Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Is it Possible for Teachers to Have an Anonymous Online Life?

A colleague came to me this morning asking if some of our students had tried friending me on Facebook; she had three requests last night.

Earlier this year, a few giggling kids approached me to ask about something I had posted on my Twitter account. They had found it while Googling the names of their teachers.

Even this blog has been discovered by inquisitive students who spotted its title in my list of favorites.


Is the concept of online anonymity gone? Is it a myth – something people claim to have, but can’t confirm (like spotting a Sasquatch, Chupacabra, or the Loch Ness monster)? Are we experiencing the 21st century equivalent of looking up a teacher’s phone number in the white pages and pranking the daylights out of him/her?

The optimist would say that this issue can be resolved by becoming completely transparent. Share everything; show you have nothing to hide. This does have some merits, like sharing your blog with students so they can see firsthand the rewards of writing for pleasure. But all it takes is one comment, taken out of context, and there’s a problem.

But shutting everything down and denying the existence of a web footprint is just as incriminating for a teacher. If you don’t want kids to know something, it’s probably bad, right? Maybe, maybe not – but that’s how the adolescent mind works.

So how do teachers deal with a loss of online anonymity?
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2 Responses:

Anonymous said...

Pseudonymity.

Several educators I know have an alternate persona that exists only online. They go to some pains to make sure that these pseudonymous accounts are in no way linked to their real-life identity. If Dr. Smith at Ohio State maintains a blog on Livejournal as Dr. ILoveBlink182, and makes sure to make it clear that Dr. ILoveBlink182 teaches at "Large Midwestern University," she's probably safe. Some of the people I know take this to a pretty ridiculous extreme, giving their pets pseudonyms, for example, as well.

In the end, it's not about being anonymous. It's never really been about being anonymous. What it *is* about is maintaining separate identities, and policing the line between these identities so that there isn't spillover.

John said...

@Anonymous: Well said (and behind a cloak of anonymity too - how appropriate for the post!). I have several friends on Facebook who are teachers and they go by first and middle name, making it difficult for students to find them. It's not a bad idea.

The problem comes when your online personality runs parallel to real life; that line blurs very quickly. For example, anyone working with me at school can read my blog and see what may have inspired a post based on what happened that day. I know my boundaries and keep away from sensitive or unprofessional topics, but you never know how something can be abstracted and spun out of control. It's kind of like setting up a fireworks factory on the side of a volcano. It only takes one cinder to create quite a show.