Saturday, May 24, 2014

Quality of online discussion

Social network in a course by hanspoldoja, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by hanspoldoja

Online discussions, just like those in a face-to-face setting, can take many forms. Some never get beyond pleasantries, some turn nasty and many are extremely rewarding exchanges of ideas. Many assume that the classroom is the best place for discussion but that requires good management and a small number of participants. Classroom discussion is often dominated by the most vocal and confident students and in most classes there are students who seldom if ever open their mouths. It also favours those who are able to formulate their ideas quickly and many opinions expressed so spontaneously are not necessarily well thought out. That's why classroom discussions often continue online where everyone can express themselves in their own time and ideas can mature a few days. There have been many studies in recent years indicating that online discussions can be deeper and more nuanced than the spontaneous ideas voiced in a classroom.

However the quality of the online discussion depends so much on how well the participants know and trust each other and also on the number of people involved. Many discussion forums never get off the ground because there is no group loyalty or feeling of mutual trust and respect. This aspect of online discussion is investigated in a new study by Ellen Rose (University of New Brunswick) called “Would you ever say that to me in class?”: Exploring the Implications of Disinhibition for Relationality in Online Teaching and Learning. Ellen studied online discussions from a number of classes at two universities and focused on the phenomenon of online disinhibition; the fact that the online environment somehow encourages people to behave in a less restrained way than in a classroom. She found two contrasting forms of disinhibition: the well-known toxic disinhibition where some participants become aggressive and offensive and the less well-publicized benign disinhibition where people reveal personal details that would never normally be revealed in class.

Benign disinhibition was manifested in stories of shy students who participated more freely online, and in stories of students who disclosed more about themselves than they would face-to-face. Toxic disinhibition was manifested in stories about angry and abusive emails and posts. Students also indicated that their awareness of the possibility of anger erupting easily through miscommunication resulted in an “excessive niceness.” Thus inhibition may be a paradoxical response to the increased possibility of disinhibited behaviour in online learning environments. This study found that disinhibited behaviour, whether in its benign or toxic form, is a factor that powerfully affects the nature of student-student and student-teacher relationships in online courses. 

The negative effects of toxic disinhibition are well-known and can quickly kill all discussion but the benign variety is more interesting. Students who use the forum to discuss personal problems, relationship issues and so on can have as great a destructive effect on the level of discussion as the offensive loudmouths. Both types make all other participants uneasy and nervous not just in this forum but in future online discussions. It can lead to excessive niceness where everyone is so careful not to provoke negative reactions that the discussion never takes off at all.

The article concludes by stating that we need to look deeper at how trust and empathy can be fostered in an online environment. One factor could be that most online discussions are text-based and that increased use of video and audio can create a better climate for collaboration. Certainly classes that meet regularly in the classroom are less likely to suffer from online disinhibition than classes that are exclusively online. However I suspect that the inclusion of video and audio threads that provide a face-to-face element to online discussion could be a step towards reducing the risks of disinhibition.

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