Anonymity-Featured Group Support Systems and Creativity (Distance Learning)


Until recently, creativity has been a neglected research topic (Steinberg & Lubart, 1999), although it is a central concern for schools and universities. Steinberg and Lubart have defined creativity as “the ability to produce work that is both novel (i.e., original, unexpected) and appropriate (i.e., useful, adaptive concerning task constraints)” (p. 3). Teachers in classrooms challenge students to generate creative ideas so as to foster independent thinking.

This article aims to investigate normative influence as a barrier to creative idea generation that is present in the classroom and to propose information technology (IT)-based solutions to remove these barriers. Specifically, the article considers the influence of group support systems (GSS) on creativity within the classroom, reviews the pertinent literature, and suggests relationships between the use of GSS and creative idea generation.


The problem of Normative Influence

A disadvantage of working in a small group, such as a classroom, is normative influence. Normative influence, defined by Kaplan and Wilke (2001) as the “influence to conform to the expectations of others” (p. 410), is a considerable barrier to creativity within small groups, including classrooms. Normative influence deters the free expression of ideas by individual group members, such as when the latter are reluctant to propose ideas because of the perception that these ideas run counter to those of higher status members (Tan, Wei, Watson, & Walczuch, 1998) or because of the fear that their contributions will be devalued or rejected when evaluated by others (Klein, 2003; Klein & Dologite, 2000). Idea generation, problem solving, and other interactions in

small groups frequently result in the exertion of normative influence by some group members on others. Normative influence hinders the equal participation of all group members, constraining the creativity of lower status, junior, shy, or female members. For example, shy group members are frequently inhibited by other group members (Utz, 2000), thereby participating less in group discussion and thus generating fewer creative ideas along with fewer creative solutions.

In classrooms, from elementary to graduate schools, the reluctance of shy students to express themselves and make creative contributions during class discussions, “where the loudest and boldest often hold sway” (Sullivan, 1998, p. 3), leads to uneven participation and consequently to uneven creative idea generation. This point was well made by Hacohen (2000) in describing the philosopher Karl Popper’s “(infamous” seminar at the London School of Economics: “[T]he atmosphere did not encourage free debate. Insecure or timid students found it difficult to contribute …” (p. 527). Not only will shy students tend to participate less, but also they may be subject to conformance pressures (LaForge, 1999). In fact, some teenage students “worry excessively about conformity and being accepted” (Shyness Centre, 8). This article suggests that shy students will participate less and will not contribute creative or controversial ideas because they are subject to the normative influence of dominant group members.

This disparity in participation rates of non-shy and shy students is in addition to a persistent gender gap, whereby girls have lower rates of participation across the entire curriculum (American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, 1998; see also Fredericksen, 2000). According to Benbunan-Fich and Hiltz (2002): “Studies of gender inequity in traditional face-to-face classes tend to indicate that class participation is male dominated … However, with asynchronous computer-mediated communication [CMC], the tendency is toward more equal participation” (p. 3).

Group support systems

Group Support Systems (GSS) are “a computer-based coordinating mechanism to facilitate interpersonal computing” (Vinze, 1997, p. 355), “supporting] and augmenting] group work” (Greenberg, 1991, p. 133). Nunamaker, Briggs, Mittleman and Vogel (1996/1997) have defined GSS as an interactive computer-based environments which support concerted and coordinated team effort towards completion of joint tasks. Besides supporting information access, GSSs can radically change the dynamics of group interactions by improving communication, by structuring and focusing problem-solving efforts … (p. 164)

Possessing the capability for anonymous interaction, GSS permits group members to participate without being identified. According to Dennis, Tyran, Vogel, and Nunamaker (1997):

Anonymity may reduce evaluation apprehension—the fear of negative evaluation that can cause individuals to withhold ideas and opinions …. It may also reduce the pressure to conform to the opinions of others, whether the pressure is intentional or not. (p. 159)

Scholars and researchers within the information systems (IS) and related disciplines have suggested that creative idea generation may be enhanced in anonymity-featured GSS-supported groups (Hender, Dean, Rodgers, & Nunamaker, 2001; Klein & Dologite, 2000; Nunamaker,Applegate, & Konsynski, 1987; Siau, 1996). This article argues that the anonymity provided by a GSS inhibits normative influence within groups and thereby enhances creativity, and applies this argument to classrooms.

anonymity-featured group support systems in the classroom

GSS, which allow for anonymous interaction, provide an environment in which social cues (e.g., social presence, status, gender, seniority) are absent, thereby ensuring that the contributions of each group member are judged solely on merit and not on the external characteristics of the contributor (Boiney, 1998; Klein & Dologite, 2000). GSS are interactive computer-based information systems that support and structure group interaction, including idea generation and problem solving (Huber, Valacich, & Jessup, 1993; Poole & DeSanctis, 1990), and encourage divergence from customary modes of thinking (Reinig, Briggs, & Nunamaker, 1997/1998). GSS, then, can be used to enhance creativity by assisting in the idea generation process.

