Online discussion forums, or message boards, are very easy to find on the Internet about any subject. There are forums about gardening, celebrities, products, sports, dieting and even literacy! Discussion forums can be about fun topics or about serious ones. If there is something you would like to talk about, chances are that there is an Internet discussion group you can join. For example, visit the English as a Second Language discussion forum at: http://forums.eslcafe.com.
Discussion forums can be private or public, large or small. They can be integrated into existing online learning software like Moodle or Desire2Learn (and many others) or they can be standalone. The discussion forum itself can be the method of providing online training, or it can be just one component of training. For a general overview of online discussion forums, see this Wikipedia entry at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_forum.
Generally, online discussions are asynchronous. Participants read and post messages whenever it is convenient for them. However, sometimes two or more people can be online at the same time and respond to each other. Some discussion groups also feature a “chat” component that allows for synchronous (live) communication. To use the chat, participants in the discussion forum click a link that takes them to a separate room where they can “talk” to each other via text in real time.
A discussion forum can be used to offer online training on its own or it can be used to supplement training provided elsewhere, either face-to-face or using another type of online technology. Training content or activities can be presented on the forum, and participants can then discuss the training content, and the facilitator can respond accordingly or post questions to stimulate discussion. Within the discussion forum, both the participants and the facilitator can post links to other Internet content, to videos or to any site of interest.
Online discussions can be a great way for literacy practitioners to share information or to learn about a particular topic. They can also be a terrific way for literacy learners to practice their skills. AlphaRoute (http://resources.alpharoute.org/home.asp), an adult literacy online learning environment, includes discussion groups as one of its many features. It also offers a chat feature.
Setting up an online discussion forum can be fairly simple for a straightforward site. However, if you want to start adding features such as the ability to make certain sections private or to allow posters to use a variety of fonts and graphics in their posts, it will become more complex. There are a number of sites where you can download open source discussion software for free or for very low cost, but if you need something more complex, you may need to budget for this. One of the popular sites to set up a discussion forum is phpBB (www.phpBB.com) which claims to be the most widely used open source discussion software.
Providers of discussion forum software generally provide a number of links to support groups to help you learn how to set up and get the most from your discussion forum. Other free sites include Simple Machines (www.simplemachines.org) and Invision (www.invisionfree.com).
If you prefer not to download software for your discussion, you can set up a forum using Google Groups (http://groups.google.com) or Yahoo Groups (http://ca.groups.yahoo.com). For example, there is a group called “Adult Literacy Matters” for literacy tutors that can be found at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/AdultLiteracyMatters. You do have to request to join this group.
Technology in Action
If you would like to see a literacy discussion group, be sure to visit Literacy Newfoundland's online forum: www.literacynl.com/forums/.
Another good example of a new online discussion forum is one that was developed for the literacy community by AlphaPlus Centre (http://alphaplus.ca). You can find the forum at: http://on.alphaplus.ca/forums/index.php. This site includes a few discussion topics that can be viewed by anyone without having to register or log in. Most of the topics, however, require that you register with the site and log in before reading.
Visit “Dave's ESL Cafe” for ESL teacher forums: http://forums.eslcafe.com/teacher/index.php.
LD Online has a discussion forum about learning disabilities that you can join at: www.ldonline.org/xarbb/?catid=769.
Additional Resources about Discussion Forums
For more information about online discussions and chat rooms, see Learn Quebec's site: www.learnquebec.ca/en/content/pedagogy/cil/inet_law/tools/forum.html.
Communities Scotland developed a useful guide for developing online discussions for adult literacy learners.
The National Adult Literacy Database, or NALD (www.nald.ca) has an excerpt from New Horizons in Adult Education called “Promoting Reflective Discourse in the Canadian Adult Literacy Community: Asynchronous Discussion Forums” by Lori-Kyle Herod. You can read the excerpt at: www.nald.ca/fulltext/herod/apr03/vol17n1.pdf.