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Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics

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Exploring Discussion Forums

Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education

by Colin McAllister and Rebecca Hanson

May 2011


Rebecca Hanson is a lecturer in mathematics education. Colin McAllister is a software

developer. Both are enthusiastic contributors to mathematics education discussion forums.

What is it like to take part in online discussions? How do moderators and contributors
create active and successful conversations? How is the technology employed in the
management of discussion forums evolving? What could be achieved through discussion
forums in the future?

In this article Colin and Rebecca start by discussing online conversations in which they
have taken part in order to give the reader some insight into current discussion forum culture.
They then explore the questions above and many more in the context of the wide variety of
discussion forums with which they are familiar. They are open about their motives for
participating, their influences and their philosophical viewpoints to allow the reader to
contextualise their insights. The article concludes with some useful insights into how
moderators and participants can improve the quality of the conversations they take part in.

This article provides insights into discussion forums which have relevance well beyond
mathematics education.

URL: Search for this document at or email the author for a copy.

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

Discussion: “Do Schools Unnecessarily Restrict our Imaginations?”.................................4
Analysis of the Discussion.................................................................................................5
Moderating Discussions.....................................................................................................7
Facilitating Discussions......................................................................................................8
Anonymous and Non-Authentic Contributors...................................................................11
Why do People Take Part in Online Conversations?.......................................................12
Discussion Forums and Democracy................................................................................14
Intellectual Content..........................................................................................................15
The Variety of Mathematics Education Discussion Forums.............................................16
Data Loss and Changes to Contributions
The History of Online Discussions
Internet Forums and Wikis...............................................................................................19
Digital Natives
Modesty and Net-Speak
Discussion forums in Distance Education
More information about Colin and Rebecca: Our Inspirations
Colin’s Reflections: Joining and Hosting Discussion Forums
Rebecca’s Reflections: How Participants can Improve Conversations

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

Next Steps
Notes on this Article

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson


Discussion groups are a feature of social networks and online forums. Rebecca uses
discussion forums in her career and Colin moderates an active mathematics education
discussion group.

Colin and Rebecca ‘met’ in cyberspace when they both contributed to the discussion
“Do schools unnecessarily restrict our imaginations to Euclidean geometry and commutative
algebra?” in the discussion group “Math, Math Education, Math Culture” on the LinkedIn social

We analyse that discussion, which involved a cross section of mathematicians and

mathematics enthusiasts. We move on to consider online discussions in general, their
intellectual content, and some relevant philosophical ideas. We include some wider discussion
about our interests to give the reader deeper insight into our interactions with forums. We
conclude with an attempt to summarise key learnings.

Our aim is to encourage you to utilise and manage discussion forums effectively and
confidently. We hope that you will find, or even create, a discussion forum which advances
your understanding and general knowledge of a subject that interests you.

Discussion: “Do Schools Unnecessarily Restrict our Imaginations?”

We ‘met’ recently, in the online sense of meeting, as participants in a discussion on the

“Math, Math Education, Math Culture”1 group on the LinkedIn2 social network. Colin posted the
question “Do schools unnecessarily restrict our imaginations to Euclidean geometry and
commutative algebra? 3 Projects such as Hyperbolic Crocheting by Daina Taimina4 and David
W. Henderson can open our minds.” Rebecca was first to comment on the question, even
though it was her first time on LinkedIn. Colin posted the question because he had been
reading about advances in quantum computing, and it occurred to him that school
mathematics may be hindering, rather than helping, students prepare for the mathematics of
the future.

C (Colin): Rebecca, your contribution to that discussion on LinkedIn impressed me.

You stayed on topic and followed through on the evolving debate, responding thoughtfully to
other participants. Did you draft your posts and think about them carefully?

R (Rebecca): No, I usually write my responses immediately and rapidly and that’s
what I did in the conversation you’re referring to. It took me a while to learn how to do this
though. I couldn’t do it when I first started contributing to online discussions.

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

R: You also made a substantial contribution to that conversation, not only in public but
behind the scenes5. I remember you privately sent me several encouraging messages with
relevant information.

C: I thought you needed some encouragement, because in your first comment you
said “Sorry, I'm new here and am still finding my way round.“

C: My question referred to Daina Taimina’s use of crochet to make 3-dimensional

needlework representations of hyperbolic planes. Was it significant to you that Daina joined
the discussion?

R: Yes it was, but it was a nice extra rather than being necessary for my enjoyment of
the discussion. It was great talking to Bradford Hansen-Smith6 as well. What an inspirational
mathematical character he is.

R: There were lots of twists and turns in the conversation that were greatly
entertaining. Do you remember when a mathematician was attempting to solve a maths
problem which was part of the conversation? He was convinced that his solution was correct,
and then two minutes later posted “OOPS”. That really made me laugh. Humour, especially
unintentional humour like this tends to help discussions.

C: Yes - it was a very human conversation. I couldn’t solve that problem. As I’m a
programmer rather than a mathematician, I’ll attempt to solve it by a brute-force numerical
search, instead of using group theory, as you did.

R: I didn’t use group theory Colin, just simple equations and pictures of small
monsters. I’ll be interested to hear how your program goes.

Analysis of the Discussion

C: In that discussion, about schools restricting our imaginations, it seemed that the
participants formed two debating teams: Revolutionaries seeking alternative curricula and
conservatives who build mathematics education on its historical foundation. Who do you think
won the debate?

R: I find it interesting that you had this mental structure for what was going on. I never
saw it this way. I saw a number of intelligent individuals exploring their own thoughts and
coming to understand them better.

C: I didn’t see it as debate until afterwards, and that is only one way of looking at the
conversation. It ended on the congenial view that everyone had a valid point of view, and that
there is not enough evidence to justify overthrow of the establishment. The discussion has
failed if it did not convince anyone to change from their initial viewpoint.

R. I disagree that this outcome was inappropriate Colin. Personally I have a well
established viewpoint that this particular argument should not be totally won. In planning

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

curricula I believe we should make time to ensure students engage with a core curriculum of
established mathematics. We should also make time to encourage them to be creative, to
learn to mathematise the world they live in and to work on material which is not presented to
them in bite-size chunks by teachers who have done it many times before. Fortunately this
philosophy is underpinned by the English 2007/8 secondary national curriculum.7

I also disagree that a discussion has failed if nobody changed their view points.
Perhaps no evidence was present which justified changes in viewpoints. Surely it was useful
that we came to understand each others perspectives? It’s also a human sign that we need to
take the journey from ignorance to insight many times before we achieve understanding and
make a lasting shift in viewpoint.

R: Colin, your comments here reminds me of the value of going back to review the
good discussions. That’s something I’m starting to do with some of the discussions on the
NCETM (National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics) 8 forum with very
interesting results. 9 This process eventually led to a PhD proposal because I realised that
unique insights had been generated in cyberspace which deserved to be explored in the
mainstream academic world. 10

C: I wonder why our discussion came to a halt after ten days, at the 106th comment.
Do you have any ideas about that or about the closing or fading away of online discussions in

R: I think we’d just run out of relevant thoughts to bring to this discussion at that time
Colin. It’s a pretty cerebral topic that most of us hadn't thought a great deal about before.
Because the discussion is so long now you’re unlikely to get new people coming in with fresh
ideas because it’s such a commitment to read all the previous posts.

C: That’s good to hear. It’s possible that the discussion ended because my question
sounds like one from a crank. That’s often the case when someone introduces relativity or
quantum mechanics into an online discussion. I try to think futuristically, even though we have
no idea what the future of mathematics education will be like.

C: The maths problem you introduced was: If half the As are Bs and half the Bs are Cs
and half the Cs are As, what is the maximum and minimum ratio of As to Cs. What’s the story
behind it?

