To my dad, on his 70th birthday

A few weeks ago, I got an email from Heather Hartley (a wonderful woman who is good friends with my parents) about my dad’s upcoming birthday – somehow, he is turning seventy (!!!), despite the fact that he will be eternally about fifty in my mind. In any case, there is apparently a German tradition in which retiring academics are presented with a Festschrift – a collection of letters or essays from colleagues reflecting on the honoree’s contributions to the field. So Heather proposed that in honour of my dad’s birthday, we create a similar book, but with letters not just from colleagues but also from friends and family. So, me being…well…me, I decided that I would blog my response and then include the post as my contribution to the book.

At the Kennedy Centre for my dad’s 65th birthday

To be honest, it took me awhile to start this post. It wasn’t an easy one to write – not because I couldn’t sit and talk to you for hours about how cool and awesome my dad is, but because it’s hard to choose which stories and memories to share. After much deliberation, though, I think I’ve narrowed it down to just the highlights, as it were.

So forgive me if I’ve missed any of the key points – it’s grading season, after all. But here, in no particular order, are the things about my father that I am most thankful for.

His playful spirit: My dad has always talked fondly of one of his grandparents in particular: his Spiel Oma, or play-grandmother, who, from what I can gather, was always down to play. When my sister had her first child a few years ago, it became obvious that my dad was on a mission to be the next Spiel Opa, and he is certainly right on track: his latest project is setting up one of the rooms in the basement as a Lego room, ostensibly for my nephew but also, I think, for his own amusement.

And when I was growing up, my dad was just as good at playing as he is now. He taught me to love board games of any sort and was always up for a round of something, even if he had lots of work to do. Our favourite non-board game (well, probably just my favourite) to play was “Going to California,” a game that seemed mainly to involve my dad pretending to drive the bed, laden with my stuffed animals, to California. He would frequently pretend to fall asleep at the wheel (in retrospect, sort of a dark game I suppose), only to mime exaggerated braking upon “waking up,” but I think this was actually just a ploy to get me to agree to him stopping at a pretend rest stop for him to take a quick nap (and the nap part definitely wasn’t just pretend).

His hilarious disregard for the rules: For my dad, rules are more like guidelines; he has always been (as my mother would say) a bit of a “scoff-law” (rumour has it he may have hidden wine in with the spare tire in the trunk in order to get it across the border – but then, who wouldn’t bend the rules in the name of drinking good wine). He taught me to drive at thirteen by taking me to an empty, snowy parking lot and making me go as fast as I dared before slamming on the brakes so that I could “see how the ABS worked.” We then did donuts in the snow to check out the turning radius. When I got my learner’s permit, I remember him telling me to get on the expressway because it was a faster way home; being the rule-obsessed kid that I was, I informed him that I wasn’t allowed to drive on highways without my driving instructor. My dad told me that if someone pulled us over, he’d put on a German accent and pretend he couldn’t understand the rules. (Of note: his love of fun does not extend to rollercoasters, as we learned while riding the not-so-scary Nightmare on Boblo Island).

Hiking in the Alps, circa 2001

Hiking in the Alps, circa 2001

His strong political beliefs: Although my parents only recently became Canadian citizens and therefore were only recently afforded the right to vote in Canada, my father has long been a staunch supporter of the NDP. We were always the house on the block with the giant orange sign, and my father would donate to the party and support them in any way he could. He is a strong advocate for equity, although I am only now realizing the extent of his commitment to social justice issues. And as I have grown in my own capacity as an activist of sorts, my dad has never hesitated to tell me how proud he is of my work. Last year, I tweeted an article about white privilege and was trolled quite extensively because of it; after I blogged about the experience, I called my dad to let him know, lest he stumble upon the post and read some of the nastier comments. His response? Good job! You really must have made them mad – I’m so proud of you for speaking out about this! …. after which he proceeded to gleefully read the mean comments aloud to me, exclaiming about how I’d really hit a nerve.

His love of baking: This is perhaps somewhat atypical, but my dad was always the baker in our house (somewhat surprising, since his first attempt at making streusel reportedly involved slathering on a layer of butter, a layer of sugar, and a layer of flour, without mixing, resulting in a burned mess of a cake topping). He makes, hands down, the best chocolate chip cookies ever, and it’s always a treat when he sends a care package with some inside. But the best part of baking with my dad is that it is something of a ritual; it’s almost less about the product and more about spending time together. When we were kids, we’d often make cinnamon rolls for my mom – on Mother’s Day, her birthday, and Christmas morning. We’d make the dough the night before, and then my dad, my sister, and I would slip downstairs in the early morning to prepare the rolls. We each had specific tasks: my dad rolled the dough, my sister melted the butter and made the caramel sauce, and I mixed the cinnamon and brown sugar (I was young, ok? I’ve since become much more useful in the kitchen). Everything came together at the end, as we spread the butter on the dough and sprinkled on my sugar mixture, then rolled and sliced the dough and worked quickly to transfer the pieces to the pan before the filling oozed out onto the counter.

As we grew older, my sister and I increasingly took on larger shares of the roll-making responsibilities, but the ritual element still remained to some extent. I’ve made cinnamon rolls a few times at my own house, but it’s never quite the same in a different place: I can’t joke about the time that my sister and I accidentally put the “refrigerator roll dough” in the garage to rise during the summer months, because we generally made rolls in the winter when the garage was very much like a refrigerator; I can’t complain to my dad in frustration about how hard it is to do anything on the very crowded kitchen counters, where something is always in the way; and I can’t enjoy the familiar feeling of that early morning stillness spent quietly working together with my dad and sister.

My dad, the nut

My dad, the nut

Even the more negative memories hold their own charm. Each Christmas, my dad and I make brown sugar spritz cookies; they are unbelievably delicious, and a Christmas staple, but they are made using a cookie press. Our cookie press is about a hundred years old and temperamental as anything: making Spritz cookies generally involves a good deal of swearing and results in blistered hands from turning the press handle. But a few years ago my sister got a newer, easy-to-use press; when we learned how simple it was to use, my dad and I briefly discussed buying one, but it never happened…partly, I suspect, because it would have taken the joy out of laughing and swearing loudly over the trays of camel and heart shaped cookies.

His eternal optimism: One of the best things I’ve learned from my dad is a sort of “Go with it and get it done” attitude in which you deal with things as they come. Although I am not nearly as practiced as he is, I do pride myself on my determination to do what needs to be done; unfortunately, for me this often unfolds as grim determination, while my dad always seems to be able to smile and laugh in the face of just about anything.

