Friday, September 07, 2012

Coursera Thoughts Part Five

I vented (ranted, whatever) about the forums in my previous post so here’s where I try to break it down into something useful.  As before, you will find a summarized bullet-point list of the problems and suggested solutions at the bottom of this post.  

The problems, as I see them, include:
  • Leaderboard
  • Organization
  • Anonymous Posting
  • Up/down-Voting

I do not know why or what purpose it is supposed to serve but the coursera staff built into the course a leaderboard.  This doesn’t track your grade as compared with others.  Instead, it says who has received the most up-votes.  In other words, it’s a popularity contest and if you say something nice or something that others like you will be voted up and if they don’t like what you have to say you will be voted down.  Even if you ask a question that has been asked before, you will be voted down.  If you ask a legitimate question that maybe challenges the boundaries of what others want to believe, you will be voted down. 

But what I suspected would happen is happening and some of the more popular people have begun being voted down even when they aren’t saying anything that is, as far as I can tell, deserving of a negative vote.  The truth is, I have no clue where the leaderboard is or what the stats are.  I found it and was so put off by it that I never went back to look for it.  This isn’t a video game and nobody cares nor should care about who is “winning” by getting the best votes.

You can’t imagine how thrilled I was when Blogger finally introduced nesting in the replies.  Now, when I reply to someone, it looks like a reply because it is indented slightly from the original comment.  Imagine, however, that they are not nested.  A person posts something and the first comment looks different but it is not indented because there are two ways of replying.  If you reply directly, your reply doesn’t appear on the forum as having a new comment/reply.  It simply doesn’t register.  You have to leave a comment that isn’t indented at all for it to register on the forum.  And none of those are indented.

So if the first comment receives five “hard” comments, none of those are indented.  Now, if each of those receives four comments, all of them are indented to the same degree, even if the third comment is actually replying to the first comment.  Visually it falls under the second so it will look as though it is in response to either the initiating comment or the one immediately above.  Unless the person typing the comment actually addresses the previous comment/reply with a name included in the content, there is bound to be confusion, right?

What’s worse, you have to factor in posts from a variety of Anonymous people, most of whom do not identify themselves with a pseudonym. 

So open a thread with what you think only has five or six pieces and you actually open one that has about thirty comments and one third of them are anonymous, two or three different ones, maybe or maybe just one person being anonymous over and over and over again . . . well, you can see why it would be somewhat confusing.

Anonymous Posting
I’m not going to address myself further to this because Laura Gibbs wrote about this and my previous post also looks at this.  However, anyone who has been online for any length of time knows what happens when people can hide behind being anonymous and the inevitability of the abuse that quickly follows.  The fact that people are down-voting out of pettiness instead of legitimately addressing harmful or offensive posts with the votes, which is probably why coursera had to add a way to flag posts in the forum.

Up/down Voting
This ties in with both the Leaderboard and Anonymous Posting issues.  It lends itself to a popularity contest and those people who are most liked will be up-voted.  It also lends itself to bullying so that someone perceived as strong will begin being down-voted to keep them humble or put the popular one “in his/her place.”  It’s vulgar and it serves no real purpose.  If I hadn’t seen such things happen so many times before, where a person who is a message board favorite becomes victimized by newbies on the board, I wouldn’t have seen it coming.  But I did.  From a mile away.  It’s vulgar and typical.

So the problems in summary:
  • Leaderboard
  • Organization
  • Anonymous Posting
  • Up/down-Voting

And now for the solutions, which are merely suggestions.

Get rid of it altogether.  Or keep it hidden from the student body.  If there is some administrative purpose for having something like this then it shouldn’t be openly available to the students.  If there is no purpose other than to turn the forums into a popularity contest, get rid of it.

There should be nesting that goes beyond one degree.  All replies to the main post can remain flush left but then there should be at least two degrees of nesting below each of these.  In other words, a reply to a reply to a comment should indent twice. 

Anonymous Posting
Students should be allowed to post pseudonymously but never anonymously.  A student who abuses pseudonymous comments by attacking or belittling another student, would be warned that a second offense would remove pseudonymous posting privileges.   If a student continues to abuse other students, all forum privileges are taken away altogether. 

