Home > education > Support for communication: mailing list vs. forum

Support for communication: mailing list vs. forum

September 19, 2010

I probably miss some fundamental understanding at the infrastructure level about ‘forum’ and ‘mailing list’. This is also caused by various technologies used in higher education, whether proprietary, open, or free, each with its own nomenclature for online communication means. I cannot emphasize enough the extent of confusion faculty and students alike have (myself included), when it comes to mailing list, forum, listserv, groupserv, discussion board, message board, thread, post, group email, and so on. Many times there is also a formal and sometimes lengthy process in setting up online communication that’s course specific and does not quite fall under the tools of the course management system the institution uses. This is especially aggravated when communication occurs across courses or with course outsiders (experts, invited speakers, community partners, etc.), who cannot apply for accounts with that college or university.

My way of providing some kind of asynchronous online group communication (when I don’t have staff or computing resources to build and maintain a supporting infrastructure) is to use Google Sites, Google Groups, or WordPress (thank goodness they offer free hosting!). Google Groups, for example, is my means of setting up a course mailing list (haven’t thought of calling it forum), to which all students who register for that course subscribe. The purpose of it is to keep all outside-class conversation in one place. Class participants use either email or the mailing list site to ask and reply; they use the site to search, check on members, and share work to some extent (by uploading files or setting up pages). I deliberately stay away from imposing any rules about how to use the tool. The focus is on the activity itself rather than what’s convenient and in which situation and for whom.

So here is my basic question, which comes before ‘compare and contrast’ the two: what’s a mailing list and what’s a forum? I’m interested in understanding the concepts rather than software package, implementation, or administration of these services. I won’t be surprised to find out that in fact current technologies permit a mailing list to offer forum features and allow a forum to do mailing list jobs.

In the end (which is relative, of course, like all things :-), we might find ourselves in the situation of clarifying a bit the taxonomy of concepts that describe asynchronous online group communication.

Categories: education Tags: ,
  1. September 20, 2010 at 9:46 pm


    1) Mailing List, oldest form, based soley in email. Sometimes offers web-based archive, and posting.

    2) Forum, web based, possibly with added on email delivery and posting features, which make it almost, but not quite, like a mailing list.

    Of course there are many variations on the specific behavior of this, but the main difference is the method of interaction, email, or browser based.

  2. mariana maerean
    November 6, 2011 at 4:03 pm


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