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Published September 20, 2009 | Geography

Words of Experience on the Academic Use of Electronic Discussion Forums

Profweb was pleased to release the English version of our report Using Academic Forums by Sophie Ringuet. We regretted that certain links were only available in French and where possible, such as in the case of  the story of  Steve Boucher, we will be releasing translated versions of this information for the convenience of our readers.
The Animaweb Team

I have been interested in forums and IT for about eight years. Depending on the platforms available at the college, I use computer based applications to assign exercises, provide questions to answer in preparation for my courses and when technically possible I moderate discussions on class material in an electronic forum.
Therefore, I created a forum for my course ‘Planetary Challenges (Défis de la planète)' where I acted as moderator in order to make sure that posts were not offensive or discriminatory. This task required me to consult the forum daily which took about an hour and a half of my time each week. As moderator, I also made the following types of posts:

  • I asked questions about recent events happening in the course each week.
  • I encouraged students to present their research topics which prevented duplication among their choices.
  • I posted questions for the take-home exam on the forum.

Naturally student participation didn't happen just because the forum existed! Here are several procedures that I have discovered to encourage activity:

  • I introduce the forum carefully. I take the time to allow students to get comfortable, and I never suppose that all students are familiar with a forum's features.
  • I present a code of ethics in the forum which is based on the basic principles such as respect for others and for copyrights.
  • As the forum is considered a learning activity linked to the course's objectives, I give a participation grade which counts for 5% of the final evaluation.
  • As I find that correction in class is an interesting activity, I present certain forum posts which seem pertinent to me for students to emulate in their own work.

I have been very satisfied with the forum for the ‘Défis de la planète' course.

  • All the students participated to the point where my initial goal of 200 messages was attained. After six weeks with a group of 14 students, there were more than 265 posts on fifteen topics. My goal was raised to 400 posts for the session.
  • Debates started in the forum continued face-to-face in class.
  • Students who were the least talkative in class proved to be the most active on the forum.
  • Everyone appreciated the forum as an effective medium to transmit new ideas and knowledge.
  • Students used the forum to help one another with their assignments.
  • Additional information pertinent to the course was posted and questions raised in class were answered online.

In all, I am convinced that the forum is an excellent form of communication with the following characteristics:

  • Asynchronous,
  • Takes place outside of class,
  • Promotes cooperation and the acquisition of knowledge,
  • Promotes a common location for exchanges open to all,
  • Permits shy students, who have difficulty communicating orally in front of the class, to communicate effectively.

In conclusion, I encourage teachers to discover this teaching resource. The learning curve is steep, but on the other hand the reward of seeing what students learn through the discussions makes the effort worthwhile. My colleagues will surely discover many other advantages of this resource which they can share with their colleagues using the Reader Response feature below.

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