefeul in a college) considering how hip it is to be 'technological' these days in schools.

Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies. -- Nietzsche

[ Parent ]
Re: I think educational weblogs have a ... (none / 0) (#18)
by Anonymous Hero on Fri Apr 21, 2000 at 03:59:16 PM EST

They did the same thing at my school. 640x480, 256 colors, 60hz (i.e. headache after 5 minutes) refresh rate. The library has a "no disks" policy (paranoid about viruses). This really bugs me - they wasted money on 8MB AGP video cards and floppy drives in every computer, and won't let people use them. They also have 8GB hard drives, with about 1GB used on each computer (but at least some teachers allow us to put MP3s on them, which is the only way the speakers and sound cards are ever used).

They have system policies enabled that prevent students from changing the display settings. I couldn't take the 60hz refresh rate, so I used the following file to disable the policies and change the display settings (save it as something.reg, double-click it in explorer, then right-click the desktop and choose properties). It also lets you use the registry editor, which would let you remove the rest of the restrictions (memorize the first four lines, up to DisableRegistryTools, and you can get past the restrictions on any Win9x computer with regedit.exe installed).




[ Parent ]

Have you tried good old news net ? ... (none / 0) (#1)
by Philipp on Fri Apr 21, 2000 at 05:29:10 AM EST

Philipp voted 1 on this story.

Have you tried good old news net ? It does everything you seem to want...

alias kn 'killall -9 netscape-communicator'

Re: Have you tried good old news net ? ... (none / 0) (#9)
by evro on Fri Apr 21, 2000 at 11:03:15 AM EST

There are actually some newsgroups people can access on campus, but nobody uses them.
"Asking me who to follow -- don't ask me, I don't know!"
[ Parent ]
Re: Have you tried good old news net ? ... (none / 0) (#14)
by fluffy grue on Fri Apr 21, 2000 at 01:51:37 PM EST

Heh, it's the same way at the NMSU CS department. We had a few newsgroups, such as nmsu.cs, which still exist, but nobody uses them because of the much more convenient departmental mailinglists, one for each class of person (csall is everyone, csugrads and csgrads for undergrads and grad students, csfaculty, and csdudes for the networking staff). I used to read newsgroups and would always have nmsu.cs in my newsgroups list, but nobody ever posted to it, until one day when there was a sudden FLOOD of them. Apparently, one of the local community college classes on "learn the Internet" decided to use the CS newsgroup for learning about USEnet. So there were a lot of inane posts from a lot of inane people. Someone anonymously made a reference to using drugs, a bunch of other people immediately said "It's illegal to talk about that! Do you want the police to get you?" and so forth. I decided to fuck with them a bit and post anonymous messages like "ok so wheres the porn?" and the like, which was greatly unappreciated. :)
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.
I have a master's degree in science!

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]
[ Parent ]

Re: Have you tried good old news net ? ... (none / 0) (#26)
by jacob on Sun Apr 23, 2000 at 12:35:02 PM EST

I agree. Here at Rice, we do just that: one newsgroup for every class that wants one, in addition to the more general ones. Some classes get no posts on their newsgroups, others get tons, but it really works well. To the author of the story: there's no need to reinvent the wheel. News!

"it's not rocket science" right right insofar as rocket science is boring


[ Parent ]
Major piece of gpl'd "weblog" softw... (5.00 / 1) (#6)
by RobotSlave on Fri Apr 21, 2000 at 08:32:42 AM EST

RobotSlave voted 0 on this story.

Major piece of gpl'd "weblog" software, including a great deal of functionality not found in "single purpose" software like slash and scoop, and a lot of email integration: The ArsDigita Community System. ACS does not have the "pretty layout" of scoop/slash, but it is intended to be highly customizable-- AD leave the layout and design issues to the designers, and just give you plain old functionality instead.

I'm sure someone else will suggest Zope, but it seems to be more of a web development environment than an application. I don't know, I haven't given it more than a cursory look. It can definitely serve as the basis of a weblog-- it's the basis of technocrat.net

There's also something called Midgard, but since their web site is so long on design and short on content, I've never been able to figure out what exactly the project is trying to accomplish (or even what the existing software does). It seems to be "middleware" of some sort, but I'm not really sure.

