A forum is a simple, asynchronous (self-paced) collaboration tool that has been in used in one form or another and under a variety of names (bulletin boards, discussion forums. message boards) for several decades. A new ‘discussion thread’ starts when a user of the forum submits a posting, typically a question. Other users can then respond to this posting or extend the discussion on the basis of previous responses. Postings typically take the form of plain text, although some systems allow for more elaborate formatting and the attachment of documents.
Forums can be moderated or un-moderated. When moderated, a nominated individual has to approve each submission before it is posted onto the forum. Moderators also have the power to delete postings or whole threads. Forums are most commonly deployed on web sites or as part of learning management systems. Many systems allow users to ‘subscribe’ to particular forums or threads, so they can be notified by email when a new posting has been made.
A forum is a powerful tool for on-demand learning. When an employee has a question about some aspect of their work, they can simply start a new thread on the forum and wait for other users to come back with answers. This is unlikely to be the quickest way to obtain a response to a question, but is likely to generate a high quality of reply. The forum archive also provides a valuable source of answers, because it is quite common for many users to have the same questions. To help users find relevant threads in the archive, it helps if the threads are organised into categories and are searchable.
- at their best when experts are monitoring the forum for questions that they can help with, when the threads are categorised and searchable, when users can subscribe in order to obtain updates by email;
- best avoided when postings are subject to unnecessary editorial control, when no-one is keeping a look out for new questions arriving.