Thursday, 22 July 2010

Forums for a change

Something else I need to research is a forum. A colleague at an institution I work with has suggested that we should have one for distance learning students. Now forums, or fora I suppose, have been around for a while but the only ones I've actually found useful myself have been those I've been taken to by Google when trying to find answers to something like why I'm getting strange messages on my laptop or how to focus the viewer display on a digital camera.

You know you're in a forum because most contributors have strange names and even stranger icons next to them. They either know absolutely everything or are asking simple questions. There seem few in the middle. The answers and links often provided are usually jolly good and have to date either reassured me that I needn't worry about something or provided a pretty quick answer confirming that I should. Very seldom have I ever had to post a new query and most of the ones I've visited I never joined anyway.

You also know you're in a forum because whoever designed it was rather better at php code than designing things. Nearly all comprise streams of verdana stretching across the wide screen with shades of grey or lime green separating entries. There's little clue on the page to where you actually are in many cases either.

An exception used to be Lefora, with nicely laid out pages and templates you could use to create your own forum. I used these a lot once but because there were inactive for a period they were archived and now I'd need to start all over again to retrieve them. That says it all, really, no-one participated much in them. They could contact me in all sorts of other ways and the material I published there was essentially stuff I'd already written and published elsewhere too so it would only have been interaction between members that would actually have created any original content.

In some fields I am sure such interaction could occur and be encouraged so I'm not against the idea. I just don't see myself doing any more with forums in the future than I've done to date. Pop in when I need something and then move on. That doesn't help with research, though, so I am going to try very hard to keep an open mind and see what I can come up with.

Facebook pages have a lot to recommend them for some groups of students who would feel completely at home in the environment. That's one option. Another is LinkedIn which I have joined but done little with since. It could be the answer for the more adult types we're likely to be dealing with. I shall also take a fresh look at Lefora and PBworks, the excellent wiki application. Zoho might do something too. I seem to recall that their suite of applications dwarfed the might Microsoft's mainstream list - and Zoho's are free.

I do have this feeling, though, that whatever we created will have a burst of activity for a few weeks and then people will just e-mail each other or their tutor as they've done to date. We'll see.

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