How do I know that all of this was real? : The dark side of being a digital stranger in an online learning environment – Part 1

I have been debating the idea of the digital stranger for a quite a while, both on this blog and in other online learning contexts. Previously I had defined the digital stranger as;


‘Digital strangers are people we interact with, people we are inspired by, people we understand (even a little) about their views and their position in a specific network, but know very little about. We can still learn from and with them. We can create and share. We can innovate and solve problems. We can increase awareness and affect change. We can engage, entertain and provide comfort or inspiration.’


At the heart of the concept of the digital stranger is the belief that online interaction affords both the opportunity to represent ourselves in different and (sometimes) untraceable and hidden ways as well as the ability to express ideas, opinions and emotions that because of the apparent anonymity of the virtual environment, we might be unwilling to do face to face.  There is a unique manifestation of the digital stranger in the area of online learning that has significant and far-reaching impacts on the effectiveness of student learning and teaching.  This post (which will be published in two parts) will look at how the darker side of the digital stranger poses challenges for designers and facilitators of online learning (in all its guises – I use the phrase online learning to mean everything from component based blended learning through to complete online programmes).


A learner engages with a programme virtually in a variety of different ways, through VLEs or through email, blogs, wikis, discussion forums, chat spaces etc.   They may choose to be passive observers of the passing world or active engagers in debates and collaborations.  They may interact with others on the programme using a pseudonym or constructed online identity or use their real names and faces.  They may feel more comfortable sharing their experiences, perhaps traumatic or personally difficult when no-one knows who they are or they choose to reveal only small shards of their life relevant to the programme.  They may offer fictionalised accounts or tell the absolute truth.  They may or may not share an image or photo, or maybe pick an abstract picture to represent them.  They might even adopt an entirely fictional persona.  They may be active one day and disappear into silence or initiate a virtual death the next, forever vanishing from the community.  Despite the amazing ability of the internet to make, maintain and develop connections, this constructed identify is difficult to google search, leaves very few breadcrumbs or trails on the internet and most importantly, is in the complete control of the person constructing it.  They can stay silent or fill pages with communications.  They can effectively interact with people around them, forming relationships on the basis of the personality, information, opinions and conversations they choose to exhibit (real or otherwise).  The proportions of the ‘real’ person (if such a construct exists) that is revealed is variable, adding the opportunity to generate authenticity, believability and emotional and intellectual connections.


Whilst perhaps not as fluid as the identities created through social media usage (where all manner of traits can be imagined, swapped and transposed) there is potential in online learning for what psychologist John Suler termed the ‘Online Disinhibition Effect’, which can be defined ‘as a loosening (or complete abandonment) of social restrictions and inhibitions that would otherwise be present in normal face-to-face interaction during interactions with others on the Internet.’ (Source: Wikipedia).  Suler (2004) argues that this effect can have both benign and toxic impacts noting;


‘Some types of benign disinhibition indicate an attempt to better understand and develop oneself, to resolve interpersonal and intrapsychic problems or explore new emotional and experiential dimensions to one’s identity. We could even consider it a process of “working through”… By contrast, toxic disinhibition may simply be a blind catharsis, a fruitless repetition compulsion, and an acting out of unsavoury needs without any personal growth at all.’

Suler identified a number of conditions and behaviours that foster this disinhibition (including dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjection and dissociative imagination).  Where disinhibition occurs in an online learning environment there are significant challenges for managing and encouraging interaction between learners, between teachers and learners and between the teachers themselves and the wider community.  It may manifest itself in a variety of ways from interpersonal disagreements, the flash formation and perhaps crumbling of personal relationships, deceptive or manipulative interactions, the support for or failure of social engagement or social creation of knowledge or understanding or the misunderstanding or misdirection of instructional, assessment or learner support processes.
In an earlier post (The Digital Stranger: Participation, social networking and creativity) I made the case that digital strangers in an online learning environment were a positive for the programme, supporting collaboration and sharing in a safe space.  I want to have a look at the darker side of the digital strangers and online learning in this post. I argue that online disinhibition can have significant impacts on the effectiveness of online learning, the motivation of participants and ultimately on the wider processes of social interaction and connectivity.

1.       Dissociative anonymity

Sometimes referred to simply as ‘I’m not me’, dissociative anonymity occurs when ‘people have the opportunity to separate their actions online from their in-person lifestyle and identity, they feel less vulnerable about self-disclosing and acting out. Whatever they say or do can’t be directly linked to the rest of their lives’ (Suler 2004).  Certainly, this kind of anonymous behaviour offers learners a safe space to express, develop and construct ideas and opinions.  It can encourage developmental thinking and a more transparent exploration of the evaluative and critical-thinking processes that are occurring.  It can also enhance trust where participants can demonstrate ‘authentic’ behaviours (or at least the believable appearance of them).  The alternate side of this anonymity is the lapsing of responsibility for actions, where interactivity and engagement subverts from politeness to anti-social or hostile behaviour and the learner or teacher cannot see their own culpability for the results.  In terms of online learning this can increase attrition, push tentative learners to the fringes and isolate them or misdirect the pattern or flow of learning into spurious arguments, inter-personal conflicts or pointless engagement with fictional or fantasy debates.


