The Power & Cowardice of Anonymity

In an age where people are respected for creating a positive and perhaps influential and inspirational digital footprint, why are so many individuals still clinging to online anonymity…or worse, abusing anonymity to gain power?

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Photo by Justin Ling CC Wikimedia Commons  Guy Fawkes mask for hacktivist group Anonymous’

The Masks We Wear

We all wear a mask when we’re online, but it’s up to us how we carve the features. What parts of ourselves or what human characteristics do we want to portray?

I’m still amazed at the amount of feedback and free speech platforms that enable individuals to anonymously berate and slander individuals and institutions. Many students and teachers are familiar with the Rate My Teacher platform, and in the international circuit there is a similar platform called the International School Reviews. For many, this platform serves as a space for sharing experiences of living and working abroad. While teachers searching this platform try to look for trends, the feedback can range from reasonable complaints to completely absurd, over-dramatised and vengeful perspectives. Unfortunately many teachers rely on platforms like this to gain information about a school before they accept a job offer. While the reviews are often harsh, they are also anonymous, making it difficult to really determine the extent of the teacher’s experience. General anonymous platforms like this also devalue any accurate feedback about a school, because educators are forced to weigh each review with caution.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t end with online platforms. As we are continuously required to divulge more of our personal information online, the counter move appears to be apps that foster anonymity. While these apps may aim to protect individuals’ rights to free speech and privacy, they ultimately encourage and promote internet trollers and cyberbullies.

Recently, the Yik Yak app fell under major criticism as teens were irresponsibly using it to dare and bully each other.

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Photo Credit: kid-josh via Compfight cc

This Blog Post explores in more depth the vulgarity and misuse of the app at a US college campus.

My question is, why do so many individuals continue to hide behind anonymous apps that were not initially designed to be misused in this way? Last month Diana Graber of the Huffington Post investigated the issue further and spoke directly to the creators of the Yik Yak app. She wrote:

“We were naïve,” Buffington told me. “We designed the app primarily for college students. Using the app the way we intended it to be used requires a certain amount of maturity and responsibility, we were idealistic about who possessed that.”

The co-creators did their best to remedy the situation by placing age limits and blocks on the app in certain geographical regions and school districts, but the damage initially done had already occurred. Graber succinctly summarises ways to prevent future incidents like this from happening:

What Parents and Educators Can Do To Monitor Social Apps:

1) Prevent your under-17-year-old from downloading apps rated 17+. If they have an iOS device: Go to “Settings,” select “General” and tap “Enable Restrictions.” You can set restrictions for “Installing Apps” and “In-App Purchases” here (the slider should read off.)
2) Since kids are really good at getting around #1 (above), a better solution is to talk to your kids, set rules, and then get familiar or cyber-wise about what they’re up to online so you can see if your rules are being followed. If you need a little help with this (especially with younger kids) you might consider installing software, like SpectorSoft, that records and replays all of your child’s Internet activity and provides a detailed report.
3) Even better than #1 or #2 is to advocate for digital literacy or “cyber civics” lessons to be taught at your school. Understanding how (and why) to be safe and respectful online is an indispensable skill in our networked world. Besides, the best Internet block or filter in the world is the one kids carry around between their ears. Let’s teach them how to use it!

Number three clearly shows that ultimately it is up to schools and educators to teach students about becoming responsible digital citizens, and giving them space to practice these skills.

Despite the controversy, anonymous apps unfortunately seem to be on the rise. Tech Crunch recently described the newest app Cloaq (released just 2 weeks ago): 

The trend toward anonymous social applications may be on the downswing for some, but others believe there’s still a place for online discussions where users don’t have to reveal their real identity. Case in point: Cloaq, the anonymous app where users never had to provide an identifying piece of information, like a phone number or email, is today launching out of beta with a new twist. Instead of only socializing around user-generated content, the startup is now allowing users to have anonymous discussions about news articles as well.

I find this deeply concerning as we are removing all accountability from users of these apps. Providing a mask, or cloak, to hide behind will greatly impact the way humans interact and socialise online. Will anonymous trolling one day overshadow the power and inspiration provided through connectivism and networking communities?

