Back to What tool to use and why

1. What is a discussion forum?
1.1. Description: A discussion forum is a virtual place on the internet where conversations can take place and information can be shared more easily among a geographically dispersed group of people. Discussion forums are typically created around a specific topic of common interest or for a specific user group around a particular piece of work.
1.1.1. Asynchronous conversations. Discussion forums are typically asynchronous, meaning the participants don’t have to be online at the same time. Sometimes people think of synchronous tools such as chat in the same way. With chat, you each have to be online at the same time. But in both you are taking turns between each of the conversation participants.
1.1.2. Focus on who said what.
1.2. Who Can Participate in a Discussion Forum? Whoever controls the area where a discussion forum is used determines who can read and contribute to the forum. You can make them open to all of your organization or to just a small group of people. Giving people access to a forum, however, does not ensure they will read or participate. Their must be a compelling reason for the forum and most often you need to facilitate and encourage the discussion.external image usenet.gif
1.3. History: Online discussion forums have been around since computers were first networked. One of the original intentions of the Internet was to make it easy for scientists to collaborate. The most important early discussion forums were on USENET, which started in 1979. Discussion forums later became the base for many online communities.
1.4. Models and Examples of discussion forums in international NGOs.
1.4.1. Some discussion forums serve international communities of practice that operate across organizations around a shared interest and
1.4.2. As online event spaces. For an example of a summary that came out of an online discussion see
1.4.3. As a discussion space for a community of practice

2. Why use a discussion forum?
2.1. There are many ways to use discussion forums, from formal structured conversations to informal “cafés”. The difference between them is the focus and duration of the conversation.
2.1.1. When people are in different places and time zones, making synchronous interactions more difficult, discussion forums can be useful.
2.1.2. When people are working in a second language and the slower pace of a web based discussion allows more time to make meaning across languages.
2.1.3. When it is important to know who said what and when they said it, because the discussion forum lists who made a post and when they posted it. This is especially useful when trying to track project work.
2.1.4. When you want a space for informal conversation that doesn’t need much structure, you can create a “café” or informal thread.

3. What are my alternatives and when should I use them?
3.1. Discussion forum weaknesses
3.1.1. If people don’t regularly go to the workspace or discussion forum, they are less likely to participate in a discussion forum.
3.1.2. If there are multiple forums, people may not know which forum to participate in.
3.1.3. Discussion forum conversations can drag on without an action or decision if they are not facilitated. Don’t expect every discussion to work without a little encouragement and structure.
4. Discussion Forum Alternatives
4.1. Discussion forums are not the only way to have conversations.
4.1.1. Blogs – blogs are good when you want to send out a message. People can always comment, but the focus is on sharing out, rather than conversation per se.
4.1.2. Wikis – wikis are good when it doesn’t matter who said what and you want your conversation to evolve into a final product, like a summary of a conversation. You could pair a wiki and a discussion forum. Have the discussion on the forum, and do the summary on the wiki.
4.1.3. Chat – chat is good when the people in the conversation are all online at the same time. It is more immediate and can be good for things like decision making or dealing with issues where you need a lot of “back and forth” in the conversation.

5. How can I best use my discussion forums? (Tips and tricks)
5.1. Key principles
5.2. Facilitation and moderation
5.3. Keeping a forum tidy
5.3.1. when to open a new forum
5.3.2. when to close a forum
5.3.3. archiving
5.3.4. summarizing
5.4. Examples of discussion forum practices
5.4.1. Conversations supporting a global community of practice
5.4.2. Holding a weeklong asynchronous online meeting in a web forum.
5.4.3. Carrying out a peer assist with colleagues around the world
5.4.4. Informal places to create and nurture relationships
5.4.5. Structured or informal training and learning groups, especially where conversation is useful.
5.4.6. Project coordination and teamwork
5.4.7. Informal information and knowledge sharing
5.4.8. Asynchronous meetings as an alternative to face-to-face meetings and conference calls.
5.5. Resources on using discussion forums
5.5.1. Guidelines for managing virtual discussion groups - (.pdf - 117 KB)
5.5.2. About Discussion Forums - (.pdf - 67 KB)

Image: screen shot of a USENET page from