How to organise a forum (technical aspects)

2 How to run a forum

2.1 Chat or forum?

One of the main differences between a chat-room and a forum is that a chat is basically a private exchange of personal information and interests, whereas a forum should, as in the original sense of the Latin word “forum”, rather be a public “marketplace” of opinions and knowledge. Personal contacts and exchanges between participants may of course be of some interest to other forum users, but it in many cases it is not. In real life, there is a clear distinction between public communication, e.g. a speech or a conference, and private conversation. For public communication, we normally use different language levels (e.g. more formal and elaborated styles) and different physical settings (e.g. conference rooms, classrooms) than in private intercourse, for which we prefer something like a coffeehouse, bar or lounge. Therefore, in the real world, the setting and environment help us choose suitable and consistent contents and language levels. Since we have no such clues in cyberspace, the users of a forum, especially young and inexperienced ones, tend to mix up chat and forum, i.e. private exchanges and discussions that would be of interest to others.

On the GULLIVER forum, there was often a mixture between entries like “Hi, how are you, my name is XY and I like Z...” and entries that responded to certain ideas and pieces of information from an essay somebody else had written. In such a case, the problem for other users of the forum is that it may get a little tedious to skim through numerous entries when it is not clear whether they contain interesting facts and arguments or only private exchanges designed to establish some kind of personal contact. Another problem that may arise after some time is that a forum which contains a lot of chat-like clutter might become a rather unwieldy and confusing source of information and as such unsuitable for class work. Pupils, who are often slow readers, may then find it very difficult to extract interesting information from a chunk of forum entries with mixed contents.

On the other hand, it was always seen as an integral part of the GULLIVER concept that the forum should serve as a start-up for personal contacts and exchanges between classes and individuals, and the fact that many students asked for class photos indicate that, for many participants, real persons are more interesting than abstract opinions or facts from an essay.

A possible solution to this dilemma consists of two elements: First, students and teachers should be made aware of the differences between forum and chat. Teachers could be trained or instructed accordingly, or there should be a set of guidelines that list and explain the dos and don’ts of a forum. Secondly, it seems advisable to combine a forum and a chat-room on the same platform or website whenever this is technically possible, just like every conference has a seminar room and a coffee corner. And, as at a typical conference, coffee-break conversation may even be more interesting than the more “serious” lecture-hall stuff, but the latter will then be more clutter-free and easier to work with contentwise. If it proves too difficult to include a chat-room in a forum-site, an alternative solution may be that the users exchange e-mail addresses. Technically, a frequently applied tool ensures that a mouse-click on the username will open an e-mail window addressed to that user.

2.2 Technical opportunities and potential pitfalls

Once it is clear that a contribution to a forum should contain information of some public interest, there are many ways of presenting this information to others. Technically speaking, they are perhaps too many. During the initial planning sessions for GULLIVER, there was a lot of enthusiasm for the manifold possibilities of multimedia presentation: videos, audio-files, “PowerPoint”-presentations, links to websites, web cams and so on and so forth. What we didn’t take into account, however, was that the technical equipments of participants from over 20 different countries were so different that many teachers and pupils were unable to open and read what their fellow participants had elaborated. Either they didn’t have the necessary software, or their internet connections were too slow, or the files were too big, or they contained letters or signs that other computers did not have so that the text came out partly distorted. In other cases, there were internet links to sites that were inaccessible or that contained pop-ups or flash-players which other computers wouldn’t open because of their security settings. Although these cases constituted a minority and did not stop the forum from working as it had been planned, they are certainly a hindrance to the flow of information on a forum, and one that can be diminished.

The remedy seems simple: A set of guidelines for the use of a forum could state that each contribution should be posted both in its elaborate (original) form and in a simplified version, e.g. as a text-only file posted directly on the forum or in a format that has proved to be readable for most users, e.g. (MS)Word file or .RTF-file. The shortcomings of this idea are that it requires extra work as well as some basic knowledge of software and data management from the users, which cannot always be taken for granted. It may therefore be more advisable to ask a moderator to manage the data.

2.3 Content management and personal resources

The easiest way to run a forum is to leave it unmoderated, which means that anyone can participate and can post anything he/she wants, subject only to "peer pressure" from other participants, and/or regulation by his/her own internet service provider. This, however, can make it hard to keep a newsgroup focused on a particular topic, and there could be contents that are not politically correct, or even worse, that are counter-productive because they spread racism and prejudice. So it might be more advisable to try and get some control over the contents. Basically, there are two ways of doing this: the organisation that set up the forum can demand some kind of identification from the people who want to log in, or it can employ a “forum administrator” or “moderator”  ?  who examines all the postings before they appear on the forum. Anybody who wants to act as a moderator should be aware that this task requires some time and energy on a regular basis. It is, however, possible to share that task with others. On the other hand, managing a forum will ensure that the moderator is always informed about what’s going on.

In many cases, forums are designed, set up and run by third parties, such as specialized companies or a school’s internet administrator. In that case, it is important for a forum manager to insist on having more rights than common users. In all forums, there will occasionally be postings that have been sent twice or that contain information that is irrelevant or unsuitable for other reasons. Therefore, the forum manager, or the moderators employed by the manager, should be able to delete such postings easily and immediately, without having to ask other persons to do that for them.

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