Sunday, March 31, 2013

Is there a role for "anonymous" in a classroom?

Teaching a MOOC with Coursera has made me aware of all the anonymous posts in the system.  Coursera allows students to post anonymously on a per post basis. There is a checkbox that allows a forum post to be anonymous. I wonder about the value of this. I can't imagine an anonymous student in one of my physical classrooms.

I think, within a classroom, you should be responsible for what you say. This is a place that can teach you to be serious and considerate. All classes, beyond teaching the syllabus should teach you to be considerate, empathetic, and respectful. A class should teach you to consider what you say before you say it. Posting anonymously allows you to be inconsiderate, un-empathetic and even rude.

Allowing anonymous posts allows students to make "off the record" comments, which in a large way defeat the usefulness of a permanent record of a student's involvement in a class.

Is there a place where anonymous is valuable in a classroom?

Anonymous posts are great for critiquing the teacher in a traditional school. In that role they work beautifully. A student, when critiquing a professor, needs to know that they will not be punished for their comments about the teacher. I have received some of the best student to teacher critique in the anonymous surveys in my traditional and online classes. I thank my students for taking the time to let me and the administration know how my teaching has been.


  1. In an internet setting with literally tens of thousands of people in the class, and the possibility of millions of others viewing your info, I think the "anonymous" feature encourages more people to post who may have otherwise been leary of doing so due to privacy concerns. It seems like a double edges sword. Perhaps the instructors and/or moderators of these forums could see the info while it remains hidden from the students and other guests.

  2. Thanks for the response Jesse, I am considering what you are saying.

    What information does a Coursera student expose when posting in a forum?
    Their username on Coursera and the information they put in their Coursera profile, anything more?
    I don't think so, but I need to dig deeper to be sure.

    I am not sure that encouraging more people to post is necessarily the most important goal.
    I would rather make quality discussion the goal, so I must consider anonymous posters from that point of view.

    I do not see how having anonymous posts increases the quality of discussion.
    Intuitively I believe that allowing anonymous posts decreases the quality of the discussion.
    I don't like the mood it sets. Anonymous posts seem sneaky and more prone to rudeness.
    Some detailed studies could be done to test some of these beliefs.

    Allowing anonymous posters seems largely to increase numbers. It focuses on the "Massive" in MOOC. (You are saying it also contributes to the "open" because fearful people now have a way to post.)

    I think that the "Massive" is the least important part of MOOC. I would rather focus on the quality of the course.

    I would be interested to hear some specific examples where anonymous posts are useful. I gave one in my original post. I would be curious to hear more.

  3. Well, I'm not sure, and in today's world where identity theft is a real issue, I don't feel comfortable posting using my real name. Perhaps I am being paranoid, but I do have good reason to be. I have posted several things in the forums anonomously and none were anything but helpful imo. I may not have posted if I were unable to do so anonymously.

  4. Thank you for the response Jesse, I am glad the anonymity has given you the comfort to post in the class. It seems that it does provide you with comfort, and I am sure others have felt this way. You have shown me that the anonymous post is helpful within the Coursera system. But, I am still unconvinced that anonymous posts have a place in a classroom. Your discomfort seems to stem from the Coursera system, and not trusting it. I cannot find a way that anonymous posts help learning or communication within a classroom.

    In other online classes I teach there are no anonymous posts and the people there have no issue with it. Possibly a clearer privacy statement from Coursera is what is necessary.

    My concern with anonymous is mostly within the course, not outside of it. Why should a student be allowed to make a comment not associated with the other comments they have made? In the class you are establishing "who" you are by the posts you make(creating a reputation for yourself). I don't think it is appropriate that a person can make a comment that doesn't have an impact on the reputation they are creating. Anonymous posts allow a student to have a visible respectful reputation and secret rude one.

    I liken anonymous posts to passing notes in class, it is disruptive. A person writes and passes notes in class because they KNOW that the communication goes against the prevailing "rules of communication" set in the class. Is that a fair connection anonymous and note passing? I'll think it through, but it seems right to me.

    Thank you for having this conversation with me Jesse. It is very helpful for me to hear a student's perspective.