2.       Solipsistic Introjection

Solipsistic introjection suggests that often the reading and interpretation of online interaction can be ‘all in our heads’. In the absence of visual cues, body language or perhaps even a clear idea of what the communicator sounds or looks like we interpret their words (or actions) through a filter of our own ‘internal voice’ or as a character built on an imagined picture of what the other person looks like;

‘…people may feel that their mind has merged with the mind of the online companion. Reading another person’s message might be experienced as a voice within one’s head, as if that person’s psychological presence and influence have been assimilated or introjected into one’s psyche…(and) consciously or unconsciously, a person may even assign a visual image to what he or she thinks the person looks and behaves like’ (Suler 2004).

In terms of online learning solipsistic introjection interferes with the reading of text, whether this is learning materials, comments or instructions.  For example, a comment made in a discussion forum might be read through the filter of the imagined voice of the person making it, changing it from helpful to angry, innocent to sarcastic, setting off a cascading set of interactions.  Sometimes we read what we want to read into or from a text exchange, altering our own relationships within the community  Alternately, instructions for assessment or feedback to learners may be incorrectly interpreted, applied to inappropriate circumstances or simply taken the wrong way.  All of us have misread emails, seen lines in chat and reacted too quickly.  It is one of the reasons I use emoticons extensively to add some sense of visual cue into a text based medium.  Where there are large numbers of learners on a programme, engaging asynchronously, then the potential for misinterpretation, deliberate or otherwise increases exponentially, especially where the learners or teachers have little or no experiences with online interaction (although experience is not always a panacea for this problem).

3.       Asynchronicity

Certainly one of the challenges in managing an online learning environment for both learners and teachers is asynchronous communications. This may be where we post a considered (or not) response, ask a question or seek information on a topic and have to wait for a response and are denied the immediate gratification of engagement.  Once again fantasy and imagination can interfere, with rational and irrational reasons for the delay constructed in our heads (have I pissed them off?  Are they ignoring me? Is there something going that will result in them not responding at all? Have I trumped them with my brilliance? 😉  Please note the wink here!)  Alternately, the ability to make a contribution to a conversation, log off and avoid the obvious and present consequences can equally disinhibit the participant.  Suler notes that ‘…in real life, the analogy might be speaking to someone, magically suspending time before that person can reply, and then returning to the conversation when one is willing and able to hear the response.’

In a face to face environment, the reactions and inter-reactions are measurable and confined to a specific time and space.  In online learning they may be spread over days or weeks, with comments or criticisms lying dormant for the entire time, festering directly on the mind of the writer.  They may even log in more often to check for responses, getting increasingly frustrated at the flashing annoyance of the VLE proclaiming ‘no new messages’.  And perhaps days later when they have moved onto something else, a different concept or interaction, someone picks up the thread and starts it all over again, either responded to or sometimes equally ignored.

So, as a practitioner (learner or teacher, or simply interested spectator) what does this mean for the practice of how we manage online learning.  Well, I argue there are three critical implications for the design and management of online learning in a disinhibitive environment.

a)      Whilst I and many others make a strong case for the necessity for a new pedagogy for the digital age, there is an equally strong case for a new understanding of educational interaction.  The old models of didactic broadcast, bounded interactivity, acceptable mores and reliable reactions are an ill-fit for the new environment.  And maybe, they shouldn’t be.  But as more learners live their life in these digital neighbourhoods the need to understand why interactions occur in a certain way and with outcomes that we couldn’t or didn’t want to predict is critical to ensuring the effectiveness of the online learning experience.

b)      The exponential growth of MOOCs and other magnetically attractive and emancipatory, free and open educational programmes is exposing millions more learners to an online environment of learning.  This critical mass of learners, often from non-traditional backgrounds, is placing new strains on our understanding of online learning.  In some ways, institutions are abrogating some responsibility for managing or responding to disinhibitive behaviours by removing direct tutor engagement, replacing it with videos and materials, leaving the learners to self-organise and self-manage the behaviours within the learning community.  Self-management can lead to artificial hierarchies, cliques and castes. Outside of education, this has been seen often on bulletin boards, gaming platforms and even amongst Wikipedia editors and contributors to disempowering and sometimes tragic ends.

c)       There has been a large amount written recently about cyber-bullying, psychological games and trolls on twitter, facebook and other social media platforms.  Disinhibition can lead directly to these anti-social behaviours, where the distance between the participants and the power of anonymity can encourage to people to act in ways they wouldn’t normally.  Whilst, registrations and enrolment in an online programme reduce the risk of anonymous behaviour there is still significant potential for people to engage with others ‘for effect’ rather than for learning; to deliberately seek a rise or gain satisfaction from having an emotional impact on other learners.  The role of the facilitator in this environment is critical as they need the ability to identify when this happening and find an appropriate solution for it.  They also need to ensure they don’t get caught up in the maelstrom themselves, participating actively in a flame war.

