Honest Opinions or Bullying?

Recently the website SpickMich.de that allows German pupils to anonymously rate their teachers defeated a legal challenge from teachers claiming invasion of personal privacy.
This was just the latest of a series of legal victories for the site. German courts have found that freedom of speech trumps teacher concerns about privacy and mobbing. Rating teachers, the court found, is a value judgement protected by law as long as it does not cross the line into "abusive criticism".

Teacher’s unions are however likely to continue criticising such sites. Andreas Meyer-Lauber, chairman of the union GEW in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia has complained that pupils have no competence to judge teaching quality. "We need an impartial dialog between students and teacher," he said. "The Internet is not an appropriate medium for internal school feedback and self-evaluation."

But maybe that is exactly what the Internet could be?

While true cyber-bullying
is a clear problem, it is largely separate from the issues posed by the
rating systems. Rating systems are here to stay: they are both hard to
ban (being based in other jurisdictions, being protected speech),
similar effects can be achieved using other online forums, and ratings
of professionals are becoming increasingly public. There is not just ratemyprofessors.com and ratemyteachers.com
but RateMDs.com and the UK Healthcare Commission heart surgery survival rates.
The Internet amplifies and changes the old mechanism of reputations. Soon everybody can rate everybody.

The criticism that pupils cannot rate their teachers competence is
doubtful;
the same problems appear to exist in all personnel evaluation systems.
Individual comments may be more problematic than abstract rating scores
since humans tend to overvalue strongly positive or negative claims:
they are salient and available.
This might give too much weight to strong minority opinions, and perhaps cause bandwagon effects where others join in with
unfair criticism.

However, the issue is not so much the truth of ratings as the relative power of
teachers and pupils, formal and informal power.

Teachers are in a
position of power over pupils; this makes honest feedback hard. Ask any
highschool pupil if they think their least favourite teacher will
respond well to criticism and you will likely get a litany of anecdotes
about unfair repercussions. Even when the pupils are in fact wrong the
mere perception that criticism will lead to problems has chilling
effects. This is where anonymous criticism is appropriate, since it
allows venting of otherwise unvoiced concerns: perhaps the Internet is
the most appropriate medium for this kind of feedback.

Online anonymity is, however, problematic. One of the main reasons many
online forums are useless is the lack of reputations: anybody can come
in and say/do anything, with no cost to their "real" selves. The result
is that disruptive people thrive. In other forums people have to pay
something – be it money, time or a registering effort – and build
reputations over time. There disruptions become rare and people will
rein in their antisocial behaviour since they would lose something by
acting out.

The online systems amplify informal power over formally regulated
power. Informal social power deals with reputation, trust and gossip.
The formally regulated power deals with grading, academic discipline
and official agreements. While informal power is the fabric of social
life it largely lacks accountability while formal power (at least in
principle) is accountable in order to prevent abuse. As informal power
grows, the risks due to lack of unaccountability grows. Teachers are
trapped by a position of formal power that severely limits their
freedom of action.

Ideally pupils should be free to criticise
anonymously, but held accountable if they cross over the line into
bullying. That seems to be technically possible: when joining a rating
forum they would tell the forum software their real identity and get a
persistent anonymous identity. As long as they did nothing wrong there
would be no link back, but in the case of cyber-bullying the site could
disclose the real identity to authorities. There are complexities in
creating trustworthy third party forums, especially since personal
identities of minors are involved, but these are likely solvable –
especially if schools contribute to these sites in order to make them
more useful as feedback to the teachers rather than just social watering
holes for the students.

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