What is the best social media tool for the classroom? Blog? Facebook? Wiki? Twitter? Chat? Surprise! It’s the discussion forum. Really? How can a discussion forum be best suited to the classroom, when newer social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter receive all of the hype? Let us look at the desirable features of a classroom setting and how they match up to social media tools.
Classrooms are democratic.
Students continue conversations started during class. They have an equal opportunity to raise their voice — one can speak without interruption in a discussion forum. Students who require more time to process ideas or formulate thoughtful responses have equal access to forum discussions, whereas face-to-face discussions reward quick thinkers and strong verbal processors.
Classrooms are collaborative.
A discussion thread is the combined product of everyone’s contributions. It is not “owned” by any one user. A community of learners work together to make decisions and achieve common goals. In a project-based class, a forum provides equal input to the decision-making process.
Classrooms are private.
Students deserve to take risks and express themselves within a small, trusted group of teachers and peers. While publishing to the world serves a specific pedagogical purpose, it is typically not the standard for all classroom activity. One can make any social media content private, but forums are often private by default.
Classroom work is topical.
In most classes, students engage with a series of topics or projects toward broader learning goals. Discussion forums are by default organized by topic. Any student may create a new topic, which becomes a discussion thread separate from the others. When students reply to each other, the discussions retains its topical organization. Forum tools allow for the creation of categories or multiple forums, allowing the teacher to further organize discussions by topic.
Classrooms are multi-modal.
Like other social media technologies, forums support multiple media: text, links, images, movies, documents, publications, and more.
Classroom activities are diverse.
The forum is an extremely versatile tool. I have seen it used as a news feed, peer review system, debate center, homework club, writing tool, and more.
Is something wrong with other social media tools?
Not at all! Each tool organizes group communication differently and has its place in the educational process. One may argue that new social media tools are better matched to new forms of learning, especially independent study. However, the communication environment of a forum most closely matches a typical classroom learning environment. Let us take a look at the qualities of other social media tools.
In a blog, author(s) write, and then individuals respond. Authors have greater implicit authority than commenters. A comment thread has the potential to become a discussion, but comments are often hidden behind a link, and page views typically far outnumber comments. Most readers just read and do not comment. Blogs are well-suited for the public or community presentation of well-developed work.
In a wiki, participants have equal opportunity to contribute content and organize a shared information resource. A wiki is great for the co-construction of shared knowledge, such as a class review sheet or topical information resource. However, the process of negotiating ideas is hidden behind the “history” and “discussion” links. A wiki emphasizes the final product more than the discussion process.
Photo and Video Sites
Students may publish photos and videos for community feedback. Social media sites also serve as another information resource for research or project work.
I am not aware of strong student learning communities based in Twitter. Teachers have had some success using Twitter as an information source and learning collective.
Online Word Processors
Google Docs is terrific for small group collaborative work, such as when two students develop a paper or presentation together, or as a class document repository. Live, simultaneous editing of a single document does not scale well to a full class of students.
Students are on Facebook, but classrooms should not necessarily go there! The primary distinguishing feature of a social network — curating friend lists — has no place in a classroom. In a school, the learning groups are already defined. Facebook’s photo and video tools are very easy to use, and learning management systems would do well to improve theirs. While popular press about Facebook would have you believe that 100% of students have a Facebook account, in practice one finds that some students have opted out to avoid the distraction or the social scene. Finally, students deserve to have a private, social space separate from adults and classes.
Where can I get a forum for my classroom?
Most course website systems have a forum tool (e.g., Moodle, Blackboard, Haiku). Many social media tools have it, too (e.g., Ning). Standalone forum software also exists, both self-installed and hosted (phpBB).
Versatility: Some Examples
Forum as class discussion
The teacher posts a prompt, and students posts replies, responding both to the original post and building on the comments of classmates.
In Moodle’s “social” site format, one forum is featured on the course site front page. This teacher has added news feeds to the left and right columns for information and inspiration.
Peer review is a key part of the writing process. The author posts her paper, and two peer reviewers write response papers. The original author posts a revision, and the process repeats again.
Single, Public Response
The teacher posts a prompt, but unlike the class discussion, students submit a single response on their own. This is like collecting an assignment but in a public space, so that students may see each others’ responses.
Class Warmup Activity
When students arrive to class, they log into the class site and independently complete the first activity of the day.
Professional Learning Community
Teachers discuss articles with each other in a dedicated forum, having discussions that might not otherwise take place among teachers from different divisions and departments.
Image source: bensonkua on Flickr