Online forums are also known as discussion boards or message boards. They enable users of a website to interact with each other by exchanging tips and discussing topics related to a certain theme. Learning through online forum is an important learning strategy for students to improve their language skills .This article looks at the benefits of online forum in language learning particularly in improving students' writing and communication skills.
Keywords: online forum, language learning, writing skills, communication skills
Technology has the potential to enhance the learning of students if used appropriately. It can encourage more independent and active learning (McKimm, Jollie, & Cantillon, 2003). A key reason for the use of technology within a learning situation is to enhance the quality of learning and teaching (Groves & O'Donoghue 2009).
With the rapid development of computer-mediated communication , online forums have become more involved in classroom settings to promote student critical thinking, knowledge construction and language learning autonomy (Lim & Chai 2004; Marra, Moore & Klimczak 2004).
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Computer-based online discussions or online forums have been used in a wide range of higher education setting to provide major learning environments for distance education or to supplement face-to-face discussion (Jacobsen 2006). Discussion board or online forum is one of the primary tools of electronic learning according to Harman & Koohang (2005).
The use of computer based online discussion through online forum is evident in the curriculum of many courses throughout the physical world in universities such as in Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America (Scott & Ryan 2009). Although online discussions are employed by most universities in Malaysia (Sam and Lee 2008), schools may not be aware of this new technology.
In the Malaysian context, students in primary and secondary schools do not acquire enough practice and exposure in English language since it is taught for a limited period of time in the classroom. There is a need for teachers to encourage students to use new technologies such as online forum to gain more exposure in the language. As purported by So (2009), asynchronous online discussion forums, are some of the simplest computer-mediated communication tools that teachers can easily integrate into their teaching to extend discussions beyond classroom contexts.
This article is organized by addressing the following questions:
What are the benefits of online forum?
What are the characteristics of a good online forum?
Does online forum improve students' writing skills?
Does online forum improve students' communication skills?
DEFINITION OF ONLINE FORUM
According to Sheri Cyprus (2010), an online forum is also known as a message board, online discussion group, bulletin board or web forum. It differs from a blog. An online forum is a discussion area on a website whereby members can post discussions, read and respond to posts by other forum members. A forum can revolve around any subject in an online community.
Like other internet-based learning environments, online forums provide a way for maintaining communication for learners who are not able to meet face-to-face or who prefer logging-on at different times (Sanchez- Sweatman 2001). Online forum is a kind of computer mediated communication which allows individual to communicate with others by posting written messages to exchange ideas. It uses asynchronous type of communication (Santosa et. al 2005)
Nelson (2010) postulated that an online forum can be defined as an accessible group communication space. Proper utilization of online forums can enhance the effectiveness of communication.
THE BENEFITS OF ONLINE FORUM
Online forums provide many benefits to students and teachers. In a research conducted by Teine (2000), students have been found to be in favor of the self-paced, self-regulated feature of asynchronous discussions compared to face-to-face discussions.
On the other hand, Callan (2006), states that online forums create a discussion environment. Everything that gets posted gets read over and over again. Online forums rarely turn into heated arguments as people are given time to research and consider their comments before replying. This in turn, makes high-quality discussion.
Smith (2001) points out that well structured and appropriately facilitated online discussion can provide a learning environment that allows the immediate application of new information to learners' personal and professional lives. Besides, online forums are more flexible compared to face to face communication as they provide time to reflect and think and allow both introverted and extroverted students to be involved in online discussions.
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Chinedu (2008) expresses that by participating in online forums, access to knowledge is free. Forum members are ever willing to share their knowledge and experience with others, and every member of the forum can benefit from this infusion of free knowledge.
Here are some potential benefits of regular online forum participation according to Pavlina (2005):
Learning new ideas and refining old ones
Enjoying community membership
Influencing the forum's evolution
Contributing to others
Making new friends and contacts
New business leads
Keeping up with current events
Learning about new opportunities
Evidence also shows that the messages composed by students in online forums include longer solutions for problem-solving, and consist of deeper reflections compared to face-to-face discussions (Hara et al. 2000). Researchers have found that students can take more time to read, craft, reflect on their responses, and find relevant information when composing messages in such an environment (O'Neill et al. 2006; Wang and Woo 2007).
Peterson and Caverly (2005) established in their research that online discussions build a motivating social practice of current generation students, who use technology to contact friends and family throughout the day.
In online forums, students develop their autonomy in language learning. Each participant is given more authority to shape or lead the discussion in the direction they prefer, while teachers may have relatively less control over the learning interactions (Choi et al. 2005).
