Posted by Tomaz Lasic on 18 August, 2008
After an amazingly insight-rich, highly enjoyable and very well-received online forum across four senior classes at our school on the theme ‘What would you improve at our school?” this week, I simply had to put in a big plug for forums in Moodle. I write this as a combination of teaching and tech tips and strategies for using forums in Moodle. Most of all, I write this with my students, their voice and their learning in mind.
Like many teachers, I often run class discussion. A problem or a question is presented with individuals invited to call out with answers. Sometimes students are in groups for all or part of the discussion with more than one topic to discuss.
What I have ideally wanted is for each student to contribute in some way to either the group or class discussion. In reality, I often get a few regular contributors to call out with some quality answers, a few attention seekers with not such high quality answers and the rest of the class likely to switch off.
If students are in groups, the groups are often dominated by one or two students with others just agreeing and tagging along. Apart from the public answers of the few, I never really get to know what the majority of students were thinking. At the same time, students don’t have a clue about what the majority of their peers in class may be (capable of) thinking.
In such a scenario (not uncommon), individuals with possibly very clever ideas are never really heard because they fear to speak publicly, stand out, or simply like to have more time to process things before potentially making a fool of themselves – we are talking teenagers here and that is often the driving fear.
Then came Moodle and the heart of it – forums. Of course I did not have to use Moodle to have an online forum but this standard Moodle feature is much like the rest of Moodle – robust, easily set up, and neatly packaged with the rest.
Forums are a great way for students to discuss, express opinions, argue their point, contribute to discussions and an overall very powerful way to learn and communicate. In a forum, students are equal, there is no shouting and overpowering, and everything that is said is public and indeed trackable. They are also a fantastic message board for teachers and students alike. So, how does a forum work?
Forums consist of discussions, a sort of ‘tables’ around which people talk about a particular topic. Participants are free to move to any ‘table’ at any time. Let’s say the subject is fresh water. One discussion is about conservation, one about pollution and one about availability of fresh water. Students are free to discuss any of these topics, split them and take them on a particular tangent or explore them in depth, even add their own topics. Their understanding (or lack of it) becomes very clear very soon.
To set up a forum you need to be logged in and given teacher’s editing rights in the course you are adding a forum in. If you can see the Turn editing on button – you are fine, if not talk to your Moodle admin.
Add forum as an activity from the ‘Add activities’ menu. Give the forum a name. If you want everyone to be able to start and contribute to conversation, create a standard general forum. If you want to stick with one discussion only – select single discussion. If you want students to contribute something before they can see other people’s work and contribute themselves – set a Q and A forum.
Enter a description of the forum, maybe the rules you want your forum participants to follow. This will save lots of extra instructions and nagging later.
If you are setting a forum for the first time or you are not feeling confident, you may want to leave other settings to default as these are the ones most people use anyway. For the record, in Moodle forums you can specify which individuals and/or groups are allowed to participate, size of attachment anyone can add (could be important if bandwith is an issue), whether the participants can rate the posts, track the posts they have not read yet, view and/or enter ratings using default or customised scales, and restrict the period the forum is open. Since there is a lot more to Moodle than its default settings, feel free to play and moodle around a bit if you wish and you’ll be surprised what you can.
Once you have saved your settings, it is time to start a discussion. Click ‘Add a discussion’ button. Give the discussion a name, then type in something to elicit a response from students, a good open-ended question will do. For example “What do you think about the statement ‘Our city has a problem with demand for water, not the supply?’” You can even attach a picture or a file.
You can choose whether you want to receive what people write in this forum by email or not. Post to forum and you are done! You will usually have a period of time to edit your entry.
When responses start to come, you can view them in four ways. Newest first or oldest first, threaded showing who replied to whose post, or nested, to see what each person replied and to whom did they reply. For tracking discussion in a lengthy forum, I recommend the nested or threaded view. Students will generally have a button to reply or even split a discussion.
And here is another very handy feature. To see what each participant has contributed, simply click on their name, then click the tag Forum posts. The list of all forum posts by this person appears and you will know in a very short time not only how well this students participates, but the depth of their contribution and responses. If you can, participate in the forum as an equal – your students will appreciate it!
But wait, there’s more…forum as a notice board
Ever just wanted to give the whole class a written set of instructions to follow, a quick notice about something without spending 10 minutes calming them down and getting their attention? Then you had to repeat the process several times for the ones who were not there on the day or the ones who were making paper aeroplanes out of your carefully photocopied notice around the school.
There is a special type of Moodle forum that by default, students can’t reply to but simply just read. It’s called a News Forum and you will probably see it as you create your course. Like with most things in Moodle, the settings and the name can be easily changed by you and, if necessary, your Moodle admin. The process of starting discussions and entering information is identical to the one described above.
This was just a basic run down on forums. They can be split in groups, renamed, reset, exported/imported and done lots of other things with them but it’s probably enough information here to run a great forum in your class or school. Whether used as message boards, lists of FAQ, opinion gathering and/or debating tool, a vehicle for peer and self-evaluation, or for many other purposes, forums have worked great in my class, my school and in thousands of other learning communities around the world. I hope they work in yours too.
A word of warning from experience in a high school (and I would imagine primary school too). I strongly recommend that you establish clear guidelines and expectations before the forum is open. While students may not yell in an online forum, there are ways in which they could make someone’s experience a bad one. You may also consider what to do with forums once they are finished –archiving them may be an option.
You can watch a short screencast on forums from the 2 Minute Moodles collection by clicking here.
If you have a comment, suggestion, tip, or you want to tell us about your experience with forums in Moodle, I would love to hear from you.