"The amount of insight and perspective I've received from this forum is both immeasurable and invaluable. I cant think of any other way I would have obtained such information on international practice without leaving the country and spending thousands of hard earned dollars (taxpayers or mine)." (Tepora Afamasaga from Samoa in a contribution to the e-Forum in January 2009)

UNEVOC HomepageIn a couple of months, the UNEVOC e-Forum will turn 12 years old, and it seems to be more alive than ever. In the days of web 2.0, an old-fashioned mailing list may not be the flashiest attraction existing in the internet. It seems, though, that it serves well for the purpose of connecting experts in vocational education from all parts of the world. Here is the story of the e-Forum that is hosted by the UNESCO's International Centre for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (UNEVOC).

In 1998-1999, the availability of Electronic Mail worldwide grew rapidly. This was also true for many developing countries. The "UNEVOC Project" was in touch with institutions and specialists in technical and vocational education and training (TVET) in more than 100 countries.

Map of e-Forum membersIn October 1998, the UNESCO-UNEVOC Electronic Mail Forum ("e-Forum") was launched. Other than the formal UNEVOC Network of TVET institutions it was open to members of the TVET community from all over the world. Any TVET professional interested in international exchange was invited to join. Also, a number of representatives of intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations participated in the e Forum. In March 1999, some 140 experts from various parts of the world benefited from this worldwide exchange of information in technical and vocational education. An interesting side-effect emerged. Via the e Forum, TVET professionals from various world regions were able to identify colleagues in other regions with similar professional interests. Once identified, they were able to establish direct communication even without passing through the e Forum.

e-forum StatsThe e-Forum continued to grow over the years. The UNEVOC Project, originally located in Berlin, moved to Bonn to become the UNESCO-UNEVOC International Centre for TVET. TVET experts continued to join the mailing list, and they started to send more and more messages (see chart). In 2005 and 2006 contributions increasingly resulted in lively discussions and fruitful debates. Again and again it is fascinating to see how often TVET policy-planners face similar challenges whether they are located in industrialised countries or in less advanted regions of the world. In the year 2007, the number of messages increased to almost 600. In 2010, there will be far more than 1,000 contributions from more than 300 different users. In total, more than 1,400 users from more than 150 countries are subscribed to the list in August 2010. About half of them are from the developing world.

The core technology and the basic principles have remained unchanged over the years: In principle, the actual list still uses the technology once set up by Tobias Eigen, the founder of Kabissa. Most of the rules and procedures have not changed since then: The forum has always been moderated, all messages are screened by a staff member in UNESCO-UNEVOC and are disseminated to the list in text-only format. Linked Documents are not forwarded in the form of attachments, but are made available through embedded links in e-Forum messages.

UNEVOC e-forum messagesIn 2006, UNESCO-UNEVOC launched a comfortable e-forum web interface. Since then, users can read, submit and reply to messages online and without using a mail client if they have an account on the UNEVOC website. Messages are arranged in threads, and online users can obtain additional information on contributors, such as other messages sent by the same author. It is planned to develop these features into a full-fledged experts database, so that it will be easier yet to get in touch with specialists in the field. Social networking features are thus added to the service by and by. At the heart of it, the e-Forum is and will most likely be for a long time to come a simple mailing list. Albeit one that seems to work very well to connect people from all over the world who are looking for an effective exchange of information in the field of education for the world of work, as feedback messages like the one cited in the beginning show. 

AttachmentSize
Invitations_and_Launch_Checklist_UNESCO-UNEVOC_e-Forum.pdf71.46 KB
Announcing_UNESCO-UNEVOC_E-Forum.pdf35.11 KB
Announcing_200_Subscriber_milestone_UNESCO-UNEVOC_E-Forum.pdf46.19 KB
200_subscribers_milestone_Armoogum_Parsuramen_UNESCO-UNEVOC_E-Forum.pdf26.83 KB
Screenshot: UNEVOC Website59.31 KB
Screenshot: UNEVOC e-forum messages52.91 KB
Screenshot: UNEVOC e-forum members38.37 KB
Screenshot: UNEVOC e-forum Postings49.39 KB

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Hi Max - thanks for sharing the e-forum story. I really enjoyed reading it and thinking back to the time in 1998 that I spent at UNESCO-UNEVOC when Hans and I set it all up. It is gratifying to know that the e-forum is alive and well, and has in fact been evolving as well. 

