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A dilemma of competing values
Well into the fall of 2011, the first semester when I assigned my class to write on the open web, I woke up to discover a dilemma. On one hand, I had praised the pedagogical virtues of requiring my students to share our writing with the public. The reasons were both principled and pragmatic. The object of a liberal arts education is to fully engage with ideas that differ from our own in order to “free the mind of parochialism and prejudice,” I told my students, quoting from our college mission statement. 1 One of the best ways to improve critical thinking and writing skills is to post work in public, beyond the four walls of the classroom, and to invite others to respond. Our prose has greater potential to improve when we author for real audiences (not just the professor), and revise our work in consideration of thoughtful feedback and alternative points of view. On the other hand, all students deserve — and are legally entitled under U.S. law — to some degree of privacy in our educational institutions, and ownership over the words they have authored. I was aware of these general issues due to my graduate training in educational policy, and as a digital scholar I had recently drafted an intellectual property statement for essays voluntarily submitted by contributors to another open peer review web-book at that time. But as a teacher, I was searching for an ethical way to face this dilemma, the competing values of public writing and student privacy on the web, and how to make sense of this with my students.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 1 Making student writing more public is not a new issue, and several faculty and librarians have devised ways to achieve this goal within legal guidelines. Some solutions are very low-tech. Down the hall from my office, for instance, a philosophy professor occasionally tapes anonymized student papers, with his comments, on the wall for other students and passersby to read. Elsewhere on my campus, faculty assign students to post essays and comment on others students’ work on password-protected course sites, or deliver poster presentations at campus-wide events. Some academic units require senior thesis students to upload their final works into the library digital repository, where they have the option to limit readership to the college network or open it to the public. Some students volunteer to write for the college newspaper or literary publications, and a few publish their own blogs. Furthermore, a small number of students are invited to co-author scholarly journal articles or book chapters that may appear in print or online. But my pedagogical goal differed from the campus norm because I wanted all students in a mid-level course to publish their writing to the public web, preferably under their real names, yet to retain control over their own words. Balancing the competing values of public writing and student privacy was my pedagogical dilemma.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 1 Current U.S. student privacy law is grounded in FERPA, the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, and its subsequent amendments. 2 Greater awareness of this federal law has sharply curtailed past practices of openly posting student grades on department bulletin board, or leaving graded papers for students to pick up on a hallway table, where anyone can flip through them. But exactly how the pre-Internet FERPA law applies to student writing on the public web is not perfectly clear. One crisis that prompted my dilemma in November 2011 was Georgia Tech’s decision to erase class wikis with student writing on grounds that it violated FERPA, as education technology blogger Audrey Watters and ProfHacker contributor Amy Cavendar brought to my attention. 3 The Georgia Tech decision was controversial because FERPA does not directly address the issue of student writing on the public web. For example, most colleges and universities interpret FERPA to prohibit the public disclosure of class rosters, as this is more detailed academic information than allowed in the standard “directory information” exemption of the law. In this sense, a faculty member who requires students to write on the public web, using their full names, effectively opens up the class roster for all to see. But does the law permit faculty to require students to publish student writing to the public web if names are optional? 4
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Since I am not a lawyer and have no legal expertise in this matter, I looked for guidance on how other academics interpret FERPA. My general understanding at that time (supported by subsequent writings by Kevin Smith and others) suggested that I may require students to post their writing in public as a course assignment (especially if my syllabus clearly states this in advance), but I may not require students to attach their names. Similarly, other students and I may publicly comment on writing, but all grades must be delivered privately to the student. 5 Based on my layperson’s understanding of FERPA, I wrote up the following statement for my online syllabus, which explains my motivating principle behind public writing, while affirming students’ rights to mask their identities, and how to do so. Furthermore, the statement informs students of their option of their option to hide or remove their words from the class site after it has been evaluated, while reassuring them of my responsibility to maintain their work on the web for a period of time if they wish to link to it from personal sites and employment portfolios. In addition, the statement briefly describes their intellectual property rights, specifically their individual copyright and the Creative Commons license of the course website. Note to readers: You may freely copy and modify this statement to use on your own course site, or post comments with questions or links to alternative versions. 6
This course requires students to post their writing on the public web because our ideas become clearer and more valuable when we share them and receive feedback from others. Unless marked otherwise, all content on this site is freely shared by Jack Dougherty and students under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license. This means that the author(s) listed in the byline holds the copyright, but content may be freely adapted and redistributed under the same terms, if the original source is cited. (Note: links to other sites may have different terms.)
