If not online for education, what do online forums mean to you?For the individual immersion project, I chose to participate in public online forums (OFs) to experience the difference in public OFs from those used in courses. This meets the course requirement of new technology and social interaction because even though the experience of lurking as guest in OFs is not new to me, it is totally new for me to really involve actively as a member of certain OF that I am interested in. Or in anther sense I was not actively involve in any public OF before. I know it sounds like "What?" But it is the fact. Actually, the experience was pretty well developed.
OFs are systems where members of the forum participate in discussion of different threads within a general common interest asynchronously. Different formats of OFs have been widely applied by different groups of people for different fields (education, commerce, hobbies, news, life). The activities in OFs can be categorized into three camps: learning (like the OFs for foreign languages study, or for any course or training program), socialization, or information sharing (like shopping OFs). The activities in one specific forum can focus on one or more camps of the three. Participants have different psychological experiences in OF discussion.
There are many different forms of OFs. People can easily see them in any OF websites, online courses, online shopping websites (such as www.ebay.com, www.circuitcity.com or www.bestbuy.com), subsections of some personal or group website (such as blogger, myspace, or wiki), or even wikipedia (I list wikipedia only because individuals can freely revise the content of certain entry in an interactive manner, but wikipedia can only qualify as a form of OF under the situation in which a strong sense of online community is not a criteria of OFs).
I have been using OFs in Angel for different courses. I am, like other students in the College of Education, a good sample for mainstream research on OF application on online education or hybrid courses that use OFs as part of the pedagogy or supportive system associated with different learning materials. But the experiences are highly structured by the instructors and are dominated by intensive responding to the assigned readings or other learning materials. There is limited freedom regard to the content because of the focus of the course.
Many researchers have shown interests in OFs. Most of the research has been focused on OFs for educative purposes for college students learning and professionals’ development. The activities studied are mainly related to learning experiences and collaboration. Many researchers use social constructive perspective to interpret the behaviors in OFs.
Successful employment of online forums can foster a knowledge building community in which desired student qualities are cultivated. -- Qing Li. (2004)
In 1999, the
Some good things about OFs application in courses include that OF can potentially promote problem solving, critical thinking, knowledge construction, higher order thinking (Hannafin et. al., 1999), and collaboration. In professional development, OF has the value of “enhancing networking opportunities” and “contributing to continuing education for professionals” (Anderson & Kanuka, 1997). The main communication format in OF is text. McCreary (1990) suggested that the text-based communication in OFs has the quality of exactness, organization of thought, and clear expression. Scardamalia and Bereiter (1994) argued that social interaction is the heart of collaborative knowledge-building communities. This idea can be applied in both educative and public OFs.
However, there are certain limitations for the educative application of OFs. For example, Palloff and Pratt (1999) discussed that the best size for an OF group is between five to fifteen participants. This is quite a limited number and is only applicable for learning purpose.
What are the differences in my eyes of courses OFs vs. public OFs?
Public OFs are not directed by any single authority. The content for both the topics and the discussion/response is not limited as long as they are related to the focus of the OF. Of course most of the OFs forbid any content of personal offense, politics, or pornography. Compared with OFs applied for educational purposes, there are some other differences that I have noticed of for public OFs based on my experience in this semester. This list can be extended based on different angles of observation.
- Different structure: almost all the OFs used in courses have a facilitator (either the instructors themselves or a person who is assigned by the instructor to do so to guide the discussion). On the contrary, none of the public OFs has any form of a facilitator at any time to direct the development of discussion.
- Different motivation: The activities on public OFs are totally voluntary for participants, including both time and energy. The participation is not required by any authority. Participants normally are driven by their personal interests or curiosity to start their membership in a certain OF and remain active in the OF. Intrinsic motivation is dominant in this situation. However, extrinsic motivation, such as getting the credits or meeting the course requirement is not uncommon for OF application in online courses.
- Different interaction model: the threads in public OFs are always developed like this: original post (OP) (or quoted post from other sources) --> responses (content is just brief messages of either support for the OP or disagreement with the OP). Compared with public OFs, OFs integrated in courses have similar format for the model of OP --> responses. But the actual model is more accurate like this: Original opinion (OO) (could be either question or discussion of poster's opinion toward certain learning materials) --> response (answer to the question or more discussion based on the OO) --> New opinion (NO) --> response.
- Different participants: people with similar interests from all over the country or the world form the population of different public OFs. But, there is only limited number of participants (normally classmates or cohort in an academic program, or employees from the same organization.) involved in OFs for courses.
