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Educational Community-Building with Forums

Posted: May 13, 2002
By Greg R. Notess
You’ve built your school’s Web site, filled it with great content, and arranged it in an exceptional design. Now, how do you get teachers and staff to use it more than once? Let’s explore one way to get that group interacting with the site and each other.

Web forums are a modern-day online bulletin board system, rather like an online teachers’ lounge. People post news, questions, stories, and successes. They respond to each other’s postings. Forums can give less-vocal members of a community a way to participate in discussions, when they might be too reticent to do so in a real meeting. They can find answers to technical problems by sharing the problem with a group of other users.

Forums can be a great tool for community-building. If you have not run into a Web forum before, take a look around one of the following examples to get a sense of how they can be used:

  • FrontPage Talk—Subject-oriented forum for users of the FrontPage Web site creation and management tool.
  • Teacher Focus—A profession-oriented forum with sections for science, literature, new teachers, and educational technology.
  • Online Writing Collaboration Project—A subject-oriented forum about teaching and learning written English as a second language.
  • Tutor2u—A British economics, business, and politics education forum.
Types of Forums

As the examples show, forums can serve many functions for a diverse collection of groups. Some handle hundreds of readers and participants, while others may be limited to only a dozen. A teacher can set up a forum for just one class. Or all the eleventh-grade history students in a district can participate in one forum. Educational administrators can use a private forum to discuss budget cuts, while the teachers’ union can use another to plot their strategy. All the science teachers in a school district or state can use a forum to share lesson plans and lab experiments. The global nature of the Web makes it easy for the dozen professors of a barely remembered language to gather together online to converse about teaching methodology and their latest research.

Think creatively about the users of your Web site. One board does not need to serve the entire audience. It may work best just for a small group, or for as broad a group as possible. Some ideas:

  • Departments (for minutes, agendas, and discussions)
  • School-wide news and issues
  • A class where discussion is important
  • Extracurricular clubs and activities
  • Making connections with other schools
  • State or national association committees
  • Connecting classes at several geographically distant schools
One word of advice before developing a forum: Be prepared for it to be used in ways you do not expect. Setting up a staff forum expecting to see policies posted by the administrator and discussed by the teaching staff? A good plan, but if the administrator proves incapable of posting such information, then other staff might begin to use it for posting news and announcements and discussing issues that fail to surface in staff meetings.

Getting Started

FrontPage has a built-in discussion-forum wizard for creating a fairly simple forum. SharePoint™ Team Services from Microsoft has even more sophisticated capabilities, including forum management tools for handling the forum as it grows over time. Plenty of other options are available. Browse the message boards listings at Google Web Directory for some options.

One of the easiest ways to get started is to create a practice board using the basic capabilities of FrontPage version 2002. Note that this will require a Web server with FrontPage Extensions.

  1. On the File menu, point to New, and then click Page or Web.
  2. In the New Page or Web task pane, under New from Template, click Web Site Templates.
  3. Click Discussion Web Wizard.
  4. Answer the various prompts and choose among the options.
  5. Edit the created pages if you want, or add graphics.
  6. To publish the pages, on the File menu, choose Publish to Web, and try them out.
FrontPage gives you the option to choose from several themes for the forums, but you can add additional design elements on the pages later as well.

Keeping the Forum Alive

Unlike the passive behavior of a Web wanderer visiting your site, a discussion forum needs interaction and feeding. Once you’ve set up a forum, it will be of no interest if no one posts anything. So plan ahead. Have several people lined up to post informative messages and get a discussion going.

A forum depends on people, more than technology, to keep it going. And sometimes it only takes a few active ones, especially if they write well or consistently have good information to share. Identify a few teachers or other staff who like technology and like to share their views. Prime them to contribute or even moderate sections of the message board.

Getting a community involved with a Web site through reading, discussing, posting, and interacting with each other can help a site grow. Use a forum for getting new ideas, sharing educational techniques, posting lesson plans, keeping track of events, or even getting input into site design. Creating a message board or discussion forum offers all sorts of possibilities for increasing communication, getting broader participation, and developing a more active educational community.

Greg R. Notess is the founder of SearchEngineShowdown.com and an award-winning author, consultant, and frequent conference speaker. He has been writing and speaking about the Net since 1991, and is currently working on his third Internet-related book.
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