Class discussions on Discourse

In 2018 I (with the support of the Teaching & Learning IT team in my School) switched from Piazza to a self-hosted Discourse instance for class discussions. Specifically, I used it for COMP1720: Art & Interaction in New Media, a large-ish (~200 students) introductory code/art programming and interaction design course. This course is open to both CS and non-CS students, and can be counted towards a major in both the CS and the ANU School of Art and Design.1

This wasn’t because Piazza sucks—it’s actually pretty great in lots of ways. But there were a few things we hoped to that Discourse would do better:

  1. integration with the rest of our class management infrastructure (so that the professor doesn’t have to keep adding/students manually as enrolment grows and then settles down at the start of semester)

  2. a proper API, rather than using one of the unofficial Piazza API clients and hoping that Piazza didn’t break things just before an assigment/exam

  3. proper markdown support (with the ability to add whichever programming languages we like through highlight.js integration) rather than whatever they call the nonsense pseudo-markdown and flaky rich text editor that Piazza offers

  4. self-hosting and controlling where the data is stored, because I don’t think I ever figured out whether it was technically ok to store student data on a foreign server and compel students to create an account on same

  5. a plugin ecosystem so that we could tweak it to suit our specific needs (and potentially develop our own plugins)

Still, there are a couple of things that Discourse is missing out-of-the-box compared to Piazza:

  1. the ability for instructors (professors & tutors) to mark a question/answer as a good question/answer (really handy in teaching)

  2. the ability for students to “post anonymously to other students” while still being visible (identifiable) to the instructors

  3. ability for students to “accept” an answer, SO-style (there’s a plugin for this, but we didn’t use it first time around)

So how’d it go?

Pretty well—student engagement was higher than the previous year (with Piazza) and anecdotal feedback was that the students liked it. The limitations described above didn’t bite too hard, although I do think that the “post anonymously to students” thing in particular does encourage students to speak up when they’re struggling in a way that they don’t when their name is attached to everything.

Along the way, we also made some decisions about how to organise/administer a Discourse server for use as a course forum. Since Discourse isn’t specifically designed for this task, we had to make a few choices, and it’s worth laying them out here in case anyone else is going down the same path. Note, you’ll need to get your head around the Discourse nomenclature if you’re going to use it, but the crash course is

  • threads are called topics
  • topics are grouped into categories and subcategories (but only 2 levels max—no subsubcategories)
  • groups are groups of users

So, the way we organised it was:

  • each course is a category
  • subcategories were devoted to e.g. lectures, labs, assignments, etc.
  • access control: all students were enrolled into a group, which was given read/write access to the category with the same name2
  • tutors (TAs) were given

Here’s an example: for COMP1720 we set up

  • a top-level comp1720 category
  • a comp1720 group (in which all students in the course were automatically enrolled using the Discourse API)
  • all tutors are members of a comp1720-tutors group, which has a higher privilege level

This way, if a student is enrolled in multiple courses, they’ll appear in multiple groups. They’ll have access to all the topics in the categories for their courses, but not any topics from other course (of course).

One final bonus is that the default “homepage” for a logged in user shows the latest posts across all the user’s categories (although users can customise this behaviour).

Next steps

I’ve got a student who’s working hard to develop a new plugin to restore the “anon to students, visible to instructors” behaviour, since that’s a deal-breaker for a lot of folks (it nearly was for me as well). We’ll release that plugin when it’s done and the kinks are worked out.

There are still things to figure out as well, but things are looking good. I wouldn’t go back; I think it’s easier to add the things I miss from Piazza to Discourse than the other way around.

If you’ve got experience with this sort of thing and have suggestions or comments, then get in touch (@benswift or [email protected])

  1. I also teach all the artists & designers to use git—and it works really well… with the appropriate scaffolding. Knowing how to use version control really does feel like having superpowers when editing digital, and seeing artists and designers realise this is pretty cool. 

  2. the course category (list of topics) and group (list of members) could in principle have different names