How to organise a forum (technical aspects)

1 How to set up a forum

1.1 Technical aspects

To set up a forum, it not necessary to have one’s own website. It might be easier to ask an internet provider or the operator of a known site (e.g. of one’s school, community, local university, etc.) to allocate some webspace and/ or set up a forum. This, however, is usually not free of costs, and it makes a forum operator dependent on other people and organisations, which may lead to difficulties in the process of designing and organising a forum. If changes or adjustments to the technical design of the forum become necessary, the provider may be unable to do all the changes as required. In other cases, time-consuming exchanges and discussions with the provider’s staff may be necessary to get the changes done.

Setting up a forum on one’s own, on the other hand, will require a more than basic knowledge about computers and programming languages, and a forum needs the right hardware and server capacity. It will not run on any kind of personal computer. So it is advisable to look for some professional help at least until everything is running smoothly. There are numerous software packages available on the Internet  ?  and some of them are free as well as easy to manage once they have been installed successfully. Examples are vBulletin  ?  or phpBB ? .

1.2 Types of forums

Before establishing a forum, a choice has to be made as to the structure and organisation of such an internet platform. Depending on the contents and topics, the forum may take the form of a simple bulletin board, for example if there is just one topic and/ or if the number of users is small. Or else, if there are many different themes or groups of users, the forum will be less confusing if it has a kind of tree structure with the necessary number of subdivisions. Postings may be shown either in chronological order or piled into threads, which means that only the last in a series of postings and replies is shown and previous contributions can be traced back from there.

Another decision that has to be taken at the start concerns the accessibility of the site. Should the forum be open to everybody? Should users be required to register (using a password), and if yes, what kind of identity validation should be required? In the GULLIVER project, only teachers were given usernames and passwords. But soon some students found out that they could also get access simply by registering on the site. The outcome was a number of useless, content-free postings. So, registration alone is not a suitable measure to keep out web-clowns. It would have to be combined with some kind of identity-check. On the other hand, such a requirement may keep too many people from entering the forum. For most forums, registration by choosing a username and filling in a valid e-mail address will suffice.

1.3 Designing a forum

Once the aims and purpose of a forum have become clear to its initiators, much is to be gained or lost by the way a forum is organised and presented.

First of all, the purpose, use and aims of the forum should be communicated to all users. They should have a clear concept of what the forum can do for them and what it is good for. And they should be aware of how they can help to make the forum function in the way it was intended. The participants of GULLIVER were instructed by their teachers, who had contributed to planning that forum and thus knew very well what it was about. Evidently they succeeded well in communicating their knowledge. Later, the project team sent letters to the teachers and participants with instructions on how to use the forum in a more organised way, e.g., where to post correctly and how to add headers to their postings. It seems, however, that these instructions did not always reach their addressees, or that they were simply ignored by a number of students. For example, replies to postings were often posted as a new contribution instead of being added to the existing entry. It would probably have been useful to offer a kind of user’s manual on the site. Some sites also have a section where FAQs (frequently asked questions) are answered.

Second, the themes and topics to be discussed on the forum should be defined as precisely as possible. If there are several sub-themes, it is better to create subsections for each one of them than to include them all in one discussion. During the GULLIVER project, it became clear very soon that it was not possible to have all 15 questions on a single bulletin board. If they hadn’t been split into separate sub-forums some time after the beginning of the project, it would have become very difficult to search for specific contributions, for example to a certain topic.

Third, if a forum was created in order to collect and document interesting contributions (rather than for establishing an ongoing discussion), these contributions should have headers that can facilitate a user’s orientation within the forum. Just as the headlines of a newspaper help readers to find their way through a maze of information swiftly and easily, forum postings should be labelled in a way that would enable a user to see at one glance what its origin and contents are. In the GULLIVER forum, the origins of numerous postings (country, class etc.) were not immediately clear because there was no headline. Ideally, a forum software should ask users to enter the data needed for a header into a form before they can send a contribution. This would probably also prevent entries from being posted in the wrong sub-section of the forum.

Generally speaking, the conclusions from the GULLIVER experience are that, if you can influence the design of your forum, you should try to make it as simple and foolproof as possible.

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