Re: Major piece of gpl'd "weblog" softw... (none / 0) (#8)
by locutus074 on Fri Apr 21, 2000 at 10:49:57 AM EST

The ACS is a great set of software, IMO. (I may be biased because I'm trying to get a job with these people.) The one failing that I see with this while using it in a educational setting is the highly outrageous licensing fee (nevermind that Oracle is a real bitch to install (I should know, I've been wrangling with it a couple of months now)). All is not yet lost, though; there's a group of people that are working on a port of it to PostgreSQL. If anybody's interested, they can check out ArsDigita's homepage or Freshmeat and search for ACS (do the second option if you want the PostgreSQL version).
"If you haven't gotten where you're going,
you aren't there yet." --George Carlin
[ Parent ]
Re: Major piece of gpl'd "weblog" softw... (none / 0) (#13)
by bgp4 on Fri Apr 21, 2000 at 01:03:10 PM EST

Until recently, ACS only ran under AOLServer. They claim to now have it successfully running under apache. It's not that I had a problem with the "AOL" in AOLServer, but it didn't run on the platform I had. Now that it has apache support, I'm curious as to how good the support is. Anybody played with it under apache?

Now if the Postgres port allows folks to deploy ACS without an oracle licence, ACS will really start to gain acceptance (IMHO).
May all your salads be eaten out of black hats
[ Parent ]
Re: Major piece of gpl'd "weblog" softw... (none / 0) (#22)
by RobotSlave on Fri Apr 21, 2000 at 05:09:51 PM EST

What platform do you need to run it on?

There are precompiled binaries for the latest version of AOLServer (3.0) for:

  • Win32
  • Linux 2.2
  • Irix 6.4, 6.5
  • Solaris 2.6(sparc), 7(i386)
  • DEC Unix 4.0
  • HP/UX 10.20

with *bsd binaries on the way. It should compile without too much trouble on your averge 'nix (source is available under an MPL variant).

[ Parent ]

This is a great discussion topic. I... (none / 0) (#5)
by dlc on Fri Apr 21, 2000 at 08:36:33 AM EST

dlc voted 1 on this story.

This is a great discussion topic. I wish we'd had this kind of thing when I was in school.


Where I study, the faculty has inst... (none / 0) (#4)
by inspire on Fri Apr 21, 2000 at 08:58:33 AM EST

inspire voted 0 on this story.

Where I study, the faculty has installed TopClass from WBT Systems. This provides the messaging/discussion board thing.

Looking into it further, there is a lot of work being done on getting web-enabled systems into education in the way that you've discussed.

Perhaps its time for an open-source version of these programs.
What is the helix?

I'm in the unenviable situation of ... (2.50 / 2) (#3)
by eann on Fri Apr 21, 2000 at 09:18:10 AM EST

eann voted 1 on this story.

I'm in the unenviable situation of being on the other side of that--I work for the IT department at a fairly large university, and we're going through the process of rearranging what features and services we're making available on our web site, and to promote to both faculty and students. I'm very interested in the discussion this story generates, 'cos things like this will be dominating my professional life for the next few months.

Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men. —MLK

$email =~ s/0/o/; # The K5 cabal is out to get you.

Re: I'm in the unenviable situation of ... (none / 0) (#19)
by ramses0 on Fri Apr 21, 2000 at 04:04:43 PM EST

As an "admin", I'm sure you'd want the most zero-maintenance system as possible. I'd appreciate it if you would give a wishlist of features as far as setting up the system, maintaining the system, performance issues, spamming issues, anonymity and censorship issues, campus-wide resistance, training issues, user-login issues, etc...

Since I'm working on a edu-web-collab system myself, I'd love to hear what it's like from the other side of the fence.

I'm especially interested in user-login issues. I was hoping to bang the password-validation off of a user's unix password, so users would have one and only one password for any system on campus. (Also, it's a good way to restrict posting to only users who have accounts at the university).

I also want to use HTTP_AUTH (those little pop-up windows that prompt you for your name/password), but I've heard some not-great things about them (they don't expire naturally, and they transmit the password cleartext).

Any responses which you (or other sysadmins) could post would be greatfully received!

[ rate all comments , for great justice | sell.com ]
[ Parent ]

Re: I'm in the unenviable situation of ... (none / 0) (#20)
by superfly on Fri Apr 21, 2000 at 04:37:17 PM EST

HTTP Basic authentication transmits the username and password joined with a
colon and encoded with base64. This is about as secure as rot13 -- effectively
cleartext. If you're using a password you care about (one that's used anywhere
else), then you should run the HTTP over SSL.

You can't expire the authentication easily. Netscape (and all(?) other
browsers) remembers the username/password until it is closed. You can use a
different username by connecting to the server by another name (eg,
kuro5hin.org instead of www.kuro5hin.org), but you can't get rid of the old

Cookies are the only decent solution I know of. Basic auth, like MIME type
negotiation, seems to be one of those things in HTTP that have been more or
less abandoned.

