How and Why to Use Forums

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One of Facebook’s most grievous sins is the way Facebook groups have killed or severely dampened the art of the online forum among most of the online population. Many special interest groups, from fan communities to political organizers, use forums. But it appears that the vast majority of social media users have been bamboozled into thinking that a Facebook group is the best way for groups to communicate over time online.

A forum, also known as a message board, bbs, or conferencing system, affords asynchronous, many-to-many, multimedia discussions for large groups of people over long periods of time from weeks to decades. That means that people can read and write their parts of the discussion on their own schedule, that everyone in a group can communicate with everyone else, and that graphics, sounds, and videos can accompany text. This particular form of conversational medium meets the need for organizing discussions after they reach a certain level of complexity. If twenty people want to discuss five subjects over ten days, and each person makes one comment on each subject every day, that makes for one thousand messages in each participant’s mailbox. On lists, when the topic drifts, the subject line usually does not change, so it makes it difficult to find particular discussions later.

In addition to asynchronous many-to-many conversation and persistent conversational threads, one of the most important affordances of a forum is the way it enables each user to easily navigate the conversations they elect to follow: The forum remembers what I have read and which threads I follow; when I log in, I can see the posts that have been added since my last login in the threads I subscribe to. Facebook doesn’t do this: In Facebook groups, the thread that been posted to most recently is promoted to the top and there is no way for each user to choose which threads to follow. In a group of any size, conversations can be buried in minutes.

In the early 1980s, Usenet and the WELL were my introductions to online discourse. In The Virtual Community (1993), I wrote about why I decided to use the word “community” in regard to some of these ongoing online conversational media. Not every forum qualifies: one of the best instrumental uses of forums is for technical support — where people are more interested in finding solutions to problems than in conversation with like-minded others.

When I taught courses on “Social Media Issues” at Stanford and Berkeley, my students used both blogs and forums. The forum was the voice of the group. So often, meaningful and engaged classroom discussions simply cease when the bell rings and students move on to the next class. On a forum, we can pick up those discussions between class meetings — and discuss any other topic related to our subject matter that our class-as-co-learning-community want to discuss. Many students who aren’t quick on their feet in classroom discussions can be outstanding contributors when they have an opportunity to think about what they have to say, and to use multiple media to express themselves. Ultimately, the goal of online forums in an educational setting is to afford and stimulate conversations that add up to more than the sum of the individual contributions — an exercise and instrument in collaborative construction of understanding. My students used blogs as well; in the forum, we talk about what we decide to talk about, but in the blog, each student can talk about whatever he or she individually wants to talk about.

Previous students suggested starting with forums, moving to blogs later in the term, because they felt that it was easier to get to know fellow students through the forums than through the blogs. Pay attention to these differences and see if you agree or disagree.

Please see this short video about why to use forums . This short piece on guidelines for discussion board writing is useful. For educators, here are some tips — think of them as helpful guidelines — about how forum posts can be assessed:

4 Points — The posting(s) integrates multiple viewpoints and weaves both class readings and other participants’ postings into their discussion of the subject.
3 Points — The posting(s) builds upon the ideas of another participant or two, and digs deeper into the question(s) posed by the instructor.
2 Points — A single posting that does not interact with or incorporate the ideas of other participants’ comments.
1 Point — A simple “me too” comment that neither expands the conversation nor demonstrates any degree of reflection by the student.
0 Points — No comment.

Of course, forums can be used for neighborhood communities, people interested in birdwatching or any other one of myriad special interests, political organizing, organizational knowledge management. Knowing how to use a forum, however, is not the same as “how do you encourage community among online participants?” That’s a whole other topic. Here is something I wrote quickly off the top of my head in 1999 and which is still a useful guideline if your goal is encouraging engaging, civil conversation that can lead to community formation.

Additional Resources:

The forum service I like to use these days is Discourse. It’s free and open source software, so if you have a server and IT chops, you can install it. It’s powerful and complex with a bit of a learning curve for administering it, but the help materials and help forum are excellent. If you don’t have a server and IT chops, Discourse will host your forum for a fee. If you are an educator, you can probably get your Discourse forum hosted much less expensively through Reclaim Hosting.

Teaching Students to Talk to Each Other (PDF)

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