Given how much people depend on their email and how limited the time is that most African civil society practitioners have in front of Internet connected computers on a regular basis, I have always been anxious to offer ways to engage and connect via email.

Your post about the e-forum is timely since I am currently testing new functionality to offer precisely the same functionality for Kabissa groups like this ICT Peer Learning group. Imagine being able to respond directly to this post comment by email and have your response automatically distributed to other group members and posted to the website for archival and online access. 

I'd love to hear more details about the platform you are using now, and in particular how the online/email integration happens. What is the software/tool you use for the web interface? 

Back then the software we used to manage the e-forum, and indeed all of UNEVOC's email, was the Mercury Mail Transport System for Microsoft Windows that accompanied Pegasus Mail. Are you still using Mercury or have you moved on to Mailman or some other server-based list management tool? 

I just looked up http://www.pmail.com for the first time in many, many years and see the software is still available as a free download and has been updated as recently as July 2009. Mercury and Pegasus is produced and managed by a single author, David Harris in New Zealand, who still owns full rights to it and (probably only partially) recovers his costs by selling manuals and licenses for commercial use. The project appears to be alive and well, which is gratifying to see. From pmail.com: 

Welcome to the home of Pegasus Mail, the Internet's longest-serving PC e-mail system, and of the Mercury Mail Transport System, our comprehensive range of Internet Mail Server products. Pegasus Mail is a free product, dedicated to serving all who need it, while Mercury is a modestly-priced commercial system that allows free use for private and non-profit users.

I loved the Mercury/Pegasus combination, which was really very empowering in the early 1990s when there were not many Windows-based email programs and domain hosting services providing email mailboxes were still clunky, costly, and the learning curve to figuring out how to run them was very steep! Mercury/Pegasus was a veritable swiss army knife too which let you mix and match different configurations and networking platforms (anybody remember Fidonet?). 

__
                  /  \
                 /|oo \
                (_|  /_)
                 _`@/_ \    _
                |     | \   \\
                | (*) |  \   )) 
   ______       |__U__| /  \//
  / FIDO \       _//|| _\   /
 (________)     (_/(_|(____/


thanks for the e-forum to share stories. I am very happy to read and think back on these years I spent in 2010 on the UNESCO-UNEVOC I organize everything. It is nice to know that the forum-e is still alive and healthy, and has even developed juga.Mengingat how many people who depend on email and how limited time is that civil society and I am in front of a computer connected to the internet on a regular basis, I always wanted offers to engage and connect via email and please give me the information and help me.tks

Hans sent me some more historical documents which I have attached to this post - see below for the new files. I think these docs are a useful example for anyone interested in starting a similar e-forum - your topic may be different, but the process remains pretty much the same for starting any discussion group or other online community.

This is something that interests me personally because I am considering adding the same mailing list functionality to all Kabissa groups (click here to see latest progress update on this topic), so that group members can interact directly via their email inbox.   

Enjoy! And if you have any insights to add please feel free to do so in the comments to this post.

Dear Tobias, Rudolf and Hans,

thank you for the feedback.

@Hans: thank you for the digital historical objects, I had never seen those!

@Tobias:  Yes, the issue of optimizing communication channels is of utmost importance, and I agree they should be as flexible as possible. Some cannot access the Internet, but do receive and send email messages via their mobile phone, others complain about receiving too many emails via the list or have trouble receiving list emails on their corporate accounts. We ask ourselves: Do we need to start serving Twitter, Facebook, etc to reach our constituency? Which technology and which social network is effective for us and which is superfluous or requires too much attention (related to its effects)? How do these tools work for a "members-only" list?

