I did some treasure hunting today on H20, an innovative online exchange sponsored by the Berkman Center for the Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. H20’s self-description says it:

aims to apply Internet technologies to the underlying aims of the academy — the free creation and exchange of ideas and the communities formed around those ideas — both within and beyond the confines of the traditional university setting.

In practice this seems to mean that H20 has proven particularly popular as a medium for courses on Internet-related topics. But part of its underlying tech seems very interesting for those of us experimenting with online discussion tools. H20’s version of discussion boards is what it calls a “rotisserie”:

The Rotisserie implements an innovative approach to online discussion that encourages measured, thoughtful discourse in a way that that traditional threaded messaging systems do not. The basic concept of the threaded messaging board is to enable broadcast-to-broadcast communication among a group of people, meaning that every participant in the conversation receives every post from every other participant. This mode of discussion inevitably leads to the domination of the discussion by a few very verbal participants and silence by the lurking majority. The Rotisserie breaks this mode by assigning every post within the conversation to another, specific participant for response. The resulting conversation guarantees that every post will be responded to by at least one other participant and that every participant must respond directly to the post of another participant.

I can see how the direct-response approach could be very constructive in a class setting, where there are explicit or implicit sanctions for failure to respond as required. I wonder how effective the same technique would be in other discussion settings — like government policy consultations. I imagine that in a closed group with some sense of mutual accountability, it could work well. But in a wide-open setting, it might actually feel a bit menacing to be tapped to respond to someone’s post, simply because you’d joined a group.