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You Know What I’m Saying? Online Discussion Products

Online Discussion Products

The online discussion group, whether real-time or asynchronous, single-topic or threaded, has become a handy tool for many instructors. These interactive forums can serve as virtual office hours; as a venue for student-to-student discussions; and as meeting places for students in distance learning situations. Groups can meet with or without a hosting instructor in simultaneous chat or threaded asynchronous discussion groups, and can be completely uncensored or carefully controlled by the host administrator. The proliferation of products and configurations available to users, however, is mind-boggling. We've surveyed four of the products most widely used in higher education, ranging from fairly simple freeware programs to more sophisticated, costly packages.


Available free of charge through its Web site, Discus charges a small fee to install its software and test it on the local administrator's server. A "professional" version, with additional features, is available for about $150. Currently used by more than 50,000 hosts, Discus runs on Windows 95, 98, and NT, as well as Unix systems. No special software or plug-in is required, since, like all of these products, Discus runs on Netscape or Internet Explorer browsers.

Discus is not as feature-rich as some of its competitors, but it d'es provide the basics. Users will appreciate the fact that they can search postings by keyword and message date, post messages by e-mail, and organize the list of postings. Both the free and professional editions allow for public and private posting, "anonymous" posting by registered users, and e-mail notification of new postings. Discus Pro also allows for message queuing, spell check, and administration by e-mail. Discus gives the administrator more editing and control power than some of its competitors. Consumers who are interested in having multiple user profile options and customization tools will find Discus lacking. However, Discus Pro offers many of the features of more expensive products, including giving the user the power to edit messages and set up an account.


WWWThreads is a small company offering a highly customizable product for discussion forums. Purchase of a site license for $100-$200 entitles the user to both the PERL and PHP versions of the software, which is available in eleven languages. This is a good product for someone who is not tech-phobic and wants an inexpensive solution that is highly customizable. Users can search postings by topic, profile, and date. An index lists each topic, and menus can be expanded or collapsed. Administrators can configure postings in a variety of ways, by moving a branch of a thread to its own new thread or deleting posts from a specific user, for example.


WebCrossing is the most feature-rich of the four products, and also potentially the most expensive. Features include bulletin boards, integrated newsgroups and mailing lists, e-mail, calendar services, real-time chat, live events, and Web application programming. WebCrossing boasts a high level of scalability and customization. Discussions can be threaded or linear, and users can post attachments and bookmark favorite topics. The product comes with a sophisticated search engine and an array of sleek page designs or "skins." Administrators also have many features at their disposal, including tracking, screening, and archiving capabilities. WebCrossing can be purchased as either a site license or company-hosted product. Either way, prices are set on a sliding scale. Hosting options start at $50 a month and go up to $4,995 a month depending on features and number of page views. Site licenses range from free to $34,995. For those seeking less expensive options, WebCrossing offers two alternative products: WorldCrossing, a free, advertising-supported version of WebCrossing, and Site Crossing, a lower-priced product line geared toward small businesses setting up an Intranet-based discussion forum for the first time.

WebBoard 4

WebBoard, available for Windows or Oracle users, provides threaded discussion and real-time chat via a site license ranging from $1,700 to $3,000, with no fee per page view. The product features 255 boards, or forums, which allow the purchaser to launch up to 255 simultaneous communities. The administrator sets the security level for each board, allowing for varied levels of access. Although users can also participate via e-mail, WebBoard stores all postings on the board to create a complete archive. Able to run on several computers simultaneously to provide redundancy in the event of system overload or failure, WebBoard also allows for multiple customizable "skins," as well as sophisticated levels of statistical tracking, password reminders, and attention messaging (alerting the user to messages specifically sent to him or her).

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