[ Parent ]
Refine the Sections. ... (none / 0) (#7)
by schporto on Fri Apr 21, 2000 at 09:23:16 AM EST

schporto voted 1 on this story.

Refine the Sections. Just a simple suggestion I'd make. The sections area here and /. are great for what they're intended for. They are intended for news resources. They appear, are read, and eventually go off the main page. What may be more usefull in a class/college environment is a drill down menu set where 'articles' don't age really. Like a tree view or something. Plus what's relevant to Class A might be completely irrelevant to another class. Or just run a scoop/slash server for each class. Then maybe have a central server that points to each class server. And departmental server. Dunno if its a good idea or not and you'll probably find some resistance on the full campus level, but individual classes could work. I was thinking you wanted more of the first not the second. And I like the email idea too, but the threading might get a little tough (case, spelling, etc). -cpd

Re: Weblogs in Education? (none / 0) (#11)
by mr. creep on Fri Apr 21, 2000 at 12:00:24 PM EST

Just set up UBB. It is still a CGIscript, but hey, it is a lot better then having to use email. Hell, I wish I had all this fun stuff to play with when I was in school. We still had TRS-80 systems with Trucker and Eliza on them. LOL.
brian - geeknik.net
Have a look at the competition... (5.00 / 1) (#12)
by Slamtilt on Fri Apr 21, 2000 at 12:27:50 PM EST

You'll be in competition with several commercial packages, so you might want to have a look at their features. AFAIK, they vary from OK to use to unbelievably painful. I think most of them include message board functions, along w/ things like online quizzes, project submission, and so on. A couple of places to look: The difficult thing is not so much the technology, but integrating it effectively into courses, and faculty training. At least, that's my understanding - I don't play w/ this stuff, but my spouse does...

I'm working on one right now :^)= (5.00 / 1) (#15)
by ramses0 on Fri Apr 21, 2000 at 01:58:12 PM EST

Yay! A perfect opportunity to <plug>plug</plut> my little software project that I've been hacking on for the past few months.

You're probably in exactly the same situation that I am. Computer-illiterate professors, campus newsgroups that don't get answered, and maybe 5% of professors use the web, while maybe 10% of those 5% manage to use it correctly.

Take a look at http://ramses0.dhs.org/directory/view/ and tell me what you all think. I haven't actually gone through and GPL'd all the code yet (I want to make sure I get a good job first ;^)= ... but this thingy will definitely end up being GPL.


  • Apache
  • MySQL
  • mod_php
  • p200mmx w/64mb ram :^)=


  • Ultra intuitive/simple interface
  • All classes automatically have a discussion board
  • Professors can make announcements to the class
  • Professors can do web-uploads of files (and password protect them)
  • it is a very nice discussion board (imho) designed to keep things easy to discuss at all times.
  • looks really good under lynx
  • really makes an effort to be 100% compatible/standards compliant. (tries to do it "the right way")
  • It is a complete package, providing many basic classrooms services
  • the codebase is (imho) pretty nice looking. Easy to read, understand, and play with.

Bad things:

  • Netscape 4.7 barfs horribly on some of the CSS
  • not done yet :^)=
  • not secure yet
  • still a little bit ugly
  • needs a way to "bulk-input" all the class data

I didn't research too much about the different collaborative bulletin boards for schools, so it might be better in some areas or worse in others. (but thank you everybody for the links, i'll read them after class!)

Lemme know what you think (especially about the discussion board, since that's the major impetus for doing this project). Feel free to post messages, add classes, pretend you're a professor uploading files, etc... Just don't expect too much input protection (oh, and un-password protecting files broke for some reason, that's about the only real bug in it right now).

[ rate all comments , for great justice | sell.com ]

Re: Weblogs in Education? (none / 0) (#16)
by bmetzler on Fri Apr 21, 2000 at 02:54:54 PM EST

You may also want to keep an eye on SchoolBoard.

www.bmetzler.org - it's not just a personal weblog, it's so much more.
Re: Weblogs in Education? (none / 0) (#17)
by homer on Fri Apr 21, 2000 at 03:03:45 PM EST

There is a weblog in development called thatware. It is written in PHP with a MySQL backend. It is easier to set up, in my opinion, than Slash (haven't tried Scoop) because there is no recompiling of Perl, Apache, or MySQL necessary. It is somewhat primitive right now, although the development seems to be pretty active. I think this is an effective solution, especially if you aren't running a dedicated server. Webhosting packages including PHP/MySQL can be found for around $10 a month. I've also tried Squishdot (which technocrat.net is based on). Squish could be a valuable tool for someone who doesn't want to touch any code because of its "user-friendly" web interface. I'm not sure how good it would stand up to heavy traffic, being written in Python. I've found that it chews up CPU and memory quite rapidly.
Re: Weblogs in Education? (none / 0) (#21)
by rusty on Fri Apr 21, 2000 at 04:51:50 PM EST

It is easier to set up, in my opinion, than Slash (haven't tried Scoop) because there is no recompiling of Perl, Apache, or MySQL necessary.

