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.
“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.
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!
- Garrison, D. R. (2007). Online community of inquiry review: Social, cognitive, and teaching presence issues. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 11(1), 61-72.
- Rose, E. (2014). Would you ever say that to me in class?”: Exploring the Implications of Disinhibition for Relationality in Online Teaching and Learning. Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Networked Learning 2014, Edited by: Bayne S, Jones C, de Laat M, Ryberg T & Sinclair C.