Reading: Identified vs Anonymous Participation in Student Discussion Boards

Online discussion boards, and associated activities that use them, can get a bit of a bad name sometimes either through inacitivty or lack of quality posts to abusive or bullying. I admit these are extremes of activity, but none the less still valid concerns for academics who want to try something new or different.

I’ve always tried to advocate the approach of ‘design an activity and then see which tools fits’ rather than ‘an activity written around a discussion board’. The latter implies it’s the tool driving the activity, the former implies the activity or learning outcome is matched to the most appropriate tool.

When setting discussion boards up I’ve always favoured posts being attributed to and identifiable to the person posting it – this helps to build personal relationships based on content and opinions, it also helps to encourage ownership and a responsible online etiquette (netiquette). But what about the option of allowing posts to be anonymous? Does this stop the discussion taking shape or progressing?

The paper, by Roberts and Rajah-Kanagasabai (2013) looks at the anonymity of posts and the ‘comfort’ of students to participate in anonymous discussions over those where they are identified.

“Educators can consider enabling anonymous postings and providing training to increase student self-efficacy as ways of increasing student engagement through decreasing concerns about self-presentation online.” (Roberts and Rajah-Kanagasabai, 2013)

Is the increase in the number of students posting to the discussion board sufficient reason to remove the accountability, ownership, and relationship of the posts author? As highlighted by Freeman and Bamford( 2004, pp. 45-53) even using settings that allowed anonymous posting  they found that “50% of posts were provided by 1% of the student body and 90% never posted anonymously.”Their study also found that “undesirable behaviour” was observed where students would post “as others’ identities to harm or denigrate another student’s opinion.”

Anonymous Discusison Board Activity

The question is again about whether the increase in individual posts and/or students participating goes any where near alleviating the drop in quality posts?

“Any change to allow anonymous postings needs to be done with care, given reports of previous instances of negative behaviours in anonymous student discussion boards.” (Roberts and Rajah-Kanagasabai, 2013)

This is indeed true but, as the article continues to say that the original “sender can be easily traced by the unit coordinator where ground rules for acceptable use are
breached.” Really, can you do this in Blackboard or Moodle or other VLEs?

What this article does not cover, indeed it is not looking to cover, is what anonymous posts do to impact the quality of discussion? Can quality engagement still happen when you can’t identify the author(s)? Can a ‘discussion’ actually occur in an anonymous discussion board where you don’t know whose posting: if you think of a discussion thread with 12 posts and 5 unique authors .. who said what? Could it be that only 2 authors made valuable contributions to the thread whilst the other 3 did not?

“Students are more likely to respond t messages when they know the author, think the posting is interesting, or disagree with a posting. Active discussion boards with high levels of student interaction can result in increased sense of community and student satisfaction.” (Roberts and Rajah-Kanagasabai, 2013)

So, instead of allowing anonymous posts why not introduce an appropriate activity to introduce the activity and technology, get the students trying this out in a safe and secure environment (on an unmarked query or scenario or induction activity  you want them to consider) and encourage good-practice and appropraite ‘netiquette’?

“Student engagement may be increased through providing training in discussion board use to improve student self-efficacy.” (Roberts and Rajah-Kanagasabai, 2013)

Freeman, M. and Bamford, A. 2004. Student choice of anonymity for learner identity in online learning discussion forums. International Journal on E-learning, 3 (3), pp. 45–53.

Roberts, L. and Rajah-Kanagasabai, C. 2013. ” I’d be so much more comfortable posting anonymously”: Identified versus anonymous participation in student discussion boards. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 29 (5). Available at: [Accessed: 13 Nov 2013].

Image source: Heroes by Frederic Poirot (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)