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The new discussion fora on myUnisa

Posted by robanaurochs 
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avatar The new discussion fora on myUnisa
February 28, 2006 01:36AM
Hi All

Has anybody seen the discussion fora on myUnisa? Has anybody seen one that you can actually post messages on? Here are some messages I sent to the support team. I'll post their next reply if I get one.


Hi Bugmaster

I'd like to report a bug in the myUnisa system that is a requirements and
design bug rather than an implementation bug.

The discussion fora don't seem to work. Students can only create
categories.. No opening of categories is allowed and no posting of messages
is allowed. The result is that students are using the "create category"
command to post messages.

I am a Comp Sci/IT student so I've been using osprey.unisa.ac.za all the
time (even when SOL was active) so I can still communicate with fellow
students there. Some students who've been directed to osprey have noted that
when they complained about not being able to post messges they say that the
standard response has been that the lecturers must "activate" the discussion
forum for that subject before students can post messages. This is

Those students who've migrated to myUnisa from SOL have come to expect the
discussion fora to be available for peer-to-peer help and now they are being
denied this very useful service. The fora were originally designed for this
purpose. The lecturers don't have the time to activate new discussion
threads everytime a student wants one and besides that, not all of the
lecturers even read the postings. There are a few who have steered
discussions in the right direction in some subjects I've had last year but
those lecturers are few.

In short, the fora should be openned up again like they were on SOL. They
are for the students, used by students and policed by students. They are a
very useful tool for creating online study groups.

For the students taking the same subjects as me, I've created a category on
all available discussion fora to redirect them to the fora available on
osprey.unisa.ac.za. Hopefully, the talking can now start.

Yours sincerely

Their reply
Dear Robert,

Although the "Add Category" option is available to students, the lecturers
MUST create the categories as well as the first topic in each category.
Therefore, we ask you to please e-mail the lecturer directly and request
him/her to start the discussion forum for you.

With regards to the Osprey system... if any students post questions to the
lecturer, the chances of the lecturer seeing it are slim.

We apologize for this inconvenience and hope the lecturer starts the forum
for you soon.

myUnisa Support Team

Me starting to get annoyed
Hi Support Team

From what you've said, I understand that the following procedure must be
1) A student wishing a new discussion thread called "I'm stuck with xxx,
anybody got a different point of view?" will have 2 options:
a - Create a category him-/herself, or
b - Request a lecturer to create the category
2) Request the lecturer to post the first message in order to activate the
discussion thread.
3) Student can now post messages at will, as can other students.

Please correct me if I misunderstood your reply.

If, I have indeed understood correctly, I fail to understand the logic
behind creating a cumbersome system like this. What, exactly is the lecturer
supposed to put in the activation post? I predict that if lecturers actually
do respond with regularity, these initial posts will probably be empty
messages just to activate the thread, so what's the point?

In all practicality, I can imagine that the lecturers will get fed up with
requests for new categories to be activated that they will eventually start
ignoring them. Thus, your system will become unusable (not that it is at the
moment). Why are the lecturers being turned into webmasters? Don't they have
enough work to do already?

On another point, there is no notice informing students of how the new
system works and among my modules I'm registered for, I have yet to see an
active thread. As I mentioned in my first e-mail, the fora are being used in
a way they were not designed for: people are using the "create category"
option to post messages. At the current rate, some of my subjects will have
a few hundred empty categories by the end of the year. I'm just a
second-year student but to me, this seem like a rather serious design flaw -
not because the system is being used in a way that wasn't intended but
rather that the system is not meeting the users' needs. The students have
queries and comments to make but the system won't allow them to.

I've noticed that some of my COS lecturers have started to put up notices on
myUnisa, referring students to osprey.unisa.ac.za for discussion fora and
downloads. I somehow don't think that the School of Computing has much
confidence in your new system if they're doing that.

Can anybody please explain why you changed the policy? Why must lecturers
activate each category before postings can be made? Is it possible to "open
up" the fora on myUnisa like they were on SOL? If not, why not?

You mentioned that messages posted on osprey to lecturers are not likely to
get a response from them. Of course not. The osprey fora are peer-to-peer
not student-to-lecturer and osprey has never claimed that. Anyone who's used
osprey should know that if you want to get hold of a lecturer, you just send
an e-mail to <subject code>@osprey.unisa.ac.za. The lecturers do read the
postings sometimes but they've mentioned that they'll only make comments if
we get stuck and can't find a solution ourselves.

From the little I used of SOL for non-Comp Sci subjects, SOL used to be the
same. Why did you have to change it? It wasn't broken, so why fix it? To be
honest, apart from the change in the look and the addition of class lists, I
don't really see the difference between myUnisa and SOL. Why couldn't you
just keep SOL and add class lists?

