When using an online environment, it is worth taking advantage of the different medium. Rather than duplicating everything as it is done in a traditional face-to-face classroom, it can be worth taking time to consider the options available. There is a spectrum running from private to public online which provides different opportunities for different situations. Choosing the right option for the outcome is important.
The starting point is UR Courses. Participation within UR Courses is private to varying levels but it is never truly public. UR Courses requires a username and password which is generated by the university and access to specific sites is based on enrolment or staff access. Aside from the possibility of screenshots or copying and pasting material outside the site, or someone leaving themselves logged in on a public computer, there is minimal chance of anyone accessing the material who is not supposed to be doing so. This is similar to a classroom. It is fairly visible who is in the space and they can be identified on some level as belonging there. Work can be shared with the instructor or teaching assistant, other students, or all of those but there is no external audience. The material will be removed at the end of the semester and cannot be found by search engines.
Not all of the options outside UR Courses require giving up much privacy. It is possible to be a consumer of information on the internet and in many cases it is possible to consume anonymously. For example, it is possible to view Twitter feeds if you have a link to a profile without actually having an account yourself. Likewise, there is no need for an account to view videos on YouTube. There are numerous sources like blogs, open online journals, museums, and galleries that all provide access to information for free, without requiring that you share your information or publicize your participation.
Possible ways to engage with this information include providing a way for students to share what they find outside the assigned readings, whether it is in a discussion forum, a database, or a wiki. Scavenger hunt assignments are another way to get students engaging with the internet, using their research skills and evaluation skills to learn about a topic. The ease of access to different sources of information makes it significantly easier to have students evaluate how information is presented, allowing them to question sources. They can also become more familiar with people working in fields of interest, seeing who those people are, what they write about, where they engage.
There are sites that require signing up for an account to access information. A person can still be a passive consumer but there is a balance of access to content in exchange for giving up some personal information. By providing that information, you are contributing to that site’s ability to collect information about how people interact with their site, connect your activity, contact you and tailor your experience. Publisher sites may have this sort of feature. They often use this to collect learning analytics. Journal databases often fall within this category, requiring some form of login to authenticate users.
We assume that sites that require signing in with a username and password are private. They have privacy policies and restrict who can access content. That privacy is, however, an “assumed privacy control” as whoever owns that site can still access what you do on the site even if you are not actively sharing any content or if you are sharing content in a way you think is private (Andergassen et al., 2009, pg. 211).
As the internet has shifted towards Web 2.0 tools, there are more and more ways to have students actively participate in creation on the internet. Sites like Wordle do not require the creation of an account and do not track who uses them. It is only necessary to provide text or a link to create word clouds. This kind of anonymous creation may come with limitations, however, as it is more difficult to see what a single person has created, generally requiring that you have some other location for the produced item. Wordle does not provide much in the way of searchability, making it less useful for others. Screencast-o-matic likewise requires no downloading of software or creation of accounts to record your screencast but to share it on the web it is necessary to have some account somewhere, whether with Screencast-o-matic, YouTube, Vine, Vimeo, or other hosting options. These videos are likely to be too large to directly upload to UR Courses.
Other sites do require giving up some level of privacy to a greater or lesser degree. Within this would be sites that qualify as social media. Some universities, such as Dalhousie, have developed social media policies that apply to all members of the university community, including students. The U of R is currently in the process of developing a social media policy but that policy will be primarily for official accounts related to the university rather than personal social media actions.
In the case of social media type sites, there are numerous ways to use them. For example, Storify allows the curation of information for the creation of something new but you must create an account to create your own stories. In many cases you are able to use semi-anonymous information, providing whatever name, email, and username you like. This means that students could provide false personal information or have a “disposable” account specifically for class. Students would need to identify their account or project for the instructor in some way, providing a link or the username they used, but it does not require them to be creating under their own name or giving out identifying information. It is still important to consider the content you share from
Sites for storing information in various ways are growing. Some of them offer cloud solutions, providing flexible computing and storage through networked computers. Others do not specify but offer the ability to access your work from multiple locations and devices. Students can upload assignments, share larger files, work on multimedia projects in new ways. This issue of storage, however, does cross the issue into content. It is important to make students aware of any risks associated with the content and remind them that storing personal or sensitive information on those services could allow it to be compromised.
Collaboration has become significantly easier when working online and there are numerous sites that make this possible. Google Docs/Google Drive is one of the popular options. It is possible to anonymously participate in a document if that document is shared publicly. The participation is still tracked by Google.
Andergassen, M., Behringer, R., Finlay, J., Gorra, A., & Moore, D. (2009). Weblogs in higher education: Why do students (not) blog? Electronic Journal of e-Learning, 7(3), 203-214.