Friday, March 2, 2007

These are the times...

Long day today. Got a phone call from a teacher who had gotten an email from a parent expressing concern about possible safety concerns in regard to public access to student blogs. It's a legitimate concern, and one that we've tried to be thoughtful about. I spent much of the day communicating first with the parent, and then with several administrators in our technology department, in regard to how best to address the parent's concerns. But my conversations confirmed that this is a difficult conversation to manage to everyone's satisfaction.

On the one hand, the whole point of blogs, and of the Web 2.0 paradigm, is that it's about connectivity. Blogs and wikis allow students to communicate with one another in ways that enhance the classroom conversation, and also to communicate with students from other classes, other schools, and even other countries, as in the 1001 Flat World Tales Project that Clay Burrell is organizing in his school in Korea and to which our students in Hawaii are contributing.

Classroom blogs and wikis also allow educators nationwide to compare best practices and to celebrate student work with other teachers and students throughout the world, and in so doing extend the work of the classroom into the realm of public service: we are trying to model for one another what is possible and what works. At a purely philosophical level I believe in the power of transparency: I believe that we are all—parents, students, and teachers—well served when we can see what each other is doing. Blogs and other online resources are like windows into the world of the classroom: they allow people to see in and they encourage our students to look outside.

On the other hand, at the real-world level, there is always the potential for danger out there. It is possible that even if we are making strong efforts to safeguard the anonymity of our students someone could glean enough information from the web site to identify and target one of our students, which is something we would all wish to avoid. In an email to the school President, the parent in question pointed to a picture of a birthday party at a restaurant that a student had posted and speculated that someone could infer that this was a child whose parents had money. He pointed to another post in which the student, whose own last name was not posted, referred by name to the president of the sophomore class at Punahou. He pointed to another post with a picture of the author in which the author talked about being on the tennis team. In the parent's judgment, these were all "leaks" that he apparently thinks should be plugged.

I don't have any idea how to evaluate or quantify that risk, or to measure against the risks we take every single day when we get up in the morning and walk out the door. Anyone who saw a student being dropped off at Punahou by parents driving an Acura or a Beemer could conclude that the parents are persons of means. Does that mean we should insist that students arrive by bus? Anyone who picked up a copy of the school newspaper could determine the results of the class elections and the names of the student officers. Does that mean we should eliminate stories about students from the newspaper? Anyone who attended a sporting event at Punahou—girls' basketball, for example—would see each of the players introduced on the public address system, and see the names printed out in the box scores on the Honoulu papers the next day. Does that mean that we shut spectators out of the gym? Punahou has a very liberal policy in terms of students leaving the campus: upperclassmen are generally allowed to leave campus when they are not in school, and a great many of them do. Someone looking to do harm might take advantage of that too. Does that mean we should forbid students to leave?

We are none of us invisible. The question at hand is how to manage the tradeoff between freedom and security, between increased connectivity and increased visibility.

One solution, which the parent endorsed, was to create a blog environment in which the only people who can access the blog are the people in that particular class. That way you would get the advantage of learning to use the technology and of being able to carry on a dialogue without opening the window to outsiders. In certain situations, that might work, but it sacrifices the benefits of having student work placed before a larger audience.

Another solution is to allow parents the option to simply opt out of whatever blog component there is in the class. A letter would be sent home explaining what we are doing and why and how we are doing it, and parents could give permission, or withhold it. That seems to be the direction that we're heading in right now. This weekend I'm going to be drafting that letter, and I will probably post it here tomorrow in case any of you who have been down this road can give us useful feedback.

I'm sure there are other options as well, but I'm running out of gas at this point. I'd be very interested in whatever feedback any of you may have at this point.


Russell said...