While there are many examples of my dad’s eternal optimism (see, for instance, the dozens of times I nearly missed my train back to Toronto because of someone’s optimistic ideas about how long it took to get to the station), one of my favourite memories is of being home at Christmas and, of course, baking with my dad. For some reason (most likely due to our shared optimism about how much one can actually accomplish in one day) we were baking in the middle of the night, long after my mom had gone to sleep. As we were heating up the oven, some mystery substance on the bottom caught fire, and I remember my dad just calmly closing the door to the hallway where the smoke alarm was and saying something like, Well, it’s a self-cleaning oven – no problem, guess it’s just going to get clean! (And he was right, as usual).

And finally, his unending kindness: I am most certainly biased, but my father is easily the nicest person I know, and I suspect that a lot of people would agree with that assessment. When we started planning my dad’s birthday book, I sent out emails to lots of his former colleagues, students, and friends, many of whom I’d never met. Without fail, the responses I got were positive and enthusiastic: Of course I’ll write something – your dad changed my life!

Fishing, Summer 2013

Fishing, Summer 2013

That my father inspires so much respect and love from others – even those with whom he hasn’t spoken in years – is evidence of his caring spirit. And this is not just apparent in the letters we received about him; it is obvious everyday. My mother suffers from a rare form of Alzheimer’s which has left her blind and with decreasing ability to speak or remember things, and yet my father still insists that she live at home. Caring for my mother is a full time, often difficult job, and yet my dad does it willingly and with a positive spirit. And while he receives some assistance in the way of respite care, he also has the help of dozens of friends and neighbours; while you often hear stories of Alzheimer’s patients whose friends just stop coming by as the disease progresses, I have seen the number of regular visitors grow over the past years. This is partly because of their love for my mother, of course, but I think it is in large part a testament to their deep respect and care for my father. I’d like to think that his kindness is so deep that it inspires the same in others.

So thank you, Papa, for all this and more. And here’s to many more years of cookie baking, Lego building, late-night crossword puzzling, Sunday dinner eating, rule bending, wine drinking, and general goofy behaviour.

Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum Geburtstag. Ich liebe dich.

Deine Katia

Just two goofs on a boat...

Just two goofs on a boat…

Trump isn’t funny anymore. So why are we still silent?

Flickr photo shared by cool revolution under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

Flickr photo shared by cool revolution under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

Google “Trump isn’t funny anymore” and you’ll come up with pages of news stories with variations on that title, some dating back all the way to last summer. It’s sinking in, slowly, and yet Donald Trump remains the Republican frontrunner. Every day I wake up to another dozen troubling articles and videos detailing Trump’s seemingly unstoppable march to power.

So let me just summarize some of the more terrifying recent highlights (lowlights?):

So as this situation progresses in increasingly scary directions, I’ve decided to say something myself. And even as I’m writing, I’ve asked myself more than once: What good will my voice do? Given the plentiful media coverage, I’ve skipped blogging about this up until now, choosing instead to share existing articles on Twitter and Facebook. But isn’t that the psychology behind the bystander effect? Someone else will speak out, so I don’t have to.

And then this morning, I was watching Rachel Maddow’s report on the recent protests at Trump rallies, which clearly documents the escalation of Trump’s promotion of violence:

Whether you agree with Maddow’s politics or not, this video is chilling. Listen to Trump’s words:

“These people are ruining our country.”

“These are not good people.”

“These people are so bad for our country.”

“These people are hurting this country.”

These are not soundbites taken out of context. This is hateful, racist rhetoric, pure and simple. And as I watched the video, I got really, really scared.

And I was reminded, as I am far too often these days, of this text from a 1946 speech by Martin Niemöller, criticizing the failure of German intellectuals to speak out again the rise of Nazism:  

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Perhaps this sounds overly alarmist, and perhaps I am projecting too much onto the current rise of Trump-ism. I hope that’s the case. But listening to Trump, and watching his more radical supporters, I am not convinced. So whether you believe that Trump is our generation’s Hitler or not, I am asking – imploring – all of you to take seriously Niemöller’s critique of those who stayed silent because the crisis hadn’t quite reached a point that affected them directly. To quote Homeland Security (Ironic? Maybe.): “If you see something, say something.”

And let’s be clear: As my amazing friend Maggie reminds me, “they” have “come for” many groups in America (and in Canada, and in so many other places around the world) already. Trump’s rise to prominence is built upon a society where Black lives do not, on the whole, seem to matter, where immigrants (legal or otherwise) are the targets of racist laws and rhetoric, where being a person of colour (or a woman, or LGBTQ, or poor – privilege is always marked by intersectionality) is often considered a crime in itself. We should have said something long ago. But while we can’t change the past, we can ensure that Trump’s rise catalyzes us into action.

And that’s why I’m blogging about this: because now is the time to speak, before we are in a position to look back and repeat Niemöller’s words, to ask ourselves why we stayed silent in the midst of a growing horror.

And I’m asking you to do something, too.

  • Vote: Exercise your political voice.
  • Talk about it: Blog or tweet or Facebook or….whatever… about it. But talk about it.
  • Educate yourself: Read and watch and read some more.
  • Educate others, including youth: I’ve used this animation of Maurice Ogden’s poem, “The Hangman,” to talk about the Holocaust with my grade nine students. It fits here, too.
  • Protest: In person, online, in any way you can.

But whatever you choose, do not stay silent.

The Curious Case of Srkj Rife, “Victim”-Turned-Harasser

Let me just preface all of this by saying: The Internet is an utterly crazy place.

As someone who reads a lot about digital citizenship, I’m familiar with many of the shadier things people do on the Internet. One particularly nasty activity is catfishing – that is, using a false digital identity to engage in online relationships – and one especially nefarious subset of catfishers is made up of people who use these scams to defraud others by entering into fake online relationships and then asking victims for money for a variety of made-up reasons. These scams are often run by groups of people abroad, frequently in Nigeria (hence the term “419 scam,” so-called because in the Nigerian Criminal Code, 419 is the number of the article related to fraud).

I’m particularly well-acquainted with this type of for-profit romance scam because I work with Alec Couros, whose photos and name are frequently used by scammers (we’ll get back to him in just a minute). We’ve joked a few times about creating a fake profile to try to catfish the catfishers, but we never actually set one up. So you can imagine my delight, last March, when I received a Facebook friend request from one Nelson Dozzy, who, upon further research, turned out to be a scammer account.

And that’s when I thought, Well hey, this could be fun! Why not catfish the catfisher?

Long story short (and yes, I really need to write a post about the hilarity that ensued), Nelson and I embarked on a whirlwind romance and were quickly “engaged,” but our online courtship came to an ugly end when I refused to send him $2000 to help him get “five million dollars awarded to him by the UN” out of Afghanistan (known as advance-fee fraud). Afterwards, I laughed about it, and then I moved on with my life.

