Web Discussion Forums in Teaching and Learning

Roger Akers

Research and Development for Instructional Technologies, UNC MetaLab
Academic Technology and Networks
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Ideas, questions, and individual discoveries are not restricted to the three-hour-per-week contact time of the standard classroom. However, students' discussion opportunities and contact with instructors are restricted to scheduled class meeting times and instructors' office hours. Recent interactive implementations of the World Wide Web offer opportunities for sharing ideas, posing questions, and presenting individual discoveries at a time of convenience, and better, at the time of thought. This paper describes the use of World Wide Web-based discussion forums to provide an avenue for sharing information beyond time and place constraints of the physical classroom.

Web Discussion Forums in Teaching and Learning

Steven Gilbert (1995) of the American Association for Higher Education states that one purpose of educational institutions is to make better connections among people who want to learn, people who want to teach, and the world of information and ideas.

Electronic discussion forums provide a time-of-convenience and place-of-convenience opportunity for student-student contact and student-instructor contact. Discussion forums on the World Wide Web (WWW) are a common space for sharing opinions, solutions, literary citations, and pointers to sites on the Web--arguably the most publicized segment of the "world of information and ideas."

WWW Discussion Forums

Typical use of the WWW is by passive consumers, searching through information others have made available, bookmarking useful or entertaining sites, and creating individual libraries of information. Web-based discussion forums, on the other hand, are built by participation. Beginning as an empty page, the forums develop as people submit questions, provide answers/solutions, present opinions, share pointers to other resources, and post whole documents for others to download. Groups of people work together to create shared libraries of information.

A shared space on the Web, the discussion forums provide a common "meeting" place for participants to contribute information. Content is presented as a collection of threaded messages with Web interfaces for perusal of existing threads and submission of new posts. The threaded presentation puts messages on the same topic together and indicates response messages with indentation, allowing readers to follow discussions topic by topic.

To include information other than simple text in messages, universal resource locators (URLs) embedded in the text automatically become active hypertext links, enabling participants to easily share their pertinent bookmarks. Similarly, an e-mail address provided in a submission becomes an active hypertext link for quick e-mail response. Because not all dialogue occurs via the forum, incorporating the e-mail link provides a direct option for one-to-one dialogue that may not be appropriate for the forum. The discussion forum software also allows participants to upload whole documents as attachments to messages. These documents remain in the same format as when uploaded and are made available to others to download via a link, a convenient mechanism for sharing documents.

Since Web pages do not necessarily "deliver" information directly to people, but instead must be "visited," how do forum participants know when new items have been added? The discussion forum software has a notification module that delivers, via e-mail, daily notices of new posts on the individual forums. The notices are brief messages indicating new posts by subject and author and giving the URL of the forum, which reminds those receiving the notice how to get to the forum and provides an active link to those who read e-mail using a Netscape browser. Instructors, as the "owners" of their forums, have an option in the creation and maintenance menu to specify e-mail addresses of people to be notified. We encourage instructors to use their class listserv as the notification list.

By putting discussion forum administration in the hands of the forum owners, we gave instructors the flexibility to use forums whenever and however they wished. Instructors can create and maintain their forums at their convenience via a Web interface. Forums can be restricted or open. At the time of creation, forum software automatically generates a single class ID to be used when access to the forum is restricted. (We opted for a single class ID approach instead of having individual IDs for each participant, to avoid introducing an ID/password maintenance problem to the instructors.) Using an option on the maintenance menu, the instructor can change the password to restrict or unrestrict access to the forum at any time. Though all class members access the forum via a single ID, the submission form allows authors to identify themselves or post messages anonymously.

Pedagogical Implications

Four examples below are suggestions of how discussion forums fit with learning theory and teaching methods.

1. Constructivism suggests that learning is the process of adjusting our own understanding of the world around us through reflection on our experiences. Among the constructivist approaches are extensive student-student dialogue, and making visible the student process of analyzing, interpreting, predicting, and synthesizing. (On Purpose Associates, 1996a). Web discussion forums provide an additional avenue as an adjunct to classroom discussions. Students can interpret and analyze others' writings, reflect on their knowledge and readings, present their points of view, and provide pointers to information that support their ideas. The Web's public forum promotes the practice of the scholarly argument: well articulated, factual-based writing with appropriate references.

