How do I know that all of this was real? The dark side of being a digital stranger in an online learning environment – Part 2


In part 1 I started to explore some of the darker aspects of online engagement, particularly the process of disinhibition, which can be facilitated by the anonymity, fantasy, openness and freedom that engaging online affords.  In this post, I want to take that analysis a little further and perhaps a little deeper into our practices as both digital citizens and academics.  More specifically, I am going to unpack some of the notions around authenticity and realness.   Lying at the heart of an educational experience is the ability to understand why something is authentic or real.  Without that, we are left with a bunch of words sans context.  Repeated, spoken but not contextualised or understood.  Remembered, resourced but without meaning or resonance.


The use of e-learning as an instrument of replication and repetition is a theme I have explored in a number of earlier blog posts.  The concept of the digital stranger throws a specific light on why using web 2.0 platforms and social media specifically as didactic, broadcast-led instruments firstly may isolate learners who have been moved significant components of their interactions and relationships to an on-line environment and secondly miss an opportunity to explore different modes of authenticity and realness, facilitated by a learners disinhibited to varying degrees, being interactive and collaborative.


What makes engaging on-line different from a face to face meeting or a class?  Is there something that emerges from these apparently dark processes of identity, interaction and sharing online that doesn’t occur when we are in the same room or lecture theatre?  Are we even comparing apples with apples?  Perhaps we are talking about two separate iterations of the very same thing – learning.  The evolution of social media and its increasingly ubiquitous use by people who chose to live some or all of their lives online do not simply represent the transition of conversations and relationships to a new platform, like moving from one coffee shop to another.  These relationships can be very, very different, drawing on a portfolio of skills that have emerged and aggregated through social media platforms.


Aside from the aspects of online engagement such as anonymity and asynchronous communications that I looked at in part 1, on-line relationships can be collaborative and open, where content sharing, appropriation and creation are a daily function of the interaction.  Before Facebook, would you send a memo to all your friends giving them a status update?  Before Flickr, the only way we had to share photos was the dreaded slide night (I am still trying to get the memory of bad fondue and Blue Nun out of my traumatised brain.)  The difference is more than the mode of transmission.  Let’s take Flickr as an example.  It affords the opportunity, if provided by the creator, to re-use photos, not just from people we know, but complete (digital) strangers.  It provides us with a chance to comment, which can then become conversation which evolves into a relationship.  It then allows us to meet other people who liked the photo or the subject of the photo, as part of a wider group.  Finally, it can provide for learning through the application of critical comment, expertise sharing and collaboration.  Now, think about your own discipline in this context.  A class of learners engaged not just in consuming material provided to them by academics, but re-purposing them, sharing them with others, making network and connections that facilitate interaction and social construction of knowledge and participating in learner-led and facilitated learning.


However, the purpose of this blog post is not to proletize the use of social media in higher education.  There are enough advocates out there doing that without me and my size 12s.  No, I think there is a more fundamental lesson here for education.  As academics designing and facilitating programmes there is a challenge about how much we need to engage with these new relationships.  Do we keep designing learning, teaching and assessment in the same way we always have, just using web 2.0 platforms in very web 1.0 ways?  Is there something more to be gained from identifying and understanding the changing ways in which interaction is occurring?  Should we experience more, become part of networks and communities ourselves as a way of applying and repurposing those experiences to next contexts?


I have been actively engaged online for nearly 17 years from bulletin boards, to IRC and now onto any number of social media platforms.  It has been a continual cycle of experience and appropriation and evaluation.  Most of it has been enjoyable and satisfying.  Some of it has been painful, traumatic and cathartic.  There have been moments of inspiration, of creativity and of disappointment and body shaking laughter.  I have made friends, partners, enemies and colleagues.   That lived life informs how I design and develop a programme especially where there is some blended or online component.  I am also 42.  I am cogniscent of the fact that modes of interactivity are neither uniform nor agreed across all users, and that there are significant differences between age groups, context of usage and device preference. But I am also aware that many of my own experiences would not have happened in real life.  It took both the emancipatory and the disinhibiting nature of social media to facilitate much of those experiences.  In part 1, I looked at three of John Suler’s considerations for what he termed the ‘online disinhibition effect’, a way of understanding some of the darker aspects of online interaction.  In part 2, I would like to explore three more; invisibility, dissociative imagination and minimisation of status and authority.



The absence of visual cues like tone of voice and body language can lower the inhibition of online learners.  Suler notes;


People don’t have to worry about how they look or sound when they type a message. They don’t have to worry about how others look or sound in response to what they say. Seeing a frown, a shaking head, a sigh, a bored expression, and many other subtle and not so subtle signs of disapproval or indifference can inhibit what people are willing to express.’ (Suler 2004)


The fact that you can’t see the person you are engaging means the bounds of physical appearance are no longer present.  Some writers (Stephens, Young and Calabrese 2007) argue that it increases the opportunity for cheating behavior in learners (necessitating a different kind of assessment, one that relies on understanding and application, not repetition and memory).  Invisibility also engenders lurking and trolling behaviors  both in many ways anti-social and counter to the participatory aims of most online programmes.  The cloak of invisibility also impacts on those facilitating the programme as they cannot identify the visual cues of the lurkers, identify the motivations of the trolls or even see who they are actually interacting with.  Equally, invisibility may afford the user with the sense of braggadocio that comes from not being seen or known, and which may hide a lack of understanding or a deliberate or accidental misreading of the learning.   More widely, this can manifest itself in fantasy and role playing, gender swapping and increasingly complex scenario building that works simply because the user is effectively invisible, relying on text and images completely in their control.   What happens in an online environment when some or all of what someone says turn out to be untrue or a misconstruction of the facts?   What does it say for trust, authenticity and realness?  How does it impact our processes of marking and feedback?