Sadly, while catfishing the catfisher was a fun game for me, it’s not a laughing matter to many others. Obviously, for the victims of these scams, who sometimes lose thousands of dollars in addition to the heartbreak of discovering that their online romance was a lie, catfishing is no joke. But for those whose photos are frequently used by scammer accounts, the experience can quickly become equally nightmarish.

…Which takes me back to my friend Alec Couros. For Alec, dealing with catfishing verges on a full-time job. He literally receives hundreds of reports of profiles using his photos each week. Recently, he even created an information page to provide information for victims, and he’s also started a public Facebook page in an effort to get his profile verified (in hopes that this will make it easier to take down the fake accounts).

Because I co-teach and write frequently with Alec, I’ve gotten a firsthand look at just how exhausting and frustrating this situation is for him. In addition to reporting fake accounts, Alec also frequently has to deal with the victims, who contact him in varying states of distress, confusion, and anger. Despite his efforts to get Facebook to do something about this issue (and not just his efforts – Alan Levine has also been fighting hard to deal with this situation), the social network service has been totally unresponsive. In fact, Alec has had his own account suspended on more than one occasion over suspected fraudulent activity – but if a Facebook employee had taken two minutes to really look at the scammer accounts, it would have been glaringly obvious who the real Alec was.

To his credit, Alec handles all of this with much more grace than I would ever be able to, and he works tirelessly to educate others about the issue through blogging, news interviews, and other venues. But a few days ago, he was contacted by a particularly persistent victim, which he blogged about here (the context is important, so I’d suggest taking a moment to read his post if you haven’t already). After a few accusatory tweets, it seemed like she’d move on, as most of the victims do. But instead, the harassment has not only continued but also escalated.

See, this particular victim (we’ll call her Srkj, the odd pseudonym she uses on Twitter) appears to believe that Alec himself is, in fact, the scammer, and that he has simply fabricated the hundreds of other stories of scammers using his pictures. This is particularly ironic because Alec does a great deal of work in the area of positive digital citizenship – not to mention the fact that between being a full-time professor, giving keynotes around the world, and raising four kids, Alec barely has time to eat or sleep, let alone engage in diabolical scamming operations. Nevertheless, Srkj has made up her mind and launched a bizarre campaign that seems to be aimed at discrediting Alec and tarnishing his reputation:

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 3.48.40 PM

Despite Alec’s efforts to explain the situation, Srkj seems intent on sticking to her story, extending her campaign of harassment to Facebook as well. There, she has been sharing his informational blog post and Facebook page on her own wall alongside some disparaging commentary. She also left a comment on Alec’s Facebook page (the comment has since been hidden) attacking him quite viciously; I had originally planned to quote portions of her message to give a sense of the content, but upon re-reading it I found that it was actually too offensive (and, at times, incredibly vulgar) to include.

Given my own interest in digital identity, I’ve been following this saga pretty closely. And the whole thing has started to feel a little strange. So if you’ll bear with me, let me take you on a little journey into the bizarre world of our friend (well, not so much) Srkj.

The first hint of something being amiss was Srkj’s refusal to drop the issue, especially given that, by her own report, she had only been talking to the scammer for a few days. In fact, her interest in Alec seemed to have developed into a strange obsession: as of the date this was posted, a whopping 40 of 49 tweets on her account related to him (and the account dates back to 2013, eliminating the possibility that she created the account specifically to harass him).

The vehemence of the attack continues to be totally unwarranted and devoid of logic. For instance, this morning I noticed that Srkj had posted this tweet:

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 8.58.54 AM

Because Alec has blocked her, however, Srkj is not longer able to follow him, meaning that the only way for his face to keep “poping [sic] up” is for her to search for his username specifically while logged out. As well, when Alec sent Srkj a Youtube video showing how scammers use videos to “Skype” with their victims, she claimed that it was a fake video he had created just then in order to defend himself, and she keeps coming back to this argument:

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 8.58.39 AM

Frankly, this last tweet just confuses me, because I did check the date and it was posted last August. So unless Alec purchased a Delorean recently…

So, fueled by my own interest in the subject as well as annoyance on Alec’s behalf, I decided to do a little digging. I pride myself on being a bit of a professional cybersleuth, in that I can find just about anything online. But following the breadcrumbs in this mystery is perplexing.

Full disclosure: To be honest, it didn’t take me more than 30 minutes to track down Srkj’s real full name, age, address, list of misdemeanors… (yeah, I’m kinda good at this), and that was just using a regular search engine, not pulling from databases (such as state case files) in a deep web search. But I’m also aware that there is a big difference between doing a little snooping online (who among us hasn’t creeped the odd Facebook page or two?) and actually posting that information; public is not the same as publicized, and I’m not looking to start a cyber vigilantism campaign here. So while every piece of information that I discovered could easily be found by anyone with an Internet connection and some level of digital literacy, I have chosen not to link directly to articles, accounts, or other sites that would reveal the woman’s real name.

In any case, when I began to dig around online, the whole situation just got more and more bizarre. For one thing, while Srkj frequently uses the same photos, she is wildly inconsistent with usernames, going by at least four names that I can find, all linked together by commonalities. Some of this variance can be explained by married vs. maiden names, but not all of it. Try as I might, I absolutely cannot decipher where her consonant-heavy Twitter name comes from. Oddly, Srkj almost appears to have two separate digital identities under two separate names. Two Myspace pages, two Twitter accounts, but the photos and writing style suggest a clear link.

Okay…So Srkj isn’t very concerned about a consolidated digital footprint. So what?

Well, things just kept getting weirder. For one thing, Srkj appears to be well acquainted with the idea of catfishing. She is a member of the Romance Scammers on Facebook group, which is a group where victims work to take down other scammers (somewhat ironically, the group description reads: “how to get rid off [sic] scammers???? we are just more intelligent than them !!!!!!!”). On her Google plus profile, Srkj has posted about catfishing multiple times, including a video of a Nigerian scammer being arrested. All this begs the question of why she didn’t seem to get what was going on with Alec. Given this disconnect, I began to wonder if perhaps her site had actually been taken over by a scammer intent on discrediting Alec in order to make it easier to use his photos. Indeed, the Facebook post below seems to suggest that Srkj had concerns over her account security:

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 3.24.29 PM

But then Alec stumbled upon some new information: this post on the Romance Scammers group where Srkj actually admits to having been involved in scamming women herself.

screencapture-www-facebook-com-groups-260620843949421-permalink-1061497347195096-1456977158790

In case you aren’t keen on wading through that, the first part is the most interesting:

This man is a scammer I dealt with this person for 3 years.He had me send other woman’s money to him in nigeria.He claims he is a business man in nigeria selling land Rover parts.I was victim.And his last victim was candice l Adams he stole 1800 dollars from her sent to me to send back to him in nigeria.I didn’t send it back I kept it. Also a Tania Noell he stole 700.00 from her.I also have several recipts of money I sent to him under various Nigerian names.”

