Technology

Anonymous Feedback, Fine. Insults? Not on These Platforms.

February 04, 2015

Students have a lot to say. And when they can hide behind anonymity, they’re not afraid to say it.

Recently, students have taken to social-media platforms like Yik Yak to anonymously air gripes against their professors. Often, the conversation is less than productive. In one recent incident at Eastern Michigan University, students in a large lecture course wrote more than 100 demeaning Yik Yak posts about the three female professors who led the class, including sexual remarks and insults about their appearance and teaching.

Colleges have long sought student feedback—usually by way of end-of-semester course evaluations—but the rude complaints on Yik Yak are seen by some professors as cyberbullying.

A few colleges and professors are experimenting with new services that attempt to steer the conversation in a more constructive direction. The services, which unlike Yik Yak have the support of the colleges using them, allow students to anonymously provide their professors with feedback throughout the course, while giving officials the ability to discover the names of users who are posting inappropriate comments.

But will giving students a new platform to make their voices heard keep them away from ranting on Yik Yak?

The company that offers one of the new services, Bluepulse, thinks it might.

When the company, eXplorance, was researching its idea for a new student-feedback program, it looked into what was already available and saw sites like ratemyprofessors.com and apps like Yik Yak. Samer Saab, the company’s chief executive, says the problem with those sites is that they primarily attract disengaged students—the ones who are frustrated and want to share their frustration with the world—and rarely include instructors.

A program like Bluepulse gives students the anonymity they crave, while making sure that everyone, instructors and students alike, is involved in the process. If they’re being heard, he argues, why would students need to go anywhere else?

That idea appealed to Michael Evans, associate dean of digital learning and innovation at Sheridan College, in Ontario, who discovered the service while exploring a new system for evaluating courses and faculty members.

Though you can’t control what students say when they’re given anonymity, Mr. Evans says he thinks commentary will be driven by strong relationships between professors and their students.

"Part of the selling point is that it is not something that’s setting up faculty for criticism, outside of being fairly positive criticism, but certainly not abuse," Mr. Evans says.

Feeling ‘More Heard’

Sabrina Huyett, a teaching assistant at Brigham Young University, tried a similar service, DropThought, last semester, and she plans to make it an integral part of her course this semester.

"In general, this is like a principle of basic psychology, that if someone’s trying to listen to you, then you’ll feel more heard," Ms. Huyett says. Giving students an outlet where they can constructively criticize might prevent them from airing their grievances negatively on platforms like Yik Yak, she believes.

Ms. Huyett has not had any concerns about students' being belligerent or rude on the anonymous platform she uses, though she acknowledges that if she were using it on a larger class, that might become more of an issue.

Still, hearing honest student assessments is not always easy. When Ms. Huyett started getting the feedback, it was a little difficult to take. But once she moved past the emotional reaction to the criticism, she was able to embrace it and change her course accordingly.

Darryl Draper, an assistant professor at Old Dominion University, in Virginia, uses DropThought in her instructional-technology courses.

She knows from past experience—she’s used Twitter and Pinterest in courses before—that she has to create some kind of "governance." She gives students guidelines for how to behave on the platforms and lets them know there will be repercussions if they misbehave. Once she’s done that, she says, "they know how to play nicely in the sandbox."

David Parry, an associate professor of communication and digital media at St. Joseph’s University, in Philadelphia, says there’s value in allowing students to give feedback to professors throughout a course. But he doesn’t think that will motivate them to abandon Yik Yak.

"It’s not like students are going to flock to that and suddenly give up on Yik Yak," he says. If a student wants to communicate negatively about something, Mr. Parry argues, it seems unlikely they’d use a university-sponsored program to do it. And Yik Yak is something that goes beyond the collegiate arena—it can be used in their hometowns or the surrounding university community.

Rather than trying to get students off of certain social-media platforms, he says, colleges should be facilitating discussions about using social media responsibly. About 80 percent of the material he sees on Yik Yak is "funny and quirky and hilarious," Mr. Parry says. It’s just the other 20 percent we have to worry about.