Classroom Discourse

Your own personal Stack-like site

Mark McClure: UNC - Asheville

Follow this presentation here:

The objective

Explore the use of open source forum software to facilitate online discourse outside the traditional classroom.

My mathematical background

  • Ph.D in Mathematics 1994 from Ohio State THE
    Ohio State
  • Joined the UNCA Mathematics faculty in 1997
  • First sci.math contributions in 1994
  • StackExchange participant for six years

My computer background

  • Long time programmer in many languages including: Javascript, Python, and C
  • Employed as a software developer for three years at Wolfram Research
  • Set up first webpage in 1994
  • Started using my own webserver five years ago,
    mainly so I could create online activities.

Some online forums that many folks might be familiar with:

Stack Exchange

A network of online discussion forums on a wide variety of subjects

Forums that I participate in

Other sub-sites

Over 150 more

A look at


Some StackCode

To answer this question

Here's another interesting example:
We can use the substitution $u=x^k$ to show that
$$\int_0^{\infty} \frac{\sin(x^k)}{x}\,dx =
  \frac{1}{k}\int_0^{\infty} \frac{\sin(u)}{u}\,du.$$
Thus, the known result that
$$\int_0^{\infty} \frac{\sin(x)}{x}\,dx = \frac{\pi}{2},$$
$$\int_0^{\infty} \frac{\sin(x^k)}{x}\,dx = \frac{\pi}{2k}.$$

Potential benefits for a college student particpating in Math.StackExchange

  • The obvious - as a Q&A resource
  • An introduction to modern tech tools, like
    • LaTeX snippets - like $e^{-x^2}$
    • markdown
    • graphing software
  • Exposure to online, academic discourse?
  • It's a fun distraction!


There are issues.
In particular, it can be an intimidating resource for beginning users.

Potential hazards for a college student

  • Exposure to online, academic discourse!
  • Some users can be, uhm - gruff(?)
  • The societal norms are not immediately evident
  • Many elementary questions have already been asked
  • It's a colossal waste of time!

So why not set up your own?


There's quite a bit of open source Q&A software.
I've used

Live examples

Archived examples

Other examples

They all work well Mobile

Why Discourse?

  • Very slick and current
  • Yet, easier to set up than Askbot
  • Less gamified - uses trust levels, rather than points


Discourse has a complete API that allows you to automate many tasks - particularly, surrounding grading.

Here are some relatively simple examples.

On the other hand

  • Too slick?
  • Quite a challenge to archive
  • Hard to modify

Tools to be comfortable with
(if you're setting up Discourse yourself)

  • The Unix command line
  • Setting up and maintaining a webserver
  • Interfacing an email service (like Mailgun)
  • Persistance

Why Vanilla Forums?

  • Much easier to set up
    • Reclaim hosting offers a one-click set up
  • Still full featured
  • Also has an API, though I haven't explored it as fully.


  • Impact on student learning seems very positive
  • Usage should impact student grades, just a bit
    • Do minimize gamification, though
  • Instructor participation is key

Let us know what you think!

Complete a brief session evaluation