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Forums are web-based communication media that enable groups of people to conduct organized multimedia discussions about multiple topics over a period of time. Selecting the right kind of platform for forum conversations is important, as is know-how about facilitating ongoing conversations online. Forums can be a powerful co-learning tool for people who may have never met face-to-face and could be located in different time zones, but who share an interest in co-learning. Asynchronous media such as forums (or simple email distribution lists or Google Docs) can be an important part of a co-learning toolkit that also include synchronous media from face-to-face meetups to Google+ Hangouts or webinars via Blackboard Collaborate, Adobe Connect, or the open source webconferencing tool, Big Blue Button).

What is a forum and why should a group use it?

A forum, also known as a message board,bbs, threaded discussion, or conferencing system, affords asynchronous, many-to-many, multimedia discussions for large groups of people over a period of time. 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. The best forums index discussion threads by topic, title, tag, date, and/or author and also keep track of which threads and entries (also known as posts) each logged-in participant has already read, making it possible to click on a "show me all the new posts and threads" link each time a participant logs in. This particular form of conversational medium meets the need for organizing conversations after they reach a certain level of complexity. For example, 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 email lists, when the conversation drifts from the original topic, the subject line usually does not change, so it makes it difficult to find particular discussions later.

Forums make possible a new kind of group discussion that unfolds over days, weeks, and months, in a variety of media. While blogs are primarily about individual voice, forms can be seen as the voice of a group. The best forum threads are not serial collections of individual essays, but constitute a kind of discourse where the discussion becomes more than the sum of its individual posts. Each participant takes into account what others have said, builds on previous posts, poses and answers questions of others, summarize, distill, and concludes.

This short piece onguidelines for discussion board writing is useful, as is this short piece onshaping a culture of conversation. Lively forums with substantial conversation can glue together the disparate parts of a peeragogy group -- the sometimes geographically dispersed participants, texts, synchronous chats, blogs, wikis and other co-learning tools and elements. Forum conversations are an art in themselves and forums for learning communities are a specific genre. Reading the resources linked here -- and communicating about them -- can help any peeragogy group get its forums off to a good start

How to start fruitful forum discussions:

In most contexts, starting a forum with a topic thread for introductions tends to foster the sense of community needed for valuable conversations. This short piece on how to host good conversations online offers general advice. In addition to introductions, it is often helpful to start a topic thread about which new topic threads to create -- when everybody has the power to start a new thread and not everybody knows how forums work, a confusing duplication of conversations can result, so it can be most useful to make the selection of new topic threads a group exercise. A topic thread to ask questions about how to use the forum can prevent a proliferation of duplicate questions. It helps to begin a forum with a few topic threads that invite participation in the context of the group's shared interest "Who is your favorite photographer" for a group of photographers, for example, or "evolution of human intelligence" for a group interested in evolution and/or human intelligence. Ask questions, invite candidate responses to a challenge, make a provocative statement and ask for reactions.

Whether or not you use a rubric for assessing individual participants' forum posts, this guide tohow forum posts are evaluated by one professor can help convey the difference between a good and a poor forum conversation:

/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.

Selecting a forum platform

  • You don't want a forum for discussions among two or three people; you do want a forum for discussions among half a dozen or five thousand people.

  • You don't want a forum for exchanges of short duration (an hour, a day or two) among any number of people; you do want a forum for ongoing conversations that can continue for months.

  • You don't want a forum if blogs with comment threads will do -- blogs with comments afford group discourse, but is not easily indexed and discourse gets complicated with more than a dozen or so bloggers and commenters.

If you do want to select a platform for forum discourse, you will want to decide whether you have the technical expertise available to install the software on your own server or whether you want to look for a hosted solution. Cost is an issue.

Fortunately, an online forum maven by the name ofDavid Wooley has been keeping an up-to-date list of available software and services for more than a decade:

These2003 suggestions on how to choose a forum by Howard Rheingold can be helpful. If blogs with comments afford a kind of networked individualistic discourse, and video conferencing emulates face-to-face meeting, forums can be seen as a channel for expression of the group voice. When people react to and build on each other's comments, they can learn to act as a collective intelligence as well as a collection of individuals who are communicating in order to learn.