The Anonymity Myth

Another recent article by Tech Crunch explores the myth of maintaining and remaining anonymous online. The main points include:

  • ‘Privacy’ Mode is Not Very Private
  • Cookie Blocking Prevents Many Commercial Trackers, But Leaves Big Openings
  • Tor and Encrypted Browsing Both Conceal and Highlight Users
  • Beyond the Mask of Encryption: Behavioral Giveaways

The final point discusses how unaware we are of our online behavioural giveaways:

While Tor and other privacy-focused technologies may protect you from revealing most of your personal details as you surf the web, how you behave online may ultimately expose your true identity. If you think of the web as a public meeting place, then privacy technologies are like a mask or disguise – people won’t be able to recognize your identity on sight. But other details, such as the way you walk or talk, may be enough to tip off a careful observer.

This final point brings me hope that one day we may greatly reduce, or even erradicate abuse of power on the internet. I wonder how much longer anonymous individuals will have the freedom to troll and bully others online. When will technology and governing policies catch up and make it impossible to speak behind the mask?

Our Profiles, Ourselves

We are moving towards an age where our online presence marks a major aspect of ourselves. Potential employers are relying on our online profiles more than ever to get a complete picture of who we are, and who they are hiring. Does it reflect poorly or negatively on us if we lack an online presence? Five years ago, I don’t think it would have been an issue. But now, I would question why a teacher, administrator or school has so little shared online. It either reflects they may have something to hide or nothing of value to share with the global community.

Platforms such as WordPress, BloggerSquarespace and eBooks like Twitter: A Cultural Guidebook make it so easy for any individual or organisation to build a online profile for themselves. If we are to truly consider the recommendations in Graber’s Huffington post article, we have a responsibility to model a positive online presence and an individual who has none may not be the best candidate for a job in 21st Century Education.

Device Blaming & App Shaming

“We banned Minecraft in our house because my child was addicted to it, so I don’t think it has a place in the classroom.”

“Kids already use iPads at home, why should they use it during school?”

“Where can I fit actual teaching in if all they’re doing is learning technology?”

Sound familiar? I must have conversations like this at least once a week. I’ll admit that 4 years ago, I wasn’t so clear myself on the role of technology in the classroom, especially when working in a 1:1 environment. But through my own dabbling and expanding my PLN, I was inspired and motivated to bring my classroom up to par with 21st Century Schools. So while I empathise with teachers, admin and parents who consider themselves digital immigrantsit is up to the individual to (as this Coetailer put it)  Grow Smart or Go Home (Coetail Blog).

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Image from: Technapex

Going Back to Basics

It’s hard to believe the article Shaping Tech for the Classroom, written nearly a decade ago, still rings true in many classrooms today. As I mentioned in my previous post, Back to the Future Syndrome, it’s frightening how far into the 21st Century we are, with many of the same initial resistance to shifting educational paradigms.

While researching this Tech Evolution image above (which I initially saw and retweeted on Twitter a few months ago), I came across a pertinent article that describes how educators can shift teaching today to meet the needs of learning for tomorrow. Sam Gliksman details how we need to adjust learning in the classroom to reflect the 8 Pillars of 21st Century Learning listed below. I’d like to consider looking at these 8 pillars through an EdTech lens, to better illustrate how tech as a tool can promote these outcomes in students of all ages:

1. Play: Problem-solving as a skill can only be learned through exploring and experimenting. Could giving students ‘dabble time’ on iPads, coding programs and offline tech (such as BlueBots, Raspberry Pi) promote this pillar while also addressing transdisciplinary skills?

2. Create: What will students be expected to create 5 years from now? 10 years from now? What will university and job applications look like? How could digital creativity transfer to analogue creativity?

3. Socialize: According to Mimi Ito  students are already socializing in digital spaces. They have ‘friendship-driven participation’ and ‘Geeking-Out participation’..what is our role in educating appropriate behaviours in these spaces? What opportunities for digital citizenship practice exist by embracing these changing social norms?

4. Discover: Teachers are no longer the experts. How can technology promote curiosity and drive students to take initiative and become experts themselves? How can we dissolve classroom walls so students become life-long learners?