Essentially, Srkj just admitted to knowingly participating in this particular scam, both by sending other women’s money to him and by keeping money that another victim had sent to her. Oddly enough, no one else in the group seems to notice this; instead they are all intent on finding and bringing down the scammer.

And that appears to be a big cornerstone of Srkj’s battle: she is desperate to find the “real” scammer and believes she has zeroed in on him with Alec. This is perhaps quite obvious, but I feel I’d be remiss not to point out two major flaws in her judgment (that is, beyond the important fact that I, and countless others, know Alec well enough to say with certainty that he is not involved in a secret life of catfishing): first, on a very basic level, it just doesn’t make sense for someone involved in a scamming operation to use their own photos. But perhaps more importantly, it’s simply not possible to find the “real” scammer because these fake accounts are not isolated projects; rather, the accounts are most likely part of a large-scale operation with remarkably standardized operating procedures (there are even sites that collect the love letters used over and over by scammers).

But to return to Srkj, I admit that the revelation of her complicity, even participation, in catfishing activities initially seemed odd, given her own history as a victim. But as I dug deeper in my quest to learn more about Srkj, it started to make a bit more sense. The more I looked, the more it became apparent that our “victim” was in fact, well, not such a nice person. Her Facebook page (which appears to be mostly public) includes, among other things, evidence of an intolerance of immigrants (“Well if your not from here anyways start packing”); a link to this article about Obama’s move to penalize states that refuse to accept refugees, accompanied by the message “These refuges ain’t noughting more then born kilkers;” and this family portrait against a Confederate flag backdrop.

Rife_Srkj_-_Facebook_Search

Srkj’s recent past also includes two bizarre shoplifting incidents, in which she attempted to steal various food items from grocery stores: in one incident, her admittedly classy shoplifting included the theft of “lobster tails and shrimp,” while the other somewhat less classy incident involved hiding steaks and hams in her purse.

Identity, digital or otherwise, is a complex and slippery thing, and judging another person harshly without considering the full context is neither fair nor productive. But Srkj’s attack on Alec has become a campaign of slander and harassment, and that’s not fair either.

To be clear, the picture of Srkj painted by her fragmented digital identity suggests that this is a woman who has had a difficult life. There are certainly indications that she is living on a very low income or perhaps social assistance, and her writing indicates a lower level of literacy. As well, mixed in with the hate speech are pictures that depict Srkj as a loving mother who cares a great deal about her family. Identity, digital or otherwise, is a complex and slippery thing, and judging another person harshly without considering the full context is neither fair nor productive. But Srkj’s attack on Alec has become a campaign of slander and harassment, and that’s not fair either.

So why did I write this post? Ultimately, there are a few reasons. For one thing, I simply don’t believe that Srkj’s hateful and untrue messages should go unaddressed. Having dealt with my own share of online harassment, I am compelled to speak up about this, especially since Alec’s own efforts to deal with both this situation and the larger issue of catfishing have been largely unsuccessful. Also, part of my job involves teaching about digital citizenship and digital literacy, and I feel that exploring the complexities of this case – and having more conversations about these topics in general – is important in raising awareness; catfishers prey on those who lack the digital literacy to detect the scam, and so it’s critical that we educate others about this.

But ultimately, this story is much bigger than Alec or Srkj or even the catfishing rings. So I would like to add my voice to Alec’s and Alan’s in calling for social networks to step up in addressing scammer accounts. Certainly, the legal aspects of catfishing are tricky because these scams know no borders, but social networks have the power and ability to crack down on fraudulent accounts – it is simply not a priority to corporations for whom any growth in users (fake or otherwise) is seen as a sign of success. And that lack of interest in preventing what amounts to identity theft is a big problem for all of us, because without efforts from social networking services, the issue will only continue to grow. As Alec posted recently on Facebook:

“For those who haven’t been affected (or more likely don’t yet know that they’ve been affected), it’s difficult to fathom what a time-sucking, anxiety-causing, expletive-saying kind of experience this. Unless we get FB and other social media companies to act, this is the very near-future of our networked lives.”

No, I’m not okay, and yes, you can help

 

Photo credit: auntjojo under a Creative Commons license

This weekend, I have been, well, what I like to call “wallowing.” Actually, it’s been going on a bit longer than that, but on Thursday I broke through the Netflix-induced haze and graded a class set of papers (and yeah, just doing that much is kind of a big deal). And it’s not to say that I’ve done nothing at all this weekend, but I haven’t done as much as I should have, and that’s led to a cycle of wallowing, guilt for wallowing, more reason for wallowing, more reason for guilt for wallowing … and so on and so forth.

And then in this charming vortex of unpleasantness, I realized that exactly one year ago today, I first wrote openly about my own longtime struggle with depression and the stigma that surrounds mental illness. February has always been a particularly unpleasant month for me (and at least one depressed friend concurs, so perhaps a move to go straight from January to March is in order). So I figured that today is as good a day as any to revisit the topic, because it certainly hasn’t gone away.

To be honest, every time I speak or blog about this issue, I half expect for the world to come crashing down around me as people realize that I’m maybe not quite as “put together” or “stable” as they thought I was. I don’t like asking for help, and I don’t want to be treated any differently.

Wait. “I don’t want to be treated any differently”? Really?

I’m starting to see how problematic that statement is. It’s a statement born from the ugly epidemic of stigma that surrounds depression in our society, and it makes no sense. Imagine a person with a broken leg. Wouldn’t we treat that person somewhat differently, recognizing that some tasks might be more difficult (or downright impossible) for that person? I would certainly hope so.

So why do those of us with depression often hesitate to ask for some extra understanding for ourselves when we are going through a difficult period? I imagine that some of this stems from the fact that depression and other health disorders are often accompanied by anxiety, low self-esteem, and a general desire to keep our problems under wraps lest we be found weak. It probably also comes from hearing, time and time again, you’ll be fine…just get through it…your life isn’t that bad…

But every time we say it, we are in fact making things worse for everyone with mental illness, because we are suggesting that we don’t sometimes need a little extra understanding. And I think what we are really trying to say is “I don’t want to be treated like my mental illness makes me ‘lesser than.’”

