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3 Learner anonymity, backchannels and social interactions

In some online teaching environments, all interactions through ‘official’ channels will be obviously attributable to individual students. Forum posts will usually only be possible from students’ institutional online accounts, and therefore their name will be attached to everything they contribute. Similarly, login information for synchronous online events will usually be provided by the institution and will identify each learner clearly. However, there may be circumstances where this kind of information is not provided by default, and learners can choose to create accounts that do not identify who they are. Such anonymity can have a great advantage for more reticent learners who may be reluctant to contribute under their own name for fear of giving an incorrect answer, for example, and can be very enabling for the entire cohort if discussing very sensitive topics. However, it can also embolden trouble-makers or more dominant personalities, and because of this it can be challenging for the teacher to moderate activities where the interactions are anonymous.

As you learned earlier in this week, any online teaching activity carries the possibility of interactions developing between learners in spaces away from the official locations for the online learning. Whilst there can be concerns about the lack of control over these communications between learners, more often they can be exceptionally useful to learners (Fiester and Green, 2016). If students are in touch with each other via an instant messaging app, for example, during a synchronous online learning event, they can often help each other with understanding the issues covered without having to declare in front of the teacher that they need assistance. This can lead to a greater collective advance in learning than would happen if only the official channels were used.

It is important to consider how we as educators can encourage and structure effective use of backchannels. One example of backchannels being used to great effect is the use of Twitter and a dedicated hashtag to synthesise and discuss presentations during a conference (be it online or face to face). This image shows some of the use of the hashtag #H818conf during the H818 Online Conference 2016, an annual event ran as part of one of the modules of the Open University’s MA in Online and Distance Education.

A screenshot of part of the Twitter stream for the hashtag #H818conf.
Figure 6 Twitter responses