As the parent in question, I am somewhat alarmed that a private conversation between a parent and a teacher would be described in such detail on the internet. I find that to be an invasion of the trust that should exist between a parent and the school to which his child is sent. But putting that aside, I must say that two comments in your entry show the extent to which a teacher and a department put their views ahead of those of a parent. You say "Blogs and other online resources are like windows into the world of the classroom: they allow people to see in and they encourage our students to look outside." But you neglect to understand that when we send our children to school, we are not sending them so that their classrooms can be peered into by others. We send them to school to enjoy the privacy of that classroom and the ability to learn without the interference of others. You also say "In certain situations, that might work, but it sacrifices the benefits of having student work placed before a larger audience." Here, you do not understand the concerns a parent has about putting their child out there into the world before they are ready, a determination that should be made by a parent and not a school. Parents do not send their children to school so that their work can be placed before any audience other than an audience of their teacher and their classmates. The entry of the outside world into a classroom, and the entry of a child into the outside world, is a decision of the parent and not the school or the teacher. Perhaps the most problematic of all, to me as a parent, is the fact that the decision to bring others into my child's classroom, and to send my child out into the world via the internet, was not made by me, was not even made with my knowledge and was made by others who seem to believe that they are the primary educators of our youth. That is not the case. If any of you have any thoughts on these views, I hope that our host "approves" those comments and allows an open debate on the relative relationship between the rights of parents and the rights of teachers vis a vis their children.

Bruce Schauble said...

Hi Russell,

I apologize if I have caused you alarm. This blog, as the title and description at the top of the page indicate, is one place where I go to reflect, to collect my thoughts. I've kept a journal for years, but I've been keeping this blog for a little more than three months now. It's been a terrific learning experience, not only because of the writing itself but because of the feedback that I have gotten from the emerging community of readers that have stumbled upon or found their way to the blog—like many of the teachers whose names or web sites are listed in the sidebar, or like you yourself. In some way the conversation that we are now having online illustrates rather well exactly the nature of the choices with which we are confronted.

I've always believed that writing is a good way to organize and deepen your thinking. I find that when I make the effort to write something down, the thoughts literally take shape in a different way. That is both clarifying and satisfying to me, and apparently to many of the reader of this blog. If you look back through the archive, you will see many entries in which I am reflecting on the day's events or on matters pertaining to educational practice. So reflective writing is a practice I value, and which I encourage my students to value.

In writing yesterday's post, I trying to do three things: first, to represent your concerns, which I share, as I understood them; second, to preserve your anonymity by leaving out any reference to your name, the name of the teacher, or the grade level of the students involved; and third, to extend the conversation to an audience consisting largely of other teachers so that I might get feedback from them in regard to their own experiences with what I would say is truly an essential question: where do we find the balance between freedom and security? This is a question that is essential everywhere we look: in our families, in our schools, in our national politics. I value the discussion at each of those levels, and I think the current cause of your concern, online access at Punahou, needs to be well thought out and well-discussed. By way of continuing the conversation then, let me say this:

I agree with you when you say teachers are not the primary educators of our youth. I have three sons, the youngest of whom went to Punahou and is now in college. Throughout the time that they were growing up, my wife and I made an effort to monitor what they were doing in school, look at their homework, engage them in conversation, and offer advice, advice which was not always consistent with the advice they were getting from their teachers and coaches. My youngest son was the only one born late enough to have internet resources at his disposal available as a primary learning tool in high school, and we tried to follow him down that road as well, although his own expertise rapidly outpaced ours. He now has a number of online ventures, including several blogs of his own, which I still make an effort to keep up with and give him feedback about. So I am all for parents taking an active role, as you are doing, in communicating with and advocating for their children.

However, I am not so sure that I agree with you when you say that "Parents do not send their children to school so that their work can be placed before any audience other than an audience of their teacher and their classmates." I'm not sure that holds up even in the context of time-honored practice. We have students in the public eye all the time. We have a school newspaper. We have a literary magazine. We have students engaging in debates and poetry readings and concerts and sporting events and community service projects, all of which are covered not only in in-house publications but in the mainstream media.

One of the challenges that I face every day as a teacher is how to help the students in my classes make the connection between what we do in the classroom and what they care about in the world they live in. Perhaps the most familiar complaint throughout history from high school students is that school seems either "boring" or "irrelevant." So I take seriously the challenge of how to help students connect their school work with the "real world."

Which is where blogs come in. I see the ability to blog as at least potentially useful in helping to extend conversations horizontally. This conversation we are having right now more or less embodies that. I don't know exactly how you found your way to this corner of my world, but I'm glad you've made it this far, and I hope that you feel welcome here. In any case, your involvement in the dialogue is pushing me, in a good way, to be reflective and to broaden my thinking and adjust my practice.