So maybe, instead of trying to fight stigma by saying, essentially, that we shouldn’t be stigmatized because we don’t require any help, maybe we could work instead to be open about the fact that yes, sometimes we do need help, and sometimes we do need some understanding, but that’s okay. It doesn’t mean we are weak. It just means that we have a mental illness, and that illness is just as real as a physical ailment.

I’m trying to do this. It’s hard. On the first day of class this semester, I stood in front of a lecture theatre of 100 undergraduates (future teachers, no less, who are often burdened by an intense desire for perfection) and spoke about my depression, despite fearing that it would make them treat me differently. I did so to show them that it’s okay to need help and to show that sometimes being an ally means risking our own privilege (in this case, this is the privilege I’m afforded by staying quiet about an “ism” that isn’t outwardly visible).

And I’ve noticed that my students have started speaking out as well. A few weeks ago, students in STARS Regina ran a Twitter chat about supporting students with mental health. Several of them have also taken the brave step of blogging about their own experiences (Raquel, Kendra, Dave, and Meagan, to name a few).

Ultimately, we all need to be more open, and to trust in the humanity of those around us. So to all of us who need a little extra kindness sometimes, I apologize for discounting that. To all of my friends and colleagues and students and complete strangers who are just a little broken (and I don’t mean that in a bad way), I’m sorry for trying to minimize your stories. And when you find yourself wallowing, as I often have recently, remember that you are not alone, and that we, the broken ones, are all around, perhaps hiding in fear of stigma, but always ready to listen and give a little kindness.

And by the way, to whoever decided that we should add the extra leap day to February, thanks a lot.

Dissertation isolation: Say it ain’t so…

Three years ago, if you’d told me I would be writing a dissertation having anything to do with social media, I’d have laughed at you. Three years ago, I had just gotten a Twitter account and had used it…oh…maybe five times. Social media was a fun distraction, sure, but not much more.

Flickr photo shared by Marc_Smith under a Creative Commons ( BY) license

But for the past few days, I have been intently focused on finally getting my proverbial s*** together and finishing a draft of my dissertation which deals, in large part, with social media and digital identity. But I don’t always have the best attention span. I get distracted by many things – organizing my books, vacuuming, obsessing over how many steps my Fitbit has recorded today, and, of course, social media. Some might even say that social media, and the Internet in general, gets in the way of my productivity. And sure, sometimes it does. Did I really need to re-read that hilarious blog post about why procrastinators procrastinate for the twentieth time? Probably not (but if you haven’t read it, you really should…). Did I have to look through the trending hashtags on Twitter to learn that the odd one that I couldn’t parse was, inevitably, about more One Direction drama (I kid you not – every single time). Well, no.

But.

And that’s a big but (no pun intended).

But.

Social media is also a goldmine of incredible information. The vast majority of the citations in my third comprehensive exam paper, which was about digital identity, came from Twitter – well, more specifically, from what I dug up by searching for my Twitter handle + #identity in order to access the scores of articles on the subject that I had carefully curated from others’ sharing over time. And social media is the gift that keeps on giving. Today, I was writing about why it is so critical that all of us, but especially educators, speak out for social justice in online spaces, even though it is potentially risky (and, as in my case, can lead to being trolled in a not-so-nice way). And on one of my social media breaks, I came across this fantastic post by Bonnie Stewart about the way that social media shapes our world. To quote Bonnie:

“Facebook – and more broadly, social media in general…but Facebook remains for the moment the space of the widest participation across demographics even while targeting ads designed to keep people IN their existing demographics – is the stage upon which the battle over dominant cultural narratives is played out.

Social media is where we are deciding who we are, not just as individual digital identities but AS A PEOPLE, A SOCIETY.”

Thanks for the dissertation material, Bonnie!

Writing, publishing, literacy in general – it truly is now all about participation and collaboration.

So writing my dissertation has been incredibly hard, but perhaps not for the reasons you might think. When I get into my groove, I am a prolific and rapid writer. But these days, I write mostly blog posts, and I find that my ability to write academically has been overtaken, in some ways, by my ability to blog. If I could blog my dissertation, I would. I’m a bit lost without the ability to hyperlink to other blogs or articles or people, and I feel that my writing suffers because of it. Because really, that’s the magic of social media, social writing, and Web 2.0: writing, publishing, literacy in general – it truly is now all about participation and collaboration. A good blog post is a good blog post because it links into a much wider web of knowledge, and it does so in a highly transparent and accessible way. Sure, we cite others in academic papers, but to access a cited work we would usually have to search for it in an academic database or – gasp – go to the library (I have helpfully linked to the Wikipedia page about libraries here in case you’ve forgotten what they are). The way we think about knowledge is changing, at least when it comes to the digital sphere: as David Weinberger said, “The smartest person in the room is the room.” I even watched this shift play out in my research. What began as an ethnographic study/discourse analysis rapidly changed into something much more collaborative. Instead of me sitting alone and analyzing my participants’ words, we sat there and picked them apart together – both their words and, at times, mine. We constructed (well, in the case of my research, deconstructed) understandings collaboratively. And the experience was so much richer because of it.

In a particularly depressing moment of Heart of Darkness, Conrad writes, “We live as we dream – alone.” In many ways, academia seems still to embrace this worldview – it might as well read, “I write my dissertation as I dream – alone.” But just as the magic of Google Drive means I will never have to edit documents alone again, the magic of social media means that I no longer have to write, read, think, or be an “expert” in isolation. Maybe it’s time academia embraced this incredible connected culture that we live in just a little bit more and took up a more social form of learning. After all, “We participate, therefore we are.”

And hey, I might even find a way to work this blog post into my dissertation.

 

#PrivilegeGate, or, How I Unwittingly Provoked a Troll Army

Yesterday, I tweeted this study about white privilege:

The tweet got a few likes and a few retweets, mostly from other professors in my faculty. I moved on. The study’s findings aren’t unexpected: they are in line with my own experiences working with pre-service teachers on topics of race and privilege, and they line up with other research about typical responses to learning about white privilege.

Today, I opened Twitter to find that I had 65 notifications, all from people responding to my tweet in various troll-like ways (most of which, ironically, included denial of white privilege and endorsements of meritocracy).

The responses ranged from cryptic comments to derogatory personal attacks, most apparently stemming from my tweet being retweeted by Twitter user @Nero to his 116K followers. Some of the worst include these gems: Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 2.47.44 PM Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 2.47.28 PMScreen Shot 2015-12-01 at 2.46.58 PM Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 2.45.26 PM

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 6.32.41 PM Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 2.46.29 PM

And my personal favourite: Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 2.49.21 PM @Nero didn’t actually comment on my tweet, but judging from his other tweets, it seems likely that he wasn’t retweeting me to signal his approval; scrolling through his recent feed, I found this tweet, which suggests that I’m not the only one who has experienced this:

This isn’t my first encounter with Twitter trolls, and I have a fairly thick skin; as well, a little digging also told me that most of the accounts in the troll army have few followers, and some are likely fake or paid accounts set up specifically for the purpose of trolling. Nevertheless, I found the situation a bit unsettling. At the very least, it paints a pretty depressing picture of the state of society. Also, it’s hard not to wonder if the reaction would have been the same had I been a white male tweeting the same article – I’m inclined to think that the answer is a resounding “no,” given the female-targeted responses to the Gamergate controversy.

