(originally posted on a previous version of the university’s Moodle Help blog in August 2011)
I’ve been thinking about the differences between the forum types in Moodle and the simplest way to explain these. There are some significant differences, that will affect the experience learners have and may provide better mappings onto what teaching teams are trying to achieve in a particular situation. Where I’ve been involved in the initial training sessions, I’ve mentioned some of the differences, but there’s never been the time to go into depth. Hopefully this post will help to rectify this.
The first thing to be clear about is that a forum isn’t a discussion; it’s more a location where different discussions can be started. So when you create a forum, the “introduction” you give it will set a broad context for the discussions you want to happen there, but it won’t start any of those discussions. Once you’ve created the forum, both you and your learners will be able to click a link to start a discussion – to make the opening observation and give others the opportunity to reply. Metaphorically-speaking, the forum is a big open space and the discussions are tables within that space where people sit down and talk about a particular subject. The subjects of the different discussions within the forum might be related or might not be. That really sums up the default Standard forum for general use.
If you wanted to remove the openness of a forum, to make sure that the discussion was about a specific topic and you wanted all the contributions to be responses to a given proposition, question or starting point, you would probably find A single simple discussion more suitable. With this forum type, there’s only ever one discussion and, rather than giving a broad introduction when you create it, what you type as the introduction becomes the first post in the discussion thread, to which others reply. If you use these extensively, you’ll have a separate link on the course home page for each one. If you prefer the minimal look, you could use a standard forum and just start a number of discussions, one for each topic you want to cover, but your learners could also start discussions, so you would need to accept not having total steerage over what discussions were started. (Actually, there is a way to limit who can start discussions, if you really wanted to exert that level of control, but that’s an issue for another time).
There are three other options: Each person posts one discussion, Q and A forum and Standard forum displayed in a blog-like format. These are all based on the standard forum, with some tweaks to what your learners can do and see.
An Each person posts one discussion forum is the same open space as the standard forum, where you give a broad contextualising introduction when you create it, but this doesn’t start any discussions by itself. The difference from the standard forum is that, as the name suggests, each person can only initiate one discussion (only set up one table within the big open space). They can, of course, reply within as many discussions as they like, but they can only start one. This might be useful for getting students to share drafts with their peers for peer feedback, for example.
The Q and A forum had me confused for a while. On the surface, its principal rule is that people must have contributed before they can see anyone else’s contributions, which seems simple enough, but doesn’t explain the Q and A title. When you set one up, the name becomes clearer. With this option, the prompt to “start a discussion” becomes “add a new question”. So the idea of this seems to be that someone asks a question, then everybody has to first answer the question before they can see anyone else’s answers. By default anyone can “add a new question”, but it is possible to change the permissions for a forum so that, for example, only the teaching team can add new questions. Where might this forum type be useful? Any situation where you want people to have to give their own opinion or findings, without them being influenced by what others have already added. An additional thing to note is that the blocking works on each “question” independently, so that if a student has posted an answer to, say, “questions” one and three, they will be able to see others’ contributions to these discussions (and respond to them), but not those to “question” two, which they have not answered yet. Lastly, because Moodle has a delay on forum contributions (usually 30mins), to give people a grace period to go back and edit what they have written, a student must wait until that grace period has elapsed before they can see the other responses (presumably to prevent them editing their own response in light of what others have written).
Finally, then, the Standard forum displayed in a blog-like format. This seems to be the way Moodle provides something roughly equivalent to a course blog. It is set up in exactly the same way as the standard forum, but the new discussion link says “add a new topic”, rather than “add a new discussion topic”. Each discussion start is treated as if it’s a blog post and is displayed in its entirety on the forum page, with the most recent starting post at the top. (By contrast, in the standard forum only the subject of discussion starts get displayed, in a table). Rather than “reply”, blog-like forum visitors are encouraged to “discuss this topic”, whereupon they are taken to a separate page listing the starting post for the topic along with any comments made so far and the space to add their own. What you need to remember with this, however, is that the “blog-like” posts are never visible outside of the course (and so only ever visible to course participants). If you want something like a shared course blog that is confined just to you and your students, this may suit you perfectly, but if you want to share the blog with others, you’ll need to look at a different blog solution.