Beki Grinter

The Mean, Misogynistic Internet—Another Diversity Problem for MOOCs?

In academia, discipline, women on February 6, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Yesterday I wrote about what made me stay with Computing despite the horrible gender imbalance—the personal encouragement I received from teachers who went out of their way to support me. Today I want to broach another piece of why I’m reticent to offer a MOOC: the comments.

I’ve been looking at comments that others have received on their MOOC offerings. No surprises in some ways, they look like a lot of Internet comments. Some are mean, some are stupid, and some are sexist. Of course there are some helpful comments too, but not all.

A few weeks ago a colleague of mine posted this story about a British female academic who argued a position on immigration and was vilified on Twitter as a result of it. The remarks made about her are vile, with levels of misogyny that are depressing. Clearly MOOCs are not the same as arguing a position on immigration, but the same patterns of misogyny exist. It’s rare, but I have received remarks in my teaching evaluations that exhibit this quality. I see Rate a Prof being used in similar ways. Why should MOOCs be exempt?

In discussing this with a colleague he told me about how a video of his technology that featured a woman received a misogynistic comment about her. He removed the comment, but I’m not sure one can moderate comments about MOOCs. I can see that as appearing problematic. Its easy to imagine being accused of moderating comments in such a way that the course reviews were biased towards the positive. The very commentators who likely want to make their vile remarks might be as angry about having their comments are removed. Censorship and freedom of speech are powerful arguments.

I am not willing to expose myself to a situation where any person can use comments to promote attitudes that defy belief that will subsequently end up in one of Google’s data center forever associated with my name. That’s my name, my reputation. And how will other women see those comments? What will they think of the people who take those classes? That people who like Computing hate women. Great.

On a more personal level, and even if the remarks were removed, I still have to live with the idea that someone out there really hates me, hates what I represent, hates what I’ve achieved. Probably more than one person. I already have moments of self-doubt. And then we add in that these people will chose to express that hatred in the most disgusting of ways. It maybe electronically deleted from the record, but it won’t be deleted from my mind. I’ll still have to live with the idea that someone said that about me. I don’t find that a terribly compelling argument for offering myself up to that situation.

I think this warrants more discussion than its receiving, because of course its not the Internet itself, it’s the fact that its a forum for still far too widespread misogyny that exists in the real world. Further, because of the chronic diversity problem that Computing has, it’s hardly surprising that most of the people promoting MOOCs are just the sort of people who don’t experience the Internet as a minority and would be far less likely to be exposed to the mean, misogynistic Internet out there.

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  1. This is a real problem, and whether to avoid taking the bus or getting on and sitting in front is something everyone can decide for themselves. However, for one question an eloquent answer has been posted by a MOOC instructor. My evolving views are found in a blog post http://interactions.acm.org/blog/view/wrong-about-moocs. In that post is a link to a video by Charles Severance that completely changed my opinion. He directly addresses the issue of inappropriate comments among many other issues. Set aside 46 minutes to watch his video if you are seriously interested in this subject, which we all probably should be.

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