McGill’s Online Community

I noticed recently that in addition to the McGill staff directory, there is now a McGill students directory, where lucky students, such as myself, can be listed. It’s an opt-inable through minerva, and I’d imagine most people will miss noticing it completely. The fact that the directory is not able to be indexed by search engines will probably limit the usefulness of the directory. If someone knows my name, and knows that I am atttending McGill, there are considerably easier ways to find one of my email addresses. I suspect the number of students in it will pale before the directory juggernaut of facebook.

Which brings me to ponder: where is McGill’s online community? Here we have a large group of intellectual and generally technologically savvy people, who it seems would benefit from being able to confer in an informal manner across a wide range of subjects, and yet no academic discussion boards, no forums, no chat rooms (no, listservs don’t count). While it’s true that WebCT provides some basic features, I have yet to see them used in one of my classes(although I do once recall a roommate having an interesting chat with a physics professor in one of his classes), and they are generally confined in my experience to the course assignments and tests immediately at hand, not an environment for a lot of free flowing educational discussion.

Imagine for example, having a board devoted to modern linguistics topics, perhaps moderated by a few linguistics professors, perhaps a physicist with an interest in linguistics could wander by, maybe pose a question, or help with some physical or mathematical questions the linguists might have. One of the great problems with online communities, the generally poor behaviour which comes with apparent anonymity, could easily be eliminated by McGill, by giving access only to members of the McGill community (the minerva login system seems to be pretty flexible for example), and by forcing people to be readily identifiable.

Beyond initial setup troubles, this seems like it would be an easy and effective way for McGill to counter some of the very justified ‘impersonal’ and ‘bureaucratic’ slurs lodged its way. While I can forsee some rules that may have to be put in (perhaps restrictions on specifically course related discussions and some political issues which tend to become never ending topics), I think the potential in this case certainly outweighs some of the pitfalls.

2 Responses to “McGill’s Online Community”

  1. sieber says:

    Interesting question. I had hoped that this blog would be a conduit for faculty, staff and students in McGill’s School of Environment to discuss important issues. This has yet to occur, although I think it will occur as the MSE gets used to the technology. I speculate that (a) faculty have yet to integrate this means of communication into their other routines, that is, the professors are late adopters; (b) faculty are primarily pre-tenure so they’re conserving their time to things that get them tenure; and (c) environmental students tend to be anti-technology unless that technology directly serves their university needs.

    If the reason people didn’t participate was because they were uncomfortable with this mode of communication then we’d see blogs, wikis, and chat rooms among the computer science students and faculty. Is this the case?

  2. liam says:

    I don’t think people are uncomfortable with the mode of communication per se, it’s just an unfamiliar arena for academics for most people. The sort of informal discussions that I can have for example in the labs at school with other students would certainly benefit from having a professor or someone more knowledgable throwing in a comment or two. Forums could fill the niche between ‘formally’ approaching a professor with a question, and just discussing ideas with peers while never getting authoritative input.

    It still seems to me that blogs are closer to publishing a newsletter than leading a discussion on the spectrum of interactivity, for example, I’d be wary of posting a sort of general query on this blog. It seems more akin to the online version of an editorial page than the talking around coffee.

    I’ve been trying to get CS to put up a wiki for a few months now, they have said they are planning on implementing one as soon as their planned website redesign comes through (announced I believe in… february). I’ve also asked the CSUS to setup forums, but received some vague support, and have seen no action since. Death (or at least lethargy) by committee does seem to be a powerful force here at McGill. I think the willingness to communicate online is there, I have a sizable number of CS students on my various messenger lists.