Hayne and Rice (1997) have summarized the literature on GSS and anonymity thus:

Efforts by many researchers … have generally found an increase in production and satisfaction when anonymous group brainstorming is used. Other advantages of anonymous participation include decreased evaluation apprehension, decreased member domination, decreased conformance pressure and decreased status competition, which can lead to increased exploration of alternatives and surfacing of assumptions. (p. 431)

According to Salisbury, Reeves, Chin, Bell, and Gopal (1997), “[o]ne of the earliest assertions of the importance of GSS technology is that it could be designed in such a way as to reduce conformity to social psychological pressures of the group … by providing anonymity (Dennis, George, Jessup, Nunamaker and Vogel, 1988)” (p. 576). Thus, GSS, with their anonymity feature, promote increases in participation, creativity, and productivity and fosters the expression of diverse opinions. The main thesis of this article is that by inhibiting normative influence, anonymity-featured GSS remove barriers to creative idea generation in the classroom.

The use of GSS in school and university classrooms “offer[s] the prospect of creating the small-class experience for a larger class” (Brandt & Briggs, 1995, p. 535). With the increase in group meetings using CMC (Valacich, Sarker, Pratt, & Groomer, 2002), there has been a great deal of interest in GSS-supported collaborative learning (Khalifa, Kwok, & Davison, 2001; see also Benbunan-Fich, 2002; Feather, 1999; Gros & Dobson, 2001; Palo Verde High Magnet School, 2002). Although GSS were originally designed for use in industry (Reinig et al., 1997/1998; Nunamaker, Dennis, Valacich, & Vogel, 1991; Nunamaker, Dennis, Valacich, Vogel, & George, 1991; Vreede & Bruijn, 1999), their use in schools and universities “can improve the classroom experience” (Reinig et al., 1997/1998; see also Alavi, 1994; Brandt & Lonsdale, 1996; Khalifa et al., 2001; Kwok, Ma, Vogel, & Zhou, 2001; Money, 1995/1996; Parent, Neufeld, & Gallupe, 2002; Ponemon, 1994; Tullar, Kaiser, & Balthazard, 1998; Tyran & Shepherd, 1998).

In an exploratory study of GSS use in a case method classroom, Parent et al. (2002) have found: “Overall, participation increased significantly as students became more comfortable and adept with the technology. The GSS appeared to provide marginalized students with a ‘voice’ in the classroom, and allowed prolific participators an additional outlet” (p. 1). In two field studies—one with high school students and one with undergraduate nursing majors—Brandt and Briggs (1995) have found that “the incorporation of [GSS] in more and more equal participation. The [GSS] technology seemed to provide a ‘cost-free’ channel for participating in classroom activities and further, minimized student apprehension about communicating ideas and sharing them with others” (p. 540). Further, Brandt and Briggs reported that: [GSS] technology may foster a less intimidating learning environment. Many people are shy or anxious about speaking in front of others during class. . . . With the [GSS] classroom, contributions to class discussions can be made anonymously, reducing the fear or “cost” of participating. Research shows that students using [GSS] participate much more fully and evenly than students in traditional classes. Further, these students tended to give higher quality answers in anonymous [GSS] classes. (p. 535)

Moreover, GSS allow all students to give answers to problems at the same time and to receive instant feedback (Brandt & Briggs, 1995; Briggs & Ramesh, 1992). Research has shown that the incorporation of GSS in the classroom results in increased student participation, thereby equalizing participation rates (Brandt & Briggs, 1995). It is suggested that the greater the participation, the greater the generation and communication of creative ideas.

