Teaching intelligence: making use of the anonymous student voice

The use of anonymous online student forums alarms many tutors. But Patricia Xavier believes universities can make them work for everyone

June 27, 2019
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Universities increasingly talk about “students as partners” and encourage the student voice. However, this, along with the use of social media, is starting to bump up against the protected world of academics.

A recent case at the University of Leeds, with academics raising concerns about the use of anonymous platforms for student engagement, is a sign that the talk about student partnerships is often only superficial. This is not to single out Leeds for particular criticism, because I believe that the response is typical of what would happen at many universities.

It takes genuine institutional bravery to be vulnerable and open yourself up to what students have to say when they are anonymous. Sometimes it is painful to hear, but it is seldom meaningless.

At Swansea University, we are already using an anonymous feedback platform that is used by others across the UK. There were a number of concerns about implementing it, and, yes, there are some who are still opposed to it. But it hasn’t turned into the monster some feared. Most students are reasonable, understanding of our workloads and want to work towards solutions, not just complain.

We did have attempts at trolling and students creating nonsense clickbait in the early days. Since we introduced community guidelines, emphasised the professional nature of the platform and booted off those who were not complying, we see far fewer inappropriate posts.

Now, on average, 1-2 per cent of posts are removed for being inappropriate, so the vast majority prompt discussion and are valuable. Most students do raise concerns about the course and the campus, but we have also found brilliant suggestions and even spontaneous conversations on issues such as gender equality and loneliness that I don’t believe could have happened in a non-anonymous staff-student shared space.

The activity on the platform has been behind decisions to repurpose space, create an equipped “hack zone” for student projects and improve food on campus.

We found that students actively police the forum themselves. If they think another student has made a false or ridiculous claim, they are usually quicker than staff to step in and defend the target of the post. We have found that students self-regulate the tone and significance of the topic, and our student representatives play a key part in this.

Interestingly, rather than explicit or implicit attacks against staff with protected characteristics, what we have actually seen is privilege being challenged by other students. On one discussion about women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, students offered arguments and counter-arguments about this issue. No comments were abusive, but some did come from a place of ignorance that exposed the privilege of the commentator. We have had a similar debate about the prominence of the Welsh language in communications and the differing impact of this on Welsh and English speakers.

This is critical pedagogy in action: the students are voluntarily engaging in challenging each other’s perspectives outside the classroom. Isn’t that the dream of any educator? It isn’t perfect, but even as a heavily overloaded and permanently tired academic with hundreds of students, I find it a liberating experience to engage with students in this way.

All this also helped with our results in the 2018 National Student Survey, with one college in particular seeing a big improvement in the number of students who believe that “staff value students”.

These platforms are not without risk; they need dedicated staff to manage the content. Staff welfare has to be a priority and we block any students who attack staff. We constantly monitor and adapt our policy on what can be discussed. We are still learning how to use the platform in the best way.

Student anonymity tests how meaningful your partnership approach is and the resilience of your staff community. Do staff believe that they should be accountable to students? If so, do they feel safe enough to reflect on and respond appropriately to constructive criticism in an open forum?

Workload, increasing use of temporary contracts and rising student expectations are leaving staff feeling fragile and vulnerable. Are support systems in place to make staff feel safe enough to admit that there are ways in which they could improve? Or does a culture of blame and punishment preside?

All this is exposed once you start to reduce the distance between students and staff. If the sector is serious about students as partners, anonymous feedback forums are a logical and powerful way to achieve that relationship.

Patricia Xavier is associate professor – programme development and enhancement in the department of engineering at Swansea University.

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