“Would you say that to me in class?” Online Disinhibition and the Effects on Learning

What are the effects of benign, inappropriate or even toxic student-to-student or student-to-instructor exchanges in online learning communities? How do such exchanges affect learning outcomes?  It’s a topic that’s had little attention from researchers and educators, but as learning continues to scale-up with online and open communities educators need to be paying attention, examining and addressing such interactions. This post shares highlights from a recent paper, Would you ever say that to me in class?”: Exploring the Implications of Disinhibition for Relationality in Online Teaching and Learning.

‘Angry’ from iStock

“As Suler (2004) observes, people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn’t ordinarily say and do in the face-to-face world. They loosen up, feel less restrained, and express themselves more openly. So pervasive is the phenomenon that a term has surfaced for it: the online disinhibition effect.”  (Rose, 2014)

When reading the paper “Would you ever say that to me in class?”, I considered my experiences as an online student—having more than one exchange, though not toxic, that were strong enough to leave a sting—dampening my enthusiasm for engaging and participating with my classmates. I’ve since worked with students and faculty that have experienced similar exchanges. Though not all reach the toxic level, there have been instances where faculty encountered students using strong and offensive language, requiring the removal of offensive posts within discussion forums and other actions.

Lack of civility in online forums within learning communities is manageable in small, closed online learning communities where an instructor is in control of a class of up to thirty, or even forty students. However, as classes expand, with MOOCs, and other types of learning communities growing, in combination with platforms that allow anonymity (such as Coursera) it will become an issue for educators [and their institutions] involved in online learning at some time or another. Peers within my network have shared their experiences as students and instructors within MOOCs that involve politically charged or contentious subject matters where discussion forums are fraught with offensive, even toxic comments and vitriol discussion.  It is for this reason that I write this post; to provoke thought and discussion in order for educators to be proactive and develop appropriate strategies.

Community of Inquiry via coi.athabscau.ca

More so because online behavior in learning communities is complex.  On one hand, a sense of presence, or “being there” is critical to deep and meaningful learning and thus needs to be encouraged. The Community of Inquiry (CoI) is a well-researched framework (Garrison, 2007) that addresses three dimensions of presence—social, instructor and cognitive that are deemed necessary for higher education students to experience deep learning in online environments.

Yet on the other, the CoI framework, due to its two-dimensional nature, does not give us insight into the type of exchanges, the tone behind the student-to-student exchanges online and how they might affect learning. Just as tone of voice, eye contact and body language affect verbal communication—word choice, characters used, even font size and type, (e.g. CAPITAL LETTERS), in text exchanges affect meaning of a message conveyed in an online space. Yet some students will exhibit online disinhibition, emboldened by lack of personal contact, distance and in some cases anonymity. Such behavior can wreak havoc within a learning community—can discourage participants, damage student confidence, stall, or impede learning.

In open learning situations that are not controlled by any one individual due to a connectivist learning approach or student-centered focus for example, dealing with such behavior is challenging, though not impossible. Swift and deliberate action is required by one or more individuals. Even in controlled settings, on a closed platform, or within a small learning community, action is required to preserve a learning climate and community.

Highlights from the Paper:

Below are highlights from “Would you ever say that to me in class?”: Exploring the Implications of Disinhibition for Relationality in Online Teaching and Learning.”

  • The study is qualitative in nature. Analysis of data collected from two universities, from undergraduate and graduate students revealed “instructors’ and students’ experiences of connection with, or disconnection from, each other were profoundly influenced by the phenomenon of online disinhibition.
  • Students recounted stories of class peers turning “ugly” or “abusive” in online posts, making “personal attacks” against classmates, even “swearing at people, calling them idiots and stuff like that.” One student, attributed this tendency to people’s comfort with the online environment: “something that was surprising to me was that people were comfortable enough with the environment to lose a sense of decorum…like they just lost it.”
  • In most of the students’ stories, arguments and disruptive behaviour were seen as the direct result of the kinds of miscommunications that occur in online environments, where paralinguistic cues such as facial expressions and tone of voice are not available to clarify meaning.
  • Online disinhibition is also associated with positive outcomes— In some cases, the student-to-student or student-to-instructor relationship may be enriched—for example, when a student shares an experience that personalizes and thus deepens the learning for everyone, or when a shy student opens up.
  • In other cases, the relationship may be inevitably damaged, as when a student confides something she or he later regrets, or says something that other students consider inappropriate or offensive.

