The top 10 higher-ed tech stories of 2010: No. 9

High-profile eMail mistakes caused much embarrassment in higher education this year.

A number of high-profile incidents in 2010 served as a harsh reminder of how easy it can be for students to send messages or videos that are embarrassing to their peers or faculty members spinning around the web for everyone to see.

The prospect of an eMail bouncing to every corner of the internet had college professors measuring their words more carefully in their electronic communication to students after a New York University (NYU) professor’s acerbic eMail to a student went “viral” in February and drew worldwide attention.

And in October, video of a Cornell professor’s search for a student who yawned in class went viral on YouTube—reinforcing the idea that anything said in a lecture hall these days can be held against you in the court of public opinion.

“It is a reminder that what you do in a classroom can and will be subject to capture, if not by a formal video capture, [then] by a computer or a cell phone,” said Raymond Rose, an online education advocate who has worked with colleges and universities to create web-based learning programs. “You always have to assume that whatever you’re doing is going to be recorded somewhere. … You need to think about how you’re going to perform all the time.”

The pitfalls of electronic communication continued in October when a University of Missouri dean mistakenly sent an eMail message that referred to a student as suffering from “mental distress” to the campus’s 6,000 graduate students by hitting the “reply all” button—prompting a review of the school’s training for handling sensitive information to make sure a similar slipup doesn’t happen again.

And in March, Oregon State University learned that it’s not just embarrassing campus behavior that schools must respond to these days: Sometimes it’s simply a baseless internet rumor that has legs of its own.

An eMail message charging that the Obama administration had pledged $17 million in stimulus funds to Oregon State as long as the university retained men’s basketball coach Craig Robinson—President Obama’s brother-in-law—spread to websites, blogs, and in-boxes under the subject lines “Stimulus Does Work” or “Stimulus Money…One Job Saved.”

The message claimed that Robinson’s job was in danger, so the White House dispatched an Education Department official to arrange a special stimulus award as part of an unreported quid pro quo. The viral message stirred up so many questions that Oregon State officials had to debunk the rumor with an official statement.

Related links:

Professors, beware: Your nasty eMail could go viral

Viral eMail roils higher education once again

Duke winces as a private joke slips out of control

University dean accidentally hits the ‘reply all’ button

Professor’s ‘yawn’ rant offers a lesson in viral video