I’ve been contacted of late by a few teachers trying to work through the security and privacy issues that go along with the use of Weblogs in the classroom, so I thought I’d take a little time to go over how we handle it and to pose some of the other questions that we still struggle with.
First, let me say that these issues are ones that we’ve spent a lot of time discussing and debating. The last thing that we want, obviously, is to put our students at risk as they work more transparently and publish to a wider audience. Even though (knock wood) we’ve not had one problem in the hundreds of student Weblogs that we have created here, parents are legitimately concerned about the potential abuses.
So, we do a few things up front. Our Acceptable Use Policy asks parents to approve the publication of student work to the Internet. If for some reason that approval is missing, teachers send home another form, and to date we’ve not had any students who didn’t eventually get permission. We also encourage our teachers to communicate with parents about what Weblogs are and how and why they are using them. Usually when teachers tell parents that the Weblog can be used to keep them more in touch with what their children are doing and what’s happening in class, they like the idea.
When students use their Weblogs, we limit identification to first name only. Even though we need an e-mail address to set up the account, we either use bogus e-mails or rely on a feature in Manila (the software we use) to hide the address when it is legitimate. We talk to kids about what to do if they are contacted by “strangers,” that they should never give out personal information or start on line conversations with those not vetted by the teacher. In addition, teachers are asked to subscribe to the feeds of their student Weblogs which include any comments that might be left. While some are more vigilant than others, I do think most teachers are able to monitor activity on the sites to a satisfactory degree. Finally, both the teacher and I are “managing editors” of the student sites, so if things break or if there is abuse, we can deal with it in short order.
For some classes like Creative Writing, where students are writing about more personal issues, we close the entire site to the public. Manila has an “Editor’s Only” function that permits use of the site only by those students that the teacher allows. Or in other cases, where we want the content to be seen but the interactivity to be limited, we will have students become members of each other’s sites thus allowing them the ability to comment before closing the site to outside membership. (In one configuration of Manila, membership is a requirement for posting feedback.)
Still, it would be nice if we were able to “approve” comments before they were posted. (That would make me sleep much better at night, believe me.) And I would love it if Manila gave the option of having some posts only viewable by members of the site while having others that anyone can see. It would make the drafting process more effective, I think.
Bottom line is that there is a fair amount of setup and a lot of vigilance that has to go into this process. But once it’s set up, and once everyone understands the whys and hows, I think we do a pretty good job of finding a balance between transparency and privacy.
Now, having said that, I’m not as well versed on the capabilities of the other blogging packages out there. If you use Blogger or MT or something else and would be willing to post about your privacy process, I’m sure it would add much to this discussion.