You may come up against problems in an online forum that make you reluctant to participate. Or you may not feel confident in contributing to the forum at all, in which case you might want to wait a while and see how it works first. Working online means you cannot see other people smiling in encouragement, so it can be hard to take the plunge and join in.
One good thing about online discussions is that they generally happen over a longer period, so you can think about what you want to say, and everyone gets the chance to make their point. This is unlike a face-to-face discussion where sometimes the only people who get heard are those who 'think on their feet' and talk loudest.
It can also be quite liberating that things which can distract attention - like gestures, accent, racial differences or disabilities - are not 'visible' online.
Contributing to a forum
Here are some suggestions to get you started with contributing to a forum.
- Look for other people's messages that you agree with, and say so, perhaps adding your own examples.
- Look for messages that gave you ideas you hadn't thought of, or that set you thinking about something, and reply.
- Ask a question about something you don't fully understand, and someone will help you out. Don't worry about asking 'silly' questions, there will probably be several other people with the same worry, and you'll have done them a favour by asking.
- If someone asks a question you wanted to ask, you could help them feel less silly by saying you'd like to know the answer too. However, don't do this in a very large and busy forum, where lots of 'me too' messages can be annoying
- If someone asks something you think you know a bit about, answer it. The very best way to check you know something is to try and explain it to someone else.
- If someone asks a question that you can't help with, but no-one seems to be answering, you can at least offer your sympathy and maybe suggest other sources of help.
Writing your first messages may seem awkward, but if you keep on doing it, participating will quickly come to feel quite natural.
Am I saying too much?
Probably not. The people who worry about this are usually the ones who hold a forum together. Don't worry unless over half the messages are from you, or your messages offer your opinions rather than engage in dialogue with others.
If someone is a bit overwhelming, other people may not bother joining in and lose interest. If you think this is happening then maybe you could hold back a bit.
- If you see a question you think you could answer, wait another day and see if someone else answers it.
- Show that you welcome response to your messages, for example with a phrase like "What do other people think?"
- Ask for help in the forum with something you are less confident about, so people can see you don't know everything.
Not everyone is participating
You may feel that it is unfair, or that you are doing more than your fair share of the work, if some people don't contribute to the discussions.
Some people may not join in at all - perhaps because of pressure of personal circumstances, illness, shyness, or by deliberate decision. Some people may be at different stages in the module.
If you are supposed to be doing a group activity, do what you can to encourage your other group members to join in, and find out when they expect to participate, or whether they have decided not to. Accept their reasons and apologies with good grace.
- Try discussing the activity in such an exciting way that the others will be drawn in to participating anyway - the chances are that they are reading the discussions.
- Consider whether you can arrange the group work so that people who are behind can do some of the later tasks.
- Try to be sensitive to others who may be trying to catch up with an activity that is already half-completed. It's not easy to join in an established group, so offer what support you can.
- If you are someone who can't join in with the forum, for whatever reason (you don't have to say), let other people know so they don't wait for you. Fellow students are generally very understanding and supportive, provided you keep them informed.
I got behind and there's too much to read!
This can be a real problem in a large forum. If you don't have time to read all the messages, don't try! Use the message subjects and senders to decide which to read. Read any introductory messages explaining what the forum is about and telling you what the group is working on (generally these will be from the tutor or moderator).
- Don't worry too much about discussions or activities which have finished. Maybe read any obvious concluding or summarising messages, but concentrate on the current activities.
- Send a short message announcing your presence and apologising for the delay.
- Just read messages for a little while, so you get the feel of the forum and understand what's going on.
- If you're not quite sure what has been discussed already, acknowledge this in your messages: "Apologies if you've already covered this, but ..."
Nobody is saying anything
A forum can be quite a fragile thing. If no-one says anything for a while it becomes harder and harder to break the silence, and no-one feels like being the first to contribute.
- Ask a question that prompts a response.
- Respond if anyone else tries to break the silence.
- Conspire with someone else to get an argument going: take sides on an issue and debate it vigorously, with appeals to the rest of the group to join in.
- Start a discussion on something crucial to the module, such as how to tackle the next assignment, or prepare for an exam.