Evaluation of Web-based Forum Systems

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I’ve recently completed an extensive evaluation of web-based forum / bulletin board systems (mostly open source) for a particular consulting project and I wanted to post the results here so I would remember.

We had the following important requirements for the project:

  1. Individual, password-protected log-ins (for reporting and privacy)
  2. Differentiated user roles (e.g., administrators who can monitor and alter, if need be, student posts)
  3. User-friendly search/sort function (so users can find discussions easily)
  4. Simple, visually stimulating front page (ideally with no more than 5
    links* that are associated with visual images/icons) 
  5. Polls that can be disaggregated by site (students vote “Yes,” “No,” or “Undecided” and have to indicate where they are from to vote)
  6. Threaded discussions, organized by issue (e.g., freedom of expression, cyberbullying, violent video games)
  7. Forums organized by partnership
  8. Site coordinator forum, organized by site
  9. Teacher forum, organized by site
  10. Ability to turn off private messaging and internal email
  11. Ability to register students under the same (1 valid) email address
  12. Option of having closed registration process, or possibly open registration

There were three systems that elevated to the top: phpBB, SMF, and vBulletin. All are written in PHP/MySQL and run on *nix/apache. The first two (phpBB and SMF) are open source projects and are available for free, where vBulletin charges approx. $160 for a lifetime license. They are all very solid full-featured systems, and the interfaces and options were very similar. Although we slightly preferred interface of phpBB, SMF and vBulletin fit more of the unique registration requirements we had for the project. It was a very close call between vBulletin and SMF.

vBulletin has every feature required, including the ability to view (from the admin interface) individual responses of polls, and the unique registration options. However the downside is the initial cost of the software, and in education there is usually not a lot of money.

SMF had almost every feature as vBulletin almost won out except for the inability to use the same email for multiple registrations, and the inability to view individual responses on polls.

In the end, we would highly recommended any of the three systems as a top notch web-based forum tool! Depending on the particular needs, SMF and vBulletin have a bit more fine tuning available in their administrative preferences and general features.


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