In the second part of this post which I hope will go up next week I will look at the other three of Suler’s disinhibitive processes.   I am really interested in people’s experiences of disinhibitive behaviours in online learning.  If you have stories that you want to share  you can do so via an anonymous comment on this post (for this post only I have turned on anonymous commenting).

‘I can’t count the reasons I should stay, one by one they all just fade away’ – The power of community in higher education and work

The idea of a community, the spirit and goodwill it can create, the passions and arguments it invariably engenders and the potential for learning within one has been a passion of mine since I was a youthful, brown-eyed teenager running discos and band events for my peers at school.  At all stages of my career, I can point to where my practice has intersected with communities, either as part of one or linking to others.  It is the common thread that links my personal to professional life and has driven my daily activity for over two decades.


When I worked for one of Australia’s largest book chains in the 80s and 90s, I led a project to create communities of science-fiction and fantasy readers, many isolated by distance and context, where the store and a very primitive on-line and mail network became a hub got people to share opinions and passions.   I was involved in community media for over ten years as a producer and board member, which highlighted some of the difficulties that can arise from community building, however on the other hand, demonstrated the absolute power of being part of something that can change the wider community or its members and make things better.  This sense of community, of belonging, of interaction, collaboration and shared differences (and perhaps indifferences) has influenced my opinions and attitudes towards open access, creative commons, social media, learning and teaching and politics.  It is from these experiences that I have come to passionately believe that communities (or networks or group, or whatever you choose to call this collective of people) are one of the most powerful forces for learning, social interaction and emancipation.  Belonging, shared beliefs and practices, and a sense of ownership are emotional and personal tie lines, connecting us to others, both similar and different.


Prior to moving to the UK three years ago, I worked for a large public further education institute called TAFE NSW, located in the south-west of Sydney, Australia.  Within my department, the notion of a community underpinned both the way we worked and the way we engaged with our learners.  Within the department, I was lucky enough to work with one of the most amazing group of teachers I have had ever had the privilege to know. They were passionate about learning and teaching.  They never assumed the learners were incapable of learning, whatever level they were at.  They were open to experimentation and innovation.  They worked with each other, not against each other, sharing resources and ideas, coming to team meetings.  Everyone was part of the family and everyone worked towards making the community stronger.  It is a great example of how work practice was enhanced by community.  Work was collaborative.   Load and responsibility were shared.  People passionately argued for what they believed.  There was conflict, but it was generally constructive and creative, borne out of shared belief in the brand and the work we were doing.  This was often despite an organisation that more than often did not support them, reward them or value them.  The department met and exceeded targets, kept to budget and improved student outcomes.


A community of practitioners learns from each other, respects each other and draws on the expertise and experience of other networks and communities, developing links beyond the fuzzy boundaries of their own community.  All the members of this team have now spread themselves to the four winds (three different countries at least).  But the community still exists. It’s bigger, it’s influence different and it’s resonance more wide-ranging.  It has evolved.  This is what happens with communities, new members and new contexts ensure the community survives and changes.   It is another transdisciplinary skill critical to maintaining and keeping connections within and between communities.


The notion of community is not a new concept, social movement theory has linked community to the emancipation and democratic participation of individuals in society (Diani 1992; McAdam, McCarthy & Zald 1988; Pateman 1970).  Lave and Wenger (1991) have talked about the idea of communities of practice, where learning occurs through action and practice within a community.  John Seely Brown (2001) in a very interesting evaluation of ‘Learning in the Digital Age’ argues that ‘Learning is a remarkably social process. In truth, it occurs not as a response to teaching, but rather as a result of a social framework that fosters learning…it’s through participation in communities that deep learning occurs…by coming to inhabit the relevant community, they get to know not just the “standard” answers, but the real questions, sensibilities, and aesthetics, and why they matter’. (Brown 2001).  Writers such Kamenetz (2010) and Siemens and Weller (2011) argue that one of the fundamental processes of learning is social interaction and socialisation, which can occur within communities supported or enabled by social media. McMillan and Chavis (1986) in their landmark work on community, position the notions of understanding and acceptance as central to a community often formed by the creation of boundaries defining rather than celebrating difference.

