The internet has allowed for a vast amount of blogs, community postings and other modes of uncensored dialogue to crop up, and in one respect this is an excellent way to exercise free speech. Yet it can be confusing trying to navigate through the quantity of information searching for quality. For students, faculty and staff searching for quality, a new space provides just that.
Western now has a designated online space just for the free expression of ideas, questions and opinions, as long as they remain inoffensive to other contributors. It's located on the library's Web site under “Join the Conversation! Western's Community Forum” and at forum.wwu.edu. It is also accessible from each student, staff or faculty's My Western homepage.
“We're hoping to increase the sense of community on campus and to increase dialogue,” Andy Peterson, head of Library Systems said. “There aren't many places where staff, students and faculty from all over campus [can] have a dialogue. “
The forum uses the same secure login system as everywhere else on campus so students, faculty and staff can log in to the forum using their My Western login name and password. Participants can then create a profile and upload a picture of themselves if they wish. From there, they can start a new thread about an issue of their concern or comment on an already existing thread.
Other opportunities on the site include an advice forum with a question and answer format and an exchange area, where participants can post items for sale, request roommates and set up ride shares.
The forum was made into a reality after a Teaching-Learning Academy (TLA) forum two years ago, according to Carmen Werder, the Director of the TLA.
“We were having conversations about the disconnectedness that we sometimes feel in the WWU community,” Werder said via e-mail. “In particular, students were saying that they thought there was a lot of expertise across students (about their own learning) and that it was too bad that it couldn't be shared with others not in TLA and create more opportunities for dialogue.” 
Peterson pointed out that the Western faculty has Blackboard and their departments' Web site to post information and voice their opinions. Staff have the opportunity to create study guides and help guides online as well. Students, however, did not have an officially designated place on the Western Web site to speak.
“[There are] not a lot of opportunities for students to publish their experience,” Peterson said. “We're looking at trying to promote the student voice in a more formal way than what's been available before.”
The forum was set up to be a virtual learning commons, which is a place where multiple resources collaborate to be available to students, Peterson said.
“[It's an] online version of a physical environment,” Jonathan McConnell, a graduate student in the English Masters Program and member of the advisory board for the forum said. “[It's a] place that has both services and a space for learning, talking and community.”
Peterson hopes that the forum will increase the sense of community at Western by promoting dialogue and providing resources for students, staff and faculty to help each other out.
“This is an experimental space to see what we can do to create and interactive online environment for the campus,” she said.
In addition to commenting on the threads, students can ask questions about classes from other students or teachers or post their blog on the forum Web site, Peterson said.
What happens, though, when free speech becomes offensive?
“What we're trying to get at is a place for dialogue where we can learn from each other,” Deborah Frost, the assistiant director for Information Technology said. “The spirit is to incorporate…respectful dialogue.”
She added that the original poster can respond to the offensive comment if they wish and hopefully work out an understanding.
“[We have a] review system based on users flagging posts that may be inappropriate,” McConnell said. “Heated discussion is productive, but if it gets to legality issues we can remove those posts and talk to the people involved.”
There's nothing wrong with healthy debate, and the forum will maintain success only if people actively participate and use it often, Frost said.
It is dependent on everyone's involvement,” McConnell said. “The more people are involved, the better it works for everybody.”
You don't have to feel obligated to post something every time you visit the forum, Frost said. Some people will be more comfortable reading what other people have posted. But why not take advantage of a space to comment, write or ask questions?
“It's about taking a step and engaging, taking advantage [of it],” Frost said. “I anticipate that it's the ongoing interaction that will be the most meaningful.”
So the next time you want to say something but aren't sure which site is best, log on to the community forum and let your voice be heard.