There are plenty of good reasons why students should publicly participate online. Although I strongly recommend public participation for reasons described by outstanding University of Oregon graduate Staci Stringer and University of Georgia professor Karen Russell, students should not be required to participate by their teachers, at least not in an identifiable way (see the bottom of this blog post for a discussion about alternatives). The following arguments apply to requirements to share one’s writing or identity online in an identifiable way.
1. Giving students control over their privacy and self-presentation is the right thing to do.
Students’ grades should not suffer from their preferences to avoid sharing their writing or identities online. We should not impose our ideas on others about what constitutes safe and comfortable participation online nor should we require others to follow our beliefs about where to draw the line on privacy. We can, however, share ideas about these topics as part of a conversation. Will students who want to be public relations practitioners be disadvantaged by not publicly participating in social media? Yes, as Staci and Karen have explained in detail. I suggest, however, that we present the arguments and let students make the decision for themselves for the reasons expressed in this blog post.
2. When students believe we are asking them to do something that violates their privacy, the relationship suffers.
Strong relationships are built on mutual understanding and respect. When students believe we are asking them to do something that violates their privacy, control mutuality (satisfaction with the amount of influence one has in the relationship) suffers. With required courses, students are coerced into publicly identifying themselves online or having their grades suffer. We do not know students’ histories and reasons for wanting to have a private identity. Simply wanting privacy is enough. In terms of the relationship argument, there would likely be more leeway in an elective course titled “Establishing Your Digital Footprint” that presented expectations on the syllabus because students have chosen to take the elective and there are alternatives they could take while still pursuing their intended majors.
3. Requiring identifiable public participation online is legally questionable.
I am basing this third argument on my untrained review of the law, Web site documents I’ve found by other universities, and two blog posts by a credible source (including mixed comments by her readers). With the qualification that I could be wrong, for now, it looks like requiring identifiable public participation online could be prohibited by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
Exhibit A: Joann Golis wrote a blog post and a follow-up post about this topic. I find her to be a credible source because she wrote these blog posts in preparation for a workshop she was giving at Educause Learning Initiative’s annual meeting. In addition, she works for the Instructional Design and Development Department at DePaul University. I am reliant on speaker credibility because I am not an expert in this area.
In response to a blogging requirement scenario, Golis wrote
“Another land mine in this scenario is the fact that the blogs were not necessarily made private, so anyone could view them and associate the student’s name with the course they are taking and reveal that they are students in a particular course, term, and institution. Requiring the student’s name to appear on the front page is also a red flag.”
It should be acknowledged, however, that some comments to her first blog post indicate an opinion that identifiable blog posts are fine as long as an instructor does not comment on them. Even with these responses by other credible sources though, I return to the excerpt by Golis quoted above.
Exhibit B: A guide to FERPA by Auburn University suggests that requiring identifiable participation online could violate FERPA.
Scenario: “I want my students to create an account at a wiki/blog/similar webpage where they will complete tasks required for class.”
Auburn University response: “FERPA may be violated unless students are provided with anonymous computer aliases and only faculty has the key to identify students by their aliases.”
Exhibit C: A student disclosure form from North Carolina State University suggests that requiring students to have public blogs is a violation of FERPA.
“Under the Federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) and NC State’s FERPA regulation, a student’s education records are protected from disclosure to third parties. Because of the public nature of weblogs (blogs), students must provide written consent for blog participation in a course setting.”
Concluding Thoughts About the Legal Argument
Despite the legal questions, social media assignments should not end. There are alternatives we can share with students. As Michael Staton wrote:
“FERPA is in place to make sure that institutions are careful with and respectful of a student’s right to privacy, but it was not intended to hold back education in the 1990s before there were things like APIs and the social Web. No school has ever lost federal funds because of FERPA, which is the only punishment that can occur for being in violation (besides being tied up in a lawsuit). Privacy, security, and personal control over information is more than a valid concern, but let’s not let it be a brick wall of anxiety in the face of the march towards user-friendly, interoperable, and multitudinous educational solutions!”
I agree with this statement while insisting that we provide alternatives for students who choose privacy.
I am establishing the following alternatives to my assignments.
Blog: Give students the option of establishing a blog that is only visible to themselves. For the commenting requirement, provide the option of turning in the other person’s blog post with the comment they would write.
Electronic portfolio: Give students the option of hosting the electronic portfolio on a blog that is only visible to themselves. Students can use Google docs to host their work and only provide access to me.
Twitter: Give students the option of signing in and tweeting from a generic class account.
LinkedIn: Give students the option of submitting their resumes.
delicious: Let students complete a tagging assignment from a generic class account if they do not want to set up their own accounts.
PR Open Mic: Present a recent discussion forum topic or blog post topic from PR Open Mic and require students to write a response to it in Word (like a traditional assignment) if they do not want to set up a PR Open Mic profile and submit the response to the online discussion.
I will no longer require students to set up a Google Alert. Although it is not publicly identifiable, I don’t see that the requirement is justified. Students can learn enough for classroom requirements by watching my demonstration. They can sign up for their own account within minutes if they wish.