MOOCs and Codes of Conduct

Even before the whole GamerGate thing blew up, I had been considering adding a Code of Conduct to the DALMOOC. UTA has always required an Honor Code in all course syllabuses, so to me this issue was a no-brainer (even though we aren’t treating DALMOOC as a specific UTA-only course). But I know others don’t see the need for Codes in general, so I wanted to dig more into the reasoning behind a Code of Conduct for online courses – especially MOOCs.

I know some feel that you can’t really stop bad people with just a statement, and that usually the community will rise up to get rid of the abusers and trolls anyways. Sometimes both of those are true. But not always.

I have been a part of Facebook groups that did not have a code and ended up leaving. You would think the group would have risen up to stop people from being abusive, but that was not the case. And when I spoke up? Well, it quickly became time to leave. I have also been in some groups that did have a code in them and witnessed first hand seeing someone asked to comply with the code and – believe it or not – they stopped, apologized, and changed. It does work sometimes.

But other times it doesn’t. So you can’t just say “be cool to everyone” and leave it at that. There has to be a threat of consequences from the people in charge for the Code to have teeth. The problem with using the UTA Honor Code in a MOOC was that it was designed for a small group of people in a closed system where you can ultimately with one click boot out people that don’t comply. And then send the police after them if they don’t get the message. Open online courses, though? A lot trickier to enforce.

So, I turned to the work of Ashe Dryden and her recommendations for conference codes of conduct. Since conferences are a bit more open than closed online courses, I thought that would be a good place to start. I also decided to add links to the privacy statements of all services we recommend, as well as links to reporting abuse on those services. I felt people needed to be aware of these issues, as well as know what one place to go to access the, all. If I should add anything else, please let me know.

So you might wonder why the language is so specific on the Code. Just tell people to be cool or else your out, right? The problem is that this is too vague. Some people can be very abusive in a way that flies under the radar of most gatekeepers, because they are looking for obvious hateful words and actions. True abusers have found ways to go under the radar. So we need to be as specific as possible in these codes as a way to empower our learning communities to know what to look for in the first place. You can’t just expect the community to rise up and fight abusers – you have to give them the tools and words to use in order to fight. And one of those tools needs to be an appeal to authority. You see, its one thing to say “I think you are being abusive, stop” and another to say “the rules say this: _____.” Trust me from experience: abusers rarely care when you come in and say “stop treating this person that way because I think you are wrong.” If we want our communities to rise up and stop abuse, we have to empower them with the tools and words they need from us as the leaders. Yes, they are able to come up with their own words; however, it is much more powerful when their words match ours instead of fill in our blanks.

And I know what many say: “this will never happen – I have never seen abuse happening in classes.” I hope that is true. But I would encourage you to look into recent cyber bullying research. Many people that experience abuse do not speak up because they feel no one will listen. So is the fact that you have never heard of abuse online a sign that there is none, or that no one thinks you are a safe person to discuss the issues with? An important difference there.

Think of it this way. The DALMOOC has over 18,000 people signed up last I heard. That is more people than thousands of small towns in America. Thousands of towns that also have a crime rate and an abuse rate. If even small towns can’t escape from attracting criminals and abusers, how sure are we that our MOOCs will?

And oh yeah: #stopgamergate. Call me a SJW or whatever you want. I wear it proudly.

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

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