2. A central component of Piaget's developmental theory of learning is participation of the learner: students need to explore, question, and seek out answers for themselves. Discussion forums enable students to become active participants in discussing topics presented in class and in bringing to the group additional information sources. Asynchronous participation allows students time to reflect and carefully construct their points-of-view. Additionally, via anonymous submissions, students can openly question the content delivered in textbooks and class lectures instead of holding back their thoughts. Perhaps most important is the students' ability through WWW to ask questions, share ideas, and present opinion at the time of study, instead of having to wait hours or days until the next scheduled class meeting time or next available office hour.

3. In the communities of practice approach, the ability to contribute to a community creates the potential for learning (On Purpose Associates, 1996b). Evaluations of discussion forums by students and instructors often mention the feeling of comradeship and community, the satisfaction of contributing information to the group, and the sense of team sharing as positive features.

4. Higher-order learning skills expected of graduates of higher education include effective communication, ability to interact effectively, and critical thinking. Since writing is the primary means of communications in discussion forums, students must practice formulating points-of-view and presenting facts and opinion clearly. Participants interact by interpreting, evaluating, and critiquing peers' comments and by sharing information; the practice of group knowledge building. In addition, a forum can be designed to promote critical thinking by presenting effective strategies as major topics for comment.

Discussion Forums Applied

Guest experts. Using a discussion forum for her "Health Care Informatics" class, Professor Sheila Englebardt of UNC-CH's School of Nursing offered her Informatics students access to experts in the major topics to be covered. These guests participated remotely from a variety of places around the world; from Indian Rocks Beach, Florida to Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia. Presiding over the discussion for a topic's time frame, each guest introduced the topic, posed questions to the class, responded to comments and questions, and provided pointers to additional background reading. Through WWW discussion forums, students in this class had the opportunity to discuss topics with 13 guest experts, providing students and instructor an enhanced learning experience.

Inclusion of literary citations. Citations in hypertext or plain text established a factual overtone in the Informatics forum, resulting in an expanding knowledge and reference base for participants. The power of team research and information sharing "ramped-up" the group on the current literature and theory.

World wide sharing. Shortly into the semester, a health care Informatics class at Washington State University joined the forum. Without modification to the existing forum and with no noticeable degradation in service, this second class participated from 3000 miles away--with access to the same experts, with ability to reference and contribute to the shared knowledge bases, and with an interface already familiar and available to them--their Web browser of choice.

Teamwork. In Spring 1996, UNC-CH's School of Information and Library Science offered an independent study focusing on design and development of an information retrieval system prototype. The course objectives were to provide a team-based software development experience; to encourage research in information retrieval methods; and to promote application of theory into working systems. As an independent study, the course lacked scheduled meeting times. The students chose a discussion forum to fill that void.

Two immediate problems to be addressed were (a) the great disparity of programming experience among the students--the prototype was to be written using Perl, unfamiliar to all but one or two; and (b) system design decisions--how could they decide how the system should be built and how could they come to a consensus on the approach to take?

Concerning use of Perl, even though 5.0 manuals were not yet available in print, students readily adopted the discussion forum as a common space for sharing useful Perl 5.0 resources found on the Web, essentially creating their own Perl reference manual, to be referred to throughout the semester.

Concerning system design, students again turned to the WWW discussion forum. They were able to post their ideas accompanied by flow diagrams, thereby presenting an illustrated argument. In addition, students included citations and URLs of other approaches to designing such systems, analysis of those models, and speculation of how those approaches could benefit or limit the system they were designing.

Issues of Use

Support. All instructors, whether actively using discussion forums or considering use, need support. The "innovators" and "early adopters" (Rogers, 1995) seek information regarding the extended potential of the technology: Is it extensible to include more advanced features? Is it customizable? These instructors tend to generate new ideas for applying the technology and for enhancing the learning experience for their students. It is essential to work closely with these instructors to help them explore new applications and, perhaps more important, to learn from them.

It is just as important to support the "early majority" and "late majority" who have seen others implement technology in instruction and are ready to attempt incorporation of the technology in their teaching. There is, perhaps, nothing more frustrating to faculty than to watch a technologist give a flashy demonstration of how technology can enhance their teaching, get excited to use the technology, and then find no assistance to pursue that use.