The development of communities should be a fundamental part of modern higher education.  It should sit within the process of curriculum design, learning and teaching, assessment and lifelong learning.  Teaching that is dominated by monologues such as a lecture, the use of technology that replicates the existing individual approaches to learning (such as the way a VLE is often used (Hanley 2011)) and the continued reliance on an assessment system that requires and privileges an assertion of individual understanding is not modern learning. It is memory, it is absorption and it is repetition; it is not application, use, social contextualisation and collaboration.  We often demonise collaboration and call it collusion, punished punitively or call it failed group work, where politics and personalities overrun learning.  At TAFE, our work with students occurred broadly within a restrictive administration and curricular system, with formal exams and nationally set and monitored curriculum and quality enhancement.  Despite this, much of our work with students was collaborative, using methods such as project based inquiry, simulations, case studies, work-based learning and student-led learning (for more, you can read this paper).  We tried to find ways to link the learners across disciplines, with marketers working with events management students and radio people collaborating with musicians and marketers.  It is in these spaces between disciplines that innovations and creativity will emerge.  We clearly saw in a number of projects we ran examples of where students learnt from each other, developed understanding through practice and did so with minimal intervention from the teachers.  These are powerful and resonant ways to learn (and a topic for another blog!) (Brown 2001; Nicolescu 1997).


When people enter the world of work, they will need to engage in socialisation, collaboration, team work and sharing, no matter what the context.  When they change jobs, new job opportunities will arise from within their community or because of their interactions with other communities. These communities won’t exist through old students clubs or reunions; they will be virtual, connected across and through platforms.  They will be lasting and agile, drawing on new members and connecting with others, without boundaries and managed intuitively.  Engagement may be more widespread and infrequent, as consumption in modern communities sometimes wins over interaction (how many people read your Facebook status vs. commenting on it…or read vs. comment on this blog!).  The technology supports the on-going viability of these communities, keeping them alive when in the past time would have seem them fracture.  However, it is a new range of skills that people bring to communities that make them functional and productive.  Brown notes that these are an ‘…ever-evolving language of interpretation and expression, an interactive approach to learning, creating, and responding to information through a complex montage of images, sound, and communication’ (Brown 2001).  Some of the current modes of teaching and learning are not fit for a new purpose; they are part of the toolkit, not the whole box and dice.  By themselves, at best, they only passively support the learner to acquire and the transdisciplinary skills required to make and develop their community.


My alum from my undergraduate days is still connected through Facebook, some of us a little greyer or balder.  Some of them are my closest friends, sharing outings, debate, monopoly and art.  These connections are strong and important, both emotionally and personally.  In some ways this community formed despite our education, which was didactic, non-interactive and individualistic.  We learnt these skills ourselves, as millions of other learners have over centuries past.  Perhaps we were lucky. But imagine the possibility if all of higher education supported as part of the broad church of education, this kind of skill development, collaborative knowledge creation and social interaction.  Imagine if every learner ‘left’ their degree with a community that they were an active and engaged member of and had the skills to form and lead other communities, linking each together where appropriate. If those communities then informed and created the curriculum that the next generation engaged with and were a part of the learning process not just for each other but for successive communities.

This blog post is dedicated to the memory of the wonderful Cathy Lee.  A valued and loved member of our community. You are missed.  


Brown, J.S. 2001, ‘Learning in the digital age’, The  Internet and the university: 2001 Forum, eds M. Devlin, R. Larson & J. Meyerson, EDUCAUSE, Boulder, CO, pp. 71-86.

Diani, M. 1992, ‘The concept of social movement’, The Sociological Review, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 1-25.

Hanley, L. 2011, ‘Mashing Up the Institution: Teacher as Bricoleur’, The Radical Teacher, no. 90, pp. 9-14.

Kamenetz, A. 2010, DIY U: Edupunks, edupreneurs, and the coming transformation of higher education, Chelsea Green Publishing.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. 1991, Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge Univ Pr.

McAdam, D., McCarthy, J. & Zald, M. 1988, ‘Social movements’, in D. McAdam, McCarthy, J., Zald, M. & Smelser, N (ed.), Handbook of sociology, Sage Publications, pp. 695-737.

McMillan, D.W. & Chavis, D.M. 1986, ‘Sense of community: A definition and theory’, Journal of community psychology, vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 6-23.

Nicolescu, B. 1997, ‘The transdisciplinary evolution of the university condition for sustainable development’, International Congress – Universities’ Responsibilities to Society, International Association of Universities, Chulalongkorn University, Bankok, Thailand., viewed 2nd May 2012 <>.

Pateman, C. 1970, Participation and democratic theory, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Siemens, G. & Weller, M. 2011, ‘Higher education and the promises and perils of social network’, Revista de Universidad y Sociedad del Conocimiento (RUSC), vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 164-170.