The Open University (OU) offer invaluable guidance on using forums for effective discussion. If you have undertaken any online courses they are likely to have used virtual learning environments (VLE) including forums. These have largely developed as a result of the OU’s research work.
Some edited highlights from current OU good practice are presented below and the full text can be found online at the Open University.
Before jumping into a forum for the first time, make sure you know what activities it welcomes. For example, a discussion forum may be separated from one for social conversation, to make it easier for users to find what they are looking for.
Some forums are designed solely for social conversation or discussing leisure interests - social chat does help people to ‘gel’. If you meet others face-to-face this happens naturally - you chat, discover things you have in common, find out who knows about what, and have a moan together and so on. The same kind of thing can happen among an online group within a forum. PCN members have opened an “Online Cafe” for this kind of conversation.
Getting and giving help
Some forums exist solely for the purpose of getting and giving help.If you need help, send a post to the forum explaining clearly what you were trying to do and what went wrong in plenty of detail, and include any error messages or references that might help.
If you are offering answers, try to draw people out and help them express themselves clearly. Avoid jargon, be careful not to accidentally patronise, and do consider whether the person might get more long-term benefit by being shown how to find their own answer rather than having it spelt out for them.
Generally this kind of work has a defined timescale, and an end product such as a joint document, a website, or a plan. For group work to go well it needs everyone’s participation and commitment, and a feeling of shared responsibility.
Forums can provide a very effective environment for group work as each individual can take part at a time that suits them. There is time for each individual to consider what others have said and decide how they can best contribute. Otherwise it works in much the same way as traditional group work, with the same requirements for planning, allocating tasks and commitment from all members of the group. Everyone needs to take responsibility for doing their bit of the work and for keeping to any policies or rules the group has agreed.
Discussion can help you understand material. Participating in an online discussion takes effort, but it can also be the most rewarding type of activity in a forum. There are two main benefits of engaging in discussion.
• By pooling everyone’s expertise, insights, knowledge and sources of information you end up with a much better understanding of a subject than you could alone.
• By articulating your ideas, challenging other people’s views and being challenged yourself, you modify and refine your views. You can explore ideas much more thoroughly in a discussion than you can individually.
As long as you use the netiquette principles of checking you understand what the other person said, and criticising the idea not the person, then it’s fine to disagree.
A discussion typically starts with a question or topic. Generally one or more people offer their views on the question. If it stops there, that is not a discussion, just a list of opinions.
• The way to move on is to draw each other out, by asking questions like “What evidence is there that….” or “Why do you think that….. ” or “What do you mean by ....”
• The next thing is to find areas of agreement or disagreement. Don’t be too defensive if people disagree with you.
• Aim to build on what other people have said, to separate opinion from fact, and to look for areas the group has not covered.
News and keeping in touch
Some forums are used primarily as a place to post news items, such as announcements. A forum can also provide an opportunity to let people know about events that are coming up.
There is a very helpful YouTube screencast that demonstrates the PCN website and local group facilities. it is well worth viewing, especially if you are learning how to use the system.