Friday, July 13, 2007

Anonymity in Online Forums

In an article last year in Teaching Philosophy, I (and my co-authors, one of whom is Adam Potthast, a co-contributor here at ISW) argued that philosophers should take a second look at using virtual forums (message boards) in their classes. Although we provided a number of reasons in favor of using them, our main one was obvious: virtual forums added significantly (when used right, which is not easy) to the level of significant critical interaction between students. As a result, we believe that VFs can help to make students better thinkers.

Within that piece, one issue that we mentioned, but did not spend a lot of time analyzing, was the importance of enforcing anonymity between students in the VF (so they signed on for the board and registered with fake names). Here, in this post, I’m curious what people think not so much about the use of VFs in general (although such comments are of course welcome), but more so about the wisdom of using anonymity. I realize that some people have strong views about this across the blogosphere, as some believe that contributions to online discussions should be ‘owned’ by real identities. I think this is an interesting issue on its own, but my concern here in this post is more limited, as I am concerned more with the advantages or disadvantages of anonymity within a pedagogical context, not with online conversation in general in public contexts (the two issues may dovetail, as I mention below, but I don’t see them as necessarily identical).

To provide some context for the discussion I’ll note that since the article was published last year, I’ve found that in some assignments using VFs my beliefs about the pedagogical benefits of anonymity have been re-enforced, whereas in others it has been challenged.

The Approaches in Which It Works

The benefits of anonymity have really stuck out to me in the use of what we called the ‘conversational approach’. This is the most basic use of the VF – students have free-for-all conversations about topics in the course, within only some limited supervision by the instructor, with threads started by students and student directed (the instructor can create threads, but students are mostly charged with that responsibility). I personally use this approach in my ethics course, a core-curriculum sophomore level class that is required of all students at my university. What I’ve found is that in this course, the anonymity of the boards works extremely well, and many students have mentioned to me (quite often, actually, in unsolicited comments) that they appreciated not only the board, but the anonymous nature of the discussion. Why:

  1. Students in such courses (sophomore, gen ed) can be terrified of philosophy, so anonymity allows students to try out their points of view without worrying as much about whether it will have a negative impact on their social peer standing. (‘So and so is such a moron!’ worries).

  2. Some students are just socially anxious, and won’t speak in class. Anonymity provides a ‘safe space’ for such students to finally interact with their peers.

  3. Highly contentious and charged subjects can be discussed honestly (‘what? So and so is a liberal?’ kinds of worries)

All of these benefits are similar in focus – anonymity provides a great ‘safe space’ for students to ‘take the gloves off’ and really discuss the issues. And I’ve found that they really do – to a degree that they don’t do in seated discussions. In fact I’ve had many students bug me to reveal the true identities of some posters, asking “so who is BeerKegs 54, really – that guy makes me mad!” I never tell, and they’ll always toss out guesses (which are almost always wrong, interestingly enough!).

Uses in Which Anonymity Seems to Flounder

In other courses, however, anonymity does not appear to be as useful. Specifically, in courses such as “feminist theory” or “existentialism” I have students keep online virtual journals (blogs). In the blog the students are expected to keep a regular public record of their reflections and/or critical thoughts about the course material. They are also expected to comment regularly on the blogs of their fellow students. So this assignment is a great deal more organized than the previous one, and the contributions to blogs are, of course, expected to be of much higher quality and sophistication. Also, clearly, such classes are different in that they are not required, so the students tend to all be self-selected and like minded (all or mostly philosophy students). Also, obviously, they are generally at the same level of education and are fairly advanced within the major (junior, senior). Although I’ve found that students enjoy the blogs, they don’t care for the anonymous nature of the assignment. Some possible reasons for it (some suggested by students):

  1. Since the students are more advanced, they are keen on displaying the sophisticated nature of their thinking to others. They no longer fear whether what they are saying is stupid, and so genuinely want to “own” their own viewpoints.

  2. They have taken real care and time to develop these entries, and so they are very proud of them. Anonymity enforces a kind of ‘alienation’ from one’s own views, and this is inconsistent with the pride they feel in them.

  3. Whereas in the general introduction to ethics course students have said that anonymity really formed the basis for the development of a healthy online ‘community’, many advanced blog-using students have argued that the anonymity had the reverse effect. So whereas it alienates them from their own views, it also alienates them from the views of others, which they want to attach to faces.

My comments and observations above are just meant to provide some fodder and context for thinking about the issue; I’m curious here what people think about the issues of anonymity in virtual discussion, either in general or in more specific cases such as the ones I’ve mentioned above.

