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How do I get started?

H2O is different enough from other sites that most users are a little confused when first coming to the site and trying to participate. Here's a quick step-by-step description of how you can participate in the site.

First, you need to register as a user. You can browse the contents of public projects as a guest, but you cannot actually participate in any projects until you register. We don't require registration so that we can hoard your personal information and use it for our own purposes or sell it (in fact, our Privacy Policy forbids us from doing so). We require registrations because, as you will see from the following steps, the discussion process that the site supports just won't work until you register. See How do I register? below for registration help.

Second, you should browse around the projects in the Interesting Projects section on the front page until you find one (or more!) that interests you. If you don't find a project in the Interesting Projects list, click on one of the Browse Projects links on the front page for a list of all projects on the site. Everything interesting on this site happens in the projects, so you can't do much of anything on the site until you find a project that piques your interest. Once you find an interesting project, join it by clicking on the "Join this project" link on the project home page.

Third, you wait. Now that you are a member of a project, you will be included in that project's rotisserie discussions. However, as described in the following question (How do rotisserie discussions work?), rotisserie discussions differ fundamentally from traditional thread messaging discussions. The primary differences between rotisserie discussions and threaded messaging discussions are that rotisseries proceed semi-synchronously and that the rotisserie system specifically assigns which participants respond to which posts. Every rotisserie is broken up into a number of rounds. Each participant in a rotisserie is given one post per round to which to response. You cannot participate in a discussion unless a round in that discussion is active (while waiting, you might want to read the rest of this FAQ along with the other pages in the About section of the site, accessible via the navigation bar above).

Have no fear, though; as soon as a discussion in your newly joined project starts, you will be included. If you have chosen to receive email alerts about rotisserie post deadlines, you will receive an alert once the next discussion starts. If not, you can just check back at the site periodically, and a notice will appear on your home page as soon as you have been assigned a response in the next round. Just the follow the instructions in the email or on your home page to respond to your assigned post, and you will officially be participating in a rotisserie.

That's the gist of the site. You can leave projects that no longer suit you and join new projects as you find interesting ones. There is no limit to the number of projects in which you can participate at one time other than your own time and energy. Once you've gotten the hang in participating in projects, you can even start one of your own !

How do rotisserie discussions work?

Rotisseries are group discussions with structural support for determining when participants should respond and which participants should respond to which other participants.

The basic rotisserie begins with a project leader sending out a question to all project participants along with a deadline for responding to that question. Once the response deadline has arrived, the system takes all of the received responses and assigns one of those response to a participant for further discussion. For example, suppose that Joe, Mary, and Sue are the participants of a rotisserie and that each of them respond to the initial question by the deadline. Once that deadline has been reached, the system may assign Joe's response to Mary, Sue's to Joe, and Mary's to Sue. Once this assignment has been determined, the system will send out a notice to each participant of a new deadline, by which time each participant should respond to the assigned post.

A rotisserie can continue for any number of rounds, can have any number of participants, and can have different numbers of participants in each round (as users enter and leave a project). Also, each round after the first includes a rating system, whereby each user rates a small number of posts by other users before responding to her assigned post. This rating system allows the most interesting discussion threads to become evident at the completion of a rotisserie, allowing more meaningful navigation of archived discussions.

A rotisserie may also include any number of projects as its pool of participants, allowing several different projects to collaborate with one another. This functionality allows, for example, a professor using a project for his course to include another professor's course project in a discussion.

How do I register?

If this is the first time you are visiting the site and you want to register for a specific project, browse to the home page of that project using the Browse Projects link on the front page and then click on the Join Project link on the project home page. After you submit the requested account information (username, email, etc.), the system will display a registration confirmation page. To complete this confirmation, you will need to check your email for a registration email from the system that contains the confirmation key required by this page. Once you have confirmed the registration, you are done -- you are now registered for the site and for the desired project (though the specific project may require approval by a project leader before you are admitted to the project -- you will be informed if this is the case).

If this is the first time you are visiting the site but you do not have a specific project that you want to join yet, go to the front page of the site and click on the Register Now link. After you submit the requested account information (username, email, etc), the system will display a registration confirmation page. To complete this confirmation, you will need to check your email for a registration email from the system that contains the confirmation key required by this page. Once you have confirmed the registration, you are done -- you are now registered for the site. When you find a project that interests you, just go to the project home page and click on the Join Project link. You will be joined to the project (or put in the application queue if the project requires approval -- you will be informed if this is the case).

