Online Students: How Some Anonymity Can Help Diversity

One of the great possible advantages of online learning is anonymity.

An anonymous profile picture icon
E Trembley

What?  Anonymity?  That seems like a bad thing in education.  Especially for those of us dedicated to the liberal arts.  I want to know my students.  Students choose liberal arts educations, in part, to get to know their professors and their classmates more than they imagine they might in larger classes on mammoth campuses.

How can anonymity be a good thing?

Well, it can combat visually-based prejudice.

For example, for most of us, our gender, our race, our age, our height, our weight, or any physical challenges are immediately apparent when we walk into traditional classrooms.  “Long before you speak, your presence presents your instructor and your peers with a complex, if quite limited, picture of who they think you are” (Ubell, 33-34).

This is not so in an online course.  For although a student may be asked to post a picture, and though some names may indicate gender, “despite the fact that your classmates may know your name, gender, and other things about you, because you are obscured from total view, you and others in your virtual class act as if you’re anonymous.  On campus, because you are fully visible, you are subject to the same attitudes people have outside of class about your identity–your gender, age, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and religion, as well as your political opinions, social and economic class, disability, language, nationality, and other characteristics” (Ubell 34).

For students who are members or minority, marginalized, and/or discriminated-against groups, this ability to escape stereotyping can bring relief.

In addition, “partial invisibility online gives students a license to express themselves more opening than they would” (Ubell 34)  in a normal classroom.  Students might feel more comfortable interacting with more authenticity, and more free to ask questions.

As you think about the social realities regarding diversity on your campus, how do you think online courses could help students across a wide-range of differences participate more fully in learning?


Ubell Robert.  “What You Can Do Online, But Not On Campus.  In Going Online:  Perspectives on Digital Learning.  New York:  Routledge, 2017.  33-43.

Why and How to Employ Digital Tools In the Classroom and Online

This recent post from Inside Higher Ed shares an interview with Michelle Pacansky-Brock, educator, speaker, and author of Best Practices for Teaching With Emerging Technologies.

Her work focuses on “why it’s important to employ web-based tools — mostly free and relatively easy to use — in online and residential courses and how to teach effectively with them.”

Noting that she believes we are in the greatest revolution in learning in history, Pacansky-Brock says that “teachers — not tools — will fuel this shift.”

Online Teaching and Learning A Boon For Updating Skills

Online courses appeal particularly to those in professions where skills need to be updated frequently.

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E Trembley

And while that may seem a premature consideration for our undergraduates, who have yet to enter their professions, I would argue that we can actually do a lot to help prepare them to succeed by giving them robust online learning experiences now.

In an essay specifically focused on engineers, author Robert Ubell writes, “as any working engineer knows. there is tremendous pressure to keep pace with the latest technology and the newest ways of doing business.  ‘Engineers tell me that they need a thorough refresher course in their specialties at least every other year,’ remarked Peter F. Drucker … ‘and a “re-immersion”–their word–in the basics at least every four years.'”

Is this true for other areas beyond engineering?  Areas for which we are preparing our undergraduates?  How can we help them thrive in the future in online learning environments?

Might we at small colleges and universities increase alumni and community engagement by offering such online, ongoing education for lower cost, no credit options?

Lots to think about here.


UBell, Robert.  “Engineers Turn to Online Learning.”  In Going Online:  Perspectives on Digital Learning.  New York:  Routledge, 2017.  95-100.