Commenting in MOOC forums (or not)
As a confirmed sampler of MOOCs I’ve had plenty opportunity to roam around the enormous clunky forums that characterise xMOOCs. I try to make sensible contributions to the argument of the day but participant behaviour and interaction can be a compelling distraction. Some things are clear. Commenting on xMOOC forums nowhere plumbs the sickening depths of some comments elsewhere (eg YouTube). Also, real out-and-out trolls are rare. All the same, I think that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
What will cause a comment to give offence and what level of offence is caused can be difficult to judge. In my young days using the F word was clearly offensive in polite company and even now I can’t help feeling a bit offended when it’s used needlessly on the web. (It’s even in the title of a popular science website for godsake!) These days and depending on the circumstances, such usage might be considered only mildly offensive by many participants in a forum but it stands to reason that, among a large population of users, some could be very offended indeed.
So care should be taken writing comments addressed to diverse international audiences although second-guessing exactly what’s offensive can be extremely difficult or even futile. For example, my use of ‘godsake’ above does not offend me at all but could offend some on religious grounds so I might be reluctant to use the word in a public forum – sound thinking or over-thinking? Also, if you were Danish and not too familiar with English quotations, might you be offended about the rotten state of Denmark above? I really don’t know but it’s possible!
MOOC forums usually have some degree of moderation so that really crass comments are swiftly removed but there are other less obvious circumstances where forum participants themselves can help set the tone. On one occasion I was appalled that a perfectly sensible comment by a lady tentatively posting for the first time, was considered “stupid” by someone else (OK, a man). The forum was huge and his was the only other contribution in the thread. Throwing caution to the winds, I commented that his comment lacked substance (it did) and then made a brief comment on the topic of the thread myself. Someone down-voted my comment (slight offence taken! I’ve mixed feelings about the use of down-vote buttons.) There was no response from the original poster until a host of comments began to arrive (all from women), including some really good substantive contributions. Although nobody mentioned the original male put-down, solidarity with the original poster was very evident. Finally, she actually thanked me for intervening. She’d genuinely feared that her comment was somehow inappropriate. Such apprehension by forum newcomers is not uncommon. Newbie posters who are not offered support when it matters may never return to the forum again.
I once had an argument in an xMOOC forum with someone who held that a MOOC forum should not to be regarded as a support group. I disagreed. He was a champion of robust no-holds-barred debate and had a good grasp of most topics under discussion, contributing real expertise, useful links and references etc. But he could be pretty bombastic and nit-picking and sometimes just plain insulting to those brave enough to comment on his posts. This led to some very heated arguments but if you can’t stand the heat should you not stay out of the kitchen?
Lively robust debate does have its attractions, if only as a spectator sport and it’s understandable that moderators are reluctant to intervene until clearly unacceptable levels of confrontation are reached (see Godwin’s rule of Nazi analogies!). On the other hand, in a large forum, there are usually participants with the necessary topic expertise and sufficient empathy to respond constructively to a badly expressed question or a mistaken assumption in a way that aids understanding, positively advancing discussion without any suspicion of a put-down. Can some way not be found to encourage those who revel in confrontation to conduct their ding-dong battles elsewhere, perhaps in well-advertised threads or sub-forums, so that safer spaces are left for the vast middle ground of learners who appreciate less competitive and more supportive environments?
A great advantage of online asynchronous discussion over face-to-face is that there is a golden opportunity for considered thought and reflection before responding. No matter how irritating the indiscretions and errors rightly or wrongly perceived in the comments of others, there’s usually time to allow tolerance and understanding to break through. Commenting with caution and sensitivity to context is always a safe alternative to knee-jerk reactions made in the heat of the moment.
Can opinions be freely expressed in a supportive environment without giving offence to anyone anywhere? At one extreme, robust debate can degenerate into aggressive personal attacks while at the other, excessive concern about giving or taking offence can stifle discussion, particularly if confronted with closed minds and fixed ideas. More empathetic moderation and a re-think of how xMOOC forums are structured is in order but forum participants themselves should have at least some responsibility for everyone’s learning as well as their own. A thick skin should not be necessary in a forum but a paper-thin one and extreme readiness to give and take offence, is unlikely to further anyone’s learning objectives. We must all learn to tolerate minor perceived offences …. hmm… . so now I’m off to visit that popular science website but without naming it here!