THE CHARACTERISTICS OF A GOOD ONLINE FORUM
There are numerous characteristics of a good online forum. Martyn (2005) discerned seven elements of a good online forum. They are:
Require students to participate
Grade student efforts
Involve learning teams
Require a hand in assignment
Pose questions and scenarios that require learners to use their own experience
Relate the discussion to course objectives
Qing Li (2004) in her research recognized nine characteristics of a good online forum. They are:
Establish a friendly, open environment
Use authentic tasks and topics
Emphasize learner-centered instruction
Encourage students to give constructive feedback and suggestions
Let students experience, reflect and share the benefit of using threaded discussion
Be sure that instructors facilitate collaboration and knowledge building
Encourage dialogue and referencing of other student postings
Use humor for motivation
Use emoticons to help convey ideas and feelings
In addition, according to Peterson and Caverly (2005), good online forums provide a social presence, in which students and instructor are able to present themselves as "real people" and communicate with their personality.
ONLINE FORUM IMPROVES WRITING SKILLS
A well-structured online discussion forum can provide students with extensive practice in writing. The online forum allows opportunity for the facilitation of curricular objectives via modern technology. Online discussion forums provide an authenticity in writing and therefore serve as a meaningful supplement to the writing curriculum (Pauley 2001).
Aileen Ng (2008) in her study discovered that the implementation of the online forum appears to provide reinforcement tasks to enable students to practice their writing. Besides that, the online forum also facilitates collaborative learning. Students could share their ideas and opinions in order to produce better quality writing as compared to if the tasks were to be completed independently.
Schuetze (2010) conducted a research in the University of Victoria Canada and the University of Kiel in Germany. The study showed that most students of both universities felt comfortable writing online and they wrote more than ever before. They used the forum more actively than in a face-to-face classroom or chat. In turn, some students also mentioned that they liked to read what other students posted in online forums.
In a study among twenty-five Chinese and Kiwi learners, Gerbric (2005) encountered that online forums provide opportunities specifically for particular groups of students. Chinese students found the virtual and text-based nature of the medium allowed them to enter discussions more easily and they felt more comfortable with their written responses compared to face-to-face discussions.
ONLINE FORUM IMPROVES COMMUNICATION SKILLS
A number of studies have found that online forums are beneficial in developing communication skills (Abrams 2003; Blake 2009). The greatest potential for effective use of online communication as a learning tool is when the students are 'at a distance' from the school and their teachers (Crowell & McCarragher 2007).
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Holmes (2004) identified a period of increased communication between online participants of his study after 10 days of interaction on online forum and asserted that input from teachers or instructors during this period led to maximized learning opportunities.
Scott and Ryan (2009) in their study discovered that online members become more engaged in discussions and interacted effectively when they were set appropriate tasks. Complex tasks requiring research and discussion seemed appropriate tasks for small groups to work on collaboratively. When students are given problems related to their prior experience, the discussions show higher levels of interaction, and the participants show more passion for the topic (Puntambekar 2006).
Peterson and Caverly (2006) in their study discovered that through online forums, teachers are able to document the growth of their students' ability to support a point in their messages. Students improved their ability to respond to a classmate and to make a point supported with evidence.
Online forum is a good way of communicating, especially when the teacher or lecturer is unavailable. It is also a good way to communicate with everyone as it creates a good communication between students and school (Greig & Skehill 2008). In concurrence with the statement, Yu (2002) affirmed that students were more comfortable and less aggressive when participating in online forums. Online forums also offered more equal opportunities for group members to voice their opinions.
Research conducted by Yang (2007) shows that students demonstrated very high levels of interaction among group members. Online forum is regarded as a social interaction that reduces students' reliance on the face-to-face discussions.
In a study carried out by Schellens and Valcke (2005, 2006), asynchronous discussion forums attained a higher proportion of higher phases of knowledge creation compared to face to face discussions. This occurred due to the vast majority of communication in the asynchronous environment was task oriented.
The online forum is an ideal place to put a learning community and its learning objects on the same page (Harman and Koohang 2005). In order to offer a successful discussion forum, teachers need to be fully skilled in practical use of the sites and committed to engaging with them, believing in their relevance and benefit for students and willing to spend dedicated time every week on the discussion forum with students. As Salmon (2004) advises, teachers need to take time to induct students to the online discussion tools and focus on familiarization and socialization into the online forum from the outset.
Anderson et al. (2001) stated that active involvement of a teacher is critical in maintaining the interest and motivation of students in online discussions. Russo and Benson (2005) reported that student perceptions of teacher's presence were significantly correlated with student learning satisfaction.
In sum, online forum may provide a way for teachers to improve the quality of their students' language learning skills. Thus, language teachers in Malaysia should consider integrating online forums into their language teaching to develop students' writing and communication skills.