The unbearable permanence of forums

“Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

A suitably morose quote from Samuel Beckett: you’re always failing, but you can at least fail better than your previous failures.

I think it’s fair to say that modern education has a difficult relationship with failure. On the one hand, failure is and always has been a bad thing. You failed a test. That was bad. You should have passed. On the other hand, you don’t learn anything without failing a few times. You have to fall a few times before you can walk.

We usually prefer our failures to be private and impermanent. Failures that are public and permanent come attached with shame, and we want to avoid that. The offline, analogue classroom is impermanent by default. While it’s not private, at least you know who’s watching. The online world is drastically different.

Online learning providers have two broad responses to this:

(1) We change the online world to make it more private and less permanent.

(2) We change our values and attach less shame to public failure.

A typical VLE forum is an attempt to do (1). Access is strictly controlled to people in your class, and once the course is finished, people lose access to the forums. Caveats apply, but that’s the general idea.

However, notions like privacy and permanence are flexible and relative. That is, we could agree VLE forums are sort-of private and sort-of impermanent, but then simultaneously argue that posting to a forum is actually sort-of public and sort-of-permanent.

Rather than speaking in absolute terms, it’s probably more useful to say X is more private than Y, or X is more permanent than Y. So I could say:

“What I write on Facebook is more private than what I write on this blog, but less private than what I write in my personal notebook for private thoughts.”


This is a strong determining factor in what I write in these places. I put dumb stuff on Facebook that I wouldn’t put on this blog. I put really dumb stuff in my notebook. While the blog has a limited audience (Hi Mum), it’s one of the first things that someone googling me might see. I don’t want the dreaded Future Employer Who Googles Candidates to say “Wow, this guy has loads of dumb ideas”. I want them to say “Wow, this guy quotes Samuel Beckett – he must be really smart”.

In a similar way, a VLE forum is less permanent than a public internet forum, but more permanent than a physical classroom. This is an important consideration for online learning providers, because we want students to be able to fail with as little shame as possible. We want them to be able to try out their ideas and ask stupid questions. The alternative is that they keep their ideas to themselves, or struggle with a misconception because they were too afraid to ask about it.

There are a few things we can do to make failure less of an awkward experience:

(1) Bear in mind that it’s less embarrassing to make a mistake in a smaller community.

(2) As a corollary to the above, make it obvious to your students who the audience of a forum will be.

(3) If students make a mistake in a forum post, let them correct the mistake (with appropriate indicators, like **UPDATE** etc.)

(4) Remember that unrecorded Skype conversations make a valuable contrast to the perceived permanence of forums.

I mentioned above that an alternative to all this is that we change our values and attach less shame to public failure. As interesting as that topic is, I’m going to leave that for a future post.

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