Anonymous comments are welcomed. :-)


  1. Chris - Good questions all. I've had mixed results on the whole with VF, I'd have to say.

    On the anonymity question, I can appreciate the benefits you mention, and I've found the overarching issue regarding VF is student motivation. I can see how anonymity might motivate some students to participate (the meek, the intellectually timid) but discourage others (Plato's honor lovers, the ones who need recognition). I guess I'd also worry that anonymity might indirectly undermine norms of civility and reasoned discourse, giving those with strong views an excuse to rip other students and generally fail to engage in fruitful dialogue.

    But you raise questions that interest me, since I've found that if I make participation in VF optional, few students take advantage of it, but if I make it required, the quality of the VF discussion is low (short cursory posts, etc.) What to do?

  2. Michael,

    Good questions.

    In the years I've been using VF (probably about 10, in various incarnations ranging from ancient MSN and Yahoo! message boards to the newer Invision stuff) I've only deleted one post due to a serious incivility problem, and verbally disciplined two students about egregious incivility. I certainly agree that anonymity raises the temperature, to be sure. But I'm very stern in the beginning about maximum temperature levels, so to speak. This has always worked for me, simply making it very clear up front what you will and won't accept (basically drawing the line at personal attacks, same as my rules in the seated discussion). I do tend to give students a good amount of latitude, though. I try to give the heat the benefit of the doubt (so that I don't start to function as a kind of oppressor of the board's content) until it gets bad (which is not that often). I wonder if the experiences of others are similar?

    On the required question: I think you are dead on. If you make it optional, just forget about it, especially in a required course. They won't do it. But that's the same way it would be for any assignment. If I don't assign papers, they won't write them either! So I make it required (15% of total grade in intro to ethics, actually -- a mixture between quantitative and quantitative approaches to discern the grade, nothing complicated though). I think the key here is to not treat it as a "tack on" feature to the course that isn't _really_ a serious part of the class. It's not an extra to me -- it functions as a serious part of their performance evaluation within the class. By the way, I don't think the fact that it's required decreases the quality; I get some good required papers, some bad ones, some mediocre ones, and some never turn one in. Same with the VF (though I find that more enjoy this than the other assignments). In fact I always get some students who practically live on the board, making well over 100 posts in a semester. And I always get a few who never post and lose 15% of their final grade because of it. Just the nature of assignments, I suppose. We actually spend quite a bit of time talking about this aspect (required or not, how to effectively grade the VF) in the article, if I remember right.

    Still, I've found that year after year, my students (in ethics) all cite the board as one of their favorite parts of the course. For me personally, I'd actually find a class without a VF to be somewhat odd, at this point. I'm too used to being in continual contact with them and their thinking to go back to a merely seated discussion format!

  3. Hi Adam, interesting post. I've used online forums as part of teaching for the last couple of years. My first encounter with them was as part of some distance learning courses I gave (Massey University, where I previously worked is the distance learning university of New Zealand about 66% of our students were distance learning). In that course they weren't anonymous, nor were they compulsory. The majority of the students read them, about 10% contributed with any frequency.

    More recently I have been involved in a course where again it was not anonymous but posting was compulsory. Again, about 10% of the students contributed with any frequency.

    In regards to anonymity I can see how this would cut both ways. In my non-professional life I participate on and moderate for an NZ based independent property investment discussion forum (its a long story) there we allow our users to be anonymous, but insist if they make critical comments about other users or companies that they sign that post with their full name. We think this does two things, reveal conflicts of interest (important given the commercial context) and mean that they own their negative comments, which hopefully makes them at least a bit more thoughtful about saying them.

    Much of what you say about the advantages and disadvantages of anonymity rings true in that context as well, down to getting the same requests "who the hell is Poormastery, he bugs the hell out of me"

    I haven't tried anonymity (I don't know if it is possible within my School's Virtual Learning environment) but I would be inclined to go with anonymity with the option of not being anonymous, or revealing your identity if you choose, that way the Plato's honours lovers can get their fix.

    In regards to Michael's questions about encouraging participation, I think there is plenty to say. I'll limit myself to one related suggestion. In some courses if I have wanted to get the ball rolling I have invented a false student who I use to ask questions and prompt discussion. I basically work on the principle that questions from the lecturer, especially if they are someone you have never met, and probably never will, often shut down rather than open up the discussion. (No one wants to look stupid)

  4. Hi David,

    (This is Chris, btw, not Adam!)

    I'm curious about your 10% participation rate, simply because it just doesn't square with my own experience. I'd estimate, off the top of my head (we had hard stats for the paper we wrote, but it's not in front of me) that about 30% of students participated very often, and maybe half of that 30% extremely often. Of the remaining, 50% posted around the amount that was required, and 20% posted little if ever. This is a far cry from 10% participation -- I'm curious what the differentiating factor here might be. A cultural difference?

