‘Trolling’ fears over Leeds’ anonymous student feedback plan

Academics fear women and ethnic minorities will be particularly exposed to abuse on module discussion boards

June 11, 2019
Source: Getty
Anonymous feedback plan ‘none of the potential benefits are worth the dreadful risks,’ commented one lecturer

Academics at the University of Leeds have criticised a proposal to create anonymous discussion boards across the institution, so students can post feedback during their modules.

Allowing students to post anonymously could lead to them posting offensive comments, particularly towards groups who are often negatively targeted in feedback already, Leeds staff told Times Higher Education.

An email to staff said a discussion forum would be available for all students enrolled on a module “to provide anonymous feedback about the progress of the module, or to raise issues about the teaching and learning or the quality of the student experience”.

An article published on the staff intranet said allowing students to give in-course feedback would “bring a consistent and inclusive approach that could be particularly valuable when other mechanisms are not accessible or adopted by students”.

A pilot study, which involved 37 modules across four of the university’s faculties, found “no issues raised by students posting anonymously; a provision provided for the purpose of raising inclusivity”, the university said.

The discussion boards are expected to be implemented in all taught modules from September 2019 and module leaders will be expected to respond to student posts on the discussion board within five working days.

But Mark Taylor-Batty, a lecturer in theatre studies at Leeds, said the initiative risked creating a forum for “anonymous trolling of lecturers and of fellow students, however much reassurance the university gives about responding to inappropriate messages”.

“The fact that the forum is public means that once any such message is posted, it will cause damage that will remain to be handled within the cohort long after it has been removed,” he said.

“We know that women and colleagues with foreign accents tend to get more judgemental feedback than others, so to open an unmoderated space where that might be facilitated on a daily basis is grossly irresponsible. None of the potential benefits are worth the dreadful risks.”

Dr Taylor-Batty added that there had not been proper consultation throughout the university and the move showed an “ignorance of the structures we already have in place for student support and feedback”.

Another Leeds academic told Times Higher Education that they also felt that staff had not been properly consulted. They said that the move was an “erosion of academic freedom and free speech in the classroom”, because real-time criticism meant lecturers will have no space to reflect upon criticisms.

They added that the “workplace stress impacts are likely to be considerable”, especially to new teachers and those most likely to get negative feedback because of race, gender or disability.

A university spokeswoman said that the aim was “to provide a consistent and inclusive way for every student to offer additional feedback during term-time, rather than at the end of modules”.

“We ran a pilot across 30-plus modules, with input from our consultation group, which encompassed students and staff, including academics…this initiative is being taken through our governance process, and will not be implemented until this process is complete”, she said.

Leeds University Union, which represents students, said that it supports “the direction that the university is taking, and strongly believes that students have no intention of abusing the process”.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (9)

