Discussion Forums are Dead, Long Live Discussion Forums

Discussion Forums are Dead, Long Live Discussion Forums

September 18, 2020 Off By JR

Two conversation trends I’ve noticed this week in my RSS feeds and on Twitter are new weird names for online/blended learning (some are truly horrifying), and the other has been conversations around discussions, particularly discussion forums in online learning. As many classrooms in higher education are still virtual, this seems appropriate. Given that 50% of faculty, 51% of undergraduate students, and 27% of graduate students at U.S. institutions had never taught or experienced a fully online course prior to this year’s events (Garrett, R., Legon, R., Fredericksen, E. E., & Simunich, B., 2020) it follows that discussions, and student-student interactions online is new to most people engaged in teaching and learning in higher ed.

If you don’t read anything beyond here in this post, here’s the key message: discussion forums may be getting an awful rap, but they’re actually very effective tools and you should consider using them.

After working in ed tech and instructional design for the better part of a decade, I’ve heard all kinds of statements:

  • discussions forums are boring
  • discussions forums are difficult to grade
  • discussion forums are a terrible tool, you should instead use (insert pitch for product that lasted like 2 years here)
  • you can’t engage meaningfully in conversation
  • post-once and reply twice is the only way they’re used and that’s awful
  • the discussion forums are overwhelming

The list could go on. And, yes, in higher ed classes some of these statements might very well be true. Heck, I’ve participated as a student in classes where some of these were true both in undergrad/grad school and as recently as this year. All this talk reminds me of a statement one of my professors said during a summer session (2008)class that I’ve never been able to forget

Discussion forums are dead. No one uses them anymore.

At the time I thought that was a bold, and not necessarily informed statement. After all, I was part of a number of forums at the time, and one only needs to look across the landscape of websites to see what modern discussion forums look like. Reddit is the 19th most visited website in North America, and it’s basically a bulletin board/discussion forums, in 2020. Not a high enough rank? Wikipedia is the second most visited site in the U.S. and a critical feature of it is the Talk area for each article (looks a lot like a discussion forum). Out of a suite of tools from discussion forums, to blogs, to wikis, to social annotation tools, what remains consistent is that these tools allow you and your students to write, and communicate. They do so in slightly different ways, and are better at performing some specific  tasks better and worse than the others, but there is a huge overlap in their capabilities. Comparing them and saying that one tool is better than the other, or is liked more, glosses over a lot of important contextual information, and those claims should be observed with healthy critique.

It kind of makes me think about the chisels I have for wood turning. There are three main types I have: gouges, skews, and scrapers, and I have a few different sizes of each. Some are better for roughing, some better for shaping, but depending on the technique I use and the desired outcome, I can pretty much use any of them to turn the work. At no point would I throw out all my skews because scrapers are suggested by others to be vastly superior. Same with discussion forums. I’ve found plenty of great use for them, and we should be cautious not to simply universally blame an entire category of tools – either directly or indirectly – for perceived shortcomings.

“Jim’s Wood Turning” by wwarby is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Garrett, R., Legon, R., Fredericksen, E. E., & Simunich, B. (2020). CHLOE 5: The Pivot to Remote Teaching in Spring 2020 and Its Impact, The Changing Landscape of Online Education, 2020