Dissociative Imagination

How much of online interaction is a game that we control when we log in and log off?  Dissociative imagination unlocks inhibition by pretending that what is happening is not real, that the interactions are akin to those that are simulated in a video game; that the emotions, impacts and personalities affected by your actions are not real, or at least not as real as real life.  And, that these actions are free from the responsibilities and consequences of real life interaction.  In terms of engagement in online learning, dissociative imagination can result in boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable interaction becoming blurred, learners not treating collaborative or group activities seriously because it’s only ‘online’, especially in the context of activities or formative assessment.  It is less the case in summative assessments as these have a defined impact on achievement.  Whilst this type of disinhibition is not limited to online learning and clearly occurs in many classroom based modes of group work especially, the ease with which it can occur online has considerable impact on social interaction, especially in large, disparate and potentially anonymous groups.


Minimisation of status and authority

As a guiding principle, most of the online programmes I have designed or been involved in developing have been put together with the intention that the role of the ‘teacher’ should be de-privileged.  Why should the articles we recommend become the basis for the literature used in all our assessments?  Why can’t learners find and share references through citation platforms or digital curation tools like   Suler notes that;

‘The traditional Internet philosophy holds that everyone is an equal, that the purpose of the net is to share ideas and resources among peers. The net itself is designed with no centralized control, and as it grows, with seemingly no end to its potential for creating new environments, many of its inhabitants see themselves as innovative, independent-minded explorers and pioneers. This atmosphere and this philosophy contribute to the minimizing of authority.’ (Suler p.234)


In the context of adult learning, how do we reconcile the internet’s ability to support a democratic and emancipated environment (although within a wider context of access to infrastructure and bandwidth – the digital divide is a post for another day) with the central control that a university craves?  I would argue strongly for the need to support the development of ‘innovative, independent-minded explorers and pioneers’ both inside our community and our faculties and schools.  Arguably, whilst the deconstruction of authority poses many challenges, especially to ego and established practice, the potential it offers from programme design and assessment is exciting.



At the end of the day, as a person leading a programme, what I am really seeking?  Are retention and achievement the key measures of the success or failure of the programme to make learning happen? Without doubt they measure, at least obliquely, learner engagement and perhaps even more obliquely, learner satisfaction.  I called these two blog posts ‘How do I know that all of this was real?’  What matters most to me in the digital life I live, the digital scholarship I engage in and the relationships that I build and have fall is authenticity.  The experiences, whether they are with me or others hidden behind a disinhibited wall or showing their ‘real’ selves warts and all, should have something authentic about them  That could be a glimpse of a personality or trait kept well hid in real time or a full blown role play of character and emotional resonance.


The most powerful form of authenticity in terms of online learning manifests itself as creativity.  I see online learning as a magnet for creative activity, freeing learners from the some of the rules of society that inhibit creative thought.  There are risks attached to this at a curricular or learning level.  People can hurt in this environment; it can be traumatic, worrying, confusing and challenging.  Whilst it is essentially (although not always) a safe environment, it might provoke learners into thinking about why they are doing something or why they are being told something.  My observations from part 1 still stand however.  In the age of MOOCs and platform driven e-learning, fuelled by OERs and user engagement, there is a place for a new pedagogy, a new way of thinking about how we structure higher education.  It is a pedagogy that accesses the skills the learner already has and does not assume that they are a blank slate, ready to be moulded by own inputs as faculty ‘experts’.  It is a pedagogy that puts interaction and engagement at the centre of learning, teaching and assessment strategy.  It is a pedagogy that challenges the learners to make decisions about the authenticity or realness of what they are learning.   It asks learners to reuse, appropriate, create, design, share, collaborate and apply things.  It is a pedagogy that draws inspiration from the challenges presented by interaction as and with digital strangers.


In 2007 Marilyn Lombardi in a piece called ‘Authentic learning for the 21st century’ used the phrase ‘authentic learning’ to describe a learning-by-doing process, defining it thus;

‘Authentic learning typically focuses on real-world, complex problems and their solutions, using role-playing exercises, problem-based activities, case studies, and participation in virtual communities of practice. The learning environments are inherently multidisciplinary.  They are “not constructed in order to teach geometry or to teach philosophy. A learning  environment is similar to some ‘real world’ application or discipline: managing a city, building a house, flying an airplane, setting a budget, solving a crime, for example.” Going beyond content, authentic learning intentionally brings into play multiple disciplines, multiple perspectives, ways of working, habits of mind, and community. ‘   


The attraction of the space between disciplines is a strong one, and a lot of the literature around authentic learning supports the benefits of inter and trans-disciplinary learning.  Perhaps there is a need to think again about authentic learning as a way of shaping both the curriculum design and broader pedagogical principles of an institution, right down to programme or even modular level.  Drawing on some of the recommendations from these last two posts, maybe there is a need for authentic learning 2.0.  A topic for another blog post!


Keep the conversation going by posting comments, following my twitter feed @PeterBryantHE or just getting in contact  through the blog.


Lombardi, M. M. (2007). In D. G. Oblinger (Ed.), Authentic learning for the 21st century: An overview. EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative.

Suler, John (2004). “The Online Disinhibition Effect”. CyberPsychology & Behavior 7 (3): 321–326.

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).