R: This was a problem John Mason11 showed me in 2008 which was circulating around
the maths education community at the time. I solved it rapidly but I found it hard to understand
my own working as I was at the limits of my imagination when I was working on it. I certainly
didn’t introduce it with any idea it would run as it did. I just mentioned it because when I solved
it I found it challenged my preconceived ideas of symmetry, an experience which was relevant
to the discussion. Then all of a sudden everyone was working on the problem and I was able
to see my own working on it more clearly with their help. And that was just lovely, Colin.

R: Do you hope the conversation might come back to life?

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

C: I wouldn’t want that to happen. We should leave space on the LinkedIn group for
new topics. Some recent members of the group have already started very dynamic

R: Conversations can suddenly come back to life when something relevant happens or
when a new person joins with fresh energy or ideas. I’ve got a few ‘dormant volcanoes’ which
I occasionally deliberately agitate. My discussion thread ‘What is relevant maths?’13 is a good
example. I think it might still have a long way to go.

On LinkedIn and many other forums, if someone posts a new comment on an old
discussion, everyone who’s contributed gets an email making them aware of the new post.
This can lead to a new burst of interest if people have more to say as a consequence of their
experiences and thoughts since the discussion was last active.

C: Later comments can also bring the discussion to the attention of new group
members who missed it on the first time around.

Moderating Discussions

R: Colin, I noticed when I became involved in the LinkedIn Forum (Math, Math
Education, Math Culture) that you were actively ‘hosting’ the thread I contributed to. Do you
have an official role in this forum?

C: I assist in moderating the “Math, Math Education, Math Culture” group on LinkedIn.
I moderate in a hands-off way. Occasionally I answer a question that has been ignored, or
delete spam messages that have been cross-posted to multiple groups.

R: Is this a formal role you have? How did you come to have it?

C: Check the group profile, you will see that Opher Liba is Owner, and I am Manager.
Opher assigned me that role when he saw I was posting relevant discussions and links. The
group is on the LinkedIn social network, so it is LinkedIn Corporation who owns the groups,
and define the terms and conditions in their user agreement. 14

C: We should thank Opher Liba for creating the “Math, Math Education, Math Culture”
group on LinkedIn. Opher is a mathematician and educator, who has published research on
Fibonacci numbers.

R: So Opher has assigned you some rights which allow you to delete posts? But you
do a lot more than that. I think you nurture and shape discussions. Did Opher give you some
pointers on how to do that or have your just invented your own strategies? What are you

C: I haven't thought consciously about strategies. But now that you mention it, one of
them is not to do unnecessary management. The group is very much driven by the

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

participants. I deleted some posts that had nothing to do with maths or education, but I
informed the posters of my action, and some of them continue to post relevant contributions.

C: On LinkedIn, users can flag discussions and comments as inappropriate. On

several occasions I have cancelled the flag rather than deleting the material, as I felt it was
flagged due to a misunderstanding. For example, someone flagged an article link for deletion.
Instead of deleting it I confronted the author with a critical comment and it has evolved into a
maths-relevant and somewhat heated discussion. Perhaps it was flagged because the linked
page was heavy with adverts. I don’t have a problem with that unless the content is irrelevant
or the link is posted to multiple discussion groups. When both of these things happen
repeatedly then the links are spam and the person posting them needs to be removed from
the group.

C: LinkedIn is not always the best place for a particular topic. I noticed a good
discussion “Scared of mathematics” on LinkedIn, so I sent a message to the poster advising
her to also post it on Mathematics24x715 where it would get attention from other mathematics
teachers. She posted it as “Math phobia” on that site and both discussions are independently

R: I’m delighted you’re writing this as I think this is really relevant advice to others
managing discussion sites Colin. I understand that managers have a responsibility to remove
abusive remarks but it’s really demoralising for participants when comments are removed
without explanation or when funny comments are removed because they are judged

I’d like to also mention that the effort you put into communicating with contributors like
myself through personal messages was very welcome and encouraged me in particular to pay
attention to that discussion.

C: Thank you, Rebecca. It doesn't seem like effort. There are dozens of people who
are active in the the “Math, Math Education, Math Culture” group. The discussion “Is
mathematics just stating and proving theorems?” is one of my favourites. Mathematician and
author Paolo Caressa16 posted it. He brought serious discussion of pure mathematics and
mathematics history into the group.

Facilitating Discussions

R: Why did you start your own topic Colin?

C: I posted the question about “Schools restricting our imagination” because the topic
was on my mind and I had something original to say about it. The “Math, Math Education,
Math Culture” group seemed like a good place to ask it. I wasn’t thinking “What can I post on
LinkedIn to generate a dynamic discussion?”

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

R: I also post comments because they are on my mind, or because something is being
discussed and I feel I could contribute something constructive. Some discussion forums have
contributors who are there to deliberately provoke discussions. Are you aware of this practice?

C: Provoking discussion is epitomised by American talk radio17 and British tabloid18

newspapers. That’s an essential role of the press in a free society. It’s known as “trolling”19 on
Internet forums. Last week I responded to two posts with sharp scepticism. You could call this
provocative. In each case the poster became defensive and provided more information to
back up their argument. Some lurkers joined the discussion to rebut my criticism. I think that
was effective. The opposite situation is forums that have a cabal of authors who comment
favourably and promptly on each other’s articles. That is easy to spot and destroys the
authenticity of their message.

R: Colin, I was one of the people who requested that “Math, Math Education, Math
Culture” be made into an “open group” 20. Why did that not happen?

C: LinkedIn distinguish between normal groups and what they call open groups, and
allow the group managers to switch the group to an open status. There were only five out of
two thousand registered members who requested that the group be opened up. That was not
enough people to justify making the change. Personally, I would prefer the group to be
opened up, as people who have not joined LinkedIn would be able to read new discussions.
When the group is opened, existing discussions are moved to a members-only archive. If you
prefer to post to an open LinkedIn group, I recommend The Math Connection21. Of course,
anyone is welcome to join “Math, Math Education, Math Culture”. It is not exclusive in any

R: Do you have a formal or regular commitment to LinkedIn?

C: I have no attachment to LinkedIn. I moderate the maths discussions as a hobby,

and could easily move my attention to another social network or blogging platform. I’ve
already posted the question about “Schools restricting our imaginations” on a mathematics
group on the social network22. A teacher replied with a well-considered rebuttal. I
would never have heard his opinion if the discussion had not moved outside of the LinkedIn
discussion group. I would like to quote him now:

“Your imagination is not bounded by school. You can explore all concepts with free
mind. School curriculum only provides a model structure for pedagogic purposes
targeted to a particular age group.” Jayant Ganguly.

R: I often work to shape and structure discussions Colin although, of course, I’m not
trying to control the outcome. I picture my role as being like that of a good party hostess. I try
to make sure everyone who arrives is acknowledged by someone, that people who have
something in common are introduced to each other and that people who are behaving in a
way which will offend others at the party are made aware of relevant dynamics in the group. If
possible I also try to ensure online discussions are entertaining. I want people to enjoy them. I
want them to come back and discuss maths education often or to eavesdrop at will.

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

C: You are involved in many discussions on NCETM. What is your role there?

R: I too have no obligation to any forum Colin and move around the sites freely, but I
do feel an emotional obligation to NCETM. I’ve been discussing maths there actively now for
about 20 months.

C: That’s a long time! Isn’t there a risk that your ideas become stagnant, and your
readership moves on?

R: NCETM isn’t just a discussion forum site Colin. It is the national hub for the
professional development of maths teachers in England. The forums are just part of it. People
come to it for all sorts of reasons and new people arrive all the time. That regularly brings us
new contributors to the forums which helps to keep them fresh.

I find my views on maths education are not stagnant because they are constantly
challenged in active discussion and also because I am actively teaching in a new and
challenging setting. I have also evolved as a contributor as I have got to know the regulars
and can banter with them. We have shared many intellectual journeys and I will miss them if I
move on.

However I am aware that I am moving on as a professional and that there is a greater

distance between my views and those of many contributors now. So I will probably restrict my
contribution to NCETM to a small number of threads to allow other contributors more space to
explore topics on their own terms.

