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Friends disunited

A college website provides a lively forum for an exchange of views, says George Cole.

Future Trunks thinks America is the greatest place on Earth, but as far as Grease Bucket is concerned, it's the cause of all the world's problems.

The war in Iraq generated a lot of debate on the discussion forum of the South Dartmoor Community College website. Formed in January, the forum had received more than 4,400 messages from the college's 1,500 pupils by the end of March. Most of the pupils (aged 11 to 18) use aliases online, hence the colourful names.

Nat Parnell (pictured here with enthusiastic contributors), South Dartmoor's website manager and head of maths, started the forum. As far as he is concerned, it is more than just a place for letting off steam: "It's a good way for students to communicate and there's some serious discussion on there. It's about giving people a voice and that surely is what we mean by citizenship."

The forum is divided into several topic areas. One covers aspects of school life and the issues raised will be familiar to many teachers. Morpheus doesn't think you should be allowed to eat in class but Yoshi thinks you should, provided the food isn't noisy or greasy. Why do students have to get changed for PE even when they're not taking part in the lesson? asks Headonproject. The Pretty Girls agree it's a stupid rule. Another section is devoted to mobile phones, console games and computers.

In the Off Topic section, postings cover a wide range of topics including racism, fox hunting, communism and genetic engineering. Lepracorn Dude, for example, wants to know whether communism would be a good thing if it worked. Bloodhound responds with an eloquent quote that says that while communism is a noble concept, it can't work without a radical change in the human psyche.

What is so good about the forum is that it is controlled by the students themselves: "The only stipulations are that anyone who wants to register for the forum sees me first, so I know who's on it," says Nat Parnell.

"They must also abide by the forum rules, which deal with issues like language and respecting other people's opinions. We have 16 moderators who look after the forum."

He adds that a school forum is more secure than an open chat room. Student reaction has been positive and so far there have been no instances of abuse or inappropriate postings.

The discussions, however, can become lively, with lots of passionate debate. In the discussion on racism for example, Rob88Wells says: "People who are racist are sick and mindless, and I hope that if anyone ever gets caught being racially abusive they should be thrown out as quick as that."

The Pretty Girls write: "It's what's inside that counts. You should look at people's inner beauty and not judge them by what they look like. It doesn't matter if you're black, white, short, tall, ginger or blonde. Although we are all different we are all just the same and should treat everyone with equality."

The discussion forum also includes a section where teachers can set homework and offer web links for projects and assignments. A favourite spot is the Marketplace, where pupils can buy and sell things. Nat Parnell says he has no doubt that all students should have the opportunity to engage, discuss and debate, and that an online forum is one of the best ways schools can offer this facility.

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