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Although all student web posts are publicly viewable and searchable, all grades are private and accessible only by the individual student, in accordance with the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). If a student desires additional privacy on the public web, s/he may publish posts for this course using only a first name, or initials, or a pseudonym approved by the instructor.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 After an assignment has received a grade, students also have the right to change its visibility (to password-only, or private) or delete it from the site entirely. Students who co-author a post must reach this decision jointly.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 In turn, the instructor promises to maintain student posts (or links to posts) until the course is offered again (or longer, if feasible), so that students have the option to link to their work on their resumes or personal websites. Additionally, the instructor will moderate and remove any inappropriate comments on student work on the class site.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 4 Nowadays, when introducing this policy to my class, it is accompanied by a brief “Google Yourself” demonstration, usually by a volunteer student who has enrolled in one of my previous courses with web writing assignments. The volunteer types her or his full name (sometimes with the college name, if the surname is a common one) into Google Search on the classroom computer projector unit to find out where her/his prior coursework appears in the search rankings, and it’s always been within the top five results. Judging from the audible gasps, several students are surprised by the outcome — it still surprises me that some so-called “digital native” millennials do not already know this — and I quickly explain how Google’s PageRank algorithm favors human-created links, particularly those from educational institutions. We briefly discuss the pros and cons of listing their full name, first name, or a pseudonym in the byline, and I offer two real examples. One former student published on the web under her full name and the final essay helped her to earn a prestigious internship with a non-profit organization. Another former student published a web essay on a controversial legal topic involving her family, initially listed only her initials in the byline to reduce the risk of detection by the authorities, and later removed it from the class site. I point out how students can modify how our class WordPress site displays their name in their user profile settings, and ask them to make an informed decision when assigning their first post. While the private-public side lesson takes only five minutes during the first day of class, the power to name oneself — or not — on the web lasts far longer.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 1 How have students responded to the public-private policy? Since implementing this change two years ago, I have twice taught two courses with web writing assignments, for a total of 71 students across four classes. Both classes enroll mid-level undergraduates from my academic unit and affiliated departments. Educ 308 Cities Suburbs and Schools is an elective seminar, and Educ 300 Education Reform, Past and Present is a required survey course for Educational Studies majors, which also counts for major credit in American Studies and Public Policy & Law. For all classes, I reviewed the students’ final web essays to examine how they exercised their right to display their names in the byline or remove their writing from the class site, months after the class concluded (as of September 2013). Overall, the vast majority of students (87 percent) elected to display their full names on their public essays, while far smaller percentages chose to limit their essay by password, list themselves by first name only or a pseudonym, or removed the essay from the class website after the class ended. While the privacy protections are occasionally utilized, most of my students opt to modify their profile on our college’s WordPress system (from the default is their network identity, such as jsmith39) to their full name. 7
|Full name (public)
|Full name (password)
|First name only
|Removed by student
|Ed 308 (2011)
|Ed 308 (2012)
|Ed 300 (2012)
|Ed 300 (2013)
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 In addition, some students express pride in their web writing by voluntarily adding brief “about the author” biographical statements at the end of their web essays to make more personal connections with readers. Other students demonstrate ownership over their works by including links to their essays in e-portfolios, job letters, or requests to other professors to admit them into advanced courses. When students discover ways to engage with broader audiences through their words, particularly in ways that I never intended or foresaw, it reminds all of us of the importance of writing for people other than the professor.
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If You Build It, Will They Come. . . and Comment?
What if no one actually reads what I wrote? That may be the greatest fear of public writing on the web today. An empty comment box heightens this phobia, by suggesting (mistakenly) that the absence of visible feedback means that one’s words did not successfully generate a public response. 8By comparison, print authors do not experience this fear to the same degree. If no one thumbs through your obscure journal article or checks out your weighty tome from its dusty shelf, there is little evidence that your work has gone unread, except perhaps for library databases and citation metrics). For better or worse, web authors tend to rely on readers’ comments for validation that our words have been seen and have value.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 While introducing students to academic web writing over the past two years, I have experimented with different strategies for cultivating external readers and commenters. Mark Sample and other thoughtful educators have designed better blogging assignments and commenting roles for students in their classes. 9 But my focus has been on public engagement with readers outside our classroom walls. How might we build richer connections between students and broader audiences?