This new policy seems to be contrary to the entire purpose of the discussion
fora and in the words of a fellow student, "Does this strike anyone else as

Yours sincerely
avatar Re: The new discussion fora on myUnisa
February 28, 2006 07:37AM
I agree with you 100%. It's silly.
Maybe if they (UNISA) explained the logic behind this, it won't be as silly as we think.

And the reply you received from the support team...Don't get me started.

"With regards to the Osprey system... if any students post questions to the
lecturer, the chances of the lecturer seeing it are slim." - myUnisa Support Team.

And the lecturers direct the students to the Osprey system.

What's wrong with this picture?

avatar Re: The new discussion fora on myUnisa
February 28, 2006 09:01AM
myunisa is horrid it's like sol except with half the functionality of sol... and it has the word "my" everywhere which in my books is never a good thing;/

Lets hope its more stable then sol at least. ps/ I also think the new forum thing is a joke.
Anonymous User
Re: The new discussion fora on myUnisa
February 28, 2006 09:43AM
That is just ridiculous - itsd not like the lecturer can just start 1 message and then people can add whatever they want... I also always thought the forums were more for student interaction that for lecturers to talk to us (like some of them ever do...). Oh well, I guess osprey is going to become a lot more popular - lets hope they don't decide to get rid of it too!
Re: The new discussion fora on myUnisa
February 28, 2006 11:01AM
Well maybe its a way to force some involvement from the lecturers on the forums smiling smiley

...in my dreams...

Does seem a rather cumbersome arrangement, I haven't actually seen it myself though, because I'm still waiting for my registration to come through after almost three weeks, and am therefore not allowed to join myVeryOwnUnisa...

In general though I can't understand the thinking behind unisa's online strategy at all, was hoping they might have improved things with the rebuild. As a distance education institution one would expect them to have been all over the net at the first opportunity, but it seems they in fact discourage it. Especially in the school of computing you would think that some efrfort could be made, particularly since the school identifies electronic education as one of its research areas, not to mention HCI... most other establised correspondance institutions nowdays use video-conferenced lecturers and real-time online discussions via instant messaging, and here we have to fight to get a basic phorum operating...

One of my major gripes is the lack of lecturer involvement in the discussions... Its often basically stated as policy that they don't, and then say it should be seen as our "classroom". Personally I tend to listen in class and appreciate hearing lecturer's explanations to other students questions - the inter-student discussion is more what happens in the hallway - a classroom is kind of defind by having someone giving the class... maybe thats just semantics, but I think its an element thats missing from our educational experience. In the old days there used to be two discussion avenues per subject: sol/osprey route and a mailing list. Under that system I could see the idea being that the e-mail list was for student discussion, while the sol phorum was where the lecturer participated... or maybe it should have been the other way round... but anyway the mailing lists never got much subscription, in part i think because you had to set it up manually yourself. While it seems like overkill I think that system actually had some potential in that it catered to kind of "formal" and "informal" discussion. In reality though it seems that there is not much need for the "informal", but the old formal channel has been re-cast as such anyway.

As I said half-jokingly at the top, this may be a way to get the lecturers onto the fora, but is obviously the wrong way to go about it - at least there is some way to get a message on there, but no lecturer is going to be approving categories after hours which is when we generally do most of our work (and post our most urgent queries).

Well guess thats all a bit off topic - as you say the best option would just be to use the osprey forums, but they are obviously no longer linked back to the main system as they were in the SOL days, so I guess thats going to be even more tedious as we'll have to keep checking both places, or posting in both places in those desperate moments...
Re: The new discussion fora on myUnisa
March 03, 2006 12:10PM
>> Especially in the school of computing you would think that some efrfort could be made

Hi Tripod

We'd like to think we do, which is why we have stable Osprey amidst all the change smile

Its not simply just about adding streaming video and what have you - we do a lot of research as you've pointed out, but like most institutions, we're more comfortable with a blended learning approach for now, for various reasons. For example, remember that not all students are in the same time-zone, so having synchronous discussions is not possible, except after-hours. Also, if all students had ADSL we would've been further ahead, but unfortunately that is not the case. Then there are moral issues involved in supplying and contributing to a superior environment accessible to some but not other students. I think we're getting nearer to the point where we can offer a true learning environment as per the definition ,but then one does not want to leave the lecturer behind in the process. You'd be amazed at how much emails some lecturers receive daily - and they have to be answered leaving less time to be on-line....

When we add to Osprey we do it step by step. Slowly.I remember last year some students not being too happy when we upgraded our forum software to the current version. People generally resist change if it happens too fast.

