A Ku Indeed!

Anonymity in Forums

Posted in Pedagogy by Chris on July 14, 2007

(this is cross-posted at In Socrates’ Wake)

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. 🙂

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2 Responses

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  1. Max said, on September 10, 2007 at 6:10 am

    I would agree with the majority of the conclusions you have reached concerning the forums. However, I hope you won’t mind me contributing a couple additional details based on my own experience contributing to the board.

    You mentioned that anonymous posting is generally of little utility in the kinds of upper level classes where students tend to want to feel more ownership over their work than the anonymity of the board may allow. I can sympathize somewhat with the kind of “alienation” from one’s work that is felt when complete credit cannot be immediately taken for an assignment. My regard for online anonymity has on occasion produced a subtle inclination in me to keep myself from expressing myself completely so as not to reveal something that might give away my identity to the class. In retrospect, this is not a large issue. After all, students are given the opportunity to reveal their identities at the end of the semester, and by then most students are comfortable engaging intellectually with one another anyway. At the time, though, I remembering questioning the utility of online anonymity once in a while.

    However, I do see the utility of online anonymity during the students’ introductory weeks into the course. You mention that advanced students are “keen on displaying the sophisticated nature of their thinking to others,” a statement I completely agree with. On the other hand, even some advanced students may not be as secure in their level of sophisticated thinking as others. Mandating online anonymity for at least the first few weeks of class (or whatever time period is deemed most appropriate for the specific class, taking into account class size and subject matter also) can give students some time to “test the waters” before diving into intellectual discourse without a shield of anonymity. Moreover, in lower level classes that use the board, I would say that although students should feel comfortable by now expressing their viewpoints to their classmates, anonymous posting is ultimately beneficial for the ones that aren’t as comfortable doing this. Again, the subject matter of the class depends quite a bit.

    That was longer than intended,

    Max

  2. Chris said, on September 11, 2007 at 11:56 am

    Max,

    I think you’re right. After Existentialism ended last year I came to the decision that I would do exactly what you suggest — require it for maybe a month, and then let people opt out of the anonymity requirement from that point if they wanted to. I think in a class like that (advanced level) it is counterproductive to maintain anonymity. In the lower level classes, though, like Values, I think it works exactly the opposite way — I think anonymity gets people to actually participate in a way they never would if they had to use their real names.

    Thanks for your detailed critique here, it really confirms what I was thinking about this.


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