C: When you start a new discussion, I advise that you avoid commenting on your own
posts. If the only comment is your own, it looks as if no one else is interested in what you said.
If you must make a correction or add supplemental information, wait until someone else
makes a comment and take that opportunity to follow up.

R: Yes it is important to nurture your own conversation threads. When someone

replies to your post if you comment on their reply there’s a good chance they’ll continue to
contribute to that thread. If you don’t respond they’re unlikely to post again unless a third party
interacts with them. In my experience it’s the conversations which have regular contributors
whose thoughts develop as they listen to others which are the most interesting.

C: I suggest using the holidays as an opportunity to dig through your blog or notebook
and find something to post. Just before Christmas, I reposted an old geometry problem on a
maths forum with the introduction “Do you need a mental challenge during the holiday?”

The problem did get some interest from someone who added a relevant comment
which included a reference to Euclid’s Elements which I wasn’t familiar with.

R: Yes that’s a good idea. While some people are busy with families during holidays
others do have time on their hands. Interacting with an intelligent online community can be a
very satisfying thing to do. It’s useful to try and specifically engage such participants with an

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

eye-catching conversation title at holiday times as they may not be regular participants at
other times.

C: I've noticed that when two people communicate online they often misunderstand
each other and may not even be aware that a problem exists.

R: I find contributors, especially new contributors, often have not communicated the
insights or viewpoints they thought they had clearly conveyed in their posts. Being used to this
now I try to reply to them by describing what I think they’ve said. By doing this I can usually
get them to both clarify and explain in more depth their point which often leads to some rich
and meaningful discussion. In my early days on forums I tended to reply to such posts at face
value but, in general, I now find the strategy I’ve just described more efficient and effective.

C: I was reading the event calendar of a university, and noticed that it had a building
named after Alan Turing. Instead of mentioning the university by name, I posted a more
general question “What has architecture done for mathematics?” 23 There were two responses
within 24 hours. A mathematician linked to a photo of building in Melbourne's Digital Harbour
Port that, by the “brick wall” optical illusion, challenges our concept of parallel lines. A school
teacher linked to a photo of the Fremont Bridge in Portland, Oregon that inspires her on her
daily commute. I will avoid answering the question myself, as the point is to let others
enlighten us with their views, which we might not otherwise have heard.

R: I think that’s very good practice Colin. If you exemplify your topic you often narrow
thinking. You can always add your example later as part of the mix. I do hope someone drew
attention to La Grande Arche de La Défense in Paris which has done so much to illustrate the
fourth spatial dimension.

Anonymous and Non-Authentic Contributors

R: I'm beginning to get a feel for the impact that non-authentic characters have on the
culture of a discussion forum.

C: And what is that impact?

R: In general they seem to have a negative impact. Why create them unless you have
an inappropriate motive? Anonymity is often appropriate due to issues of confidentiality. But
anonymity is different to non-authenticity (which relates to someone pretending to be a
character they are not). I know some forums use non-authentic characters to try and generate
discussion but I much prefer either the type of intervention you’ve described Colin or the
nurturing of charismatic and interesting contributors to the forum. If you want to create a
character to explore a particular point of view in a discussion why not be open about what
you’re doing and why you’re doing it?

C: If you have non-authentic characters who are making the discussion difficult think of
the forum as many one-to-one discussions rather than a group discussion. When you have

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

established a legitimate conversation with someone, take it off line using forum messages or
email. I prefer email contacts as they have more longevity than forums.

R: On LinkedIn there is no anonymity. Quite the opposite, in fact, as contributors

provide their current work information as well as full or truncated CVs and some biographical
details. I feel this greatly enhances the quality of the discussion for two reasons. Firstly
contributors are careful of their behaviour on the forum as inappropriate behaviour could
damage their professional credibility and secondly because, in trying to understand a post, I
can instantly access substantial information about the contributor. Knowing more about who
they are and where they’re coming form often helps me to understand their contributions.

Why do People Take Part in Online Conversations?

C: Generally I am a sceptical person. When I see a post or comment on a forum, I

don’t immediately take it at face value. There are a few people who participate in forums for
reasons other than an interest in the subject they are discussing; open networkers for
example, who focus on adding more contacts. My trust grows as I see someone make a
consistent argument over time, even if I don’t agree with their opinion. I’m not a mathematician
but I recently did some research in interactive geometry, and upload my projects to the
Intergeo interactive geometry site. That modest research effort gave me confidence to
participate in maths forums, and to discuss ideas with teachers and mathematicians.

R: I find a large proportion of the population is interested in discussing maths

education Colin. Most carry issues from their own experience which often bubble to the
surface when they become parents. Discussion forums are a natural place to go to explore
their thoughts. Why should you be sceptical of such people? There are of course forums
which are just for those with a commitment to maths education. With the experience you have
you could probably join some them if you contacted the forum administrator.

R: I’m interested in how you got involved in mathematics Colin. I’m very impressed by
the quality of your work on algebra. How did you become so fluent?

C: I use some mathematics in my job, developing computer software, but I felt out of
place when I first participated in mathematics discussion groups. My research into interactive
geometry software refreshed my algebra skills. Discussion groups were an essential part of
that research as online problem solving discussions and webinars connected me to
mathematicians who are teaching and researching interactive geometry. Two mathematicians
who influenced me are Maria Droujkova through her Math 2.0 Interest Group24, and Linda
Fahlberg-Stojanovska through her Geogebra Wiki25.

C: Do you deliberately try to entertain the readers of the discussions?

R: Oh yes, I love using humour. Doing so entertains me as well as the readers. We’ve
recently gone Monty Pythonesque on NCETM. Of course the funniest twists in humour are
unintentional. Like when one reader used as their avatar26 a picture of themself dressed as

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

their grandma (complete with 1950s wig and glasses). When chatting to this contributor, I
made jokes about men in drag and Little Britain. Then one day all of a sudden it became
obvious that the contributor was female..... She changed her picture to a very feminine one, so
if you re-read the thread the humour of it is lost. You had to be there! It’s often the case that
humour in discussion forums is time critical and is not there when conversations are reread.

C: Ah yes - I’ve found an example of your sense of humour coming in to play in a

discussion on NCETM. You were reminding the group that “Benoît Mandelbrot died last
week.” The humour was a parallel conversation within the thread, so it wasn't irreverent in any
way. Why did you link to an interview with Mandelbrot on BBC's iPlayer in this thread? It’s not
available outside of the UK and the recording may be deleted in a few days?

R: I think it’s important to keep the discussion current Colin. I want to encourage
people to read the site regularly. As for the UK specific issue, NCETM is a UK site so I think
that’s okay. A significant number of the resources it recommends are not available outside the
UK. As I’ve moved into international discussion forums I do worry about whether links operate
universally. Since I’m often not sure whether they do or not I post them with a caveat
expressing this concern and ask for feedback if there are problems.

C: There is a discussion about “Math Phobia” or “Scared of the subject mathematics”

on both the LinkedIn and Mathematics24x7 social networks. What can we learn about the
value of online discussion from these examples?

R: Well Colin, those were interesting discussions. I found the Math Phobia discussion
to be chaotic. There were quite a few people there with axes to grind, or perhaps I should say
personal baggage to work through. It’s hard to draw out the key points from such people who
are often not well versed in education theory. Within that conversation, however, there were
some really intelligent contributions and I was especially excited to see one from who referred
to her flow theory of education which was very close to insights into the synthesis of outcome-
led and process-led education that I had developed myself27.

So I was tempted to get involved. But because it was so chaotic I pictured myself more
as an experienced pub landlady, quietly and effectively telling people either to focus on the
task or move along. My involvement was inhibited by the disappearance of some of my posts
due to a technical glitch and the arrival of two other characters who were trying to dominate
the discussion, one of whom was glowing with his newly found understanding of the theory of
everything and another who was very angry about all sorts of things. In response to the
demand for focus and intelligent discussion the former disappeared off to talk to Bilbo Baggins
(this is really what he said he was going to do) and the latter made a clear and relevant point.
Eventually we were left with the wheat of the discussion distilled from the chaff, but that did
take a fair amount of focussed effort Colin. Have you read it? How did it come across to you?

