Democratizing an online discussion forum at a higher education institution : from rationalistic exclusion to the recognition of multiple presences
Institutional transformation initiated the creation of an online forum by academic staff at the North-West University. This forum functioned as an official space on the intranet of the institution as a result of the need of academics to communicate their opinions and concerns. Participants in the forum judged the university and other co-discussants according to their ideals of a democratic, multiracial and self-reflective institution of higher learning. Debates which interested the broad academic community focused on the practice of religion, the student culture, hostel traditions and the language of instruction. The threads which dealt with these subjects were usually characterised by intense emotion and conflict as divergent racial and cultural identities constituted a pervasive presence in the discussions. The study explored the reasons, strategies and consequences of internal exclusion which participants exercised within the forum discourse and the external incidences of exclusion practised within the larger discursive contexts (institutional, socio-political) of the forum. The inclusive focus of the communicative model of democratic discourse on emotion as an expansion of reason determined the exploration of patterns of exclusion. The online discussion has been in existence for more than twelve years. The forum is not in the public domain and only administrative and academic staff within the institution has access to it. The asynchronous participations are authored and archived since 2004. Six discussants who acted as protagonists in the thread on racism were the main participants in the interviews. Five more participants were interviewed as their presence in, perceptions of and relationship with the forum and its participants were significant to the researcher and other discussants. Qualitative research methodology informed the critical phenomenological approach of the study. The researcher conducted interviews and analyses between August 2010 and July 2011. The methodology of grounded theory directed the coding of interview transcripts and the text of the forum thread. The research diary and reflective notes enabled the researcher to find synergy between the practical field experience and theory. The study found that strong ideological positions led to frustration with the idealised role participants contributed to the forum as a vehicle for change. These frustrations were incorporated in their rationalistic and moralistic strategies of interaction with participants holding equally strong but opposing positions. Eventually those who were motivated to participate because of their dissonance with discourse, within and outside the context of the forum, either excluded themselves or became excluded as their voices were not appreciated. They could also not persuade others or effect structural change. Participants with mediating presences brought an amiable nuance to the forum and influenced protagonists to assume less declarative styles of interaction and reflect on their own unemancipatory positions. Based on the inclusionary and exclusionary elements found in the analyses, the study concludes with recommendations for the design and moderation of an inclusive and equalising space. This redefined space could subverse the dominating discourse of protagonists and foster a democratic discourse within the context of the forum and the university.
- Education