Yeah... this makes me uncomfortable. We already know (see previous article I commented on, on unconscious bias/structural racism/structural sexism) that people are biased. So where are heightened levels of complaints going to come from??? I mean seriously... it's like you're just opening the door waving in the bias... It's like we do all this wonderful research. We explore, explain, discover, problematize... and then the universities entirely ignore all that work and run right on into simplistic ideas that will cause the problems we're spend the last forty years telling them about. Any other business model would think this was a really big problem, but apparently universities are cool with the underlying contradictions of their actions and existence...
Surely, going forward, mindfully, anyone who is worried about this latest systematic infantilization of professional proper academics managerialist stupidity should just do what the stupid VC of a #UniversityNearYou does, namely brute censor staff concerns (pretending they were never voiced at all and so not sharing them) then use Transcendental Meditation Levitation insanity to "reimagine" all is well? Hey presto! Abracadabra and the punterization continues.
Social media activity can be anonymous too and look at all the trolling and bullying occurring online. And the University of Leeds management thinks that their creation of the same will not be subjected to the same obnoxious online behaviours? Duh.... So basically, they want to improve student satisfaction by providing an online avenue to vent their frustrations and engage in vengeful rhetoric without repercussions? This just goes to show that when performance indicators are flawed, this will lead to university management adopting a Machiavellian approach to achieving those KPIs at whatever costs. Not all indices of student satisfaction are legitimate and justified. People, which includes undergraduate, can have unreasonable demands. Ask any customer service staff.
Module and teaching feedback is already anonymous, for the same reasons that marking is/should be anonymous. Students may feel they cannot be completely honest if they fear that being identified may mean being penalised. The problem with module and teaching feedback is that they happen at the end of the session, so too late for anyone to take corrective actions - so a method of capturing feedback during the semester is a good idea. Will people abuse the system? Probably, in the same way that people misuse existing systems.
Students need to know that the comment is anonymous, but that the tutor can check who has entered the modules, and which pages they have gone to in it, including the discussion board. It's not therefore truly anonymous in the same way that end of semester feedback is. As for the issue of people abusing the system. If one person does and Come home now do not, that might be deemed an acceptable risk. But what if that one is a huge reputation damaging holy mess. Or let's consider what risk there is behind non-offensive messages. Scenario: A girl with a protected characteristic is the only one silent in class. In week 2, the tutor arranged to discuss this with her, outside of class in a personal tutor slot. In week 3, someone comments that the tutor needs to get everyone talking. Another person agrees, stating how hard they work to contribute. Enough people 'approve' of these comments to indicate all but one in the class has participated. In week 4, the student with the protected characteristic doesn't turn up. Has there been anything offensive that will be deleted or to instigate disciplinary action? No. Has someone's learning journey been interrupted unnecessarily and their confidence undermined, just when the tutor was dealing with it? Yes. It's a minefield. Don't cross it.
Leeds' management should win a prize, in the category of implementation of measures which are both unequivocally unnecessary and liable to cause enormous harm. (And even though, among university managements, competition in this category is now fierce.) "A university spokeswoman said that the aim was 'to provide a consistent and inclusive way for every student to offer additional feedback during term-time, rather than at the end of modules'." There are of course already at least three ways "for every student to offer additional feedback during term-time": 1) Speak to the person to whom you want to give feedback. 2) E-mail the person to whom you want to give feedback. 3) If you are a student of a nervous disposition, speak to your personal tutor about your thoughts; s/he may help you clarify your thoughts and advise on an appropriate e-mail, or, in appropriate cases-- which are extremely rare-- may speak to the relevant person him/herself. What advantage does an anonymous, unmoderated discussion board offer? Absolutely none. What disadvantages does it create? 1) Its very existence signals that this University believes its staff cannot be trusted to treat students ethically. Some students fear (wrongly) that staff will react to feedback with hostility toward the individual student; by encouraging anonymous feedback, university management signals that it believes this fear is justified. 2) It encourages students to be irrational, unethical, and irresponsible. If students are going to e-mail feedback to someone, in their own name, there is at least a reasonable chance that they will think first about whether what they are about to say is fair, sensible, and polite. If they can leave anonymous feedback, there is a probability of abuse, and indeed pointlessness-- students getting themselves into a lather and posting a complaint which, if they'd slept on it, they themselves would realise was unjustified. We already know, from copious research, that so-called 'student evaluations of teaching' are no such thing-- they do not provide meaningful and reliable evaluation of teaching-- and they are heavily infected with bias. If Leeds' management paid any attention to research, they would realise that anonymous so-called module feedback on a discussion board would suffer from the same problems. 3) Quite apart from the tone of feedback/complaint, there is a probability of 'mobbing behaviour'. Students who simply do not like a particular lecturer/seminar leader-- which may be wholly or primarily due to bias on grounds of gender, ethnicity, etc-- will be presented with a whole parade of bandwagons to jump on. 4) It undermines students' character development and employability. In the working world, some bosses react to any suggestion with hostility. Many others, though, positively want subordinates to be willing and able to think about processes and suggest improvements, directly and politely. Of course it feels difficult and anxiety-provoking for a younger and less experienced person to make a suggestion to an older and more experienced person. Learning when and how to do that it is part of what constitutes properly growing up.
Will it be truly anonymous? To ensure that it is anonymous but only available to students enrolled on a module is technically possible, but ultimately relies on the students and staff trusting the system. How does the user know whether the system is recording their IP address, time of access and even their intranet login ID? There is likely to be enough forensic data to track down the identity of any poster. Also, who else but the students on the course and the tutors will have access to view the postings? The potential problems are numerous. Who decides what is an inappropriate posting and should be deleted? Can tutors do this if it is about another student or themselves? What if a student posts a threat to a tutor, or even a vice chancellor?
Staff will be expected to respond to student comments within 5 working days - how stupid or out-of-touch are University management? Academics are already sinking under impossible workloads, ever-increasing paperwork, targets, deadlines, REF-related nonsense, committees, and relentless monitoring exercises - to the extent that a couple of Universities have had had staff suicides in the last year or so - so how on earth are academics supposed to find time responding to the comments of potentially 100s of students each week? It is time for academics, en masse, to refuse to play these stupid management games; just boycott these insulting 'initiatives'. A major problem in many universities today is that there are too many swaggering, bullying, macho-managers - who wouldn't recognise a student if they tripped over one - thriving on picking fights with academic staff and taking a sadistic delight in demoralising them.
And so additional tasks continue to mount. Academics have become used to just sighing and absorbing another claim on their time. The response to this story indicates that a limit has been reached. Clearly this edict has been decided by management and just announced without consultation. Another platform for fielding student enquiries is now mandatory. On top of office hours, emails and the usual line of students waiting to ask questions at the end of lectures and seminars. The thought that struck me was - why would management wade in and dictate how discussion boards should be used? Presumably lecturers have been using these constructively and imaginatively for a few years. Well done Leeds university management - you have just killed all engagement and innovation with a potentially helpful learning technology.

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