There are legitimate uses for Anonymous posting.  Therefore, all Anonymous posts will go through a screening or, if an anonymous post is flagged, it will be immediately locked.  Screening would require either staff or a group of student volunteers who will approve any and all Anonymous posting.  This is too labor intensive, however, when you have over 39,000 students.  This is why I suggest using the flagging system.  It’s already in place.  Any anonymous post/comment/reply that is flagged would be immediately locked; a pop-up would simply say “This thread has been locked for review.” 

Any Anonymous post that is flagged and deemed inappropriate would be removed.  The person who posted would receive a warning.  Currently, there are no repercussions beyond having an inappropriate anonymous post removed.  This does nothing to deter the person from doing it as many times as they like in as many threads as they choose.  A warning would presumably keep anyone inclined to abuse the system from doing so. 

There are legitimate reasons for posting things Anonymously and there’s no reason to stop using it altogether.  Adding a pseudonym option gives those who want to remain hidden a way to post, without adding confusion by being one too many anonym while clear limits about how the Anonymous feature can be used would keep it from degenerating into a means of abuse.  This will also keep the discussions on the forums from devolving into sophomoric attacks.
I want to say get rid of it altogether.  I can see no purpose for it.  If you write a good post, people will comment intelligently to it.  If people don’t like a thread, they will either say so or they will flag it, if it is inappropriate.

Last but not least, a suggestion that needs to be implemented and would resolve more than a bit of the above.

Students should have a means to block a particular person, however they post—whether under their own name, pseudonymously, or anonymously.  If I find a post from someone I think is annoying for whatever reason, I don’t have to waste the staff’s time by flagging it or my own by down-voting it.  I can simply block the person.  Now, I am not the type to block someone just because they say one thing I find ridiculous or silly.  But if an anonymous person says a named person needs to “grow up” in response to an intelligent observation about something we are reading, then I can choose to block that anonymous person.  But the person who just posts a single mean-spirited word in reply to even an inane thread, I would probably block that person because if they have time to be mean in an inane thread it’s only a matter of time before they become hostile in a more relevant or provocative thread.

If the staff will not protect the students then I should have the ability to protect myself.  And if, when I block an anonymous person, I end up blocking someone who posts pseudonymously and with their name, then do I really care? 

And yes, I think if any one student is being repeatedly blocked then someone in the staff might want to look at what the student is posting, see if there is a pattern of being rude, inconsiderate, or even mean.  Yes, culturally speaking, online communication may leave too much room for one student to think another is being rude but that doesn’t mean a student should be able to post with impunity.  But even if the staff cannot do anything to stop them, I should have the freedom to cut off an idiot from leaving comments to anything I post, even if I am sometimes just being a petty bitch.

I also have one personal request, a minor issue on the main page of the forums.  At the top of the page are the main folders and, besides each of these, it shows the most recent activity for each folder.  Beneath this are a list of the individual threads with the most recent activity but you can’t immediately tell in which folder some of these appear.  I have more than once accidentally clicked on an intriguing thread subject only to find myself reading a thread about a book I haven’t finished reading or even started reading yet.  If I could have seen where the message thread was filed, I would have seen that it is under the thread for a book that I haven’t even started.   

Problems Summarized:
  • Leaderboard
  • Organization
  • Anonymous posting
  • Up/down-Voting

Solutions Summarized:
  • No leaderboard whatsoever.  Also remove all up/down-voting.
  • Add nesting to the messages.  Also, label all posts on the forum main page with folder information.
  • Update the main forum page to show how many individual comments there are.
  • Anonymous posting should be discouraged.  Allow pseudonymous posting.
  • Abuse of posting to the forums should block posting by that student altogether.
  • Students should have a means to block anyone who posts things they find offensive or annoying.

If the purpose of the forums is to help build community, where there is abuse, spiteful comments, bullying, and anonymous posting, there can be no community.  The internet has been around long enough and these things have shown up often enough on message boards that the staff at coursera absolutely should have known these things can happen.  

Now they need to step up and do whatever it takes to create a safe and healthy learning environment for everyone who registers for a course.

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