C: Your input to that discussion was very professional, and thus informative to
mathematics teachers. You were able to give concepts under discussion, such as
“epistemological pluralism”, their formal academic names. That might discourage some
participants, or to continue your analogy, one person’s wheat may be another person’s chaff.

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

On the whole, it is to be commended when a discussion percolates towards a high-brow level.

It was good that you kept the discussion on topic, right through to over 200 comments.

R: Register (by this I mean the social and academic level of the language and
concepts used) is quite a difficult issue for discussions. In general I’m very careful about
introducing formal language, using it only tentatively when I believe it will help participants
clarify issues and explaining it carefully as I go. However sometimes, as in this particular
conversation, I use it as a tool to gain control of a conversation in order to tame the chaos. In
my opinion that conversation needed an assertive academic character so I behaved like one.
If you watch what I do over time you will see that I take on different characteristics depending
on what I feel I can contribute to a situation. I tend to do this more instinctively than

Discussion Forums and Democracy

C: Rebecca, when we agreed to write a joint article about something, I suggested a

technical paper on geometry. You decided to go with this article about online collaboration.

R: Online discussions fascinate me Colin and I’m greatly enjoying this opportunity to
reflect on them with you. I find my width of insight and my intellectual expertise develops
rapidly when I take part in them and I want to analyse why that is. I think it’s partly because
these conversation help me ‘shift perspective’ and to rapidly and repeatedly see my views
through the eyes of people with different experiences to mine. My contact with people who I
would not have the opportunity to meet face-to-face also helps me to become aware of areas
of knowledge to which I have previously had no exposure. I hope that others who read this
article will be inspired to take similar intellectual journeys.

I also suspect that, in the future, discussion forums have the potential to play a
significant role in collaborative democracy. So I’m keen to share insights into the strategies for
running and participating in them in order to encourage and support further thinking and
practice in this area. Today’s definition from Wikipedia suggests that democracy “Ideally…
includes equal (and more or less direct) participation in the proposal, development and
passage of legislation into law.” To what extent to we really achieve this? Could the use of
discussion forums improve the quality or our democratic system? What are the issues which
militate against discussion forums contributing to the democratic process? I think these
questions merit further consideration.

C: Discussions about maths are generally apolitical. The membership of “Math, Math
Education, Math Culture” is almost worldwide. I'm not sure that such forums and their mode of
operation would work if the stakes were higher. Discussions of significance to democracy
would be well served if the technology could be improved. There is a need for both secure
anonymity and verifiable identification, and in a format that is ubiquitous and easy to use.
Eben Moglen's vision of a Freedom Box28, is the type of apparatus that I am thinking of.

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

R: Discussion about mathematics education, however, can be highly political. We will

need to be aware of and to work with and around this reality if online discussions are to
contribute to democratic consultation.

I would advise that any individuals seeking to understand the views of participants in
discussion forums need to contribute to discussions rather than just reading them if they are to
properly understand the situations being discussed. This is especially particularly important if
the contributors are anonymous, in which case conversations must be read with extreme
caution as the characters may be non-authentic or the forum be operating in a way which
ensures that it will defend a particular agenda. Participating in the conversation and entering
into one-to-one correspondence can allow the reader to gain some insight into the authenticity
of the contributors and the contributions. Forums where lots of people post the same
viewpoint on a thread (and this behaviour happens across many threads) are more likely to be
affected by issues which militate against the quality conversation. Posts rarely cover the full
width of a contributor’s perceptions on a topic. When forums are operating freely contributors
tend to naturally post aspects of their views which balance and augment those already
expressed rather than to repeat and endorse the views of others. One obvious exception to
this is when a discussion thread is providing emotional support for an individual who is
seeking it.

I think that participating in online discussions can already contribute to the

development of individuals involved in government.

Some politicians and professionals in key decision-making roles have blogs that allow
public comment. Those that do not allow comments in real time (the owner reads the
comments before allowing them to go live) tend to generate only comments and responses
rather than discussions. Those which allow comments in real time can generate discussion
forum style conversation if the blogger actively ‘hosts’ the thread of comments to each of their
posts, interacting with and responding to comments with the expectation that their own
insights and understanding will grow and their viewpoints move on as a result of the
comments posted.

C: Rebecca, I hope that you write more about this topic on your blog, at Managing or participating in such
conversations is not always easy. Bloggers who wish to host such conversations may find the
summaries of suggestion regarding discussion forums provided at the end of this article

Intellectual Content

C: What characterises a valuable contribution to an academic discussion? Does every

sentence that inspires a reader or challenges their assumptions add intellectual content to a

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

R: In my opinion a valuable contribution is one which is authentic to the contributor. By

that I mean the contributor is describing their personal observations or their own evidence
based reflections on or insights into the situation.

Conclusions reached long ago or handed from person to person without deep personal
consideration are generally of less value. The joy of these discussions is that the insights that
arise are often far more complex and true than the ‘best universal truths’, which are reached
by a single intelligent person researching and writing on a topic.

The Variety of Mathematics Education Discussion Forums

R: You seem to be involved in a wide variety of discussion forums Colin. Could you
summarise what the main international forums for discussing maths education are?

C: I can only answer that from my own perspective, as I may be unaware of the most
influential forums. You will find the most popular mathematics forums with a Google search,
but it is worth the effort to look for a niche forum that matches your interests and the age
range of your pupils. When I was a lecturer, I joined the mathematics forums on some social
networks. The mathematics forums on seem to be primarily used by pupils working
on their homework problems. It was one of those problems, inscribing a semicircle in a
square, that triggered my new interest in geometry. I posted it on the social network29, and teachers and other mathematics enthusiasts
joined in to explore different ways of solving it. Sometimes you will find a topical mathematics
topic on a more general science or computing forum, or even in the newspaper.

Maths forums do not stand on their own. They depend on document sharing sites like and My geometry presentations on have been
viewed over 5,000 times, which I think is due to my blogs and forum posts. Twitter is part of
that ecosystem. You can find nuggets of mathematics information there by searching for the
Twitter hash-tag #math. You need to present your work repeatedly and in multiple formats. A
video or podcast will make your work available to a wider audience.

R: What forums do you recommend for a busy professional?

C: The mathematics groups on LinkedIn are professional, as it is a business oriented

network. Some of the posts link to personal blogs, but they are usually relevant to the
discussion. If you understand German, I recommend Mathematics / Mathematik / Matemática,

R: Did you join any mathematics groups on Facebook?

C: I didn't find any maths discussions on Facebook that are worthwhile. I recall one
discussion about funny maths slogans for T-shirts. That was as deep as the conversation got.
I created a Facebook group Equatorial 2.0 but it did not attract the spontaneous discussion

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

that I have seen on other networks.

Data Loss and Changes to Contributions

C: There’s no guarantee that an online discussion will remain intact. Some forums
delete everything a person posted when they leave the forum or are blacklisted. I've seen this
happen on Orkut and Ning, and it leaves discussion threads that don't make sense due to
missing comments. One member of a social network had a duplicate user name,
and when she deleted it, she lost everything she had written. We were having a discussion
about “math phobia”. She was able to restore some comments that she had typed offline in a
word processor. That's a useful practice, if only for spell checking.

R: If your contributions are important to you, you should keep a copy. I often use
discussion forums just as a tool for thinking ‘in the moment’ and so I don’t bother. If you do
lose posts it’s worth contacting the moderator who may be able to help.

C: If you write a lot on forums, I suggest posting a copy of each article you write on
your personal blog or collecting them for that book that you are writing.

