“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.

images
‘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.

COI-ANIM-300x233
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.

Conclusions
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!

References:

 

Five Elements that Promote Learner Collaboration and Group Work in Online Courses

woman teaching
“Foundational elements” iStock

This is the first article in a three-part series featuring strategies and skill development for instructors wanting to create, facilitate and encourage collaboration among students working in groups. The strategies discussed in this series are specific to closed, small, online, for-credit courses, though the principles discussed regarding student needs’ and barriers to group work online are universal to almost all formats of online learning experiences.

“Successful group processes include the ability to problem-solve, work effectively with others, communicate orally and in writing, and manage resources including time and responsibility to project outcomes. Implementation of group work in online classrooms may be stymied by faculty members who struggle with effective implementation of group work…”  Facilitation of Online Group Projects: Insights from Experienced Faculty Members (2012)

This series is in response to the need that exists for professional development for online instructors, specifically for the skills required to promote and support learning that comes with students’ collaborating, sharing and discussing with their peers. I’ve had many discussions with educators about the challenges of getting students to collaborate and build knowledge together; there are numerous barriers. On the top of the list is the lack of skill development and support that institutions offer for faculty and instructors teaching online. This is what motivated me to develop this series. I include in this series, research from  studies specific to group learning in online courses, personal experience creating group learning activities with faculty for undergraduate online courses, and feedback from students on their perspectives on group work.

In this post I cover the five foundational elements needed for effective collaboration in online learning communities. Post two addresses the strategies, and skill set required for facilitating group collaboration and learning, and post three includes students’ experiences with online learning, barriers to group learning and strategies to minimize barriers that exist.

Why Group Work?
Educators and even students cringe at the idea of group work, more so in an online course. Instructors often view it as impossible due to barriers inherent in the online format—students envision chaos, frustration and even more work than individual projects entail. Yet as online becomes a ubiquitous format for learning, and collaboration in virtual environments becomes an essential skill in the 21st century, teaching students how to work effectively in online groups becomes just as critical to the undergraduate learning experience as the benefit of the knowledge gained through the learning experience itself.

The benefits of students’ learning together, truly collaborating, discussing and sharing [not just dividing the work up and putting it together at the end] is great. Research supports the premise that students, in well designed learning environments experience meaningful learning, develop higher order thinking, and learn to evaluate and acknowledge multiple viewpoints.

“Research has continued to emphasize the need for effective group dynamics and collaborative approaches in projects and approaches to problem-solving (Dennen & Wieland, 2009; Johnson, Johnson & Stanne, 2006; Rovai, 2004). Academic settings are an important venue for information about group processes to be disseminated and for students to be provided with opportunities to practice and gain skills in effective group work (Ilera, 2001; Smith, 2008). Successful group processes include the ability to problem-solve, work effectively with others, communicate orally and in writing, and manage resources including time and responsibility to project outcomes.”  Facilitation of Online Group Projects: Insights from Experienced Faculty Members (2012)

Though we know the benefits and acknowledge its value, the question becomes—how can educators create an experience that facilitates this kind of learning in a virtual space?

Five Elements Needed for Effective Group Work
Creating a collaborative and rich learning experience through group activities requires a different and unique set of skills, but what’s also needed is awareness of the underlying dynamics that exist when students are physically separated from peers and their instructor. The face-to-face experience provides an opportunity for groups to build trust and cohesiveness through verbal cues, facial expressions, and physical presence. Considering the elements that make up a strong online learning community is necessary when shifting to online teaching. Such elements include creating social presence, a safe learning environment, and a commitment to a learning team.

“Currently, online collaborative learning tends to focus on the cognitive process by emphasizing task-oriented communication, while assuming that the social dimension will occur automatically via communicative technologies (Kreijns et al., 2003). However, individuals will not willingly share their tentative ideas or critically challenge others’ opinions unless they trust group members and feel a sense of belonging (Kreijns et al., 2003; Rourke, 2000). Therefore, collaboration often remains shallow due to the lack of affective group support.” 