But what’s more unsettling to me is that the trolls’ responses are likely an effective intimidation technique for most people. It makes it a whole lot less appealing to discuss social justice issues online when you know you’re setting yourself up for this type of hateful personal attack. As an educator, I am a huge proponent of speaking out about these types of controversial issues on social media, and I encourage my pre-service teachers to do the same, but this encouragement now needs to come with a warning about the potential ramifications.

Luckily, the Internet isn’t all bad. I received several messages of support:


I think that last one sums it up nicely. We still have a long way to go, but we’re on the right track.

(Digital) Identity in a World that No Longer Forgets

This post was written jointly with Alec Couros and also appears on his blog.

In recent weeks, the topic of digital identity has been at the forefront of our minds. With election campaigns running in both Canada and the United States, we see candidate after candidate’s social media presence being picked apart, with past transgressions dragged into the spotlight for the purposes of public judgement and shaming. The rise of cybervigilantism has led to a rebirth of mob justice: what began with individual situations like the shaming of Justine Sacco has snowballed into entire sites intended to publicize bad online behaviour with the aim of getting people fired. Meanwhile, as the school year kicks into high gear, we are seeing evidence of the growing focus on digital identity among young people, including requests for our interning pre-service teachers to teach lessons about digital citizenship.

All this focus on digital identity raises big questions around the societal expectations about digital identity (i.e. that it’s sanitized and mistake-free) and the strategies that are typically used to meet those expectations. When talking to young people about digital identity, a typical approach is to discuss the importance of deleting negative artefacts and replacing them with a trail of positive artefacts that will outweigh these seemingly inevitable liabilities. Thus, digital identity has, in effect, become about gaming search results by flooding the Internet with the desired, palatable “self” so that this performance of identity overtakes all of the others.

But our current strategies for dealing with the idea of digital identity are far from ideal. From a purely practical perspective, it is basically impossible to erase all “negatives” from a digital footprint: the Internet has the memory of an elephant, in a sense, with cached pages, offline archives, and non-compliant international service providers. What’s more, anyone with Internet access can contribute (positively or negatively) to the story that is told about someone online (and while Europe has successfully lobbied Google for the “right to be forgotten” and to have certain results hidden in search, that system only scratches the surface of the larger problem and initiates other troubling matters). In most instances, our digital footprints remain in the control of our greater society, and particularly large corporations, to be (re)interpreted, (re)appropriated, and potentially misused by any personal or public interest.

And beyond the practical, there are ethical and philosophical concerns as well. For one thing, if we feel the need to perform a “perfect” identity, we risk silencing non-dominant ideas. A pre-service teacher might be hesitant to discuss “touchy” subjects like racism online, fearing future repercussions from principals or parents. A depressed teenager might fear that discussing her mental health will make her seem weak or “crazy” to potential friends or teachers or employers and thus not get the support she needs. If we become mired in the collapsed context of the Internet and worry that our every digital act might someday be scrutinized by someone, somewhere, the scope of what we can “safely” discuss online is incredibly narrow and limited to the mainstream and inoffensive.

And this view of digital identity also has implications for who is able to say what online. If mistakes are potentially so costly, we must consider who has the power and privilege to take the risk of speaking out against the status quo, and how this might contribute to the further marginalization and silencing of non-dominant groups.

In a world where forgetting is no longer possible, we might instead work towards greater empathy and forgiveness

 Our current strategy for dealing with digital identity isn’t working. And while we might in the future have new laws addressing some of these digital complexities (for instance, new laws are currently being proposed around issues of digital legacy) such solutions will never be perfect, and legislative changes are slow. Perhaps, instead, we might accept that the Internet has changed our world in fundamental ways and recognize that our societal mindset around digital missteps must be adjusted in light of this new reality: perhaps, in a world where forgetting is no longer possible, we might instead work towards greater empathy and forgiveness, emphasizing the need for informed judgment rather than snap decisions.

So what might that look like? The transition to a more forgiving (digital) world will no doubt be a slow one, but one important step is making an effort to critically examine digital artefacts before rendering judgment. Below, we list some key points to consider when evaluating problematic posts or other content.

Context/audience matters: We often use the “Grandma rule” as a test for appropriateness, but given the collapsed context of the online world, it may not be possible to participate fully in digital spaces if we adhere to this test. We should ask: What is the (digital) context and intended audience for which the artefact has been shared? For instance, was it originally posted on a work-related platform? Dating site? Forum? News article? Social network? Was the communication appropriate for the platform in which it was originally posted?

Intent matters: We should be cognizant of the replicability of digital artefacts, but we should also be sure to consider intent. We should ask: Was the artefact originally shared privately or anonymously? Was the artefact intended for sharing in the first place? How did the artefact come to be shared widely? Was the artefact made public through illegal or unethical means?

History matters: In face to face settings we typically don’t unfriend somebody based on one off-colour remark; rather we judge character based on a lifetime of interactions. We should apply the same rules when assessing a digital footprint: Does the artefact appear to be a one time thing, or is it part of a longer pattern of problematic content/behaviour? Has there been a sincere apology, and is there evidence that the person has learned from the incident? How would we react to the incident in person? Would we forever shame the person or would we resolve the matter through dialogue?

Authorship matters: Generations of children and teenagers have had the luxury of having their childhoods captured only by the occasional photograph, and legal systems are generally set up to expunge most juvenile records. Even this Teenage Bill of Rights from 1945 includes the “right to make mistakes” and the “right to let childhood be forgotten.” We should ask: When was the artefact posted? Are we digging up posts that were made by a child or teenager, or is this a recent event? What level of maturity and professionalism should we have expected from the author at the time of posting?

Empathy matters: Finally, we should remember to exercise empathy and understanding when dealing with digital missteps. We should ask: Does our reaction to the artefact pass the hypocrite test? Have we made similar or equally serious mistakes ourselves but been lucky enough to have them vanish into the (offline) ether? How would we wish our sons, daughters, relatives, or friends to be treated if they made the same mistake? Are the potential consequences of our (collective) reaction reasonable given the size and scope of the incident?