R: On some forums, such as, you have the right to change and delete
your own posts at will. On others, such as LinkedIn you have the opportunity to reread and
edit your post for a limited time, after which you would need to contact an administrator if you
wanted to make a change. However there are forums, such as at the Times Education
Supplement30, where only moderators can make adjustments. It’s important to be aware of
the dynamics on each forum. As a contributor I find it useful to be able to ‘moderate’ my own
posts once they are published so that I can improve their quality. Math 2.0 sends an email to
each contributor of each post so that each contributor has a full record of all the posts. This
works well for small forums where contributors use mail browsers that cascade their emails.

C: Web services don’t last forever. I had a blog on Fortunately when Vox
shut down, the hosting company Six Apart let me transfer it to
was a popular site for social bookmarking and when it crashed everything was lost as there
were no backups. I had used the export feature of Magnolia to copy my bookmarks to, another social bookmarking site, so I had a backup.

The History of Online Discussions

R: You appear to have substantial experience in online discussions. How did you
begin to contribute to online discussions?

C: I began using a Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) about 20 years ago. I had an IBM
compatible PC and logged on using a dial-up modem. We could connect to other BBSs over

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

FidoNet, before the Internet was available. Then, I subscribed to the CompuServe Information
Service, where I participated in some science and engineering forums.

R: 20 years ago is right back when e-mail began isn’t it? Are we talking pre-windows
and pre-www? How did these forums operate?

C: I used the MS-DOS operating system and a character-mode monochrome display.

You could select functions using menus and scroll through topics and comments with the
cursor keys. Similar menus are used today on low cost mobile phones. There was a PC
application called Tapcis that made Compuserve easier to use. It filled in the gap, where the
browser sits today, but it didn't have hypertext or the multi-site utility of a web browser. I
remember using the Mosaic browser for the first time, before Netscape Navigator. That was
quite a revolution.

R: Can I ask what the purposes of these BBSs were? What was being discussed? At
this time only universities were on networks if I remember rightly. Very few businesses were
although that was just beginning.

C: I accessed the BBS from my home. Any hobbyist with a computer and a dial-up
modem could do that. There was a range of cultural, academic and technical topics, not unlike
the groups on a modern social network. Compuserve and Usenet were very popular systems.
Conversations were held in forums or message boards and organised in threads of

C: I worked for an Internet Service Provider in 1990-92, and programmed a PC

application for facilitating group discussions. The discussion server was a DEC VAX
computer, programmed in Fortran. Initially it wasn't Internet connected, but used the X.25
protocol for international links via the telephone system to university and research networks.

R: What happened next in the world of online discussions? Have there been key
points at which either the systems or the behaviour of the people who use them has changed?

C: Commercial activity was initially banned on the Internet. When that changed,
websites, discussion forums and email became available to the public. Commercialisation of
the Internet and mass marketing of the American Online (AOL) Internet service were part of
that growth. The World Wide Web came after the Internet, and revolutionised the way we
access information. Although I hate to admit it, the cookies that web sites store in your
browser were a key component of the growth of the Internet. If websites can track their
readers, it gives them incentive to create more content. Tim Berners-Lee proposed the World
Wide Web at CERN. Its open design and free worldwide availability were essential to its
success. By contrast, the French effort at creating a national “internet”, Minitel, was not
capable of growing beyond the borders of France. The openness of the design of the Internet
and its protocols (TCP/IP) was the key factor in the success of the Internet and the World
Wide Web.

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

Internet Forums and Wikis

R: Communities often sit within websites which have a wider purpose Colin, be it
social networking, professional development, a newspaper or whatever. I enjoy Maria
Droujkova’s Math 2.0 Interest Group33 which is part of a wiki. “Wiki” is a term that I use
without really understanding what it means in this context. Could you explain it please Colin?

C: Internet forums are traditionally called “message boards”31, and that name is a good
description of the way they organise data. Members post public messages, which are
collected in a database and displayed in sequential order. They are organised as threads of
discussion, making it easy to follow the sequence of comments. A message board is easy to
use if you check it daily for new posts. It is not designed as an encyclopaedic store of

A wiki, by contrast, is a website that stores a body of knowledge, built up piecemeal by

volunteer authors. The best-known wiki is Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia, and that is
where you will find a more detailed definition of a wiki32. The information is organised as a
dense web of hyperlinks, not chronologically like a forum. That makes it easier to find topics
which are related by context.

Mathematics educator Maria Droujkova supports multiple mathematics communities.

One of these is The Math 2.0 Interest Group33, of which the focal point is a wiki. The wiki is
indexed as an A to Z list of articles written by collaborating members. Wikis have changed
since Ward Cunningham launched the first wiki in 1996. Maria's wiki utilises a plethora of Web
2.0 interconnectivity, from a weekly discussion on Twitter, tagged #mathchat, to webinars by
invited presenters. The webinars are often in US daytime, so you might need to stay up late to

If you wish to express mathematics formula within your discussions, or participate in

collaborative problem solving, it is helpful if you can embed mathematics markup, such as
LaTeX34, in your posts. I created a wiki “Online Mathematics Access”35 about this topic. It is
on the Wikispaces.com36 hosting service, the same service that Maria uses for The Math 2.0
Interest Group. A successful wiki has collaboration from multiple authors, so I can’t say that
my mathematics markup wiki was successful. The hosting was free, so I have no regrets in

Message boards have evolved since their pre-Internet history. They may have a
search feature or have open content that you can search using Google or Bing. When you
post a message or a comment, you can include hyperlinks that link to relevant context in other
messages or anywhere on the web. A modern collaboration website may include a wiki, a
message board and other social networking features. Content has advanced from text only, to
multimedia. A self-contained site like this is sometimes called a web portal.

The Polymath projects37 are collaborative mathematics wikis, founded by

mathematicians Timothy Gowers and Terence Tao. The idea is to have many people
collaborate on a single mathematics problem. Polymath is reviewed by Jacob Aron in a
NewScientist article38. He relates that Polymath has been analysed by computer scientists
Justin Cranshaw and Aniket Kittur, who think that massive online collaboration will be part of
the future of mathematics.

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

Digital Natives

C: Would you say that today’s students are digital natives? What does that term mean
to you?

R: I think children have been digital natives for quite a while, but something specific
has changed recently. Children have become fluent at communicating socially through online
systems. Primary school children often use MSN and by the time they reach secondary school
a large proportion of children (especially girls) are fluent in Facebook. Boys, it seems, tend to
communicate more through online gaming systems. Please note Colin these are just my
observations. I haven’t done robust research.

What I’ve noticed is that, in order to use Facebook successfully, children have to be
very aware of what they can and can’t say in public. I think they have found they can say a lot
more than we expected provided they are respectful of others. It’s very hard to define what it
is and isn’t acceptable to say in the abstract. It depends on the way in which it is said, the
intention of the poster and the way in which the poster interacts with any criticisms and
complaints about what they’ve said.

Children often bring their personal context and lives into conversations. In fact it is the
people who can add creative but laterally relevant twists to conversations who tend to be
socially successful on Facebook so this way of writing has flourished. I think this culture of
thinking and writing passes across into more formal online discussion areas.

I think it’s also worth mentioning how the Facebook culture has encouraged people to
have little fear of academic and social strata and boundaries. There is an expectation that
people will talk to you person to person no matter who they are.

Modesty and Net-Speak

C: You may have noticed my frequent use of the word perhaps “perhaps” in
discussions, and my caveat, “ I have read headlines about ...””, to indicate that I am
discussing scientific developments of which I have only superficial knowledge. Is that a valid
mode of discussion, or to be blunt, is it just hot air?

R: Quite a lot of people use phrases like IMHO (In my humble opinion) and are
deferential in their tone. I find that I tend not to be. I just say things, even if I’m not an expert
on the topic. Some suggest it’s because I’m arrogant but I think it’s more to do with efficiency
and experience. I feel I don’t need to invite other participants to shoot me down because my
experience has taught me that they just will if they feel like it. I think people are less inhibited
about doing that in cyberspace that then are in real life.