5. Experience: Building on from the importance of discovery, what opportunities are there for students to gain experience in certain areas of learning through a variety of modes and using a variety of tools (analogue and digital)? How can experience foster Growth Mindsets?

6. Express: What are the different forms of literacy students are exposed to and how are we teaching them to ‘read’ these literacies? What opportunities are there for students to practice expressing different forms of literacy using different media?

7. Move: How can we merge outdoor learning with indoor learning? What role does mobile-technology play in bringing real-world experience to student’s learning?

8. Relate: What is most relevant to students now? Do skills like handwriting and long division play a significant role in children’s day to day life experience? What are they curious about and how can we support their understanding of technology, as something they encounter every day?

When I look at these 8 goals, I cannot envision a classroom without devices and apps to support each individual pillar. I see not just a change in the tools we use, but a full-on revolution in what education should look like in 21st Century Schools.

Device Blaming

Education has been evolving for centuries now, yet for some reason we are hung up on digital technology not fitting in with this ‘natural’ evolution and change. This Edudemic article details the different forms of technology teachers have had to adopt over time, and how each proved a necessary step to prepare students for the future. By continually resisting changes such as 1:1 mobile devices and virtual learning environments, how are we harming our students?

We’ve certainly come a long way but some things seem hauntingly similar to many years ago. For example, Thomas Edison said in 1925 that “books will soon be obsolete in schools. Scholars will soon be instructed through the eye.” I’m pretty sure this is exactly what people are saying these days about the iPad. (The Evolution of Classroom Technology, Edudemic)

Is the device (tool) to blame? Or our resistance to it? Are we ‘teaching technology’ or teaching skills? Why are we still having these discussions 15 years into the 21st Century?

Kevin Makice

Image Kevin Makice

App Shaming

One of my greatest challenges as an EdTech coach are those conversations (debates, at times) of certain apps used in the classroom. While there are a wide range of fabulous creation-based apps available, many teachers expect the app to ‘be the teacher’, leaving children alone with the iPad and expecting meaningful learning to result. While many creation apps can be self-taught by students, after the initial dabble and experimentation time, isn’t it up to the teachers to ensure it is used appropriately? Similarly, we wouldn’t just give students a stack of paper and a pair of scissors day after day and expect them to produce something in line with classroom outcomes. There is a time and place for creativity, exploration and a time and place for scaffolded instruction. Initially, the free inquiry might be exhilarating and productive. However, over time, plunking students in front of the same tools (or app) may not result in meaningful creations, thus causing the teacher to resort to the old argument that the app is a waste of time.

I also think many of the misconceptions of app-use in the classroom stems from a general lack of understanding for the Prosumer environment we are trying to cultivate.  Of course there are hundreds of apps whose general purpose is consumption. However, it is up to educators, coaches and admin to promote a culture of creating, where the majority of apps bring students through Blooms Taxonomy of Higher Order Thinking Skills. It’s been interesting to work with students who have iPads at home and, when provided one at school, watch them race to find the games and youtube videos. We need to differentiate iPad and app use in classrooms from iPad and app use at home. As educators we have the responsibility to set expectations for device-use; just as classroom social behaviours may differ from at-home behaviours, we should teach prosumer behaviours, even if it’s a consumer behaviour at home.

Mike Licht Schulkanab mit iPad, after Albert Anker

 

Image by Mike Licht

Moving towards 22nd Century Learning

The question shouldn’t be What’s right for right now? but rather What’s right for tomorrow? Many teachers and parents are stuck thinking that the way they learned is what’s best for their child today. However, if we’d learned the way our parents had (in my case, the 1950s and 1960s) how would any of us have been prepared for the digital age?

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Image: First Computer Wikipedia

I think we also forget that many of the students in our classrooms couldn’t fathom a world without iPhones, Skype and wifi. This entertaining clip from The Ellen DeGenres Show highlights just how foreign certain (familiar) objects are for young students of the 21st Century.

As most revolutions go, it’s the peaceful ones that truly promote lasting change. We can’t fight the resistance but we can model the potential. Ultimately it’s not about getting the world to love technology, but about having the world see how learning is enhanced through the use of technology. As Bob Dylan once sang, The times they are a changin’…and so must we.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e7qQ6_RV4VQ[/youtube]