Internet forums (or ‘message boards’) are websites where individual members can exchange views[i]. These may be linked in ‘threads’ on single topics. Most internet forums require users to join and log in before participating, though some are open to anyone. There has been interest in using internet forums as a means of sharing information and generating new learning and much of this experience has come from internet-based distance learning courses. Many see them as superior to email as a way of communicating electronically.
In the course of the last two years, two internet forums have been set up that have had a direct impact on my work. The first is the “eForum”, used to allow delegates to communicate with one another in between units of the Scottish Prospective Educational Supervisors course, which I facilitate.[ii] The second is the “Moodle” website. This is used by NHS Education Scotland to allow GP educational supervisors to communicate across the North of Scotland Deanery.[iii]
I enjoy exploring the potential for the internet in education but am aware that not all formats are successful. Having made an unsuccessful attempt some years ago at setting up an internet bulletin board for GPs to share journal articles[iv], I was keen to research how to make best use of this resource.
Research in large scale multi user communities have found that most users do not participate very often. This is in contrast to a small minority who participate a great deal and account for most of the contributions. Contributors can be easily categorised into three groups: –
- 1% will be heavy users and account for the vast majority of contributions
- 9% of users will contribute from time to time
- 90% of users are “lurkers”, i.e. they read and observe but rarely contribute.
The result of this observation is that: –
- 90% of postings are from 1% of users,
- 10% of postings are from 9% of users
- 90% of users will not post at all.
I was interested to see if this theory held true for the Scottish Perspective Educational Supervisors course eForum and this indeed appeared to be the case (fig. 1).
Gilly Salmon has researched learning platforms in higher education and developed a 5 stage model to facilitate computer based learning.[vi] These stages are:-
- Access and motivation. The system needs to be easily accessible and the participants need to understand the purpose and why it will be of benefit. The facilitator will need to ensure that it is welcoming and encouraging.
- Online socialisation. This depends on initially sending and receiving simple messages to develop social and cultural links between learners.
- Information giving and receiving. Thereafter the participants will begin to exchange information and the facilitator’s role is to ensure that this is becoming relevant to the task in hand.
- Knowledge construction. At the next level participants will begin to use the information in a different way to create new learning.
- Development. When participants begin to discuss and plan how to put that learning into practical application in their own work environment.
Salmon’s Model suggests that internet forum facilitators have a key role in reducing participation inequality by being aware of the level that the group has got to and providing the appropriate intervention. The facilitator may also be required to provide technical help and act as a “moderator”, deleting inappropriate comments.
Armed with this simple theoretical background I had the opportunity to discuss the implications with three groups of experienced GP Educators. Each group was asked to initially consider what they felt the barriers to use of internet forums were (Table 1) and then I gave a brief discussion of the Salmon’s Model and the concept of “Participation Inequality”
Barriers to using Internet Forums
- Computer nous- low perceived computing ability
- Logging in difficulties
- Media preference- just don’t like computers
- “Someone else has said it already”
- How to do nodding & engagement- unlike a face to face group
- No like button cf Facebook
- Lazy/time/typing/prefer verbal
- Permamence-its there for good, risk of offence
- Can’t facilitate
- Forced on us
- Loggon/screen time overload
The groups then used “Kelly’s Repertory Grid”[vii] [viii] as a simple ideographic device to explore how people experience participation generated websites. The grid was used to compare and contrast Moodle or eForum with email, MRCGP ePortfolio and Facebook. The groups chose headings or “constructs” that described the differences in these four methods of internet communication. These constructs are listed in table 2.
Constructs for considering participation generated websites (internet forums, MRCGP ePortfolio, email, Facebook)
- Record of learning- the ability to generate a lasting record of learning
- Used & Accepted
- Chore- do you enjoy the process?
- Does it generateadditional work
- Is it Integrated with normal life?
- Resource depository- a lasting place to store and retrive knowledge
- Efficient Time Management
- Complexity of use
At each workshop much of the interest was on the different values given to internet forums by participants. Heavy users were able to vent their frustration that other participants were not actually involved whilst the lurkers were able to put their own views across as to how they wished to spend their time and what media they preferred to communicate by. Time was also spent considering whether the internet forum should end up as an information store or a place to communicate. The groups also had an opportunity to consider whether stored information could be more easily accessed if it had “metadata” attached to it to help with searching and sharing. Comments from the feedback included: –
- “Allowed insight into an area I have previously given little thought to-will be more likely to use e-forums in future.”
- “It made me log onto Moodle! I always thought I was computer illiterate but there are others like me…”
- “Information about e-developments. Learning about areas that I didn’t know I didn’t know. Understanding the usefulness of these media and the sense of being listened to.”
Since running these workshops I have been impressed and heartened by the way the group I facilitated in the Scottish Perspective Educational Supervisors course used the internet forum. There was clear evidence of sharing of information and this resulted in new learning and plans for change in the future. For the next group that I facilitate I will endeavour to put in practice what I have learned of Salmon’s 5 steps model to facilitate the easier adoption of this technology.
[iv] “Points for reading as part of continuing medical education”, Miles Mack, BMJ. 2000 May 20; 320(7246): 1408. PMCID: PMC1118065 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1118065/