    Why are you comfortable with your name being "Jesse" here on my blog but not within the Coursera site even though this is a more public space?

  5. It's not the name, but the information behind it that I am uncomfortable with. Here I can control what people can and cannot read about me, on Corsera, I am just not familiar enough with the system. As for the learning aspect, as I said before I have posted several things that I would consider helpful and educational in the forum anonymously. Things from microphone suggestions, to info about Ardor, my DAW of choice. In the end, given what you have said here in this very blog, I'm sure you can agree that online classrooms are vastly different than physical classrooms, and this "classroom" in particular due to the way it is being taught, and the sheer volume of students is vastly different than most. Alos, i know one concern was that people were coming off as nasty and mean. Some may be doing this on purpose, but it has been my experience that tone is not conveyed well in text, add to that language and culture barriers as well as translation errors, it's easy to assume a person means something they said in a mean way, when in reality they meant it as constructive criticism. As I said before, I think a great compromise would be to let the instructor and or some "faculty" members" of the course see who the anonymous posters are, but leave them anonymous to other viewers.

  6. It seems to me that the issue is understanding the Coursera system, and that is totally valid. If they have not made their privacy policies clear then you have every right to be cautious. You trust Google more than you trust Coursera, that is interesting in of itself.

    I would like to differentiate between the Coursera system and an ideal "open classroom." which is really what I am thinking about in this post.

    I believe that in an ideal "open class" I should be held accountable for everything I say in a classroom(as a teacher and as a student). The validity of a certificate and the quality of the discussion go up when everyone is honest about who they are and accountable for what they say (to each other and to the "faculty").

    "Tone is not conveyed well in text" I have had that experience as well, many times. But, if I am aware that everything I say can be attributed to me, then I am much more likely to be careful and respectable. I want to create an atmosphere were people are careful with their words. A place were people think of all the possible misunderstandings before speaking.

    "vastly different" I am not so sure about that. I'll have to consider that. My immediate response is no, they are not vastly different, most aspects are exactly the same(I am well versed in online education, this is different than that, but vastly? I don't think so). But, I want to give that thought, the tough part is defining "vastly" and that could take a while.

    In the Coursera system you have given me some compelling arguments that anonymous posts are helpful. With a clear privacy statement they could possibly be done away with(not my call, the instructor has no bearing on Coursera's policies regarding anonymity). For an ideal "open course" I still see no benefit to allowing anonymous posts.

    Again, thank you for having this discussion with me Jesse. This blog is completely based on me trying to understand the future of education and trying to find a way were I can contribute in a meaningful way to society.

  7. I "trust" Google because I know what they do and do not display to others. I do not trust the Coursera system because I'm not sure what others see when they view me or my profile here. I completely agree, and "open classroom" should be, well, open. But you need to also take into account online privacy issues and make everything as transparent as possible without opening yourself up to exposing people's identities. everything online is by it's very nature more anonymous, and for good reason. As long as you can take these into account, and have a well rounded privacy policy, I see no problem doing away with anonymous posts. Really this is something you need to grapple with as you move forward as I'm sure you intend to do. I love the idea of what you are doing, I see it as the future of education as a whole. It is, however, becoming increasingly clear that your vision is being hampered by using Coursera's format. But, as this is essentially a beta test, it should serve it's purpose. It sounds to me like you are learning a lot about this format of education, and if you continue down this path I have no doubt you will play a key role in the realization of the vision that many have.

  8. I have thought much about what you said here Jesse. I think I need to take a more nuanced view of anonymity in a classroom. There are places for it, particularly when topics revolve around sensitive subjects of identity and cultural differences. Also, like you mentioned there is a distinction between be anonymous to other students and being anonymous to the staff. Maybe setting up anonymous areas, instead of allowing anon posts would be a good way to go about this.

    Also, I think the role of anonymonity in the classroom should be related to the topic at hand. In a music production course, I am not so sure of the need. But In a course on the Israel Palestine conflict maybe there would be more need there (or maybe no anonymity would be better there arghhh...).

    Thank you for helping me work through this, even though it has led to more questions!