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 1 One experiment was the laissez-faire approach of doing absolutely nothing to attract readers to student web writing. During the spring 2012 semester of my Educ 300 Education Reform, Past & Present class, I did not email, tweet, or advertise the existence of my students’ final web essays. In total, the entire class received precisely one external comment, or technically a “pingback” notification that one student’s essay had been listed as an “online article that may be of interest” to readers of an academic journal. 10 Given the relative absence of visible comments, it appeared that my students did not have many readers, but the web statistics told a different story. During the off-season months from mid-May 2012 (two weeks after essays were posted and final grades had been submitted) through the remainder of the calendar year (before I restarted the course in early 2013), nearly 25,000 unique visitors came to our un-advertised class website. While most of these hits quickly bounced away from the site, and may have been robot web crawlers, most web traffic was driven by Google search queries on specific topics, which suggested significant interest by real readers. For example, the most popular student web essay, “Was Hurricane Katrina Good for the Education of Students in New Orleans?” attracted over 6,000 unique page views, peaking on the seventh anniversary of the storm in late August 2012. Other widely-viewed student web essays — on topics such as community service in higher education, classroom technology, and the history of disability education law — attracted fewer unique page views (800 to 2,000), but retained visitors on the page for longer periods of time (between 5 to 7 minutes, on average). The quantity of hits is not necessarily linked to the quality of the student work, but the length of time spent on the page clearly indicated that, despite the absence of visible comments, my students had successfully — though quietly — engaged the public through their writing. 11
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 1 A second type of experiment in public engagement was to commission recent alumni to serve as guest commentators on student work. At the conclusion of the Educ 308 Cities Suburbs & Schools seminar in Fall 2011, I invited two recent Trinity College graduates (Claudia Dresser ’10 and Devlin Hughes ’09) to split a set of ten student web essays, post public comments based on our seminar’s evaluation criteria, and then afterwards, meet the students in person to discuss the feedback they had delivered. The guest evaluators also privately shared with me their numerical scores for each essay, and with college funding I paid each a modest stipend of $150 for their time. As expected, these carefully selected commentators wrote substantive remarks that focused on desired aspects of expository student writing, such as the insightfulness of arguments, persuasive use of evidence, and effective integration of digital elements. While the guest evaluators posted at least one substantive comment per web essay, this exercise did not spark additional comments nor noticeably higher web traffic (about 3,000 unique visitors, averaging over 1 minute per page during the off-season from mid-December 2011 thru August 2012), perhaps due to the narrow focus of this specialized seminar. Still, the quality of reader feedback always beats the quantity of readers. 12
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 A third experiment has been to expand the guest evaluator model to student peers at another liberal arts college, as part of a planned academic exchange. For the second year of my Educ 308 Cities Suburbs Schools seminar web writing assignment, in Fall 2012, a group of students from nearby Wesleyan University and I made a deal. The co-organizers of Sociology 419: Education Policy in the United States (Sydney Lewis ’14, Catherine Doren ’13, and Andrew Ribner ’14) invited me to deliver a guest lecture at their campus. 13In exchange, they arranged for the fifteen Wesleyan students in their course to divide up the work of guest evaluating seven web essays published by my Trinity students, based on our evaluation criteria, during a five-day period near the end of the semester. Furthermore, two of the co-organizers agreed to review all of the essays and guest evaluator comments, and to privately send me their numerical scores, which I averaged together as the assignment grade, to emphasize the importance of writing for real audiences beyond the instructor. Given that our two campuses are so close geographically, yet our students seem to rarely interact outside of athletic competitions, I was intrigued but very nervous, as the two groups never met face-to-face or even via video conference. Overall, all of the guest student commenters made substantive remarks on my students’ writing, and while not as in-depth as the two recent alumni commentators the prior year, the level of public engagement by unpaid — yet previously arranged — readers made the exercise worthwhile. 14
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 3 In sum, my approach to resolving the pedagogical dilemma between public writing and student privacy leaves some questions unanswered. Where is the line that divides instructor comments on students’ public posts versus the private act of evaluating them? Should student writing be evaluated by other students? What would happen if a student agreed to post an essay, but objected to sharing it under the Creative Commons site license? Despite these and other unresolved issues, I remain persuaded that students writing improves when they author for the public web. While not appropriate for every assignment, nor every class, the broader goals of a liberal arts education demand that we instructors consider why and how we can do it more often.
- ¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0
- “Mission,” Trinity College, Hartford CT, http://www.trincoll.edu/AboutTrinity/mission/Pages/default.aspx. ↩
- Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, U.S. Department of Education, http://www.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/ferpa/index.html. ↩
- Audrey Watters, “Georgia Tech Invokes FERPA, Cripples School’s Wikis,” Hack Education, November 15, 2011, http://www.hackeducation.com/2011/11/15/georgia-tech-invokes-ferpa-cripples-schools-wikis; Amy Cavender, “Protecting Student Privacy Without Going FERPANUTS” The Chronicle of Higher Education, ProfHacker, November 30, 2011, http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/protecting-student-privacy-without-going-ferpanuts/37437. ↩
- Interestingly, the US Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that “peer grading” of student work by classmates does not violate the law, and federal regulations now clarify that peer-graded work is not considered an official “educational record” under FERPA until it has been collected and recorded by the instructor. See Owasso Independent School Dist. No. I—011v. Falvo, 534 U.S. 426 (U.S. Supreme Court 2002), http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/00-1073.ZO.html;U.S. Department of Education, “Family Education Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA) Regulations,” January 2012, p. 6, http://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/reg/ferpa/index.html. ↩
- Kevin Smith, “Guidelines for Public, Student Class Blogs: Ethics, Legalities, FERPA and More,” HASTAC, November 30, 2012, http://www.hastac.org/blogs/superadmin/2012/11/30/guidelines-public-student-class-blogs-ethics-legalities-ferpa-and-more; Kim Mann, “Online Assignments and Student Privacy,” Academic Technology at the College of William and Mary, June 20, 2013, http://at.blogs.wm.edu/online-assignments-and-student-privacy/; Andrew G. McGinney, “A Guide to FERPA Guides,” CUNY Graduate Center Digital Fellows, March 8, 2013, http://digitalfellows.commons.gc.cuny.edu/2013/03/08/a-guide-to-ferpa-guides/. ↩
- View my “Public writing and student privacy” policy in context on the online syllabus for Educ 308: Cities Suburbs & Schools, Trinity College, http://commons.trincoll.edu/cssp/seminar/student-privacy/ and other courses. For recommended reading, I also point students to “Copyright Overview,” Copyright and Fair Use, Stanford University Libraries, http://fairuse.stanford.edu/; and “About the Licenses,” Creative Commons, http://creativecommons.org. ↩
- Student final web essays in Educ 308: Cities Suburbs and Schools, http://commons.trincoll.edu/cssp/; Educ 300: Education Reform, Past & Present, http://commons.trincoll.edu/edreform, both at Trinity College, CT. I have omitted the web writing assignments from my First-Year Seminar: Color and Money in Fall 2011, since I did not clearly post and explain this policy to them. ↩
- See a brief history of the mid-1990s rise of Web 2.0 commenting in Michael Erard, “No Comments,” The New York Times, September 20, 2013, sec. Magazine, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/22/magazine/no-comments.html. ↩
- Mark Sample, “A Better Blogging Assignment,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, ProfHacker, July 3, 2012, http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/a-better-blogging-assignment/41127. ↩
- Shanese Caton, “The Quest to Racially Integrate: African Americans and Higher Education,” Educ 300: Education Reform, Past & Present, May 3, 2012, http://commons.trincoll.edu/edreform/2012/05/the-quest-to-racially-integrate-african-americans-and-higher-education/, cited in “Online Articles That May Be of Interest to JBHE Readers,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, May 9, 2012, http://www.jbhe.com/2012/05/online-articles-that-may-be-of-interest-to-jbhe-readers-15/. ↩
- Google Analytics data was collected on the Ed 300 class WordPress site, http://commons.trincoll.edu/edreform, using the Google Analyticator plugin, http://wordpress.org/plugins/google-analyticator/. ↩
- Educ 308 web essays, Fall 2011, http://commons.trincoll.edu/cssp/web-essays/. ↩
- Sociology 419: Education Policy in the United States, Wesleyan University, Fall 2012, http://soc419.wordpress.com/. ↩
- See Wesleyan student guest evaluator comments in context, Seminar web essays, Fall 2012, Ed 308 Cities Suburbs and Schools seminar, http://commons.trincoll.edu/cssp/web-essays/. Note that as of September 2013, Wesleyan student comments do not appear properly due to a website error, and will be restored soon. ↩