Many lecturers have indeed discovered the value of contributing to a forum. Let's hope the rest discover it soon!

Here's the abstract from a conference paper I delivered recently. I post it here since it spells out clearly (I hope) the School's position and stance on OLE's.

Despite a proliferation of published research on On-Line Learning Environments (OLE), e-learning remains a relatively young and growing science with instructional paradigms still being discovered and conceptualized. Routes of least resistance are often followed resulting in many institutions opting for commercial or contributary groupware products. There is concern that faculty is thereby shepherd by a technology that largely dictates pedagogy, design and the delivery methods.

In this nebulous environment, the School of Computing at Unisa has engaged themselves in a process of "technology mastering�. In the absence of established learning models, we follow a non-proprietary, custom and evolutionary approach to the development of an OLE. That is, we are of the opinion that until such time as there is conceptual coherence of online instruction paradigms and until all or most of the constraints currently impacting on OLE’s are removed, we need to explore and experiment with various scripting, database, Internet communication and operating software technologies as tools for on-line learning in an effort to find a solution that fits our current on-line and future OLE requirements.

Partly a case study, this paper details strategies for the construction of a customized interactive on-line course delivery environment, with immediate purposes to streamline the delivery process and to provide suitable structures to an evolving e-learning environment.. Constraints and issues that direct(ed) our efforts are highlighted, and it is shown how open source software provides power, functionality and freedom in developing a dynamic, low maintenance on-line environment by taking advantage of a centralized faculty workflow system.

A framework is described that will assist designers to systematically build an OLE through a layered approach.

It is not intended as a technical discussion on teaching methodology, scripting languages and web-design issues - rather, as a theoretical model that is explained with the aid of practical examples, it attempts to coalesce the advantages of open source software with both the quality of the Internet experience for the student and the ease of administration thereof.

avatar Re: The new discussion fora on myUnisa
March 25, 2006 11:07AM
I am clinking around the myunisa discussion list and still cannotfigure out how things work . I amm on dial up so will disconnect and read through this post for any help, but perhaps some-one can make it clear to me how to open and item, I click on the subject lines and nothing seems to happen except the triangle changes direction.

Going off line, damn Telkom .
Vis n
Anonymous User
Re: The new discussion fora on myUnisa
March 27, 2006 11:15AM
All that does happen is that the direction of the triangle changes according to whether the list is expanded or not - but I don't think there are any discussions there anyhow.
Re: The new discussion fora on myUnisa
March 28, 2006 09:07AM
The School of Computing is not using myUnisa at all for this year. We use Osprey and only Osprey.

Therefore there is NO need to use the discussion forums on myUnisa at all.

All students should continue using these forums, as they have,for the past 5 years. Why have two forums in different places for one subject?

The COSALL does not make this clear, simply because when it was drafted we had no idea how myUnisa was going to work. Hopefully this was corrected in all tut letters.

You should only use myUnisa for assignments uploading etc. For the rest, use Osprey. Next year we might move to myUnisa...

r.e. the reply from myUnisa support:

"With regards to the Osprey system... if any students post questions to the
lecturer, the chances of the lecturer seeing it are slim. "

this is not true. In fact, the chances that the lecturers will see it is much greater. I'll leave it at that.
Anonymous User
Re: The new discussion fora on myUnisa
March 28, 2006 09:48AM
at least we are not the only ones lost and confused. Thank you though for clearing up the fact that we should use osprey only. Then again, I don't recall using anything else...
avatar Re: The new discussion fora on myUnisa
April 03, 2006 01:32PM
There are a lot of posts, I was wondering if I was missing out on something ?
Vis Naicker
avatar Re: The new discussion fora on myUnisa
April 03, 2006 10:47PM
Hi All

I've had further correspondence with the Web dept but I haven't posted any of the replies. Sorry for being so lazy. Here's all that I have:



It is actually wonderfull to see how a solution created in a different part of the world can create so much confussion amoong users in another part of the world. It seems the folks in Europe and USA are much closer to understand the methodology although the problem is in South Africa. I am currently trying to rectify the matter via training of lecturers and it is unfortunately a slow process but let me try to explain.

You are quite correct. Categories can be created by students and lecturers. The original idea was something like this:

Lets assume students create the following categories: 1. Charlize Theron 2. Economic Principles for 3rd world country 3. Assignment One 4. Study Groups any takers.

The lecturer can see now that students wanted the 4 categories as above. He/she now decides to Delete the first one for obvious reasons but he thinks the other three are cool. He must then open each category with a topic for example: I note some students might want to discuss the economic principles for a third world country. As it is relevant to Chapter 3 in the text book I think we can spend some time here. Student who "voted" created this category what is your opening remark about this issue...


