I like forums, I use them a lot. I can barely remember when I didn’t know what one was. I think my first exposure to forums might have been through a dial-up bulletin board system (used in the dark ages before the internet, of course). This was followed through a brief flirtation with usenet news groups.
When trying to solve some programming problems, I more often than not would search for a couple of keywords and then stumble across a multitude of different forums where tips, tricks and techniques might be debated and explored. A couple of years ago I was then introduced to the world of FirstClass forums (wikipedia) and then, more recently, to Moodle forums. Discussions with colleagues has since led me towards the notion of e-tivities.
I have a confession to make: I use my email account for a whole manner of different things. One of the things that I incidentally use my email account for is sending and receiving email! I occasionally use email as a glorified ‘todo’ list (albeit one that has around a thousand items!) If something comes in that is interesting and needs attention, I might sometimes use click on an ‘urgent’ tick box so that I remember to look at the message again at a totally unspecified time in the future. If it is something that must be bounded by time, I might drag the item into my calendar and ask my e-mail client to remind me about it at a specified time in the future (I usually ponder over this for around half a minute before choosing one of two options: remind me in a weeks time, or remind me in a fortnight).
I have created a number of folders within my email client where I can store interesting stuff (which I very often subsequently totally forget about). Sometimes, when working on a task, I might draft out some notes using my email editor and them store them to a vaguely titled folder.
The ‘saving of draft’ email doesn’t only become something that is useful to have when the door knocks or the telephone rings – email, to me, has gradually become an idea and file storage (and categorisation) tool that has become an integral part of how I work and communicate. I think I have heard it said that e-mail is the internet’s killer application (wikipedia). For me, it is a combined word processor, associative filing cabined, ideas processor and general communications utility.
Returning to the topic of forums… Forums are great, but they are very often nothing like email. I can’t often click and drag forum messages from one location into folder or to a different part of the screen. I can’t add my own comments to other people’s posts that only I can see (using my mail client I can save copies of email that other people send me). On some forum systems I can’t sort the messages using different criteria, or even search for keywords or phrases that I know were used at some point.
My forum related gripes continue: I cannot delete (or at least) hide the forum message that I don’t want to see any more. On occasions I want to change the ‘read status’ from ‘read’ to ‘unread’ if I think that a particular subject that is being discussed might be useful to remember when I later turn to an assessment that I have to submit. I might also like to take fragments of different threads and group them together in a ‘quotation set’, building a mini forum centric e-portfolio of interesting ideas (this said, I can always copy and paste to email!)If a forum were like a piece of paper where you could draw things at any point I might want to put some threads on the left of the page (those points that I was interested in) and others on the right of the page (or visa-versa).
I might want to organise the threads spatially, so that the really interesting points might be at the top, or the not so interesting points at the bottom – you might call this ‘reader generated threading!’ When one of my colleagues makes a post, there might be an icon change that indicates that a contribution has been made against a particular point.
I might also be able to save thread (or posting) layout, depending on the assignment or topic that I am currently performing research. It might be possible to create a ‘thread timeline’ (I have heard rumours that Plurk might do something like this), where you see your own structured representation of one or more forums change over time. Of course, you might even be able to share your own customised forumscape with other forum users.
An on-line forum is undoubtedly a space where learning can occur. When we think about how we might further develop the notion of a forum we soon uncover the dimension of control.
Currently, the layout and format of a forum (and what you can ultimately do with it) is ultimately constrained by the design of the forum software and a combination of settings assigned by an administrator. Allowing forum users to create their own customised view of a forum communication space may allow learners tools to make sense of different threads of communication. Technology can be then used to enable an end user to formulate a display that most effectively connects new and emerging discussions with existing knowledge.
This display (or forumscape) might also be considered as a mask. Since many different discussions can occur on a single forum at the same time choosing the right mask may help salient information become visible.
The FirstClass system, with its multiple discussion areas and the ability to allow the end user to change the locations of forum icons on a ‘First Class’ desktop begins to step toward some of these ideas.
Essentially, I would like discussion forums to become more like my email client: I would like them to do different things for me. I would like forum software to not only allow users to share messages. I would like forum software to become richer and permit the information they display to the users be more malleable (and manageable). I know this would certainly be something that would help me to learn!
Acknowlegements: Picture from Flickr taken by stuckincustoms, licenced under creative commons.