Identity in an Online Learning Environment Facilitated Through Discord

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As part of my on-going education in learning technology, I’m currently at the beginning of a deep dive into research surrounding the development of student and educator identity in an Online Learning Environment (OLE), examined through the lens of a Community of Inquiry (COI).  I’m specifically interested in how this might be achieved through the adoption of a community building platform called Discord.  Discord was launched in early 2015 as a platform designed to create online communities for video game users and is “just now realizing it may have stumbled into something like the future of the internet” (Pierce, 2020, para. 4).

This platform allows for robust interactions between participants including text chat, voice, and screen sharing moderated through granular permission controls and divided into topics controlled through communities (referred to on Discord as “servers”) and discussions (referred to as “channels”).  How might the use of a Social Networking Site (SNS), like Discord, impact the development of student and educator online identities to facilitate social, teaching, and cognitive presence in a COI, and how might that both positively and negatively impact learning?

A few areas of concern related to identity development in an OLE are context collapse, miscategorization, and othering.  Dennen and Burner (2017) asserted that context collapse occurs when two or more separate identity fragments converge, either intentionally or otherwise.  An example of this might occur when a student has developed a personal identity on an SNS and is then required to use it for educational purposes, forcing the collision of both the personal and student identities.  This collision could have both positive and negatives outcomes.  One negative outcome could be a possible identity miscategorization.  Lowenthal and Dennen (2017) observed that while we can communicate qualities of our identity online, we do not have complete control over its development and interpretation by others.  As a result, a student’s identity can be interpreted differently than how they see themselves which can result in a reduced social presence.  Finally, othering, is the concept of isolating individuals from discourse as a result of their incongruence with the dominant ideas of the community.  This can negatively impact social presence, as Phirangee and Malec (2017) observed, when learners can’t identify with the majority of their classmates and may find themselves with a reduced capacity to interact with the learning community.

It’s been my observation with my exploration of Discord, that it may be well positioned to reduce the likelihood of the aforementioned concerns surrounding online identity.  Primarily, as it provides infrastructure which can be used to maintain separation between personal and educational identity fragments, through the use of servers and multiple accounts, it may reduce the possibility of context collapse.  This fragment separation may also reduce miscategorization and othering, but I need to explore this further.

I would love to hear your feedback on what I’ve explored so far and any possible questions or recommendations you may have.


Dennen, V. P., & Burner, K. J. (2017). Identity, context collapse, and Facebook use in higher education: Putting presence and privacy at odds. Distance Education, 38(2), 173–192.

Lowenthal, P. R., & Dennen, V. P. (2017). Social presence, identity, and online learning: research development and needs. Distance Education, 38(2), 137–140.

Phirangee, K., & Malec, A. (2017). Othering in online learning: An examination of social presence, identity, and sense of community. Distance Education, 38(2), 160–172.

Pierce, D. (2020). How Discord (somewhat accidentally) invented the future of the internet. Protocol.

3 thoughts on “Identity in an Online Learning Environment Facilitated Through Discord”

  1. I think this collision of identities can be a problem for some students as they can struggle with being too colloquial and unprofessional. Many instructors complain that students on these discussion forums are texting as all hours of the night and expecting immediate responses. Students are also using inappropriate avatars and unprofessional usernames. Students also sometimes forget that if a discussion platform is being used for educational purposes that what they say is a digital record and could be used as evidence against them.

    I have also found that trolling can become a problem as well. Trolling is an internet phenomenon where by a minority of students will gain popularity of their opinions in online discussions. This happens more in anonymous or semi-anonymous platforms probably due to a lack of accountability. Cheng et al (2017), explain some of the causes and contributing factors to trolling.

    It is for this reason, that it might be advisable for instructors to have a quick talk with students that they should be on their ‘best behaviour’ and on what is considered professional in these chat programs. What other behaviours can instructors do to moderate and curb unprofessional conduct in online platforms?

    Cheng, J., Bernstein, M., Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, C., & Leskovec, J. (2017, February). Anyone can become a troll: Causes of trolling behavior in online discussions. In Proceedings of the 2017 ACM conference on computer supported cooperative work and social computing (pp. 1217-1230).

    1. I entirely agree, Patrick. Whenever you open the door for open communications online, you introduce the opportunity for inappropriate behaviour. Mike MacKay found this article by McNamara and Zachmeier (2021) ( whose authors agree with your suggestion that instructors should lay the ground rules for behaviour on a course related online community. They go so far as to suggest discussing those rules in class and developing them with the group’s consensus, which should lead to greater buy-in from them. This makes sense to me in theory… it may work differently in practice.

      As for communications at any hour of the day or night… again, I agree it can be a problem. I help operate the college radio station at my institution… and the radio never stops. It’s a 24/7 operation, and the students may need our input at any time. I’m not on call all the time (although my colleague is… poor guy)… so I have the luxury of delaying response for non essential matters. What I tell me students is that they should never hesitate to contact me at any hour if they have an issue… that way, they leave the choice to respond with me. If I’m in a position to respond… I will. If I can’t, I will when the opportunity presents itself. I prefer this, rather than a student choosing not to communicate with me, in which case I will never be able to help them. I then, at least, can make the decision to respond by weighing my current situation (dinner with the family, perhaps) and the severity and urgency of their issue. If I’m open and honest with my students about how I handle it… I find they almost always respect that.

      McNamara, M., & Zachmeier, A. (2021). My students started a Discord server. Now what? Inside Higer Ed.

  2. Christopher, this topic is particularly germane in higher education because so much of the communication and online interaction among students that takes place is on tools outside of those provided by the institution. The Inside Higher Ed article sums it up very nicely: One of the results is that universities have had to develop a variety of policies and practices to deal with forms of misconduct online (e.g. see link below for a BC version). The question of identity development in such environments is very likely understudied due to the quasi grey zone in which these communities exist, making this a timely study.

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