This type of critical examination of online artefacts, taking into consideration intent, context, and circumstance, should certainly be taught and practiced in schools, but it should also be a foundational element of active, critical citizenship as we choose candidates, hire employees, and enter into relationships. As digital worlds signal an end to forgetting, we must decide as a society how we will grapple with digital identities that are formed throughout the lifelong process of maturation and becoming. If we can no longer simply “forgive and forget,” how might we collectively develop a greater sense of digital empathy and understanding?
So what do you think? What key questions might you add to our list? What challenges might this emerging framework provide for digital citizenship in schools and in our greater society? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Against willful ignorance: Why we should not be shocked by the “dire conditions” in urban schools

On Facebook this morning, I came across an article titled “Maryland Senator demanding answers after dire conditions found inside city school.” I had to check it twice, because I first thought it was an Onion article. Dire conditions? Baltimore Schools? Yeah, no kidding. You don’t say.

Ratholes along the wall of a portable...way back in 2007.

Ratholes along the wall of a portable…way back in 2007.

Conditions in Baltimore City schools are deplorable. The majority of the schools have similar “dire conditions.” I taught in both West and East Baltimore, in an elementary/middle school and in a high school. I could tell you stories for days about the dire conditions I witnessed. I’ve blogged about it, I’ve talked about it with the pre-service educators that I teach, I’ve tweeted about it … But that’s not the point here.

What angers me is not this story itself, which tells some truth. What angers me is that Bill Ferguson, the Maryland state senator who is “demanding answers,” is a Teach for America alum. A quick Google search reveals that he taught at the Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy from 2005-2007. Vivien T. Thomas is located in the Francis M. Woods building, which received a rating of “poor” in the 2012 Jacobs facilities report. That school belongs to the Baltimore City Public School System, a school system with conditions that the ACLU declared to be unconstitutional in 2010. The conditions in these schools are not news to Senator Ferguson, and they are not news to anyone who has set foot in a Baltimore City school.

The floor was peeling up, and I didn't want kids to trip. I made my own repairs  rather than waiting the weeks or months for an official solution.

The metal dividing strip had come loose, and I didn’t want kids to trip or cut themselves on the sharp metal edges. I made my own repairs rather than waiting the weeks or months for an official solution.

I have no doubt that Senator Ferguson’s intentions are good. The school conditions are dire, and the community, the state, the country, and those of us who taught there should be demanding answers.

But the real story here isn’t about the conditions in Baltimore City schools. The real story is about the entrenched culture of denial surrounding the school conditions for Black children. It is about the willful ignorance surrounding the issue – until it can be leveraged politically. And it is about the refusal to acknowledge the bigger picture of systemic racism that has led to these dire conditions.

So let’s talk about that bigger picture. Let’s acknowledge that the unconscionable conditions in city schools are not isolated incidents, finally noticed by a state senator and only realized in July of this summer, but are instead part of the much bigger issues of the underfunding of American public schools and the school to prison pipeline. Let’s stop pretending to be shocked by stories of dead Baltimore City youth. Let’s acknowledge the police brutality and other systemic violence that people of colour have come to see as commonplace, the need for hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName, and the senseless killing of countless people of colour that occurs every day.

And let’s confront this bigger picture, instead of just replacing some windows and repainting some walls.

 

Developing a framework for teaching open courses

This post was written jointly with Alec Couros and also appears on his blog.

Recently, we presented at OER15 in Cardiff, Wales, on the topic of developing a framework for open courses. In our session, we considered our experiences in facilitating MOOC type courses in order to think through and address the challenges that these types of courses present.

So first, a little background: It has been stated that there are two general categories of MOOCs: xMOOCs and cMOOCs. xMOOCs are large-scale MOOCs that often consist of video-delivered content and automated assessments. These MOOCs are often offered by institutions or by large-scale MOOC providers like edX and Coursera. cMOOCs, or Connectivist MOOCs, are network-based: they operate through a distributed pedagogy model, where the connections become as important as the content, knowledge is socially constructed by the group, and participants learn from each other. In many ways, these courses can be similar to learning on the open web: there is minimal guidance in terms of what is learned and when, and participants are instead free to engage with the course in whatever way they choose. Open boundary courses, meanwhile, are for-credit courses (such as those offered by a post-secondary institution) that are opened to the public on a non-credit basis. For instance, the ds106 Digital Storytelling course, originally based out of the University of Mary Washington, is also offered as an open boundary course. If you were to imagine the spectrum of openness in courses, it might look something like this:

Open Boundary Courses

For the purposes of this post, we take the term “open course” to include both open boundary courses and MOOCs (particularly cMOOCs).

Much of our insight into open courses comes from our work with three large, open courses: EC&I 831 (Social Media and Open Education), #ETMOOC, and #DCMOOC. The latter two courses were both cMOOCs; #ETMOOC (a MOOC about educational technology) ran in the winter of 2013, and #DCMOOC (a MOOC about digital citizenship sponsored by the Saskatchewan Ministry of Education) ran in the spring of 2014. EC&I 831, meanwhile, is a graduate level class at the University of Regina that was developed and then taught for the first time in 2007 and has run every year since. While the course has a core group of for-credit graduate students, it is also open to anyone – classes are held online and the link to the web-conferencing platform is tweeted out each week, so that anyone is free to join any given session. EC&I 831 is not a MOOC; instead, it is considered an open-boundary course, and it’s generally seen as one of the forerunners for the MOOC movement.

One of the common features of MOOCs is the high drop-out rate, which occurs for a variety of reasons. The drop-out rate is not in itself necessarily a negative: it may mean that students have the freedom to try out different courses (or other educational experiences) until they find one that fits their needs, or it may mean that students are choosing to audit only particular portions of courses rather than completing them in their entirety. However, some students drop out or engage very minimally with open courses not due to lack of interest or fit with their own needs but because the format and ethos of cMOOCs can be difficult to navigate for those who have not spent much time learning on the open web. However, with EC&I831, #ETMOOC, and #DCMOOC, we have seen a significant level of engagement, persistence, and follow-through with the courses. Perhaps more importantly, many of the participants have stayed engaged with the course community and gone on to become leaders in their own networks; for instance, former participants in #ETMOOC organized their own 2nd year anniversary chat. So the question is, how do we take the strategies that led to positive and lasting outcomes in these courses and apply them to other large, open courses in order to help make participants’ experiences more positive, relevant, and beneficial in the long term?

Below, we identify seven elements of course design that we have used in our own open courses. Then, we suggest possible strategies for building a framework for open courses that might lead to more positive student involvement, in the hopes that these favourable experiences will lead students to continue learning and connecting in open, networked spaces.

