On the way to the forum

29th February 2008 at 00:00
Forget chalkboards and whiteboards, Chris Higgins believes the future lies with discussion boards

Modern technology and history have formed a happy alliance for A-level pupils - with the help of discussion boards. On this web forum, teachers can discuss subject-specific ideas and pupils post their homework questions.

That's what I found when investigating the excellent www.schoolhistory.co.uk.

I set up a similar resource for my pupils using Invision Power.Board software, which has a polling facility with a lot of potential.

The teacher posts a question, perhaps relating to a topic of debate in the lesson, and pupils can vote on their answers. Questions could involve simple yes or no responses, such as: "Do you think the monarchy should be abolished?" Or there could be more options: "Which of the following voting systems do you think is the most democratic - first past the post, the list system or the single transferable vote?" You can also make the questions open-ended and ask pupils to post their answers directly on the discussion board.

This forum allows pupils to conduct a debate in a structured and focused way that may not be possible in a normal classroom setting. There are no time constraints and the discussion can carry on outside the actual lesson.

With some history pupils looking at Britain and the Second World War, we conducted a powerful debate on whether the bombing of Dresden was justified, exploring different angles of the argument and bringing in further evidence to support the points of view.

As well as the debate, pupils were also honing the sorts of discursive skills they will need for their analytical writing.

The discussion boards also help with assessment. Pupils in the A-level politics group were writing essays on the influences on voting behaviour but found reaching a conclusion difficult, and so I asked pupils to post what they had on the discussion board, either anonymously or under their own names. That way, they could see examples of effective writing as well as share their work with their peers for constructive advice.

You would need to ensure that the discussion board is hosted internally and not available online to avoid spam or unwelcome contributors.

Make sure comments are carefully moderated and that features such as personal messaging, which many of these boards contain, are switched off so that pupils can't bypass the moderator.

Although we are only beginning to explore the potential of this new medium, discussion boards are already a key component of many university courses and I think they are likely to become a more common feature of mainstream secondary courses

Chris Higgins is a history teacher and deputy director of e-learning at Invicta Grammar School in Maidstone, Kent

Useful information

The project is part of a collaboration between a number of staff members and the Department for Children, Schools and Families' innovation unit on applying new technologies in class.

- The cost of Invision Power.Board software is about pound;75 with an ongoing service charge of approximately pound;18. There are free versions of Invision available on the web, but they generally require you to host advertising.

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