The advantage of on-line discussion groups is that they offer a format through which students can interact with a subject, with their fellow students, and with their teachers outside of the classroom. One possibility they provide, of course, is distance learning. Using on-line discussion groups, you can hold class even when you cannot meet with your students in a regular classroom setting. More often, however, instructors use such groups as supplements to regularly held class meetings. On-line discussions allow students to continue discussions that you might not have time to address in class, and, in doing so, they also allow students to interact with members of the class in a way that is not constrained by the fifty-minute class period.
The biggest pitfall that some of these tools create is the time committment required of the instructor. If you're expanding discussion outside of class, expect the volume of discussion to increase. If you assign to students to write pages upon pages of discussion forum replies, they'll expect you at least to read, if not respond, to them all. Adjust your expectations and your lesson plans accordingly, though, and you can have great successes with any of these tools.
Chat rooms allow people separated by geographical location to converse with one another electronically in something approximating real time. In other words, it's a format similar to e-mail, except that all users open the same program, view the same screen, and interact in a way that is almost the speed of a real conversation, depending on speed of the users' typing and Internet connection.
Why should you use a chat room when you could simply have a face-to-face conversation in the classroom? That question is certainly important to consider. If you're using a chat room as a simple replacement for face-to-face conversation, you and your students will probably be disappointed by the shortcomings of chat rooms. However, it is possible to come up with a rationale for using a chat room's special features that make it a special kind of particularly rewarding conversation. Some possibilities include the following: creating a space in which students can pick pseudonyms to make anonymous comments or to act out the part of certain literary characters; helping students by offering them a chance to have a conversation for which a printed transcript would be available; or allowing students to interact in a real-time setting with the instructor and with each other at a designated time outside of class.
Note to Instructors: Please take care to evaluate the capabilities of the software you use. Chat rooms work best with a small number of people. More than seven people in a chat is probably too many, so consider your software carefully before you create a class-wide chat.
Free Yahoo! Chat
AOL Instant Messenger
Sample Lesson Plan: Canterbury Pilgrims' Chat Room
A discussion forum also allows for a written record of a conversation between students and teachers, but the conversation it permits is slowed down by the fact that students post and respond in a delayed manner. Some might argue that the time for reflection and careful reading it makes possible gives them an advantage over the possibly hasty conversation of a chat room or a class discussion. In a discussion forum, instructors generally offer prompts to which students make replies that take the form of anything from a few sentences to a mini-essay. The responses are generally structured hierarchically, with each response being indented under the post to which it replies.
Note to Instructors: The discussion forum, by its very nature encourages students to produce a lot of writing. It may be difficult for both the students and the instructor to read it all. Consider that in the creation of your assignment. Consider also how the delayed nature of the conversation can slow down the interactivity for which you might hope.
External Links: (Please note that I try to update links to free forum software. However, I make no claims for what these sites may advertise or offer in the future.)
Sample Lesson Plan: Responding to the General Prologue in a Discussion Forum
A listserv offers, most basically, a way for members of a group to communicate by e-mail so that an e-mail sent to one address can reach all members of the group via their private e-mail. It offers the delayed response of a discussion forum, but it does not present the information in that hierarchical structure. Messages are simply delivered into group members' private mailboxes upon submission to the list. Having information delivered to your students' private e-mail accounts has the advantage of making it easier for your students to access the discussion. They don't have to search out the web page with the discussion forum or find the chat room, and it's pretty certain that students with an e-mail account will check that account fairly often. On the other hand, though, students might react negatively to having their personal e-mail accounts flooded with messages from an entire class. Weigh both considerations carefully before deciding to use a listserv.
Yahoo! Groups is a free email group service that allows you to easily create and join email groups. Email groups offer a convenient way to connect with others who share the same interests and ideas
The ATN Guide
to Managing a List from help.unc.edu
Includes links to the Lyris software that UNC uses.
Mailing List User's Guide
A basic guide for using Microsoft mailing lists.
Sample Lesson Plan: Responding to the General Prologue through a Listserv
E-mail can be a useful tool even outside of a listserv. Personal messages from students to an instructor can provide a good way for students to ask questions they might have forgotten they needed to ask in class. Another way for e-mail to be useful is to provide a list of class members' e-mail addresses so that they may call on each other for help.
Basic Guide to E-mail
Please note that they gear their discussion of e-mail clients to reflect their own products and services.
Some providers of free web-based e-mail accounts:
Sample Lesson Plan: Submission of Chaucer project ideas via e-mail