Online disinhibition is a phenomenon that affects not only learning exchanges in online communities, but social (e.g. Twitter) and gaming platforms, etc. Yet learning environments need a special layer of protection that goes beyond a ‘report abuse’ option that exists within most online platforms, e.g. Facebook and Twitter. Learning in online communities requires a level of trust, familiarity, and has associated with it an expectation of a ‘safe’ zone. How can educators create a safe learning community in a closed, online class? What about in an open learning community, in a MOOC?  Answers to questions like these depend upon the learning community, the participants, the purpose of the learning and other factors. But it is up to us as educators to look for answers; we need to have strategies and built-in mechanisms within the different types of online learning communities that will provide [albeit wide] guard rails to foster, yet protect a climate of learning and development.

I’ll be writing more about this topic, specifically anonymity in online learning communities. Stay tuned!



7 thoughts on ““Would you say that to me in class?” Online Disinhibition and the Effects on Learning

  1. While I respect the impulse behind such studies, my guess is that what they really tell us is that both students and faculty are inexperienced with this online endeavor. It really is up to the faculty member to set the tone and design learning experiences that foster real community… but if you do that, I don’t see any of these problems at all; they have never been problems in my classes anyway, and that’s over a period of teaching for over 10 years. If anything, the bigger problem that I deal with is that people can be TOO nice, and are reluctant to provide fellow students with feedback about areas that really could use improvement in their projects, for example. But still, given a choice, I will definitely take too-nice over not-nice!
    Admittedly, toxic comments were a problem in the MOOCs I took (a terrible problem, in fact), but I consider MOOCs (the Coursera type of MOOC anyway) a failed parody of online learning; of course Coursera MOOCs get toxic… because they are not really classes, not really communities of learning.
    But back to real online classes – far more important to me is this question: would the student say ANYTHING in class? Online, ALL the students participate, which never happened – in fact, never could happen – in the classroom-based classes I used to teach. Online, there is time and space for everybody to participate, including the most shy students. For me, one of the biggest benefits of teaching online is that all students, even the most shy, the most timid, the least confident, can and do contribute in ways that simply never happened in a classroom. In a classroom, the lack of time is a perfect excuse for shy students to pull into their shells, which is a loss for everyone in the class.


    1. Hi Laura. I agree completely, that experienced instructors are able to control closed online classes and set guidelines in order that toxic comments will not even make it to the discussion boards. I also agree that experienced students also know how to engage in online discussion, follow the guidelines, and can thus participate in a cordial manner.

      However, I’ve experienced, and discussed with several students examples of exchanges that were not at the toxic level, were subtle in nature, yet still dampened and affected students engagement levels. At this sub-toxic level, students for the most part did not let the instructor know, chose not to say anything given the subtleness. Often such comments are misinterpreted due to the mode, yet still affect how students perceive the exchanges and do end up affecting their learning.

      I’ve found that it’s the topic that increases the chances for misinterpretation and results in students dis-engaging without instructors even knowing. When the topic focuses on a controversial issue, or a charged topic (though this is an excellent way to stimulate discussion), cordial discussion can take a wayward turn. Here’s one example: I recently took a health economics class on the World Bank Institute’s e-learning platform. It was a closed class. Participants were mostly professionals and from all over the world. Discussions were professional and cordial. Yet when health care reform became the topic in one discussion forum, and I shared some statistics and thoughts on the current health care reform challenges in the US, there was one participant that was quite aggressive, and posted what I considered as hostile comments. This did not bother me as much as it might have a few years ago; I’ve developed a thick skin from blogging having received several such comments. However other students may react quite differently, withdraw and choose not say anything to the instructor.

      That being said, overall the online platform does foster participation especially for those students that may not otherwise participate in a face-to-face class. It is a venue that can provide opportunity for deep learning, as you know from your own (excellent) teaching skills and experience.

      MOOCs are not good examples of effective learning communities for undergraduate students (I fully agree with you there!), though I do see a point in time where certain learning communities may be similar to a MOOC, with a great number of learners and few instructors. These are the types of communities that will be at risk for ineffective student-to-student exchanges, exchanges that may hinder learning.