Students wish to discuss problems of asignment one please do so in this forum However please do not provie answers to each other on this forum. Rather guide each other to a better understanding.


It is a good idea to create study groups. Why not even work with each other in this forum as a virtual group. What kind of input would you expect from me...

Having done something like the above three of the forums are activated and now students can talk among themselves on the forums.

I hope this confirms that you understand the process correctly. However all lecturers was requested to immediatly start forums categories and topics proactively and state how they wish to use forums. I will answer some of your questions within the message itself.

From here, my last e-mail is repeated with comments added. I won't post the whole thing again, just one or two lines so you can get the context and then the reply in bold

I predict that if lecturers actually
do respond with regularity, these initial posts will probably be empty
messages just to activate the thread, so what's the point?

Lecturers are asked to proactively create forums categories as well as topics that should contain rules for the forum as ell as expalin what he/she is going to do in the particular forum.

Why are the lecturers being turned into webmasters? Don't they have
enough work to do already?

They must teach. Forums must be created for students and it should not take a lecturer more that a few minutes to activate a general forum for students. If a lecturer does not want to teach using forums it is expected that they tell the students this so that student know what to expect from lecturers. I have some lecturing staff that does a great teaching tutoring job online and there pass rates also reflect a huge increase.

The students have
queries and comments to make but the system won't allow them to.

If the lecturer set up the correct forums this should not be a problem. However you are correct we are in the process of creating the help files. I will attach some of the in progress work.

Can anybody please explain why you changed the policy? We received several complaints from students who wanted this approach because they no longer wanted the discussion forums to be going on without the inputs or knowledge of the lecturer. This was mainly because of severe abuse of students on forums. Why must lecturers
activate each category before postings can be made?

This is an attempt to ensure the lecturer at least know there is a forum and he/she explained to the students how he/she will be using it or not. Is it possible to "open
up" the fora on myUnisa like they were on SOL? If not, why not? See previous reasons. We want lecturers to take responsibility for what is happening in their subjects.

Why couldn't you
just keep SOL and add class lists?

There is a huge difference between SOL and myUnisa. Because of the merger we had to merge COOL from former TSA with SOL. We had to kake the system accommodate all the stuff we previously offered the TSA students.

This was my reply...
Hi .....

I would use the word "intriguing" not "wonderful" but I'm glad you mentioned it. It seems to me that the same fate has befallen UNISA as has to other people I have had contact with in the past in large corporates - the powers that be think that what's relevent in another part of the world is also relevent in South Africa. The mere fact that you seem bewildered that there is indeed a problem here, indicates that your solution is not in fact a solution at all but rather a problem in itself.

I realise that with the merging of the universities there needed to be some form of consolidation of the IT services to students but what was wrong with just creating a COOL/SOL hybrid? I have never seen COOL but I can't imagine it being so radically different from SOL that they couldn't be combined in-house and given the same fancy new interface as myUnisa. I noticed that on myUnisa, there's a calendar tool that some students might find useful, and the class lists. Apart from this, it's virtually the same as SOL was so why get new software if all you needed to do was extend the stuff you had already?

As for the main reason for starting these e-mails, I think the decision-makers missed the boat when it comes to the discussion fora. Your system effectively turns the lecturers into sensors. I understand that you don't want the fora turning into another USENET but this fear is completely unfounded. You expect lecturers to keep an eye on the fora and yet you yourselves don't even know that the vast majority of the messages that have been posted in the past were indeed academically-related. The most off-topic post I've ever seen was somebody offering employment.

You also seem to put too much weight of responsibility on the shoulders of the lecturers. You expect them to moderate the posts when they've got postal and telephonic queries to respond to, meetings, and marking deadlines for thousands of students. You've made the assumption that the fora are student-lecturer entities - something that is not really practical in a university with so many students - when, in fact, they are peer-to-peer conduits that the lecturers occasionally pop into to see if they can add something useful.

If you wanted to upgrade SOL and COOL you should have just looked towards what was (and still is) working quite well: Osprey. And, as a bonus, you already have support staff on campus. There was absolutely no need to source software abroad. By bringing in a solution to another country's problem, you've made the terrible assumption that everybody in the world is the same. In that case, why is there a trend in the development industry towards localisation? This is Africa and a South African University. This is not America or Europe. Why do people think that the only way to progress is to become like them?

Just out of interest, in the universities in Europe and North America where this system apparently works, how many students are enrolled at them and are they lecture-based or correspondence?