Our efforts with regards to the e-Forum are fairly "conservative", we do not focus on digital natives: While some users have started using the online interface to contribute messages, most users still rely on email only. Just recently, however, we introduced an rss feed of e-Forum threads for those who want to monitor discussion topics  without having to receive all the emails (http://www.unevoc.unesco.org/unevoc_forum.xml).

Tobias, you asked about technical details. Indeed, we still use Mercury, and it still seems to be renowned for its mailing list functionalities. The general platform we use for our homepage is Typo3, which handles the user management, as only logged-in users can fully use the online interface and read full messages. The actual e-Forum interface has been programmed by Oliver Seyffert in php. The handling of incoming mail messages requires a bit of  manual work, but is manageable for us: Messages that come in and receive clearance for dissemination are copied and inserted into a text field in the online interface. A script then extracts the header information (From, time sent, Subject) and puts it into separate fields (see screenshot). From here, the procedure is similar to that for all online contributors. Files can be easily uploaded and a link will be inserted into the mail message to allow users to download if interested. We also automatically insert a link to the message thread in the online archive, in case users want to re-read the whole discussion. The actual "send2mailinglist" button is only available for moderators.

Of course, this procedure works only for moderated discussions. In our case, I think it is worth it. We once did an online conference via email (using mailman), which was (technically) not moderated, and found that the archive turned out to be fairly cluttered: Subject lines did not fit the content, and occasionally mails were illegible due to the incompatibility of mail clients and language code pages etc.

I hope this answers your questions regarding "how exactly does it work".

Cheers

Max

Thanks Max! This has been really interesting. Three reactions occur to me: 

  1. I'm glad to see you're still using Mercury and that it is still a viable low cost alternative for in-house mail processing. I think NGOs in Africa might find it useful to look at too, especially those in low bandwidth environments who would benefit from Mercury's "store and forward" tools (eg Mercury receives all the mail for an office and distributes it like Exchange server would). That said, I wonder how this compares to Exchange or open source alternatives like Zimbra
     
  2. It's interesting to see how you have patched together your Mercury and Typo3 setup to produce both online and email participation. I'm not surprised, because there are not many "off the shelf" solutions available that I would recommend. This has now changed for Drupal, the open source platform that Kabissa uses, which now has a new module designed to replicate traditional mailing list software (like mailman or even mercury). It effectively provides each Kabissa Group with an email mailing list. I blogged about this here and announced it in a recent progress update.
     
  3. It always strikes me how much work it takes to maintain a discussion list. UNEVOC is a model example for this and your blog post and this discussion will be a very useful resource for people who want to set up and run discussions like this. Now that Kabissa is offering discussion list functionality for all Kabissa Groups, finding moderators to manage them is very urgent. I hope to do this on a volunteer basis and without holding posts for moderation to really encourage a free flow of information.  

Cheers, 

Tobias

re Mercury: Yes, I do think the Mercury Mail server is a very good low-cost alternative in many environments (free for non-commercial use). It is a flexible and very powerful mail server and it can easily be combined with no-cost anti-spam tools etc. We use it, however, for its list feature alone. Mercury does not offer calendaring. I have never used Pegasus Mail, I found it a bit complicated, but I am quite sure it is a good mail client once you have got used to it...

And yes, a well-kept mailing list can be a lot of work, but in the case of the e-Forum I think every minute is worth it. I agree though that moderating can be tricky - one of our interns, who is supervising similar fora in the Arab region, reported that it really is difficult to find people to do the job reliably.

One thing that I really find difficult is dealing with anti-spam tools - obviously, given that there are days on which we disseminate up to 20,000 emails. While most users can receive our list mails without a problem, some mail servers and clients keep introducing new anti-spam measures und subscribe to blacklist servers which may reject e-Forum mails. With far more than 1,000 members you get all kinds of error messages... Another issue is "over quota" errors of which we get quite a lot -> do we unsubscribe temporarily or for good etc.

But I guess this is less of a problem for smaller lists: Your points about automatically created and easy-to-maintain mailing lists are good. We may want to create such specialised lists for our UNEVOC Network of institutions.

Cheers
Max

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