Day 9 - Google and Yahoo Groups Published 2006-12-22 under ,

One of the oldest online tools for collaboration has been user forums where folks post questions and others post responses. Each "thread" contains the original message along with all replies ordered in a tree structure. Back in the days of CompuServe and early AOL, this was how people shared their expertise. I recall being involved in many discussions on the best way to resolve a problem posted by someone else in the Clipper forum. I learned quite a bit about the programming language Clipper by books and experimenting, but the CompuServe Clipper forum is where I mastered my understanding. The value of this learning tool came from both having questions answered by others in the forum, but also by answering questions. Teaching a concept really does make us learn it.

Google and Yahoo bring these user groups into the 21st century by improving the user experience - making it more accessible. The user-friendly experience begins with the ease of which it is to create a new group and manage the groups settings. Once created, posting new messages, replying to existing messages, and finding message threads is very easy.

groupsBoth Google Groups and Yahoo Groups offer similar configuration settings. Though only some of these are available to you when you initially setup your group, you have access to all of the settings from the "manage group" page. Some of the more important settings include:

  • Access Levels - who can view, and post messages to your group
  • Membership - who can join the group (anyone, moderated, or invitation only)
  • Visibility - are the messages in the group included in search engines and is the group listed in a directory of groups (and by what category)
Again, both Google Groups and Yahoo Groups offer similar basic forum (group) functionality. Yahoo offers extras such as polls, databases, and calendars integrated into your group, though I have never used any of these. Google Groups - Beta improves on the look and feel of Google Groups and gives you more control on customizing the look and feel.

How might you use forums (groups) in our world of education? There are numerous ways you can enhance your curriculum by incorporating forums into your class. You can use it as a way for students to ask and answer questions; you can post discussion questions; you can use it as a review tool where students answer questions that you have posted and even correct other students' answers.

So far in the 12DaysOfCollaboration, we have been focusing on how these tools can be used to enhance collaborative projects in class. Let us not forget collaboration among teachers. Forums are a great way for teachers to get and give help on a variety of topics. AP teachers should all be participating in their subject's Electronic Discussion Group. When I was teaching AP Computer Science and AP Calculus, these groups were a valuable part of my professional development and directly contributed to my students' success.

The great thing about forums (groups) is that they allow you to reply to replies; in other words, your discussion can branch out into separate directions. I have often been asked which tool is better for collaboration, blogging or forums. While similar in structure, there are two major differences. First, all comments in blogging are treated equally. While one can make a comment about a comment, this message is not treated (organized) any differently than other comments. When a person replies to a reply in a forum, a new branch of the discussion is created. (Note: some blogging software is now allowing this more structured commenting - replying to a comment.)

The second, and most important for me, distinction between blogs and forums is in the significance of the first (original) post. In general, blog posts can stand on their own whereas in forums, the messages are designed as the start of a thread. There are forums where the messages are more just announcements and blogs where the posts are questions and the meat of the post lies in the comments. On Alan November's blog, the posts are usually in the form of a question. The real value of the site lies in the comments. I would argue that this type of blog would be better run in a forum, though I understand that there are other considerations that might direct Alan to using a blog.

Both blogs and forums are fantastic collaboration tools and you should not dwell too long on which is the one that would best suit your needs. I just wanted to (re)introduce you to the tried and true forum - now groups - idea. They are easy to setup, manage and use, and have a long history of providing educational value.

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