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A large amount of research from the EdTech world finds that forums that encourage social learning, if used right, can significantly improve learning outcomes. Of course, there are downsides.

One of the main platforms that I've seen across universities here in the US, is Piazza.

Piazza can be configured to allow students to post questions, answers and comments completely anonymously. There are classes where this works very well, participation rates are high and spam is rare. However, many faculty members, some because of unpleasant interactions in the past, often disallow anonymous posting.

Is there any research/anecdotal evidence that suggests anonymity hinders / helps learning? In the latter case, are there specific steps used on anonymous fora that are required to maintain quality? We're planning on building a large QA-system within our EdTech platform, and on the fence about investing thousands of dollars to build "anonymous posting" within our system.

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I have used Piazza in many mathematics courses. I can say, anecdotally but confidently, that students LOVE the anonymity option. Not everyone uses it, but I have had plenty of them tell me, either in person or (anonymously!) on course evaluations, that they appreciate the option since they can ask a seemingly "dumb" question without fear of appearing ignorant or uninformed. Perhaps this is particularly relevant in mathematics, where anxiety and performance-based fear is, alas, quite normal, but I'd imagine students in other disciplines would make similar comments.

  • Thanks for the reply @brendansullivan07. And this applies to the "full anonymity" option, not just the "anonymous to all students" option? Did you find a fair bit of clutter/spam/rudeness? Were these large classes? – Jedi Jun 29 '16 at 2:11
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    @Jedi: My classes are anywhere from 10 to 40 students. I have never had any issues whatsoever with spam or rudeness, far from it. The only problem I have is getting students to "buy in" and actually take advantage of the resource. But I get glowing feedback from the students that do use it. – Brendan W. Sullivan Jun 29 '16 at 2:28
  • Interesting. Based on speaking with many instructors here, issues seem to arise mostly in larger classes, especially with a mixed bag of students (undergrads and grads, non-native and native-English speakers). Last question, though unrelated to the original -- did you try incentivizing participation to boost "buy in"? – Jedi Jun 29 '16 at 2:58
  • @Jedi: I could see that being a problem with, say, a 500-student lecture course at a large university or, say, in a Sociology or History course where there may be legitimate differences of opinion and heated debates. However, we don't often have that in mathematics :-) – Brendan W. Sullivan Jun 29 '16 at 18:45
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    @Jedi: I have considered including "participation" as part of students' final grade but have not come up with a satisfactory method. Plus, I think this may inadvertently harm the students who are legitimately doing well without my help outside of class and don't feel the need to post questions and answers. I prefer to instead leave it as an always-available resource and encourage students to use it when they need it. – Brendan W. Sullivan Jun 29 '16 at 18:47

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