Should we use anonymous discussion and messaging channels?


There are very good reasons for wanting to allow anonymous student participation in discussion forums and messaging channels. Students can feel less inhibited, more open to taking risks and participating. As a way of countering negative social biases in discussions this is useful. But is it a safe, legal and ethical way to teach?

This is a difficult issue. You probably know that we had some serious cases of student misconduct (some would say criminal behaviour) on social networks not controlled by the University. There is a justified expectation that the University takes action against these cases, and that we seek to prevent it happening through a code of conduct and disciplinary process. And that was for systems over which we have no control. So for our own systems (Moodle etc.) we discourage the use of unmoderated anonymous messaging systems. We have a long history of this. In 2005 we launched one of the world’s first academic blogging communities, Warwick Blogs. Thousands of students and staff used it for blogging and commenting. We did have a very tiny number of cases of minor misconduct. But not allowing anonymous responses ensured a sense of safety, care, consideration, and personal responsibility. This resulted in genuinely massive and broad participation. In our Warwick Online Learning Certificate (taken by all first year undergrads this year) we explained the value of using safer non-anonymous University-managed systems.

Personally, I use unmoderated Q&A in the Vevox PRS, with students identifying themselves when they join the Vevox meeting. Unfortunately there is no way to guarantee that students do actually identify themselves correctly (it’s not a proper authenticated sign-in system, the students don’t have accounts in Vevox). So that’s a bit of a grey area. It is potentially anonymous, as a student could join the meeting identifying as Donald Duck and post something unacceptable. I think we probably could track them down by IP address, but I haven’t looked into that. And so far, we haven’t had a problem. The alternative, using moderation, is really too clunky for use in live sessions without having an assistant to screen the messages.

Pseudo-anonymous (or name-shielding) systems are obviously also a better solution than properly anonymous, as ultimately there is the ability to identify who posted what. But that could lead to trouble if a student thinks they are posting anonymously, and that nudges them to being more open and inconsiderate in their postings. Again, there is no perfect solution.

My advice on this is to avoid anonymous systems, and instead use different techniques to address bias, sexism and student self-efficacy in the classroom. On the one hand we need much clearer, firmer and more often repeated training for all students on how to participate with consideration and care (and yes, men need this more). On the other hand, we can structure and facilitate conversations so that students who feel worried about speaking up are supported and build their confidence. We also need to make sure all teachers are equipped with the skills to do this in the on-campus classroom and online. For the last two years I’ve been teaching with Bo Kelestyn. She’s brilliant at doing it. We’re adapting this to the online environment (we had planned to do this anyway, so that we can increase the number of students we teach, and to give our students a more relevant learning experience). I’ll write a further article at some point about the techniques we develop.

Dr Robert O'Toole NTF

Senior Teaching Fellow, Arts Faculty, University of Warwick. Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, National Teaching Fellow, Warwick Award for Teaching Excellence.

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