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Telling Tales Out of School | Do privacy expectations differ in online classrooms?


I’ve been thinking lately about how “telling tales out of school” and what that means for the MOOC environment.

gossip in MOOCs

Madhavi Kuram via Flickr

Every teacher knows student gossip is a part of campus life. Sitting in my office, I often overhear students in the hallway sharing impolitic opinions about their classes in ways I assume they wouldn’t do if they thought their professor would ever hear it. And I remember one shameful instance in my youth when my classmates and I were heading to lunch and ridiculing our long-legged professor’s quirks only to discover that his long legs had allowed him to overtake — and overhear — us.

I’m sure my own students gossip about me. Earlier this week, the instructor who uses my classroom after me came in while I was packing up and asked if I had just given a test? She hinted that she had heard an unusual amount of grumbling from my students as they passed her in the hallway. (It was the grades on the papers I had just handed back.)

It used to be gossip could travel no further and faster than a phone tree. In the last twenty years, of course — to belabor the obvious — almost every part of social life has been touched by the fact that there is very little barrier between any piece of information and anyone else on the planet. Any restaurant, for example, might find a bad night recorded for posterity on Yelp. I wasn’t happy with a contractor who worked on my home a few years ago, and now anyone who visits his page on Angie’s List knows it. Nightclub comics have to think twice now about how far they push their material for fear it will get wider exposure than they were counting on.

Classrooms haven’t been immune from this for awhile. Ratemyprofessor is old news by now. But until recently, college classrooms were treated as a private space whose inner workings were rarely broadcast because students, too, have a motivation to keep it private. We all have to see one another face-to-face for the rest of the semester and in later semesters. The professor still has authority over the student in grading and recommendations. And we all actually know one another so common human decency checks our impulses somewhat. Telling tales out of school carries a certain amount of perceived risk.

MOOCs, however, start with the wall removed. An online classroom with 50,000 students isn’t a private space; it only impersonates one. A teacher with 50,000 students isn’t a teacher anymore in the sense we usually think of it. They are now also a public figure with a following bigger than say — almost any author you can name except the handful who appear on bestseller lists. Most of those followers are not known to the teacher and don’t participate in the class in a meaningful way, but they are witnesses to it. And witnesses will witness. Not to mention gossip. No teacher has ever before entered a classroom with so little expectation that what is discussed will remain between them and their students.


MOOCs are a broadcast medium

No one expects a concert to be private. Or a speech at a convention. Or an online discussion forum in any other instance. All of those will inevitably be tweeted, uploaded, recorded or repeated. We only expect this online thing resembling a college to be kept entre nous.

Like so much else with MOOCs, because they are a kind of cousin to college education, provided by colleges, covering topics that colleges cover, using the jargon of college and to some degree replicating the college experience, we forget that they are not college. They are something different that is yet to be fully defined. MOOCs are a kind of broadcasting. And something that is broadcast is going to be shared.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Openness and transparency generally lead to unexpected innovations. But there’s going to be friction whenever we thoughtlessly presume the same kind of privacy as a traditional classroom.

Most teachers want their classroom to be a safe space for making mistakes in and exploring in — for their students and themselves. For example, many of us want students to get answers wrong sometimes, because that is also part of learning. With my students I often compare writing workshops to physical training¬† as part of preparing for excellence in a sport. During the game you want to succeed, but in the weight room you want to get to muscle failure. And there’s a reason coaches don’t invite cameras into the weight room for the world to witness that muscle failure. Similarly, I want my writing students, during low-stakes exercises at least, to push themselves to points where the writing starts to unravel a little. That, too, is part of learning, but it’s not a part of publishing.

The teacher, too, usually wants to feel they can experiment and take risks and sometimes even fail as teachers on the way to achieving even better results. Getting up in front of twenty kids is vulnerable as hell and feels like a high-wire act. Sometimes it gets messy, and to me, that’s an important characteristic of good education.

With MOOCs, the mess is there for the world to see. I love getting the emails from MOOC instructors with a “we’re all in this together tone.” The way they rah-rah us is inspiring and it reminds me that I need to keep bringing that kind of energy to my classes. It’s a rare opportunity to see other teachers in action. They are being collegial in the best sense of the word, and I don’t want to see MOOCs lose that. I don’t want them to be more guarded.

But sometimes, when the MOOC teacher is rallying us because the class in going a little haywire, these emails make me cringe, and I also think, “Don’t you realize that you just sent that email to 50,000 people? Anybody can see this, you know?”

Part of me wants to protect, not the sanctity, but the privilege of the college classroom. They ought to be spaces where students and teachers test themselves against the challenges of the course without fear of exposure. But I also know there is no reasonable expectation that protecting the MOOC space in this way is remotely possible. The first two words in the acronym MOOC are Massive and Open.

The colleges offering MOOCs are engaged in a massive live open-access experiment, and I sometimes think we’re not getting the full learning opportunity out of this experiment because we keep confusing it with college itself. For example, the inevitability of gossip (or responsible commentary, which is what I hope we are doing on this site) — the inevitability of us telling tales out of school — could be a feature, rather than a bug. Feedback is an obvious good. A system of absorbing and considering feedback is better.

This site’s mission is to help future students make good decisions. To do that, we’ll be reporting what we observe and commenting on it. I can’t imagine any case when that would mean embarrassing individual students from the discussion forums. And I don’t want to embarrass any faculty. Our priority is describing the user experience.

But anyone speaking to a massive audience and hoping to solicit another massive audience in the future, and that opens the doors to invite people to come and go as they please, has to expect it all to be repeated. I don’t envy the teachers in these courses. The exposure is incredible. But it’s also a lot of responsibility, and we think it’s important that there be a forum for evaluating how well they meet that responsibility.


Robert McGuire (52 Posts)

My content marketing services firm provides all-in-one external staff solutions for companies looking to grow their business through thought leadership. I started MOOC News & Reviews in 2013 out of a fascination with the economic, demographic and technological forces impacting edtech, online education and higher education, and I wanted to provide a forum for serious discussion of this new phenomenon. I love building communities of writers engaging in lively critical dialogue about emerging issues.