Am I wearing any clothes?

Greg Benfield

"Am I wearing any clothes" cartoonEver have that supposedly common dream/nightmare [I'm assured it is common, though it's not one of mine] about giving a keynote and looking down to see you're not wearing any clothes? Well, newcomers to online discussions, especially academic ones, often experience fear of exposure. Students may find stressful the experience of communicating in writing with people they don't know in circumstances in which they will be judged.

Stage two of Salmon's (2004; 2002) five stage model is socialisation into the online environment. Participants must pass through this stage before they can effectively collaborate with others in constructing knowledge. This stage exists for on-campus learners as much as for distance learners. Even cognitively mature learners, who have met each other face-to-face, will experience uncertainties and ambiguities in online communication.

Cathy was a mature and very capable online learner and an effective leader of a collaborative online group in a postgraduate course. Here is how she described part of her experience:

If you're sitting in a group and you say something which is profoundly embarrassing, you can laugh it off and say, 'Oh God!' you know? Whereas if you've posted something on the [Brookes Virtual] site and everybody can read it you're less likely to perhaps open up.

Does this strike any chords with your experience, either on this course or in another one?

Here is Vicki with another perspective on participating in an online collaborative task. Vicki is commenting on how she initially experienced difficulty raising differences with colleagues in her group (she had met them in person several times).

I suppose it's thinking that this is going to be an assessed task that might hold you back. I think if you were using [the VLE] and you knew that just your group was going to read it and nobody else was going to read it and it wasn't going to be assessed, you're probably more likely to challenge then. Maybe it's also about how well you know the group. You've only met a few times really; you're all from different backgrounds, got different levels of knowledge.

There are quite a lot of ideas that can be unpacked from this remark. There are things in there about expectations, about writing styles, about knowing people and trusting them - not necessarily the same thing - and about feeling watched and judged. Have you felt like Vicki did in an online course? Do you feel that way when contributing to the discussions in this course? Why/why not? What do you think can be done to alleviate the trepidations of those like Vicki? What lessons should we online tutors draw from these perceptions by online learners? Gilly Salmon offers some perspectives on this which you may have had an opportunity to look at by now. Chapter 10 of Macdonald (2008) examines the issue from the perspective of developing online learners.

As you've read these comments you've probably thought of several other aspects of online communication -both positive and negative- that are different from face-to-face communication and which e-moderators need to cater for. Here are some comments by other online learners:

Jack: You could actually get it very wrong I suppose… It's very easy to upset people.
Nick: I'm a bit scared of using email because sometimes you say something and it's not meant to be offensive or rude, but comes up totally negative.
Sarah: I think you need to know a bit more, to be sure that you aren't going to offend them by what you say. And it's an offence that's actually committed on paper.
Steve: We had quite a few people who were very extrovert and articulate and quite domineering [face-to-face] and I think that some people just went really quiet. Or like me, just got annoyed and retreated, or got aggressive at times. Whereas I don't think that dynamic operated over email. People tended to be much more voluble, regardless of whether introvert, extrovert, shy, you know domineering, or passive, or whatever. So I suppose it can be quite a levelling tool really in that respect.

By way of balance, don't forget that participants in well designed and moderated online conferences do overcome initial trepidations. Gloria experienced early worries, both about the technology and being exposed. But talking after the end of a major collaborative task she said:

I'm addicted to [VLE discussions]. I used to log on every day - actually more like several times a day. Now we're not active any more I feel like there's something missing in my life.

Can we generalise anything from these sorts of experiences? Did your initial online experiences correspond to any of these? Does it get easier over time? What can we do to manage such issues? Do these remarks suggest anything to us about the issue of 'lurkers', or non-contributing members of online conferences?