    On anonymity: You're right that if there's a conflict of interest (like on an investment forum), then that makes perfect sense. But I'm not sold on the point that within a pedagogical context a person should be required to "own (up?)" their own views. I would change this view if the views in question were very hostile or aimed at attacking a person personally. But I don't allow such posts on the board (and rarely do they pop up). Usually when things move in that direction, a small amount of nudging from me gets things back on track. That said, I'm not sure a person should have to "own" their own critical comments. Part of the point is that students should learn to think of criticism and arguments as detached from the speakers who utter them -- to be able to analyze the arguments/points logically in a detached way. My guess is that forcing people to own them, when there's nothing "personal" about them, seems to undercut that message. I could be wrong here, but that's my intuition about it. What do you think?

    I entirely agree with your last point -- one we made in our article. If the instructor "heads" the VF, discussion dies. One of the "fun" aspects of it is that it is student run, though instructor moderated.

  5. Sorry Chris (Must remember to check poster's name! before posting)

    I think the best explanation for the 10% participation in the Massey case was simply that it wasn't compulsory, so many students didn't bother posting. Probably about 50% of students posted occasionally, but only about 10% posted very frequently.

    It could be cultural I guess, although being a distance learning course our students were from all over the world, in one course I had a vet in England, and a logger in Canada...

    With the other course, which is in Northern Ireland, so somewhat different culture, the problem is that (I think) the course is way to assessment heavy, it is only a six week course and they have 4 major assignments as part of it. So looking over the discussion boards things start well in the first week, but by the second week, the only thing happening on the boards is people panicking about the assignments, no actual discussion.
    I'm hoping to change that, so any tips are very welcome.

    I think you do have a point on the anonymity point perhaps it would help students disassociate themselves from the ideas they are discussing. I do wonder though whether in distance learning courses a sort of anonymity isn't already achieved in that the students are unlikely to ever meet each other. What do you think?

    Two things I did do that seemed to boost participation somewhat were:
    1. These courses come with a course book (effectively the lectures) which I had to write. In the course book each week I had exercises and discussion points, I reposted these on the boards on a weekly basis which usually stimulated some discussion. In the new course I am teaching, the equivalent of these notes is online lectures, these are linked to the discussion boards so that there are areas where if you answer the question your answer is automatically sent over to the board.
    2. Whenever a student asked me a question via email or phone I would with their permission repost it and my answer on the board. I got a lot of questions via phone because Massey University made it free for distance learning students to call lecturers in their office. It was quite interesting, you would get a call from a painter during his lunch break to discuss Mill's harm principle...

  6. David,

    My guess is that total distance courses are just a completely different animal from a hybrid one. In my case, my students all know each other to some degree just in virtue of being students at my school, given its small size (1400). So I think even with the anonymity, they still feel like they are "getting to know one another" in a way that can be then applied to one's immediate social environment in a way that yours cannot, given the total distance. At the very least, thoughts like "wow, there are students at DU think that way?" At a small school, that's real information about your day to day social climate. On the other hand, "wow, there are people in the world who think that way?" is a great deal more distant and so socially diluted.

    I'm interested in hearing more about your online assignment in #1. Can you give more detail on it?

  7. I think you are certainly right, they are a different kettle of fish and even among them there is some variety. So for example the distance learning courses at Massey had excellent quality discussion on the boards (Not much of it, but what was there was good) and you got a real sense of the students enthusiasm for the course. A large part of that I suspect was the student profile which was for the most part 30+ coming back either after retirement or after work to do something they found stimulating. They tended to put a lot of work into the assignments because they were doing it because it was interesting to them, and they were typically only doing one course a semester.

    Here though our distance learning students are usually already based in a lab working full time and doing the degree to get a promotion, the students are therefore often close to full time on top of their job and so are stressed.

    Each scenario calls for different strategies.

    In regards to your question did you mean this:

    "1. These courses come with a course book (effectively the lectures) which I had to write. In the course book each week I had exercises and discussion points, I reposted these on the boards on a weekly basis which usually stimulated some discussion. In the new course I am teaching, the equivalent of these notes is online lectures, these are linked to the discussion boards so that there are areas where if you answer the question your answer is automatically sent over to the board."

    Basically I structure the lectures to incorporate the material I would have used for the tutorials or in class discussions. I either ask the students to think about the material on their own, or to discuss it on the forum board or both. The "Learning Technologists" here then add question boxes which when the students fill these in their answers are automatically posted to the forums. Likewise they can do some fun things with multi-choice questions, building in interactivity and answer suggestions depending on the student's answers.

    Did that answer your question or is it too early in the morning for me to get your question?


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