What’s in a Name? Knowing and Being Known in Online Learning

Addressing depersonalization in online learning


What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
—Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

Relationships are messy at the best of times. I sometimes have dreamed that the perfect person will come along, and magic would happen. She did, but I came to understand that knowing another person is a complex task. Understanding myself is hard enough; I may think I’m doing well until books like Blink and Predictably Irrational expose the limits of my knowledge of self and of others. Even though relationships take hard work, most people want to know other people and to be known by them.

A brief history

Personal interaction is inseparable from education. It is hard to imagine education without thinking about the relationship between teacher and student. And yet, how this relationship is understood and realized has changed over the centuries with the progress of technology. The development of the alphabet and writing enabled ideas to be encoded and recorded. No longer was it necessary for the teacher and the student to interact directly. However, Socrates opposed the use of writing in education, surmising that students would have “the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction” (Plato, Phaedrus, 275). Later innovations such as the printing press, the telegraph, and the television also altered the ways that teachers and students interacted. All of these advances in technology met with criticism in their day.

Computer-mediated communication

With the rise of the internet, communication began to be mediated through computers. It wasn’t long before educators adopted this technology. Warnings were issued about the negative impact on relationships between individuals caused by the lack of nonverbal cues and the absence of social presence. A study was conducted into the human interactions in a “virtual classroom,” concluding that participants experienced higher levels of interaction in online learning (Hiltz, 1986). Even though advances in computing power and network bandwidth have enabled richer forms of computer-mediated communication, education delivered by synchronous video is still considered to be “not quite as personal as face-to-face, but very close” (Kay cited in “Graduate Degrees,” n.d.).

Understanding personhood

This, of course, raises the question that has been debated for centuries by philosophers, theologians, biologists, and psychologists among others, “What does it mean to be human?” Or, what are the essential characteristics of personhood? Or, for this essay, in what ways can computer-mediated communication depersonalize education? These questions are too complex for a blog post. They might be better suited to a philosophical treatise. Nonetheless, some aspects of depersonalization in computer-mediated communication include a loss of empathy, a limited ability to express emotion, an absence of nonverbal communication cues, and a lack of consequence recognition (Myer, 2010). Most internet users can share anecdotes of how an internet exchange, particularly text-based, has degenerated into a flame war. This lack of civility has prompted “public service announcement” style videos reminding us all that there is a real person on the other end.

Anonymity in online learning

Practical anonymity extends to online learning environments. In some cases, anonymity may be more profound. A university recently used automated identification codes to represent students in an asynchronous discussion board to avoid violating Alberta’s privacy legislation (Francis-Poscente & Moisey, 2012). A study of those involved revealed that most preferred to be known by their given names or a pseudonym of their choosing. Even still, there can be benefits to higher degrees of anonymity in education. These include such benefits as improving participation in discussion of sensitive topics (Blau & Barak, 2012) and grading fairness (Jae & Cowling, 2008).

What’s in a name?

While the names of other participants are often known in online learning, a name is but one aspect of a person’s identity. Knowing a person involves far more than knowing their name. Building a relationship online does take a different set of skills, and the shape of the interactions is different. And yet, the limitations imposed by the communications medium may be useful in forging the kinds of relationships that would otherwise be difficult. The disequilibrium caused by the depersonalizing effect of online learning can play a role in helping participants to reduce prejudice (Walther, Hoter, Ganayem, & Shonfeld, 2015). Returning to Shakespeare’s question, “What’s in a name?”, for knowing (and for being known), a name may be a good place to begin, but it may also stand in the way of truly knowing another.


Blau, I., & Barak, A. (2012). How do personality, synchronous media, and discussion topic affect participation? Educational Technology and Society, 15(2), 12–24.

Francis-Poscente, K., & Moisey, S. D. (2012). We are not numbers: The use of identification codes in online learning. Journal of Distance Education, 26(2).

Graduate degrees through synchronous online learning at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://teachonline.ca/pockets-innovation/graduate-degrees-through-synchronous-online-learning-university-ontario-institute

Hiltz, S. R. (1986). The “virtual classroom”: Using computer‐mediated communication for university teaching. Journal of Communication, 36(2), 95–104.

Jae, H., & Cowling, J. F. (2008). The use of bar code technology in grading to improve student anonymity and reduce identity-based bias. Marketing Education Review, 18(1), 65–70.

Myer, E. S. (2010). The flip side: An investigation into the depersonalization of communication. The College at Brockport.

Walther, J. B., Hoter, E., Ganayem, A., & Shonfeld, M. (2015). Computer-mediated communication and the reduction of prejudice: A controlled longitudinal field experiment among Jews and Arabs in Israel. Computers in Human Behavior, 52, 550–558.


Photo credit: “a67” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by  Luke McKernan 

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