      Thanks Laura for commenting and providing some excellent discussion :).


    2. Hey Laura, I completely agree with your observations – I have had very little incivility in my classes, and the times that there were some issues, it was miscommunication due to lack of normal social cues to indicate meaning. But the times this has happened, I do think it changed the group a bit, it was hard to come back once things had gotten a little off key.

      They are really almost too polite in their feedback. I honestly don’t think this is that different from what goes on in classroom discussions – they sort of address the point, are generally supportive of comments and come up with a sort of mediocre plan because they want everyone included – and this is what I see in class and online. It is not terrible, it just takes time to for a really strong group, and I am not sure a semester is enough.

      I had a different experience with the one MOOC I have managed to finish (I am a terrible MOOC student) we had students from around the globe, and though there were some differences, overall everyone was civil….but again, no real radical or insightful or truly thought provoking conversations either. I have seen some comment streams go horribly astray, and can see this happening in MOOCs, since they are such an anonymous space.

      Thanks Debbie for the article and the thoughts, I am really circling the idea of the safe zone…I agree that people should feel free to express themselves, but I also think the zone may be a little too safe, that everything everyone says is “OK” and you miss out on that deeper discussion. I think this is not an educational issue, but a cultural one where we seem to have moved to a place where it is not alright to have differing opinions, accept of each other and be able to still walk away as colleagues – so we just express something in the median or don’t say anything at all…


      1. Stacy and Laura,

        This phenomenon of excessive niceness appears significant and worthy of further consideration—thanks to you both for bringing this forth. The paper acknowledged this phenomenon briefly in the closing, “This study also suggests that disinhibition may go hand-in-hand with inhibition; in other words, the increased possibility that others will communicate in an unrestrained way creates in some students an excessive “niceness.” suggesting that further study is needed.

        I agree this problem can be a significant barrier to learning, perhaps even more so than the toxic issues as more students are apt to demonstrate excessive niceness rather than the toxic behaviours. I can see how students that don’t open up, are afraid to put themselves ‘out there’ by sharing their opinions do so in fear of being viewed as opinionated or even aggressive. A cultural issues for sure, as you mention Stacy.

        A challenge for instructors. Even with crafted discussion questions crafted to draw out controversy, or have students take a position on a contentious issue, some students still will not put themselves out there. However, perhaps there is still learning that goes on by students reading other students positions–those students that don’t have inhibitions in sharing their views.

        A complex issue for sure. Thanks for the discussion!


        1. Thanks, everybody, for sharing ideas here – Stacy, I’m so curious if the niceness factor is REALLY high at OU, and I guess that it might be. Our campus culture is based on a degree of rah-rah-we’re-number-1-ness that goes beyond anything at any of the other higher ed institutions where I’ve been a student and/or worked (which is admittedly just four or five other schools… but OU beats them all hands down when it comes to self-congratulatory satisfaction).
          I’m not really sure that there is anything “deterministic” about the online formats (and online is no monolith: there are lots of discussion formats, plus other forms of online interaction like blogs, plus email etc. etc.) … my guess is that human communication and miscommunication go hand in hand, and we’re sort of hypersensitive about online communication just because we are hypersensitive about anything new, but surely everybody has experienced communication snafus and misunderstandings of all kinds in face-to-face communication, awkward feelings in the classroom (people INTERRUPTING others, for example, is something that happens all the time face to face, often making people very upset, but is not really something that happens in the same way online, except in synchronous conversations).
          Anyway, lots to chew on. I always keep faith in the idea of MODELING, so that if I am constantly scrutinizing my own communication with students (especially striking the balance between enthusiasm and criticism – I use lots of both), then hopefully some of that will be of benefit to students who understandably are NOT going to spend a ton of their time and energy in the meta-contemplation of their own communication strategies. Even when they might benefit from doing so, ha ha. As would everybody!


          1. Laura your point about modeling behaviour for your students is key! Nothing illustrates better to students how to interact, engage and participate than by watching the instructor lead.

            Your comment about the culture at OU is interesting. Not only do cultural differences influenced by geographic location affect exchanges between students, but even the culture within an organization, (in your case OU) can impact communication patterns. Something for instructors to be cognizant of when offering online courses–yet another factor that impacts learner participation.

            Good discussion Laura and Stacy. Thank you. I have learned so much.


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