Anonymity and privacy in online learning

Photo by Yves Tennevin / Wikimedia Commons.

Related to the latest discussion on US-NSA’s PRISM program and Facebook’s privacy policies I have been thinking should there always be a possibility to stay anonymous in online learning.

There are some research papers on the topic. For instance Blake (2000) argues that in an online course where students are not asked to give indications of their gender, age, ethnicity or physical appearance, the anonymity can have a positive influence on interaction. Being anonymous can be empowering experience at least in three ways. At first, you can control how much do you tell others about yourself. Secondly by staying anonymous you can have more equal interaction with people who have a higher status outside the online learning group. Thirdly starting from anonymity, students may build a new and fresh professional identity where they are not judged by their earlier life but by their contribution to the studies. Also Smith (et.all 2001) see that in online learning where people can manage their level of anonymity there is a greater equality between students and instructors than in face-to-face classes where anonymity is not possible. They also recognize that when compared to face-to-face classroom discussions, the discussions in online classes are showing higher level of thinking. This can be partly related to the anonymity and students possibility to build an online identity that is free from their identity offline.

The question of anonymity is also relevant in research and science. In research the blind peer review, although not necessary always working perfectly, is one of the key quality control principles in scientific research. The idea is simple: anyone can write a scientific article to scientific journal and get it reviewed. The reviewers do not know who wrote the paper. Also the author will not know who will review the article. The reviewers are selected to the job based on their merits.

Wikipedia works more or less the same way. One can write Wikipedia totally anonymously (IP number) but often with a username. When creating a username you don’t have to tell anything about yourself. Your identity is fully in your control. In Wikipedia people fix each other contributions and work together this way. All your actions are saved, so that your username gains reputation. Many people do not mind to unveil their real identity outside Wikipedia. That is fine. More important, however, is that the decision to connect your Wikipedia-identity with your outside-Wikipedia-identity is on your own hands.

It looks that inside the world of research, science and Wikipedia people really are more equal than out side of them. I think the whole world of learning (schools, colleagues, universities, MOOCS etc.) should belong to the same family. Therefore providing opportunities for people to study anonymously and to build systems where people have a control of their own identity is very important. In the world of learning people should be seen in light of their actions in the community rather than what they have done or are doing outside of it.

For MOOC and other online learning providers I have some recommendations for you. In the sign up do not ask real name. Username, password and valid email (there are still anonymous email services) should be enough. I also do not like the Facebook and Google sign ups – as such they are far too easy way to login and to loose your anonymity and privacy.

I think educational institutions should be the first to stand up to protect the principles of human rights as they are presented, for instance, in the article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

The practical consequence of this is that when someone — whatever an organization or an individual — is collecting and keeping personal data, there should be a public statement explaining for what purpose the data is collected for. The data collected should not be used for other purposes (this is the EU law). So if you want to collect data with an attempt to attack someone’s honour and reputation you should tell it when asking people to provide you the data. Fair enough.

I think the same principle applies mostly to photos and videos with people and meta-data related to them (e.g. date, location etc.). A collection of them is a register with personal information and should be handled with care. This means that to publish them online or to share them on Facebook one actually should ask permission from the people in the photos.

The key word in here is “publishing”. I personally do not care if people record, or take photos when I am giving a talk or taking part in an event — I actually consider this to be their right. What I care more is where the content is published. For instance, I want universities, other organizations and also individual people to ask permission from me to record my talk on video if their attempt is to publish it. If they are not planning to put it online, it is also polite to tell that the recording is done only for personal use.

With these things there are not simple rule you can follow, except trying to be culturally sensitive, emphatic and polite. Some people may not like all the things, which you think that are just awesome. This is something we should teach in our schools, too.

I am this week participating in the IEEE SSIT International Symposium on Technology and Society 2013 (ISTAS´13). One of the central theme of the conference are wearable cameras and sensors and their impact on society. I hope the questions of privacy and human rights will be discussed, too.

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