I was asked this week whether anonymity in online discussion was a good idea or not. My initial reaction was yes. I’ve been an online learner and sometimes was unwilling to post because I felt insecure or didn’t feel as confident as my peers in my contributions. On the surface anonymity seems a good idea.
I’ve also observed certain individuals take over the discussion online both synchronously in VC and asynchronously in discussion boards and chat. However, this is no different to my experience as a student when I was at University.
In seminars I wouldn’t put my hand up if I felt there was someone more confident in the room. The same people dominated the conversation time and again unless you had a good tutor who would give everyone space to speak and made you all feel valued.
A very good tutor would also manage discussions in such a way that over the weeks all students would feel a sense of valued community and learn to listen well.
Is it any different online? What if you could just make it anonymous? Would that solve it?
Well yes and no….
It might appear a straightforward solution but we all know that tech never provides all the answers.
- Students can feel more willing to participate and ‘put their hand up’. Anonymity can appear to help counter negative social bias in discussion and offer a level playing field.
- Some studies report that students are more likely to post when student discussion boards allow anonymous postings (Freeman & Bamford, 2004;Miyazoe & Anderson, 2011; Sullivan, 2002).
- Because accountability is diminished, it can be abused.
‘Despite the posited advantages, enabling anonymous postings on student discussion boards has also been associated with a range of negative behaviours including negative, disruptive postings (Chester & Gwynne, 1998; Van Soest et al., 2000) and attacks on other students (Anderson & Simpson, 2008). Not all students support the use of anonymous postings (Johnson, 2010), with some fearing the negative postings that anonymity may allow.’ (Roberts & Rajah-Kanagasabai, 2013)
- Anonymity may not encourage students who don’t already post to do so. Students who post already continue to do so but in greater quantity. Non-posters still don’t post:
‘The explanation for the increase in likelihood of posting appears to lie in the finding that students who prefer to post anonymously do not differ from those who prefer to make identified postings in their likelihood of posting on anonymous discussion boards, but they do post significantly less on discussion boards requiring identification’ (Roberts & Rajah-Kanagasabai, 2013)
Points to consider:
- Consult the students. Use it as the basis for an open discussion about learning collaboratively. Help them by starting off with an anonymous poll. How have they felt in discussions in the past? How has their prior education / culture helped them or hindered them in taking part? Use this as a springboard to explore a set of class principles around equity in discussion.
- Is there another way for educators? Could we structure and facilitate conversations so that students who feel worried about speaking up are supported and build their confidence?
- Is anonymity always needed? ‘Lurkers’ may benefit as well as posters:
Even students who do not post to discussion boards may benefit from them. Beaudoin (2002) discussed the concept of the invisible learner, who, while not posting to student discussion boards, may be actively engaged in reading postings by others.
- Offering anonymity needs negotiated and clearly contextualised privacy, a Code of Conduct and moderation. If you’re going down that route, be aware it’s not the easy option. Neither is.
- Could we use different teaching techniques to address bias, sexism and student self-efficacy in the classroom? See above. Talk about it openly.
- Does using named discussion boards present an opportunity for students to develop discussion skills? Students will need to learn how to participate with consideration and care. (Developing joint rules/expectations is a good way of students developing awareness and skills).