Yesterday's Chronicle of Higher Education: Wired Campus reports, "Online Professors Pose as Students to Encourage Real Learning" (full version article). They provide examples of faculty posing with false identities in "online courses to kick-start discussions among students, keep them from dropping out, and spy on their communications." While Peter Steiner's 1993 New Yorker cartoon "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog" triggered feelings of thoughtful reflection -- these examples of false identity instead trigger embarrassment. Yes, we know people have false identities on Facebook, but a non-disclosed false identity in a classroom setting is a breach of trust. The Leavey School of Business honor code (Santa Clara University -- my institution) would not allow such behavior from students, and I expect the faculty handbook would give it a thumbs down as well. Highlights:
  • Be honest
  • Demonstrate self-respect and respect for others
  • Demonstrate respect for the law and University policies, procedures, and standards
Why do I care? As a faculty member, I need my students to take my communication with them at face value. Our class management tools (Angel in my case) allow tracking of participation and all discussion boards are open to all in the class -- including me. If I pose a question to generate comment, my name is attached and I generally set up the course site to not allow anonymous participation. Anonymity is honored when I do state that a quiz/poll will be anonymous. All faculty and class interaction will be affected if some faculty breach the faculty/student psychological contract by being deceptive. There have been cases of using ringers/confederates in research on on-line collaboration (one example). These studies were vetted by the University's Internal Review Board (peer committee tasked with monitoring the safe and ethical conduct of research) and the participants were fully debriefed in accordance with IRB guidelines. I am also not troubled by use of disclosed phantom students (from the Chronicle article: Joe Bag O'Donuts). As I said in my last post, understanding the dimensions of privacy is part of developing our systems savvy. The use of false identity is a violation of privacy in that you are not being given true information on which to base the disclosures you decide to make. My expectation for class interaction is that I am dealing with the actual person unless notified otherwise. Note to my students: that's our contract. Business collaborators should be similarly clear with the identity contract. My understanding (I'm not a lawyer), is that your company owns the information transmitted on a company computer and/or over the company network and that you have no reasonable expectation of privacy. That said, companies are also covered by complex sets of privacy laws covering state, federal, and international boundaries. Some companies have specific policies covering impersonation (Marathon Consulting's) -- and all should. Build your systems savvy -- be aware, be informed.