Employing GSS in the classroom, then, has the potential of drawing students, including female students and shy students of both genders, into class discussions and encouraging them to make creative contributions. Benbunan-Fich, Hiltz, and Turoff (2001) have reported that computer-mediated groups using anAsynchronous Learning Network (ALN) had broader discussions then face-to-face groups. Although the cost of implementing most GSS packages in the classroom may be costly, there are some less expensive GSS packages that may be appropriate for school use in achieving broader student participation and creative idea generation. Advocating electronic study forums that offer anonymity— where students can use a popular groupware package such as Lotus Notes, Kleiber, Holt, and Swenson (n.d.) list among their advantages fuller participation and no domination by individuals. These very advantages may result in greater involvement of and more creative contributions by shy or female students.

GSS technology can be used for distributed learning, whereby students at different locations learn in a virtual classroom (Howard & Discenza, 2000). Students can learn collaboratively in synchronous or asynchronous interactions.Alavi (2004) has explained the advantages of distributed learning thus:

Distributed learning is an instructional model that gives students access to a wide range of resources—teachers, peers, and content such as readings and exercises—independently of place and time. It leverages computing, communication, and multimedia technologies to create learning environments that can be richer and more flexible, scalable, and cost-effective than the standard classroom or lecture hall. (p. 21) Jones, Connolly, Gear, and Read (2001) have found that “experience [with GSS] supports a collaborative model of learning” and have concluded that “[GSS] technology is a valuable tool for supporting case study analysis and developing important skills in students” (p. 585).

future directions

Schools and universities are increasingly adopting GSS. “The use of information technology (IT) to support teaching and learning in formal education settings is increasing at a dramatic rate” (Parent et al., 2002), with the past few years experiencing a “surge of interest in [GSS] usage to support collaborative learning” (Khalifa et al., 2002). These developments signal that we are entering a brave new world of communication resulting in the transformation of business, research, and educational landscapes.

In light of the aforementioned trends, it is an opportune time to empirically investigate the impact of normative influence on creative idea generation within GSS-supported groups. The current body ofresearch on the effects ofGSS on creative idea generation, although marked by considerable progress, is still in its formative stages and thus is not well developed. Pioneering studies have sought to answer the research question of whether GSS facilitates creative idea generation but have yielded mixed results to date (for a comprehensive literature review, see Bostrom & Nagasundaram, 1998; for a recent paper, see Klein & Dologite, 2000), while some theoretical papers have proposed various conceptual frameworks (Bostrom & Nagasundaram, 1998; Couger, 1996; Fellers & Bostrom, 1993). Accordingly, further experimental studies are required to confirm the suggested relationship between the use of GSS and creative idea generation. Such empirical inquiry is worthwhile as the findings will have significant implications for educational institutions.


This article has examined how GSS can assist intellectual collaborative work in the classroom by fostering the production of creative ideas. In light of the extant scholarly literature, it is anticipated that the use of anonymity-featured GSS will inhibit the distorting effects of status, seniority, shyness, and gender in group interactions and thereby will remove the barriers to participation and creative idea generation. GSS thus provide a hospitable environment for original thinking in schools and universities.

The anonymity feature of GSS allows group members to assess ideas solely on merit and not on the basis ofthe external characteristics of the originator, thereby counteracting the reluctance of group members to contribute their ideas. The normative influence problem, then, will be eliminated and a barrier to creative idea generation will be removed. In equalizing participation rates, GSS anonymity has the potential for increasing the number of creative ideas proposed in the classroom. Anonymity-featured GSS holds the promise of fundamentally altering cognitive work in groups.


Asynchronous Interaction: Communication that takes place over a network at different times. Examples of asynchronous interaction include communication via group support systems, e-mail, and electronic bulletin boards. The opposite of asynchronous interaction is synchronous interaction, which occurs when participants interact over a network simultaneously (i.e., in real time).

Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC): A communication system that involves or is assisted by computers. Computer-mediated communication includes group support systems, e-mail, videoconferencing, chat rooms, and instant messaging.

Creative Idea Generation: The production and development of original and useful ideas. Creative idea generation is a key activity in problem-solving groups.

Distributed Learning: A type of learning made possible by technology, that is dependent neither on place nor time. Distributed learning allows students and instructors to be at different locations at the same or different times.

Group Support Systems (GSS): Interactive computer-based information systems that support and structure group interaction and facilitate group meetings.

GSSAnonymity: A key feature usually available in most group support systems that allows group members to interact with each other while remaining unidentified to each other. GSS anonymity masks status and gender cues and reduces inhibitions.

Normative Influence: Influence whereby one conforms to others’ expectations. Normative influence plays a role in opinion formation.

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