A More Personal Anonymity: Online Teaching in Second Life

Henry James Morello

The sometimes under questioned adoption of the Internet and online learning by colleges and universities has led to an often unspoken, or rather spoken but ignored, in the light of increased revenue streams, crisis of anonymity.  The fact is that without the extensive and intrusive use of biometrics for determining the identity of the student on the other end of the line, the faceless student is free to engage in unethical behavior to improve their grade with the idea that it is the grade, and not the education, that will help determine their future.  The trend toward this type of behavior is in part the consequence of the disenfranchisement, or disconnect, felt by the students who take online courses.  I have, on more than one occasion, heard students opine about the lack of contact with an instructor and lack of a cohesive learning community. 

On one level, students enjoy the idea of the online course.  They enjoy the freedom found in electronic distance. They are attracted by both freedom to connect from wherever they happen to be and the open expression that comes from a certain amount of anonymity.  Nevertheless, students still crave the contact with an instructor and their fellow students. This lamentable lack of contact creates a situation in which students are making decisions about how to proceed with online courses in an ethical vacuum.  The question for this talk is then, given the desire of the corporate minded university to increase the use of online teaching to improve the bottom line, how can online courses reduce the anonymity and increase the sense of self to ameliorate the problem?

I believe that the experiences offered by virtual worlds such as “Second Life” can help to create connections between instructor and students and between the students themselves.  These connections can help foster a community where a sense of ethics can then be developed.  The students still have enough anonymity to promote open discussion, in fact more open discussion than is often seen in the classroom, but the three dimensional virtual world of Second Life allows students to create avatars with enough of their own personality to attach their own ethical value systems to them.  This talk will discuss how the complex issue of subject/object positionality found in Second Life affects anonymity, both in a positive and negative sense and how instructors can operate in that complex space to foster an ethical virtual community.