This was the response

COOL was light years ahead of SOL. The useage was much better and the academics taught. They used the technology and really tried to remove the distance from distance education. Students and Lecturers talked to one another and at TSA it got to a point that certain subjects were only offered online. Pass rates increased etc.

Because we have to offer a solution to the whole University we have to aim at some sort of standard that support staff can use. The forums dont have to be monitored by academics but what we want from them is to initiate forums and to tell students what students can expect from them. In worse cases the academic may even start a forum and tell students he/she will never visit it again. So they are not appointed as sensors. The off the topic postings I have seen almost ended in court and several others will make material for movies of a blueish color. Yes I agree why must we now change everything because some abused the system? That debate was a long one and believe me was pushed to all boundries.

We are the largest role out of SAKAI and we get better support from them than what we get from large software houses. The nice thing about SAKAI is that it is opensource but with extreme good governance. We looked at of the shelve products but thy are too expensive, we did the inhouse route at TSA and at UNISA before but because they pay so badly every time the programmer did something good some IT company will come along and steal him/her from us. We had to find a different solution.

Another bonus is that we can influence and contribute to the general direction SAKAI is going. Most of the local Universities are getting together to form a SA needs driven group to contribute towards SAKAI. Here we are looking at especially the AFRICA context.

We have 55 000 enrolled students on myUnisa and except for minor implementation problems we find it to be very stable and it scales well with the loads.

Best with your studies


I didn't feel I was getting anywhere with the discussion so I didn't bother replying. I haven't continued the conversation since.

Anonymous User
Re: The new discussion fora on myUnisa
April 04, 2006 10:51AM
mmmm... I see their point and I see yours.... I guess the system did need to be changed but I think myUNISA should have got better buy in from the lecturers - if they think the system is goingto cause them more work, they won't accept it.

Oh well, maybe it will get better with time as more and more people get used to it.
avatar Re: The new discussion fora on myUnisa
April 04, 2006 06:40PM
I don't know about anybody else but I'm quite happy with how Osprey's set out.

Just add registration, internet payments and assignment uploads and I'll never use myUnisa again
Anonymous User
Re: The new discussion fora on myUnisa
April 05, 2006 10:30AM
yeah.. my sentiments exaclty
avatar Re: The new discussion fora on myUnisa
April 20, 2006 01:54PM

Good news may be on the horizon.

Nothing's confirmed yet but I've heard that Sakai may be turned off in favour of a SOL/COOL hybrid. This might happen sometime near the beginning of May.
Re: The new discussion fora on myUnisa
April 20, 2006 08:56PM
robanaurochs, celence - as the developer of Osprey (which, in actual fact, is more of a long-term research project as opposed to a "site"winking smiley - I'm perhaps a little bit biased in my responsesmile so bear with me...

With the amalgamation of Unisa with TRSA (blame Kader Asmal), change was needed - not negotiable. It's done, and that's the way it is. I know it is no concern of yours - you've paid your fees after all - , but trust me - they are working REAL hard to make it better.

Personally, I don't believe Java (i.e. myUnisa) to be an internet technology of note - especially given bandwidth in S.A.). However, given the time frame available, Sakai, with the support provided, is a viable alternative....if you're a coffee person.

Having said that, SOC has been asking for reading rights on the student db for years - to allow us to do just what you require from Osprey. Add to Osprey not only registration, internet payments and assignment uploads, but also due library loans, outstanding fees, fellow students in your vicinity, assignment marks, - the options are endless. Imagine a "call center" app where you email your Q to a lecturer and view the queue??

Conversely, one can understand that too many islands are perhaps not ideal in the bigger picture.

This is our dilemma - as computing students, you are technologically well ahead (hardware included) of the "average" student @ Unisa. So who must they cater for?

Just wondering - as a research project which I have been threatening for some time now - if we publish an (open-ended included) on-line questionnaire about what you would like/don't like , or want/don't want in an online environment - do you promise to complete it?
avatar Re: The new discussion fora on myUnisa
April 20, 2006 09:01PM
Most certainly Mac

I'm all for giving feedback. When the questionaire went around last year on SOL, I filled that one in as well. (so much for the improvements)
avatar Re: The new discussion fora on myUnisa
April 21, 2006 09:35AM
I'll complete the questionnaire. smiling smiley
Anonymous User
Re: The new discussion fora on myUnisa
April 21, 2006 11:02AM
I'll do a questionaire as well smiling smiley I think you are right though - the only ones probably complaining are computer science students cause we expect a certain "animal" whereas the rest of the student body is just happy to get assignments submitted....

I have also done web site development and you can never please everyone. There is always something that someone won't like *sigh* But the forum structure on osprey is one of the good things smiling smiley
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