The university at its best is guardian of public knowledge and the liberty of the human mind. The desire to unlock that knowledge for a global community has inspired universities to experiment with virtual alternatives to the in-person classroom, online course communities that promise the freedom of learning remotely and asynchronously. Yet today the university faces a reality where courses must be taken online rapidly and out of necessity. The entire enterprise of education must respond to a necessary transformation by building virtual space that is satisfactory as a replacement for the physical classroom. The move online does not require that we lose relational space, but instead asks us to experiment with models for creating virtual learning communities where trust, mutual accountability, and a shared humanity are built-in. We must respond to a necessary transformation in education by working with universities to introduce parallel architectures for multiple, differentiated rhetorical spaces, with varying levels of revealed identity and intimacy.
Remote meeting platforms allow participants to do something that is impossible, or very difficult, in physical meetings: to disentangle channels of information and identity, and choose when to share which. We should design remote convenings (meetings, classes) with an understanding of the affordances of different virtual spaces, and have at our fingertips a multiplicity of such spaces for different use cases. Initiating a meeting should involve consideration of its virtual structure, by the convener or amongst participants, to decide which spaces are appropriate for that interaction.
Let’s start with a few design goals - please add more:
Maximizing engagement: across participants with different communication preferences, across multiple channels simultaneously
Changing and liberating the nature of the communication itself by providing a variety of identity protections
Closed, pseudonymous corners of the web, for instance, are absent common identifiers that lead to implicit or explicit bias, and free from the surveillance and exposure of the wider net. These spaces provide a way to re-introduce open discourse and provocative debate into the learning process, empowering students to grapple with difficult issues where ethics, justice, and proper framing are uncertain. As such, pseudonymity could offer freedom in a time of great constraint: freedom of the mind to speak openly in a trusted space. Honest discourse may be one of our best hopes at achieving intimacy and community during a time of physical separation. How do different communication platforms affect our ability to communicate openly?
In Zoom, users can select a pseudonym for the duration of the meeting. That pseudonym is shared across visual/audio/chat channels, so sharing visual or audio data associated with a nym compromises chat pseudonymity. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to Zoom: other platforms should be considered that offer a full range of nymity, from full identity disclosure to full anonymous participation (within a closed group or publicly).
We need a set of options that both maximize engagement — by providing users with their choice of audio, visual, text-based, ephemeral, and persistent channels — and allow for different amounts of identity disclosure. The resulting discourse will both invite more participation, and free us to share different matters of mind: those which we wish to be linked to our known identities, and those with lives of their own.