  1. Semi-structured course environment

The challenge: The incredible choice of online spaces and tools can be overwhelming to those just starting to learn on the open web.

The strategy: In the open courses that we have facilitated, we help students to gradually ease into the greater digital world through the creation of a variety of interconnected course environments with varying levels of privacy. This can help to gradually “thin the walls” of the more traditional closed classroom environment:

Thinning the Walls

Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown write: “The new culture of learning actually comprises two elements. The first is a massive information network that provides almost unlimited and resources to learn about anything. The second is a bounded and structured environment that allows unlimited agency to build and experiment with things within those boundaries.” Keeping this in mind, we design the course environment as a bounded space for learning how to learn that exists within the larger space of the open web; we do this through a combination of different tools (small tools, loosely joined). While our use of specific tools has evolved and changed over time, what is important is the way in which the chosen tools work together in combination to ensure a particular set of affordances. In the current iteration, for instance, we allow for private interactions in a “safe” space by creating a Google Plus community for each of our courses, where students can pose questions, engage in discussion, and share resources. As well, we encourage students to develop their own spaces on the web, but we also employ mechanisms to keep these spaces interconnected in order to create a structure of support. For instance, students create their own personal blogs or ePortfolios, but these sites are aggregated using the FeedWordPress plugin so that posts also appear on a central course hub. Additionally, students develop individual Twitter accounts but remain connected through the creation of a Twitter list and the use of a course hashtag (for instance, #eci831). In this way, students are eased into the open web, but at the end of the course they are left with their own individually controlled spaces, which they can continue to use and expand or, alternatively, choose to delete entirely. The ability for students to continue to grow the networks that they have begun to build in class is markedly different from what happens with a traditional Learning/Content Management System (LMS/CMS), where the course is archived at the end of the semester and students start back at zero.

PLN vs. CMS

  1. Interest-based curriculum

The challenge: The overwhelming array of information available online can make it difficult to find a place to begin or a path to take.

The strategy: Martin Weller describes the wealth of knowledge online as a potential “pedagogy of abundance.” For learners who are more used to a structured curriculum, this can make getting started a challenge. However, learning is most meaningful when it is interest-based. So, in our courses, we want to avoid setting a strict scope and sequence type curriculum; instead, we encourage students to let their interests become the catalyst for learning. One particularly successful strategy has been the inclusion of student learning projects in our courses, where students are expected to learn a skill of their choice using online resources and then document the learning process. This allows students to choose a high interest topic, but it also ensures that all students are documenting their learning in a similar manner, which can provide a social glue as students discuss the methods and tools use for documentation (which is a digital literacy skill in itself). As well, weekly synchronous video conferencing sessions and weekly Twitter chats can keep students from feeling lost or disconnected.

  1. Assessment as learning/connection

The challenge: A lack of check-ins/endpoints in online learning can make the learning process seem nebulous.

The strategy: Traditional for-credit courses include assignments that allow students to demonstrate their learning; for instance, in EC&I 831, students create summaries of learning that let them to express their learning using the tools of the open web. These summaries also allow students to practice designing and sharing media in the collapsed context of our networked world, often leading to serendipitous feedback from others outside of the course. Although MOOC-type open courses do not have the same sort of endpoint (as the hope is that learning will continue beyond the course), implementing a similar type of checkpoint – a summary-type assessment that allows students to put tools and theory into practice – can be helpful to allow students to consolidate their learning as well as to connect further through sharing and participating in their newly build networks.

  1. Instructor support

The challenge: The large student-instructor ratio in large open courses can lead to students feeling lost and unsupported as they explore new forms of media.

The strategy: We’ve found that in large courses, it is helpful to have a variety of orientation sessions (for instance, a session on blogging or on using Twitter) in order to help students gain a level of comfort with course tools. This is especially important because students come to courses with an increasingly wide range of digital literacies and technological competencies; while students will work towards attaining a level of digital fluency throughout the course, these introductory sessions give students the basic skills they need in order to access the learning experience of the course.

As well, although we design courses to encourage a high level of peer feedback (or even feedback from others not officially participating in the course), it is important to ensure that all students are getting regular feedback and suggestions for improvement so that they are able to continue to grow; thus, it is helpful to ensure that the facilitation team include members who act as “community developers,” individuals who can comment on student blogs, interact with participants on Twitter and Google Plus, and address any questions that arise; in #ETMOOC, for instance, having a group of co-conspirators meant that the work of community development and course leadership did not fall on a single individual.

  1. Student community

The challenge: Newcomers to online networks can often feel isolated and alone.

The strategy: In a graduate course like EC&I 831, there is a core group of for-credit students with similar aims, and this creates an immediate, built-in Personal Learning Network (PLN). But in larger MOOCs, this core group doesn’t exist, and so facilitators need to work to build a student community through group-building activities. For instance, in #ETMOOC, facilitators organized and created a lipdub video in which course participants could take part. In another recent course, students started a Fitbit group, which allowed course participants to bond over a shared activity. Activities that help to create a sense of presence in the course (such as asking participants to write an introductory blog post or having students create short videos of themselves using a tool like Flipgrid) can help to build a sense of community. Importantly, such community-building activities also help students to build their own PLNs while adding an increased level of personal accountability that can encourage participants to continue with the course.

  1. Digital identity creation

The challenge: Missteps and mistakes can be amplified in digital spaces, where footprints are permanent and easily searchable.

The strategy: In a world where online reputation is becoming increasingly important, it is critical that we take control of our digital presence so that others don’t do so for us. As well, in order to participate more fully in MOOCs in particular and in a PLN in general, it’s important to declare oneself; what we get from our networks depends largely upon what we contribute to them, and it’s difficult to contribute without a digital presence. That might mean creating a blog, developing a Twitter presence, or engaging on other social networking sites. Supporting the development of students’ digital identities as part of open courses will not only help them to network as part of the course, but it will also serve them well in the long term.

  1. Democratizing the web

The challenge: Those new to digital spaces can be hesitant to voice their beliefs publicly due to the nature of digital artefacts, which can easily be shared, remixed, and taken out of context.

The strategy: As digital citizens, we have a responsibility to keep the web democratic and allow for equitable expression, but it can be difficult for non-dominant views to be voiced online due to fear of criticism or other negative repercussions. However, silence can often be taken as complicity, so we need to support students in open courses as they delve into potentially controversial topics, by fostering a community in which students feel more confident expressing viewpoints with the support of a group, and by using our own digital identities to model what it looks like to speak out for social justice issues online.

Although the nature of MOOCs and open courses can present difficulties for those who are new to learning on the open web, these strategies can help to give participants a foothold in the online world, which can, in turn, increase their chances for a meaningful experience that paves the way for a lifetime of learning.