C: Thanks for reminding me. L33t39 speak would save me some typing, IMHO. Some
net-speak words are even being put into the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) OMG! My

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

writing style is more economic when I use the touch screen of my smart phone than when I
use the QWERTY keyboard on my laptop PC. Teachers on different continents use different
educational terms; K-12 in the USA, and Pythonesque in the UK, for example.

R: I also think it’s okay for people to have different approaches to the language they
choose to use. Sometimes there’s a bit of a jar when people with different styles first meet in
conversations but this usually rapidly passes as they get to know each other. If you don’t
understand what someone means just say so and ask them to explain their abbreviations or
their use of the jargon. This happens all the time and is a natural part of online conversations.


C: Do you think that online mathematics discussions are elitist?

R: No. You get retired professors chatting easily with students and random people with
different areas of expertise. How is that elitist?

One thing I find particularly interesting is that you get people on the periphery of the
academic world making very useful contributions. People who are so ‘creative’ you can see
straight away they would struggle to get or hold down an ordinary job. People who are
between jobs for whatever reason. All are free to contribute. All seem to make interesting and
insightful points.

C: On mathematics discussion groups, we see very little content related to academic

development of mathematics as a field of research, or even reference to it. Why is that?

R: Good question. I think this is something worth exploring as it is an area with huge
potential. Initially I am tempted to respond that the high level of the research means that the
community who could understand it is very limited so perhaps not sufficient to make online
conversation flow. However I have learned that it is often possible to talk about complex work
holistically and that in new contexts and it can become engaging to wider audiences. I would
particularly like to see research teams presenting their work in open forums so that interested
amateurs can explore their ideas and correspond on the forum regarding it. I’ve long held a
dream that school students should be given the opportunity to choose one or more current
research or commercial projects to engage with during their time at school40. I know that the
STEM agenda means classes often get the opportunity to engage with a project but I believe
both that there are wider benefits in individuals following their preferences and engaging with
current mathematics of their choice and that this is now technologically realistic.

Discussion forums in Distance Education

C: Rebecca do you have any experience in distance education?

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

R: Why do you ask? Can you explain how that relates to discussion forums?

C: A discussion forum is a key part of the technology that facilitates an online course of
study. The other part is online access to course content in digital format. I’m sure that a
student who is adept in discussion forums would have considerable advantage in their study.

R: I took part in some very powerful collaborative online case studies during my MEd.
Colin. I would say they were one of the most transformational elements of the course.

C: When you are participating in a good online discussion, it feels like part of formal
course of study, especially when exchanging complex ideas with enthusiastic people. An
online university would need to provide that interaction too. To find out more, go to the website
of any online university and search for “discussion forum” or “online community”, or attend a
virtual open day. On some of these the support for discussion forums looks outdated. They
could be better integrated with the whole digital environment. There is great potential for
mash-ups, where university based media is blended into global social media, and vice versa.

R: Colin, do you remember the early history of distance learning?

C: I haven't attended an online course, so I looked up the history of the Open

University in the U.K. It was successful in the 1970's before broadband and personal
computers. The goal was to make higher education available to people on lower income.
That's a theme of the stage play Educating Rita by Willy Russell. The 1980 play and
subsequent 1983 film show us that the teacher also learns from the student. Meaningful
communication must be bidirectional. The technologies of the time were radio and TV, which
are essentially unidirectional media, transmitting programs from the TV studio to the masses.
Online discussion forums level the playing field. They are now a key part of distance learning,
and essential for student-to-student participation during a course of study.

C: Have you used Learning Management Systems, such as Blackboard or Moodle?

Have they lived up to their promise, of managing learning for students and teachers? I’ve used
them successfully for on campus courses, to supplement and organise classroom lectures.

R: It may surprise you to know that I haven’t used them. I’ve always found different
solutions to the situations which could be resolved by this type of communication. My
students (in Higher Education) have Facebook groups which I monitor and sometimes
contribute to. I find it helps to know before the lesson if there’s been a significant issue with
homework and it’s useful to intervene if they’re going down a wrong route in their discussion
about the maths.

R: Colin, how do we apply new technology to distance learning?

C: It's a goal of distance learning to make higher education affordable, so the

technology must be cost effective. A software development project can easily spin out of
control, and there are will always be ongoing maintenance costs. The risk can be managed by
dividing the project up into a number of small initiatives. Open standards help here. A learning
management system can be upgraded incrementally, adding software modules with new

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

features, such as timetables, a wiki or online examinations. There's a management style

called "Agile Development". It gets the customer involved in the software design loop.

The requirements will continue to evolve. Students will want to use whatever smart
phone, tablet computer or PC that they happen to possess. The content will be multimedia,
and will include aspects generated by the students. I strongly suspect that video and audio
editing will become an essential foundation skill for all students.

As network speeds increase, the time scale of our activities will be greatly
compressed. There will be more video conferencing and live transmission. Nichola Tesla, the
inventor of the wireless telegraph, predicted personal multimedia communications over 100
years ago. Now it is commonplace, though there are still problems with network coverage in
rural areas.

R: Students will want to contribute to discussion forums from many media, such as
their iPads and mobile phones. They also now use a wider variety of web browsers which has
raised challenges for some forums.

C: In theory you should be able to use any device that has a web browser. Sometimes
I post to a discussion forum from my Android-based phone. It’s a painful operation, as I
continually need to zoom in to make the font visible and pan around to find the right part of the
web page. Students are versatile and quick to utilise technology in ways that the manufacturer
hasn't imagined. It is the students who will be driving the direction of discussions and

More information about Colin and Rebecca: Our Inspirations

C: Is there anyone in particular who inspires you in your work?

R: I'm inspired by Geoff Faux41. He supported me when I was struggling to know how
to teach my classes which had wide spans of attainment in mathematics and many
behavioural issues. He taught me how to teach in ways that engaged and settled my students
and which I found inspirational. Who’s inspired you Colin?

C: I’m a fan of James Burke’s “Connections” TV series42. I’m interested the interaction
of science and technology, and how that played out in the Industrial Revolution. James Burke
reaches the conclusion that we are immersed in technology and can no longer survive without

R. Do you think James Burke simply wants us to learn from all the lateral connections
he made or do you think he wants us to learn to make lateral connections for ourselves Colin?

C: I think he wants us to learn about ourselves, as human beings, from our history and
technology. It’s often the authors, such as Burke, who don’t market themselves as self-
awareness gurus who do the most to improve our awareness.

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

R: Do you see connections between what you’ve learnt from James Burke and your
thoughts about Discussion forums and/or maths education Colin?

C: His connective leaps from one subject to another resemble our modern thought
process as we click through hyperlinks on the web, yet his Connections TV series predates
the World Wide Web by about 15 years.

C: Rebecca, do you have a favourite TV episode or YouTube clip?

R: The YouTube clip with which I connect most deeply is the extract from Jacob
Bronowski’s series ‘The Ascent of Man’ that he filmed at Auschwitz43. It seems to underpin
everything I do. I try not to see anything from either science or faith as being absolute.
Instead I treat it as being meaningful in the context in which is was discovered and perhaps
beyond that. I also empathise with his insight into the way in which conclusions can be
abused if they are treated as being absolute or universal.

C: I like Bronowski’s definition of Science: “Science is a very human form of

knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known, we always feel forward for what is to be
hoped. Every judgement in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal. Science is a
tribute to what we can know although we are fallible."

C: Do you relate Bronowski’s philosophy to the topic of this article, online discussions?

R: The way I interpret this clip and many other powerful experiences in my life is that I
hold nothing to be absolutely true. Not in science, not in religion, not in mathematics, not
socially. Instead I see all things presented as having some level of truth, from just a transient
and personal truth to the person who wrote them to truths which we assume are universally
held and totally robust and yet may still not be. So while I deify nothing I also reject nothing
out of hand. I always probe the many contexts of something which is claimed in order to better
understand it.

This leads me to a yin yang approach to conclusions. Which ever conclusion someone
proposes I expect there to be a balancing statement which is also valid. I think this non-
formalist philosophy is at the heart of the way I nurture the ideas developed in conversations.

