Discourse set-up best practices


Our friend Alex from NYU sent an email about Discourse. I’m copying the relevant pieces here and am responding in the next message.

We now have our Discourse community installed at http://community.playwithyourmusic.org/. We’ve setup the Discourse hosting and background mail via mandrill through NYU.

For the structure of the PWYM Discourse community, I’ve drawn (stolen!) heavily on the LCL structure. I’d be interested in your thoughts on particular settings, structures and layouts that have worked for LCL.

Because we’re now viewing PWYM as a community, we will eventually have multiple pathways through the tools and content. My students and I are having a think this week about what our top-level categories should be. Right now, we’re thinking that activities and projects might be good to have at the top category level, with sub-categories for specific course/pathway-related modules. Any insights you and your team have on these issues would be appreciated.


Hey Alex - A few initial thoughts and I’ll invite the other LCL folks who have spent time thinking about Discourse.

Link to the LCL Discourse -> http://discuss-learn.media.mit.edu

Categories > I would start with as few categories as possible, and then keep a close eye on the discussion and expand/change as needed. We made a few changes along the way, e.g. we renamed categories from “Week 1 Creative Learning” to “1 - Creative Learning” to de-emphasize the temporal nature of conversations. We hope that the 1-6 content structure is a helpful scaffold into the community, but we didn’t want participants to feel they have to go through them week by week.

Reach out to Discourse > Natalie and @grifpeterson have both had exchanges with people on the Discourse development team. They are incredibly responsive and helpful. I think the way to get in touch with them is simply to join their Discourse forum and write to them.

I’ve also had a brief chat with @dirk about how Discourse could be used to support groups of learners, who are not interested in the overall community. We have some ideas, but it’s early days. Let’s keep comparing notes.


Thanks @1L2P. @dirk has done a phenomenal job helping launch our PWYM Discourse community. As with LCL, we’re interested in seeing how Discourse will work for our community vs. G+ due to the lack of persistence of G+ posts. For PWYM 2.0, we’re using Discourse as the core community, but also encouraging people to organize groups where they feel most comfortable - PWYM Discourse, Facebook, G+, Twitter, elsewhere…

Our hypothesis is to a) encourage people to form communities where they are online, and b) be able to easily switch among groups. We hope to establish Discourse as the “hub” of the community, with “spokes” emanating to groups on other various social networks.

Your advice about starting with as few Categories as possible is great. We’ll start there. PWYM may be a bit different from LCL in that we anticipate creating multiple course “pathways” in the future. So, we’re currently deliberating how to structure top level categories. Do we create one called PWYM 2 as the top level, or create the top level categories by Activities? We’ll continue to think on this and see how it goes for PWYM 2, hopefully to launch very soon.

We also added some structure to the G+ group to see if it is helpful to PWYM 2.0 participants that choose to use G+:


I love this thread.

Been studying how other learning communities set up their forums. Seems to work best when the categories are the modules. I know that’s how LCL has done it, and I’ve worked with Mozilla to set up theirs as well.

Only contention here is that the module names may chance over iterations of the course? However, @alexruthmann now that you’ve run it once, maybe you feel secure in how the content is structured so it won’t change?

I also posted in the discourse meta community for recommendations & best practices on pedagogy. Let’s see what they say!


Might also want to use the poll plugin https://github.com/discourse/discourse/tree/master/plugins/poll

and test on a likert if people feel like the are musicians or engineers at strategic points in the course?


Cool. Thanks for this. I think by module is the way to go, too. The only thing that is slightly different with PWYM is that we will want to add another “course pathway” using Noteflight around film scoring… new modules. Maybe we’ll cross that bridge when it happens? :slight_smile:


If you end up with too many categories, you can also add levels of categories. A particular pathway could become a super-category with individual modules becoming sub-categories within those.

We added numbers, because it provides a little more direction on how to get started. While we want people to know they have full flexibility, that can get overwhelming.


Hi @alexruthmann my name is Katherine, and I’m part of the LCL team (working with Philipp).

I noticed that on your site you have the “Categories” “Top” and “Latest” tabs enables in the horizontal navigation bar. We’ve had some extensive conversations about what to include there, and it seems worthwhile to have “Starred” as well as “New” and “Unread”. The creators of Discourse are very adamant about including those last two for ease of user navigation–particularly for those users who are not frequently checking the site.

I’m very intrigued to hear about your experiences with Discourse for PWYM. I would also love to hear what kind of responses @vanessa gets from the Meta discourse community.


Hello @katherine! Thanks for the tips. The Starred, New and Unread categories were there by default when we installed Discourse, but I removed them, and reordered Categories to be the lead way in after looking at LCL. I’m happy to add the others back and see how it goes. I can see how New and Unread are useful for people coming into the forum especially after the community is up and running with lots of content.


Hey @alexruthmann so there aren’t tags out of the box, but our friend @lightyear has built a zesty plugin https://github.com/werweisswas/discourse-plugin-tagger

My instinct is to show the 5 top / recent posts of each category like P2PU does: http://thepeople.p2pu.org/categories
That will show sample posts / model what kind of posting happens there

It appears that Jeff Atwood thinks users don’t understand tagging. So he’s decided to build hierarchies and 1 level of sub-category instead.

I’m working on a few ideas to create cohorts. I’ll post the ideas / proposed best practices here once I hammer it out a bit in my brain.


So thinking through grouping for discourse:


  • Keep group formation in the “Meet” category, like Learning Creative Learning

  • Within the “Meet” category, pre-seed some group ideas to give people ideas of what kind of communities they can form

  • Within the “Meet” category, ask the community to suggest ideas for subcommunities. If an idea gets 3 or more “likes” moderators will create it.

Subcommunities appear in categories like so:

It’s a bit more community involvement, but then it insures that a.) there’s interest, and b.) someone takes a bit of facilitator responsibility for that group.

Let me know what you think, @alexruthmann @1L2P @dirk


Sounds sensible to me.

Does “create it” imply that you would create a category for the group? Creating a main category called “Groups” and then creating individual group categories as sub categories can help group categories from overpowering the other categories?


Sounds good to me, too… Some practical things… you suggest pre-seeding… should we do that in the “Welcome to Meet up” description, or actually seed some topics with names like:

Groups by location:

Groups by favorite artist

Groups by profession/experience level (e.g., teachers, producers, amateurs, novices)…

@1L2P… how did the various Meet groups develop in LCL? What did you initially seed there?


We encouraged a few people we knew to post meet-ups, and we decided to host one at the Media Lab ourselves. But overall, we’ve had mixed success. As far as I can tell few of the groups managed to get together in person. I think a better tool would help, but it’s also not easy to get critical mass in any one place.


I think the map encourages physical proximity meet ups… It will be interesting to see if people in PWYM do that. I’m also encouraging them to meet up virtually via the PWYM Unhangout, leaving it open and live with the most recent week’s intro video or interview embedded. That’s a slightly different use for Unhangout, but might be interesting to see if people use it that way.

Affinity-based grouping might not be so important this time around in PWYM given the focus on Peter Gabriel.


How does one make the blue box welcome message on Discourse as shown on LCL and PWYM? It doesn’t seem to be just a banner topic as there is no x-out close option.

Thank you!


There is a setting called global notice that you can use. You can put HTML in there to get rich formatting.


Thank you! I tried that and it worked well.

Discourse moderators are recommending that I use the Banner Topic post instead. Any thoughts on that?

It’s virtually the same except the user has the option of X-ing it out.