If you have already registered on the site but you want to register for a new project, just login using the link on the top right of every page and then go to the project home page and click on the Join Project link. You will be joined to the project (or put in the application queue if the project requires approval -- you will be informed if this is the case).

How do I know when an assignment is due?

First, login to the site, you can tell whether you are logged in from any page on the site by looking for your username in the top right corner. If your username is there, you are logged in; if another name or Guest is there, you need to login. Once you are logged in, go to the front page by clicking on the Home tab. If you have any assignments due, they will appear in the Current Assignments list along with a due date in the main body of the front page.

Additionally, if you have chosen to allow the system to send you email alerts about Rotisserie Rate / Post Deadlines, the system will send you one email when it first gives you an assignment and another one day before you assignment is due if you have not already completed the assignment. By default, you will receive these email alerts, but you can turn them off (and back on) using the Profile link in the navigation bar at the top of every page.

What happens if I miss the deadline for an assignment

You can submit a late response to an assignment until the whole rotisserie is complete. However, the system cannot include late responses in the routing process (because the process has by definition already taken place once a late response has been submitted), so late responses are always orphaned (no one will be assigned to respond to them). Also, the system makes displays to project leaders how many assignments each user has submitted late.

How do I read responses to my posts?

Responses to your post will be visible once the round following your post's round has ended. If you have chosen to receive email alerts about responses to your rotisserie posts via your profile (click on the Profile link at the top of the page), the system will also email you whenever a response to your post is published.

Can I respond to critiques of my post?

Not currently. This feature, which will include the ability to post an adhoc response to any response in the previous round, will be included in our next release.

How does the rotisserie rating system work?

Each round, each participant is given 5 rating points and is assigned to rate 5 posts. Before responding, the participant will be prompted to rate those 5 posts by spending his rating points to alter the rating of each point by 0, 1, or 2 points positively or negatively. The user may use any remaining rating points to rate other posts within the previous round of the discussion via the View Rotisserie page. Once the discussion is completed, the system will display the discussion threads sorted by the average cumulative rating of each post within each thread. A project leader can disable the use of ratings within any given discussion before the end of the first round of the discussion.

Why should I use ratings in discussions that I lead?

The purpose of the the rotisserie rating system is to identify the most interesting threads within a single rotisserie. Previous rotisserie systems that we've built have lacked this feature, making the archives impossible to browse meaningfully because of the huge amount of material generated. We have frequently hosted rotisserie discussions of several rounds with over two hundred participants, with each participant writing an average of a couple hundred words for each round. Simple math establishes that the volume of material generated by a single such rotisserie is too enormous for a single person without vast amounts of time to do anything other than read a few random threads. The result of this problem is that the rotisserie archives for large groups are largely useless, which is a shame because of the amount of interesting content buried in them.

We implemented the rating system specifically to combat the above problem. By allowing users to rate posts and then collecting these post ratings into average thread ratings, we are able to provide a rough guide to what are likely some of the most interesting threads within a rotisserie.

Who can participate in the discussions here?

Even though some of the projects are limited to invited participants only, there are many projects that are open to anyone through application to the project leaders and many more that you can join immediately without even applying.

Who can start a project?

Anyone !

Many of the projects on the site are connected to the University in some way -- as students, teachers, or collaborators on University projects. However, an explicit goal of H2O is to expand the fostering of discourse beyond the University borders not only to other learning environments (secondary schools, learning centers, etc.), but also to less formal learning environments. If you've got some ideas you think a group of people might be interested in exploring, you will likely find H2O immensely useful.

Whom do I blame for H2O?

H2O is primarily a production of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Much of the funding for H2O came from grants from the Harvard University Provost's Fund for Innovation in Instructional Technology and Distance Learning and from IBM.

Can I run my own version of H2O?

The H2O project publishes all code that it writes as free software under the GPL:

H2O code

How can I contribute?

The best way to contribute to the site is to use it! Find a project that looks interesting and participate in it. Even better, if you've got an idea for a new project or want to add an online component an existing course, conference, radio show, book club, or any other idea-centered enterprise, start a project.

We have released all of the code that runs this site, so if you're technically minded, we can always use help coding, documenting, testing, and otherwise improving the code that runs this site.