Bronowski also talks about the need to “close the gap” between the push button and
the action. I believe discussion forums can be very powerful mechanisms for doing that.

R: What’s your strongest philosophical influence Colin?

C: I would say that science has had the strongest influence on me. Our opportunities
and living conditions have greatly improved since the days of our grandparents. Much of that
improvement is due to technology that is the product of scientific research. The scientific
method also helps us distinguish fact from fiction. As we become more dependent on
information, we need to be able to recognise bullshit when we see or hear it. The philosopher
Karl Popper has elucidated the methods of science in a way that I can relate to, in his paper

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

Science as Falsification 44.

Colin’s Reflections: Joining and Hosting Discussion Forums

C: When you join a new forum, skim through a few discussions, and make a general
assessment. If the forum is dominated by self-promoting or irrelevant posts, unsubscribe and
move on. If the forum matches your interests, get to know the participants, their points of view
and motives. Don’t judge a person from a single post or comment. Follow their posts over
time. Check their profile page, where they may link to their blog or website. Experts often have
a portfolio of work that represents their interests.

The content of a discussion is not always reflected in the first post. Discussions often
drift and creep into new topics. The quality of a discussion can vary too. You might find a few
good points to ponder in a long discussion that is mostly irrelevant to you. Use your time
wisely. Is it better to spend your time browsing through discussions, or reading a reference
book that has a table of contents and an index? Some people absorb information better from a
discussion, because of its dynamic nature, and the stimulation of being an active participant in

Before you begin participating in discussions, review your profile or “About me” page
on the social network or forum. Others will check it out. Link to your blog or website and keep
it updated to boost your credibility.

What is your reason to start a new discussion on a forum or social network? You may
have a question that genuinely concerns you, or a subject that you wish to discuss. Are you
posting it to the right forum? You could post it on more than one social network. A post “Math
is boring!” might be acceptable on Orkut, but could be renamed as “How can mathematics be
made more interesting?” on a LinkedIn discussion group, if you want it to sound more

When reading a discussion, do you feel like making a comment? Resist that feeling,
because more often than not, you have better things to do with your time. If you can’t resist,
then read the other comments before posting yours. That way, you can say something original
and in context. If the discussion made you angry or upset, then type your comment offline in
Notepad or Word and save it in a text file. Leave it for a day, then review what you wrote
objectively before posting it. Scepticism is appropriate in comments, especially if the
discussion make unjustified assumptions, or ignores important facts. It is usually a waste of
time to correct someone’s spelling or grammar.

If you need to have an extensive discussion over a period of time, then consider
creating your own discussion group, or even starting your own group discussion website. That
will give you more control over your intellectual investment, and you can develop your own
policy of comment moderation. Then you avoid the risk of giving control of your discussions to
a disinterested moderator who is slow to delete spam, or to a censorious moderator who

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

deletes opposing viewpoints and alternative modes of thought that he or she does not

You could start your own discussion forum or social network on a well supported
framework like, SocialGO or one of the alternatives described by Jolie O'Dell on

Hosting your own website would be an ambitious but worthwhile project. A Virtual
Private Server (VPS) can be rented monthly. The hosting package should include registration
of your domain name and security certificates. Simplistically, a hosting package lends you a
virtual PC with a specified amount of Internet bandwidth. You take responsibility for installing a
Content Management System (CMS) and add-on modules for discussion forums, comment
moderation and user administration. You should be willing to take on long term responsibility
for maintaining a secure and orderly discussion site, even if you provide it to users free of
charge. You would be well advised to review the disclaimer sections of some discussion
forums. They can contain thousands of words of legal jargon, which is a reminder that you
should seek legal advice before creating your own website.

If you just want to experiment, look for a free or low cost shared hosting service.
Shared hosting has limited performance, because the PC is shared with other websites. It is
an economic way to learn how to manage a web server and configure a Content Management
System (CMS). Search for a hosting service that provides a CMS such as Joomla, Django or
the Orchard Project. Naturally, the best place to look for more information is on discussion
forums about this topic.

As a forum grows more popular, moderation becomes time consuming. You should
ask some forum users to volunteer as moderators. An automated moderation or rating system
may help. This can be as simple as a button that lets readers say whether they “like” or
“dislike” a post. Slashdot.org46 was one of the first discussion forums to automate moderation.
Posts and comments are rated on a points system. Active participants accumulate Karma, a
kind of currency or token that gives their ratings more weight. If you are selecting a CMS or
CMS add-ons, look for software that provides features for moderating and rating discussions.

R: Colin, I read this research paper47 by Lampe and Resnick about the Slashdot
moderation scheme. Although automated, the system makes good use of human judgement. I
think that your description overlooks that human factor. The idea of moderation being fully
automated worries me. In theory it should be easy to set abstract and universal rules for
participation. However in practice this doesn’t seem to work.

R: There were three issues that you raised earlier in this article, which I think are worth
reiterating here, Colin. The first is the way in which you, as a moderator, tend to intervene in
discussions rather than delete posts when there is a complaint and that if you do delete posts
you always let contributor know why. As a participant it’s frustrating and dispiriting when your
posts just disappear.

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

Secondly I know from experience that you take the time to get to know key contributors
and to send them personal messages inviting them to participate in discussion which you
know will interest them. Contributors who have a substantial knowledge base which is
relevant to discussions add a great deal to forums so it is worthwhile for both moderators and
other participants to take the time to encourage them to contribute.

Thirdly you commented on the benefits of posting questions to multiple forums.

Although there are clear benefits to ‘getting to know’ the working and participants of one
community, if you stay exclusively in one community there is a danger of group-think starting
to become ingrained. It’s a good idea to visit more than one forum.

Rebecca’s Reflections: How Participants can Improve Conversations

R: My reflections are in two parts. The first outlines the natural ‘sins’ of online
discussion forums. By this I mean the behaviours contributors will exhibit tend to inhibit high
quality discussion. As a participant I find it helps to be consciously aware of them so I can
work constructively around them.

The second part is about the skills of promoting effective discussion which any
participant can apply, whether or not they are a moderator of the forum.

Natural ‘sins’ of online discussion

R: The first and most common sin is ad hominem abuse. A participant attacks another
participant instead of engaging with their argument. It is only very rarely appropriate to
challenge an argument based on the personal qualities of its protagonist rather than on the
content of the argument.

The second natural sin is ‘straw manning’. This happens when one participant attacks
a viewpoint which is not actually held by another participant. This is extremely common and
can be a natural process which leads to the participant who is being questioned restating their
position more clearly resulting in constructive further discussion. However if a participant is
doing it to an extreme level it may be helpful if another contributor points out to them what
they are doing.

Thirdly we have the ‘sin’ of dogmatic behaviour which can also be problematic for
discussions. It is common for people with very strong views to participate in discussions and
to hold on to those views even when the evidence presented clearly contradicts them.
However just because a contributor has held on to their views in the past does not necessarily
mean that they will continue to do so in the future. It can take a while to build up sufficient
evidence for a person to make a significant intellectual shift.

Fourthly, spamming occurs when a substantial number of posts are made which do not
contribute to the conversation in a way that makes that conversation unpleasant to read or
take part in. However it’s fine to wander off topic if everyone in the conversation is happy to do

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

that. As we discussed before it can be constructive and stimulating to explore a relevant

problem in parallel with the theme of the thread.

In my experience these are the most common behaviours which participants in well
moderated discussion forums have to work around. If posts are personally abusive report
them immediately and they should be deleted or there should be specific, appropriate
intervention on your behalf. There are, of course, less well-moderated forums where abusive
and unpleasant behaviour may not be rapidly and effectively addressed and there are also
forums (usually those with obvious commercial interests) where abusive behaviour against
participants who transgress unpublicised boundaries is condoned.

Facilitating Better Discussions

R: Look after other contributors, especially new participants. If someone is struggling

send them an encouraging personal message. They may need some personal interaction with
and reassurance from an experienced participant to build their confidence and interest in
participating further.

