This blog post was co-authored with Hazel Lobo (UCEM tutor).
Forum discussions are an integral part of online education. They are the medium through which students and tutors interact, share, learn and thrive. At UCEM forum discussions are embedded in weekly activities and assignment weeks. While weekly forum posts are intended for discussions on weekly topics, providing opportunities for students to socialise and learn from their peers, assignment forums are dedicated to questions around assignment preparation and submission..
When students create a post or reply to a post thread, their name is visible to all. This is important for students to identify themselves, express their thoughts and mingle with the peers. However, when it comes to assignment forums, student behaviour can differ. This is mostly because of the notion that the question being asked may be judged, thinking it silly or not sure whether to ask or not. When one of our Module Leaders, Hazel, identified this problem during Autumn 2020 semester delivery with many young apprentice students, she wanted to do something about this.
When the Autumn 2020 semester cohort of Law for the Built Environment module (LAW4LST) were asked about why they didn’t use the assignment forum, one key point was that students were worried about being identified as the person who asked a question. In particular, apprentice students explained to the Module Leader that there can be competition amongst apprentices in the same workplace and posting a question that was seen as ‘silly’, could lead to negative perceptions of their ability and knowledge or, at worst, bullying from others. Such concerns resulted in students not seeking clarification about their assignment and instead emailing questions directly to the tutors. Because of this, the tutors had to respond to email queries in addition to responding to questions asked in the forum. As explained by the Module Leader it also created a precedent (since this is a first module for all students) that students could expect to receive individual responses from Module Leaders in future, and also had an impact on community as students were not learning to support one another.
Solution and implementation
To help students better engage in assignment forums, the Module Leader approached the Learning Designer from the Digital Education team to explore the possibility of adopting anonymous forum posts for assignment forums. We, the Digital Education team piloted anonymous assignment forums for the Law for the Built Environment module Autumn 2021 semester. This solution was implemented using the Open LMS Open forum and provided students with the opportunity to post queries anonymously. Although the default setting was anonymous, students also had the choice to ‘Reveal identity’ if they wished to use this.
Student experience and outcome
Once the module was completed, the Module Leader gathered data on use of the anonymous forums from the VLE. This data was compared with data from People and Organisational management (MAN4POM), the module concurrently taken by students studying LAW4LST. As shown in Table 1, the LAW4LST assignment 1 forum had a total of 61 discussions (51 initiated by students) and assignment 2 forum had 83 (70 initiated by students). This compares to 39 assignment 1 discussions (30 initiated by students) and 22 assignment 2 discussions (21 initiated by students) in the MAN4POM module. In the LAW4LST assignment 1 forum, eight students chose to identify themselves.
LAW4LST (with anonymous forum post feature)
MAN4POM (without anonymous forum post feature)
Assignment 1 forum
61 discussions (51 initiated by students)
39 discussions (30 initiated by students)
Assignment forum 2
83 (70 initiated by students)
22 discussions (21 initiated by students)
Table 1: Assignment forum discussion comparison between LAW4LST and MAN4POM modules
A quick review of emails/VLE messages received by the LAW4LST Module Leader suggests there were around 70% fewer direct queries in 2021/22 than in 2020/21. This appears to support the hypothesis that previously, students preferred the public anonymity of asking direct questions rather than engaging with the forum. Making the assignment forums anonymous appears to have encouraged students to ask questions in the (more appropriate) public arena. This view is further supported by student answers to a specific question (question 20, see below) asked in the Module evaluation questionnaire (MEQ).
To understand how anonymous forums were useful to the students, four specific questions were added to the LAW4LST MEQ:
Question 19: Did you use the assignment forum?
Question 20: If yes, what did you think of using an anonymous forum?
Question 21: If no, why did you not choose to use the assignment forum?
Question 22: Would you like to have an anonymous post feature in other modules.
197 students completed the questionnaire, around 35% of the cohort. All 197 responded to questions 19 and 22 (see Figures 1 and 2 below). Of the 138 students who said they had used the forum, 112 provided further quantitative feedback. A total of 54 students who had not used the forum provided further comments in response to question 21. These comments are anonymised.
Image 1: LAW4LST Autumn 2021 students using the anonymous assignment forums
Image 2: LAW4LST Autumn 2021 students supporting/not supporting further use of anonymous forums
Brief analysis of the responses to question 21 show that students either did not feel the need to ask questions or had viewed the forums, but not actually posted. The majority of the comments were positive across all four questions. One comment made by a student who was less positive about the anonymous forum was that being able to ask questions is a ‘real life’ skill; this was also supported by comments from a further two students.
Feedback from teaching team
The forums appeared to reduce the number of direct messages, but this could just be down to a less engaged cohort generally. The students did seem to find the forums helpful and were more encouraged to post, however, for the teaching team it was a little more difficult to access as the anonymous forums did not appear in the main ‘forums’ link that most tutors used. This was a relatively simple ‘learning curve’ to navigate. Overall, the team would support further use of these forums, especially for 1st year undergraduates. It would probably not be so appropriate for final year undergraduates, not least because (as noted by students) being able to confidently ask questions is an important skill needed professionally. Nonetheless, the value of ‘new’ students being able to gain confidence in the early stages should not be underestimated. The Module Leader believes that being able to ask questions not only supported engagement, but also improved outcomes. This would appear to be supported by student comments in the MEQ.
Risks of anonymous post
When we thought of implementing an anonymous forum, we did consider the possibility of inappropriate, upsetting messages being posted by the students. Although students may not be able to identify who posted such messages, if the module team needed to investigate it is possible to identify from the system backend who posted each message. So the statement below was included as part of forum description:
‘UCEM have a responsibility to provide an environment where all students feel safe, secure, valued and respected. Therefore, we would like to reassure you that robust procedures are in place to enable the system to identify users who breach the UCEM Safeguarding and Prevent Code of Practice.’
Fortunately, there was no such inappropriate, upsetting messages by the students in the Autumn 2021 semester.
Current barriers to continue this feature
With so much appreciation and positive student and staff feedback, it was looking very promising to go ahead and adopt the anonymous post feature in all our first semester first year undergraduate modules. However, sadly, Open LMS is debating the idea of removing this feature and instead considering EOLing Open Forums, as current core forums offer very similar functionality. Unfortunately, these are not same as the anonymous forum feature.
As a result, at UCEM we are exploring further options to enable us to incorporate anonymous forums which, as shown in our pilot study, not only support students but also reduce staff workload.
About the authors:
Hazel Lobo: A UCEM tutor with a passion for supporting student success, especially for entry level students. She is the one who identified the challenge faced by level 4 apprentice students in assignment forums and came-up with the idea of creating anonymous forum.
Sharvari Balagatte Ramesh: Learning designer (LD) from Digital Education team at UCEM. She is the one who piloted the anonymous forum into LAW4LST module assignment forum. LDs are always passionate and on the edge about bringing student friendly learning experience.