The Academic Technology and Networks unit at UNC-CH has a structure designed to support both groups. A program called Simple Start introduces Internet technologies to instructors via training classes, technology demonstrations, workshops, and individual consulting. Simple Start focuses on simple yet powerful tools such as e-mail, listservers, the World Wide Web, and discussion forums. Working in collaboration with Simple Start, a research and evaluation team tracks new developments in instructional technologies, consults with the innovators and early adopters, and evaluates and demonstrates tools that have potential in that environment. Appropriate new tools and effective implementations are added to the Simple Start tool set for use by the larger group.

Encouraging use. Forced participation is certainly appropriate and perhaps the most effective approach in some situations. Ideally, though, if learning is the primary objective, then forced use seems less appealing. Any tool will be readily used when that tool provides an advantage--in this case, an aid in learning. A discussion forum will be used by participants when it becomes a valuable information resource and an effective communications tool for linking students to instructors, students to students, and instructors to instructors. In this light, instructors are encouraged to plan their use of forums, to keep the discussions focused, and to promote sharing information via URLs, citations, and uploaded documents.

The discussion forum software itself promotes use of the forums by delivering notices after new information has been added. Once a day, a brief, gentle reminder is sent via e-mail to addresses designated by the instructor. These notices include the name of the forum, a list of new posts by title and author, and the URL of the forum to make the return trip easy. The notification feature was added after evaluation of early forums indicated a problem of knowing when to visit a forum. It takes only a few visits to an inactive forum before people decide not to come back. The notices circumvent unnecessary visits.

Students' reluctance. Students' reluctance to post to discussion forums is due in part to the presence of "experts," and in part to the permanence of the posts. Unlike e-mail, usenet news, and listservers, a discussion forum is, by nature, an archive. A message posted to the forum remains in clear view of all participants until the forum owner removes it. This public display may intimidate students. On the upside, the permanence promotes well thought and well articulated arguments. One could argue that this is no different than the reluctance of students to speak in a classroom. However, there are two significant differences. First, in many classrooms, one or two students often respond to nearly all questions and tend to monopolize the discussion. These same students may be prolific writers on discussion forums as well, but, their actions do not impede upon others because the time and place constraints are no longer in place. Second, we know that quiet, reflective students rarely find the classroom a comfortable place to share their thoughts. With discussion forums, we are seeing these students participating more frequently, to the benefit of all.

Lessons Learned

Perhaps the most valuable lesson learned in our discussion forum project is to keep the tool as simple to use as possible. The few options of the forums are available via menus and fill-in-the-blank forms. While there may be other ways of doing things behind the scenes, it seems unwise to introduce those complexities. The forums do one thing--provide a common, shared discussion space--and they do it well.

Where appropriate, we encourage integration of other tools with the forums. For instance, we suggest that forum notices be sent to established class listservers. The listserver software has been tested and has proven effective for delivering e-mail to groups; no reason to reinvent that feature in discussion forums. By integrating with existing tools, we can focus our development effort on functionality that is not available and add those modules, tools, as they become robust. From the systems administrator perspective, problems can be isolated to specific modules making support easier. From the user perspective, new modules can be added with minimal interruption.

It is clear that simply making discussion forums available does not result in effective use. In several cases, forums were created with enthusiasm only to sit idle due to ineffective moderating by the owner. Presentations not only to faculty groups, but also to students, plus testimonials from faculty peers are essential in generating willing and eventually enthusiastic participation.


Web-based, asynchronous discussion forums provide a valuable avenue for sharing information outside the classroom. Students and instructors can share their ideas, questions, and individual discoveries whenever they wish and wherever they have Internet access. Many of our instructors are using discussion forums in their classes. More important, students are requesting that instructors use them because the forums provide the students an advantage--a tool for learning.


Gilbert, Steven W. (1995) Important questions for higher education: Sex, drugs, rock and roll, books ... or computers? [On-line]. Available URL: http://www.aahe.org/tltr-ch1.htm.

On Purpose Associates. (1996a). Constructivism [On-line]. Available URL: http://www.Funderstanding.com/constructivism.htm.

On Purpose Associates. (1996b). Communities of practice [On-line]. Available URL: http://www.Funderstanding.com/communities.htm.

Rogers, E.M. (1995). Diffusion of innovations (4th ed.). New York: Free Press.

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