Be aware of ad hominem abuse and straw manning as described above. Use your
awareness to try and work round the issues which arise. If the issues escalate so that they are
blocking conversation be explicit in the conversation about what’s happening so that all
participants can actively try to move the conversation on should they wish to do so.

When conversations are moving slowly take time to listen to participants. Ask them
about their motives for participating in the discussion. Chat to them about their contributions
even if you can’t answer any of the specific questions they ask.

If conversations get stuck due to dogmatic generalisations try to take participants back
to discussing real experiences rather than those generalisations. Doing so can unlock wider
and deeper insights which help to get conversations moving again.

It is helpful if participants read, or at least skim read, the thread before they make a
contribution. If you have not had time to read the thread but still wish to contribute something
that you feel is relevant it is good practice to explain this and apologise in case of duplication
as part of your post.

Next Steps

R: Where do you think your journey with discussion forums will take you next Colin?

C: I would like to move away from LinkedIn and discussion forums in general. Our
limited time is divided between creating information and sharing information. I am juggling a
number of ideas and would like to create some new technology. That would require a support
forum, so I would be involved in that.

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

R: I’m planning to further explore some of the aspects of discussion forums we’ve
discussed here such as my aim of trying to understand both the theory and the practical
aspects of how online discussions can contribute to democratic decision-making. I’d be
interested to hear from parties who would like me complete or collaborate on research and
writing relating to discussion forums.


We do not endorse any products or services mentioned in this article. We have not received
any grant or payment for writing this article. We provide this article for general interest and not
as professional or legal advice. The content and opinions are our own and not our employer's
or those of any associations of which we are members. They are based on personal
experience and online information rather than a systematic survey.

Notes on this Article

We have never actually met, nor even spoken on the phone. This article was conceived
during our interaction in the “Math, Math Education, Math Culture” forum on LinkedIn. We
wrote it together in our spare time as a shared document in Google Docs48, asking and
answering questions to each other. Online conversations often generate interesting one-to-
one discussion and explorations of which we have both enjoyed many. This article gives you
an insight into just one such discussion.

We hope our conversation here will tempt others to enjoy the intellectual opportunities,
journeys and friendships that discussion forums offer.

We’d like to conclude the article by offering our sincere thanks to all who have taken the time
to converse with us online.


1 & 2. is a professional social networking site. To find the group “Math, Math
Education, Math Culture”, select the group tab on the LinkedIn home page and then type the
group name into the search box. You will need to apply to join the group. Applications are
checked by moderators so there will be a delay (typically up to 24 hours) before you can
access the group. If you have little information in your profile and/or few connections on
LinkedIn it is useful to explain your reasons for applying to join in your application. The “Math,
Math Education, Math Culture” group was created by Opher Liba, Mathematician, Educator
and researcher into Fibonacci Sequences.

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

3. When you have access to a LinkedIn group specific conversations can be found via the
search option in the menu bar for the group.

4. Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes by Daina Taimina (2009) is available from
book suppliers. Daina is a professor, artist and writer who blogs at http://hyperbolic-

5. Discussion forums usually have a facility for members to send private messages to each

6. Bradford Hansen-Smith runs which explores mathematics by

folding paper circles.

7. National Curriculum for England at key stages 3 and 4. Since writing this our new
government has decided to replace this curriculum.

8. The National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics can be found at

9. Discussion about multiplication tracks this reflection on a variety of discussions which

gradually built towards a significant insight.

10. A description of the resulting work towards a PhD proposal can be found at

11. John Mason has written many books on mathematics education and, like other who we
credit in this article, makes a substantial free contribution to the development of others.
Referencing people by name is an indication of our respect and gratitude for their support.

12. By 22 April 2011 the conversation had reached 151 comments

13. “What is relevant maths” can be found on the NCETM discussion forum at

14. Information about creating LinkedIn groups can be found under the groups tab at The terms and conditions of LinkedIn groups can be found at

15. The social network was created by Rashmi Kathuria,

Mathematics Teacher and advocate for learning and e-Learning.

16. Paolo Caressa’s book on the history of mathematics in the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries is available in Italian at

17. Talk Radio is regularly scheduled topical

discussions, that originated on A.M. radio. The host is typically a Liberal or Conservative with
a strong personality that may bias the discussion.

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

18. Tabloid. A newspaper of smaller page format with sensational news topics,

19. For more information about ‘trolling’ see

20. More information about open groups on LinkedIn is available at

21. “The Math Connection” by Andrei Radulescu-Banu. An online meeting place for debating
problems that arise in mathematics education, at

22. is a social entertainment site. The mathematics forums are rarely used. If you are
a member, you can link to this mathematics forum
Mathematics%2B--front-html where you will find the discussion “Do schools unnecessarily
restrict our imaginations to geometry and algebra?”

23. “What has architecture done for mathematics?” can be found in the ‘Math, Math
Education, Math Culture’ forum on LinkedIn.

24. The “2.0 Interest Group”, by Maria Droujkova, at

25. Geogebra Wiki by Linda Fahlberg-Stojanovska, at

26. An avatar is a picture a contributor selects to represent themselves. It may be a

photograph of the user but it could be anything including a bland forum generated image.
Contributors usually pick something distinctive to help other users instantly recognise which
comments in a discussion have come from the same person.

27. See for example Mathematics Teaching 210: “Outcome-led and Process-led Teaching” written as Rebecca Teasdale.

28. The Freedom Box Foundation is at There is a good

introduction to this proposed communications appliance in LWN, the Linux news site, at

29. is a social network where teachers, mathematicians and

mathematics enthusiasts hold discussions, solve maths and geometry problems and present
blog posts about their work.

30. The community of the Times Educational Supplement newspaper can be found at

31. A message board or Internet forum is a website for holding online discussions, at

32. A wiki is a website that allows the creation and editing of any number of interlinked web
pages via a web browser, at

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

33. The Math 2.0 Interest Group is an international network of people researching social
media for mathematics and mathematics education, at

34. LaTeX is a document markup system, with extensions for typesetting mathematics
equations, at

35. Online Mathematics Access, at

36. Wikispaces is an easy-to-use wiki hosting service, at

37. The wiki for polymath projects - massively collaborative online mathematical projects, at

38. How to build the global mathematics brain,, Magazine issue 2811, May
2011, by Jacob Aron.

39. L33t Speak is a type of writing where some letters are replaced by numbers. It was
introduced by hackers in the 1980’s and became popular in online gaming.

40. See for example “2024”, an article which attempted to imagine the impact of technology on
education in 2024. Micromath (Summer 2004) written by Rebecca as Rebecca Teasdale.
Micromath was a journal for the Association of Teachers of Mathematics. It is now
incorporated into ‘Mathematics Teaching’.

41. Geoff Faux. Mathematics Educator and Author. For old footage of him ‘teaching’ young
children search for Geoff Faux Children Counting on YouTube.

42. Much of James Burke’s Connections TV series is currently available on YouTube.

43. Specific copies of YouTube clips tend to come and go so it is best to go to and search for Bronowski Auschwitz.

44. Science as Falsification by Karl Popper can be found at

45. Ning: Failures, Lessons and Six Alternatives by Jolie O'Dell, at

46. is a user moderated technology discussion site:

47. Slash(dot) and Burn: Distributed Moderation in a Large Online Conversation Space, by
C.Lampe and P.Resnick, University of Michigan, Proc. of ACM Computer Human Interaction
Conference 2004, Vienna Austria.

48. Google Docs, for creating documents, spreadsheets and presentations online, at

Exploring Discussion Forums: Online Communities of Enquiry in Mathematics Education: McAllister and Hanson

Rebecca Hanson Colin McAllister

email: RebeccaCHanson@gmailDOTcom email: colinDOTmcallister@ymailDOTcom

Rebecca’s maths education blog: Colin’s mathematics and technology blog:

Discussing Mathematics Education in Online Communities of Inquiry is

licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.