Living Your Best Life With Semi-Permeable Membranes in Digital Learning Spaces

Part of the learning process involves a certain amount of failure. Individuals have an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and use them as a source for understanding. Learning from, and overcoming mistakes also provides opportunities to improve motivation and self-esteem of the learner.

The possibility of suffering defeat or failure in making a mistake is also a major factor that deters individuals from putting themselves out there to make a mistake. Put simply, learners will not take risks, and stay focused on achievable goals. Through this mentality, a learner remains focused on building mastery of topics, skills, and practices that they already master. True growth is not possible. To truly grow and learn, there is a need to try things that are bold, know that you’ll make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes.

There is also a reticence to ask others for critique, and obtain feedback. Most people generally do not like to ask questions they don’t know the answer to, or generally feel “stupid” for asking. If they do gather up the gumption to ask for feedback or critique, the giver of that critique will sometimes “sugarcoat” this review so they don’t hurt the feelings of the one being evaluated.

In short, we’re stuck in this never-ending loop of feedback that does not create opportunities for individuals to grow, learn, and do their best work. In online and hybrid spaces, there is a need to create spaces for learning mistakes through the learning atmosphere, or environment. A need to create a series of levels that allow you to make these mistakes and learn from them.

Trending away from anonymity

In online contexts, there is a growing trend away from anonymity and toward full interaction in social spaces & networks. This is largely due to the fact that knowing more about you is more valuable. Apps and services can collect this data about you and sell it elsewhere. As a result, the industry is moving to having you create a persistent online identity.

There is also concern about the impact that anonymity can have, in regards to freedom of expression and privacy functions. There is a narrative that people only seek to be anonymous online when they have something to hide. There may be multiple reasons why an individual may desire online anonymity.

Bodle (2013) suggests that the role and impact of anonymity can also be discussed as an ethical question. He argues that “anonymity in networked digital communications is indispensable as an enabler of other inalienable rights including informational privacy and freedom of expression.”

Regardless of the reasons for seeking anonymity online, I believe there is a need to create levels of anonymity for individuals (or show them how to create them) so they can learn, grow, and make mistakes.

Degrees of anonymity

Mike Reiter and Avi Rubin introduced the idea of degrees of anonymity as a metric for describing and identifying levels of anonymity. They express this as a continuum, ranging from no anonymity to complete anonymity with multiple points in between.

For our purposes, a far simpler continuum is expressed by Joinson (2001). A graphic is this is provided in research on self-exploration, anonymity and risks in the online setting by Teo Keipi & Atte Oksanen (2014).

This scale describes the levels of anonymity that can be provided, or created, and the value (or affordances) of each of these spaces.

A semi-permeable membrane

To bring us back to the focus of this post, I believe individuals need opportunities to move between these levels to best maximize their learning potential. They need to be provided, or have the skillset to create (and select) the anonymity level that best suits their goal or objective.

Just as an author or blogger may write a piece, and target a publication to attract a different audience, a learner needs to be able to direct their inquiry to a specific audience, with an understanding of their level of anonymity involved.

As an example, an individual may be starting up a blog and they have questions about the design choices on their website. They may be brave enough to openly share their work online looking for feedback. They may (or may not) receive this critical feedback. They could choose to share it into a semi-private chat room that includes people that are skilled bloggers and digital content creators. If this space offered some pseudonymity (a typical chatroom where you select your avatar & username), you could choose how to identify yourself, and receive feedback from these experts.

Let’s also suggest that your request was a bit more sensitive. Perhaps you have questions about race, & identity. You want to ask questions and obtain feedback, without others online later judging you, or discriminating against you. In an environment that allows for full anonymity (a public discussion board that may not require a username to post) would allow you to post your question and get feedback.

Making space for learning mistakes

There are significant opportunities, and also challenges in online anonymity. Some of this has to do with the narratives (stories) out there that raise questions about the “types of people” that would have something to hide. There are also challenges to online anonymity as the system is moving to make it harder for the individual to not connect the dots, and not have a persistent online identity. Put simply, the developers make sharing your data, and connecting all aspects of your identity the path of least resistance.

We quickly click through the terms of service to gain access to a new app or service. We also prefer to register a new account using our details from Facebook, Google, Twitter, or LinkedIn. We also feel the need to share everything to everyone…or share nothing online. Perhaps the best course of action is to carve out semi-permeable membranes online where we can share privately with some people we trust. Or better yet, identify some places where we can share and get feedback…with people we don’t trust.

Image Credit

Originally published at W. Ian O’Byrne.