Assuming you already have Apache compiled with mod_php, and you have MySQL installed, that is, right? If you have the equivalent setup (i.e. Apache with mod_perl, and MySQL) already installed, there's no recompiling there either. And every responsible distribution has perl installed already. So, there's no real effort saved as far as I can tell. People seem to be less afraid of PHP stuff than they are of perl stuff.. it's kind of mysterious to me.

Anyway, the new Scoop release is coming *really soon* (as in, I just did the first successful test install of the clean 0.5 code, so this weekend probably!), and it will include a handy install script. I'm pretty sure I can get everything you need to do (including getting CPAN modules, installing the code, building the DB, and even generating a VirtualHost section for httpd.conf) packaged up all nice and neat in one little ./install. How's that for easy? :-)

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]

Why everybody thinks PHP is so easy... (none / 0) (#23)
by evro on Fri Apr 21, 2000 at 08:36:31 PM EST

I think one of the reasons people think PHP is "easier" than perl is that using perl for cgi is like writing a program that has some HTML in it, whereas PHP is more along the lines of an HTML doc with some programming code interspersed throughout. You can take an existing HTML file and rename it to whatever.php3 and it will still display the page correctly with no alterations. Then going in and adding some code to an existing template is easier than doing the equivalent in perl, IMO.

Also, and I don't really know if this is the case for perl or not, but PHP was designed for cgi. If I have a form going to a perl script, I usually use CGI_Lite.pm to process the form data and copy it to the hash %fields, so then I can refer to all the form elements as $fields{name}, or whatever. In PHP you don't have to do any of that black magic: if you have a field in your form that's called street_address, in the php script it's just $street_address. I can see that maybe that might not be such a great thing in some cases, but it gives the appearance of being much easier (especially if you don't know about using existing modules to handle that stuff. I still don't know how you would get the form data into a hash, though I could find out just by looking at CGI_Lite.pm, but I just use it as something of a magical black box).

Of course, I've mentioned in the past how great the PHP documentation is, and its centralized location (all on php.net) usually makes it simple to find the answer to a question. That and phpbuilder.com, where you can post a question and have people actually come and answer it, are great resources, and I personally don't know of anything like that for Perl.

Also for PHP, you don't have to require, or use, or include any modules to extend its functionality. Of course, you DO have to compile it with all the flags you want to use it with, but this is a one-time thing, and if you're not running the server (ie, paying for hosting), that's not really your problem. It just magically works, which is always nice.

Before I sign off, let me say that this is not why I think that PHP is easier than Perl, but why I think PHP is perceived as being easier than Perl; though I do love PHP. Of course, as with anything, there are tradeoffs both ways. With PHP it may be easier to do lots of CGI stuff, but you may lose a lot of the power that Perl provides.

Oh, I almost forgot! Regular Expressions! $r ~= s/\r/\n/g is a rather scary thing to see for someone just beginning, and Perl relies on these heavily. But like I said, this a tradeoff between power and ease-of-use.
"Asking me who to follow -- don't ask me, I don't know!"
[ Parent ]

Re: Weblogs in Education? (none / 0) (#24)
by yebyen on Sat Apr 22, 2000 at 01:44:27 AM EST

My high-school is working on a similar project... (well, myself and two other people are...). Our idea is more as a reference tool, than a way for students to contact teachers. The basic idea is that students or parents can go online to check homework assignments, read about the teachers, etc., while coping with our computer-illiterate teachers who are barely willing to type into an html form. Considering the limited resources we have (one coder, one graphics designer, and one guy to do the grunt work involved in contacting system administrators) , i will be amazed when we pull it off. Not really informative, but relevant.

yebyen:~$ man woman
No manual entry for woman
Bah! Use a mail list and archive it (none / 0) (#25)
by Anonymous Hero on Sat Apr 22, 2000 at 10:45:54 PM EST

Archive an email list with MHonArc or Hypermail. Stop reinventing the wheel.

Weblogs in Education? | 26 comments (26 topical, 0 editorial, 0 hidden)
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