Teacher Perspectives on Online Collaborative Learning: Factors Perceived as Facilitating and Impeding Successful Online Group Work (2008)

Community of Inquiry Framework, (Cleveland-Innes, Garrison & Vaughan)
Community of Inquiry Framework, (Cleveland-Innes, Garrison & Vaughan)

Below I list five foundational elements that are critical to effective student collaboration and knowledge sharing and creating. Not all elements are within the control of the instructor, though an awareness contributes to instructor effectiveness. Some elements are based upon the Community of Inquiry [CoI] framework created by scholars at the University of Athabasca. CoI is a theoretical model that outlines a process for creating deep and meaningful learning experiences [online] through the development of three interdependent dimensions – social, cognitive and teaching presence. Establishing social presence helps students to establish themselves as a community member and contributor to the course, necessary for successful online learning that leverages group knowledge building and sharing. I’ve also incorporated findings from a paper on teacher perspectives in online collaborative learning published in the journal Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education.

1. Social Presence: For students to be successful in online learning environments, introducing themselves, making connections with classmates and establishing themselves in the learning community is critical. Student anonymity in learning spaces is a barrier to establishing trust and building learning community. Establishing presence is facilitated through several methods including, 1) introductions at the beginning of the course, that includes the instructor’s involvement,  2) synchronous lectures sessions where students can chat on back channels (Twitter, etc), 3) orientation activities at beginning of, or before course beginning, 4) social media platform for the class, Twitter, Google +, etc.  It’s also a good idea to wait two weeks from the course start date before group work begins.  More in-depth reading on social presence, at the CoI website.

2. Presence of a Leader: This refers to two aspects, 1) the leadership of the instructor where he or she supports group work, ie. dealing with group members that don’t participate, holding Skype calls with individual groups to problem solve, provide instruction or guidance, and providing feedback to groups and class on the process [I build on this element in post two] and, 2) the presence of a positive leader within the group (An, Kim & Kim, 2008).  A leader of the group can be assigned by the instructor (recommended) or selected within the group. The group leader also acts as the liaison between the group and the instructor.

3. Purpose and clear Instructions: Outlining why students are completing a given learning activity is critical, students are sensitive to busy work, and seek meaningful learning experiences. They are more likely to engage and commit to a group project when it is aligned closely with the learning objective of the course and is meaningful.  Stating clearly in the activity instructions, “the purpose of this activity______” is appreciated by students, as are clear instructions that are specific to the expected outcomes of the project, the details, including due date, grading scheme, group structure etc.

4.  Skill Development for Working in a Team: Learners rarely have the skill set required for effective group collaboration, sharing and/or discussions in online spaces. The instructor should provide skill development resources for group interaction including specific guidelines for communicating [netiquette rules, for example NO CAPITAL LETTERS when communicating via text, and using emoticons :), steps to solve group problems or disagreements, including an option that involves the instructor as a resource. Stepping in as a mediator may be required at times, where the instructor can walk students through problem solving steps via a group meeting using Skype, or other synchronous medium.

5. Seamless Technology:  Though instructors may not always have direct control over the technology, guiding students to the best platforms for communicating synchronously and asynchronously is helpful. Technology is very often cited as a barrier by students, minimizing the barriers is within the instructors control, if not the institution. Ideally online communication should be seamless. Suggesting tools for groups is helpful, and providing resources on how-to use the technological tools or applications is also critical; better yet is practicing as a class with the tools before the groups members work together.

Next Monday, I’ll publish post two, the skills and strategies instructors need to build effective group learning in online class. I encourage readers to share their resources and/or experiences in the comment section so others can benefit.  I know readers benefit greatly from this sharing.

Post two in this series: Five Vital Skills Instructors Need to Facilitate Online Group Work and Collaboration, Online Learning Insights

References: