Communication with your tutor and fellow students is an important part of most online courses. For fully online courses the discussion forums will form the heart of the study experience and will be the tool you use most to communicate with your tutor and other students. Even on courses where most communication takes place face-to-face the discussion forums can still act as an important way of disseminating course information and sharing news. If you have a problem with the course materials, or if you wish to speak to your tutor privately, you can also use email to contact your tutor.
Activities using discussion forums can be identified on the course website by the forums icon, which looks like this: . You can also access discussion forums by clicking ‘Forums’ in the ‘Activities’ block on your course homepage. Depending on how your course has been set up, you may also be able to link to a specific discussion forum from within the course materials.
Most courses will include two special discussion forums, the ‘News forum’ and the ‘Common room’, that will be used throughout the course. Other discussion forums will be used to discuss specific topics.
Using discussion forums
With the exception of the News forum (where you can only read messages), all of the discussion forums work in the same way. Each discussion forum is identified by the forums icon. Each forum will look similar to the image below:
Finding your way around a discussion forum
At the top will be the title of the discussion forum and a brief description of what the discussion forum is intended to be used for. In the main part of the window, you will see a table with the following column headings: ‘Discussion’, ‘Started by’, ‘Replies’, and ‘Last post’. If you have set the Forum tracking setting in your profile to highlight new posts you will also see an ‘Unread’ column.
The ‘Discussion’ column lists the different discussion topics. To read one, just click on its title.
The ‘Started by’ column shows the name of the person who started the discussion topic. Click on the person’s name to read their profile.
The ‘Replies’ column shows how many messages have been posted in response to a discussion topic. To read any replies to a message you first need to open the original message by clicking on its title; you will then see any replies listed below the original message.
The ‘Unread’ column shows how many messages have been posted to a discussion topic since you last viewed it. This is particularly useful for keeping up with long discussions.
Finally, the column ‘Last post’ records the name of the last person to post a reply to the discussion topic and the date and time they posted their message. By default, the discussion topics are listed in order of the last post, with the most recent at the top.
Replying to a discussion topic
To read a message posted to a forum open it by clicking on the post title in the ‘Discussion’ column. The first message posted to the discussion topic will be displayed in full at the top of the page. If someone has replied, you will see any replies listed below. The default setting is to display replies in ‘nested form’. You can change how messages are displayed by using the drop-down menu at the top of the page. We suggest that you experiment with the settings to see which option you prefer.
If you wish to reply to a message in a discussion topic, first open the message and then click on the ‘Reply’ link (you will find this located at the bottom right corner of the message). The reply form will then appear:
At the top you will see the first message posted to the discussion topic and any replies listed below. If there are a lot of replies to the message, you will need to scroll down the page in order to see the text editor in which to type your reply. By default, the ‘Subject’ of your reply will be ‘Re:’ followed by the title of the message you are replying to. If you wish, you can edit the ‘Subject’ field.
Type your reply in the ‘Message’ box. You can use the formatting features of the text editor to format your message. Hovering your mouse over a button in the text editor will bring up a description of the function of that button.
You may like to use the emoticons such as to make it easier for others to ‘see’ when you are intending to be funny or ironic. As a general guideline you should try to keep the length of a message to a maximum of one screen, and ideally no more than a few lines. If you plan to write a longer message, we strongly recommend that you write your entry in a text editor, such as Notepad, on your PC, and then paste in your completed message to the discussion forum when you have finished. This is because the system can ‘time out’ if you take a long time to compose your message or reply to another message in the discussion forums, and if this happens, any text you have drafted, but not yet posted, may be lost.
If you wish, you can choose to receive an email copy of posts made to the forum using the ‘Subscription’ options in the ‘Administration’ block. See the ‘Subscribing to a forum’ section for further information about this.
If you wish, you can attach a file to your message using the ‘Attachment’ box. The ‘Attachment’ box works in the same way as the other file upload boxes (see the ‘Uploading files’ page for further details of how to use it).
When you have finished, click on the ‘Post to forum’ button to post your message to the discussion.
Editing forum posts
Once you have posted a message to a forum you can edit the content for up to 30 minutes from the time you posted your original message. Do this by clicking the ‘Edit’ link underneath the message. Make the edits you wish to make and then click the ‘Save changes’ button at the bottom of the page to re-post your updated message. Note that you must finish editing and re-post your updated message within the 30 minute time period; otherwise edits will not be accepted.
Starting a new discussion topic
In most courses, you will be able to start your own discussion topics within a discussion forum. To start a new discussion topic, click on the ‘Add a new discussion topic’ button, which you will find underneath the description of the discussion forum.
Getting the most from discussion forums
You now know everything you need to get started with posting to the forums, but if you would like some tips on how to get the most from them once discussion has begun, do read the next page, ‘Getting the most from discussion forums’.