- Different duration: public OFs are active all the time (24/7) unless the number of participants decreases to a critical point that lead to the shutdown of the forum. On the contrary, the longest duration for OFs used in a course could be no more than one semester (about 16 weeks).
- Different function: most of the public OFs are places where participants share information instead of opinions. But the online courses OFs are used mainly for opinion exchange and development.
- Different dynamic: the behaviors of participants are regulated by "online police" or authorities (or moderators) formed by volunteers in the forum who have more experiences and longer history on the forum. On the contrary, the behaviors of OFs for courses are regulated by instructors.
- Different content knowledge: in public OFs, the expertise of the participants' content knowledge varies depends on different discussion topics. But for the online courses, the instructors are always the ones who have wider and deeper knowledge for the content of the course.
- Different communication tactics: any active public OF is an online community. There is certain climate formed by the participants and developed in to socialization tactics that any new participants need to learn and get used to. But this is not an obvious feature for any OF used in a course because the limited interaction, topics, and duration make it not possible to develop any interior communication tactics. In public OFs, participants may apply real life tactics in forming the tactics for their online community. But participants for OFs in courses do not have enough time to develop any tactics. The strict structures of OFs in courses is also a barrier in this case.
I chose two OFs for this course assignment. An OF for Chinese cuisine and the other OF for child development/education. Both OFs are in Chinese. The OF for cuisine Chinese food has its server located in the
Outcome may vary depending on the purpose of participation
In my experience, the major purpose of my participation is to acquire information and to share opinions. There is actually very little socialization happening in a sense that I don't know some members through postings and responses, or that I developed a circle of acquaintance during my participating the OF. I am pretty much focusing on the content of postings on both OFs. The content of both topics is the reason why I chose these two forums to play with. I am more intrinsically motivated to know more and thus participate more. For the Chinese food forum, most participants are from the
However, I think there could be different experience if any individual join an OF for socialization which is well admitted by many OFers. Anther point is that because of the content of different forums, the targeted population varies. And populations with different interests or background may have different purposes for joining OFs. For example, Kummervold, et. al. (2002) studied online mental health forums in
Compared with OFs for courses, I found the experiences of public OFs are more casual. Because there is not tightly structured time schedule, I can participate in discussion at any time based on my convenience. There is no pressure of right or wrong about your postings. Thus there is much less pressure (at least I did not notice any) from being afraid of being criticized by other participants. I responded in a way of free writing with less structured language used. Things that make me have this casual feeling include but not limited to: online language, information sharing without fear of hard critics, and the shared interests which have the power to make one’s life more colorful and enjoyable. For languages, even though I chose Chinese based OFs for this assignment, there are widely used abbreviations in letters (representing either English words or pinyin abbreviations) such as, for English, FYI, DIY, BF/GF, OP, Cong, or for pinyin, LG/LP (husband/wife), LZ (original post), or even hybrid like 3X (thanks). The less pressure climate really makes me feel that I am learning from fun. I enjoyed both getting new information or opinions and discussing my ideas to build up the idea package for the public forums.
Other than the intrinsic motivations I mentioned above, there are extrinsic motivations developed from the setting of the OFs. I have been engaged in earning more points and getting to higher level of experiences – a sense of achievement. I have been thinking what is the difference between OFs and online games regarding to spending time and energy to get to higher level of the "game". Physically, participants of OFs and gamers are very similar when they spend many hours engaging in the online activities to achieve certain goals.
For this assignment, I only participated in Chinese forums. But there are certain commonalities shared by Chinese forums and US forums, like the pattern of interaction, the design or the structure of the OFs. But there are noticeable differences. I am still not comfortable (or communication competent?) to take part in the
There is an interesting finding that there is certain number of participants who are very sensitive to whom the original poster of ideas is or what is the original source of some postings. These people are active in giving the credits back to the original posters/sources. And this kind of activities get support widely from other participants. And there is a tendency that participants consciously maintain the "copyright" or "intellectual property rights" of other participants or information sources.
Another outcome for me is the motivation to design my own public OF for the focus I and others are interested in based on the perception of public ideas. This interest is ignited by my experience of participating in the OFs. This helps me to develop motivation to increase my technology competency in programming skills necessary for OF development, such as php, xml or MySQL. This may, from another angle, show that OFs is a welcomed form of information source for people to share, to bond, or just have fun? At least it works for me.
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