You're right as well about the communication piece. In retrospect, it would have been better if we had sent out the letter I am working on before we got started rather than two or three weeks into the process. So that's something that needs to be corrected, and we're working on it. We are also trying to make responsible choices about which technology tools are going to be most effective in helping to enhance student learning. Punahou has invested a lot of money over the last few years on technology infrastructure on the assumption that technology can help students become better and more flexible learners. The logistical problem is that there are dozens, hundreds of such tools available, and more coming online every day, and ultimately the only way to evaluate their effectiveness is to try them out, which is what we are doing. In other words, as I have told my students, we are all pioneers. The world of educational is changing, and we're trying to figure out how to change with it.

Thanks again for your input. And rest assured that as "host" in this forum I will certainly publish any comments which are not abusive, irrelevant, or potentially harmful. If I may be permitted one English-teacherly point of diction, I would prefer to think of our dialogue here not as a "debate"—with its inevitable connotations of winners and losers— but as a "conversation." I think both of us agree that the ultimate goal of the conversation is to make sure that the students' experience is challenging and engaging... and safe.

- Bruce

Marco Polo said...

First, visit this page and have your students (and their parents) visit it too. Discuss. (It's about online predators and minors.)

Second, I think Russell is quite right, and many of the issues he raises should not be made unilaterally by teachers. This is an error I can easily fall into as feedback from either parents or students is almost zero and extremely hard to obtain. (I don't know how it is in Hawaii, but where I live and work, parental interest and desire to have input into their children's [university] education is apparently close to zero - we teachers never hear a peep from them).

It surprises me (frankly), that Bruce has (apparently) not thought through or discussed with the stake-holders, the issue of privacy: once you put stuff on a public blog, you are putting it on a global stage. You need to have clear reasons why you do that.

There are many alternatives: a web-based CMS or LMS like Moodle or Blackboard or Drupal. There are also platforms like Elgg where you can choose the level of privacy (and the new Blogger offers this, too, now). (See here and here for a couple of reviews of Elgg).

Another possibility is to ensure that all students blog anonymously, and ensure they understand why and what that involves (see the MSN page referred to at the beginning of this comment).

If you really want to make the students' work completely public, then anonymity is the way to go, at least at first, until everyone gets the hang of things and can make their own decisions, and to protect the identities of students. To go completely public, I think you must be either naive, or have very compelling reasons to do so.

I look forward to reading Russell's and others' responses.

bookwyrmish said...

Bruce and Russell,

Some small part of the tension here may come from something other than the internet (after all, students can blog under a pseudonym)--but more from a concern that there ARE people out there from whom we need to shield our children.

If Russell's child had (under the non-web model) won the classroom spelling bee, then the school-wide, then gone on to the county, state, and (gulp) National Spelling Bee, he would be faced with the fall-out of having his child's full name, local school name, and face on the national (if not international t.v.). Or, he'd have to tell her/him to hide her/his talents and not compete. Obviously, we all need a better solution!

So, I think this is a legitimate concern, but it exists whether or not a child is using the internet. I think bringing a child (first name only, no personally identifiable pictures) to the public via the internet for their positive reactions can be a wonderfully validating experience for the child. I think it is wonderful that so many of our children can be recognized for their talents, even when those talents are not the classic "spelling bee" memorization abilities, and for these students to find an audience to appreciate and value them is great. The internet does bring a wide audience. You can choose how to let them interact.

I have more serious concerns when the local newspaper publishes birth days and full names with pictures of little ones--talk about arming a potentially dangerous person with dangerous information! (Happy birthday Johnny! Don't you remember me, I'm your Uncle So and So... and I know all about you.) Since I know that most communities around me have local sex offenders, having checked out the Megan's Law website, I would hope people don't ignore the possibility of local threats.

Safety issues are valid, but you need to figure out how to minimize the hazards--you really can't avoid them all. I have internet safety and stranger danger lessons for my students. They are both aimed at letting the child be comfortable, and feel relative safety, in their world--partly because they are taught to know how to recognize a threat and what to do. The saddest thing, is that we can't provide 100% protection. Sigh.

I thank you for engaging each other in this discussion, especially for the sakes of your precious charges.


Marco Polo said...

Another aspect to this, a point that teachers sometimes make when justifying the use of student blogs, is that young people are going to be using these kinds of social networking tools anyway; isn't it better they get educated as to the goods and the bads of it, and to sensible use of these tools, ?
Here, a blogger links to a Kansas City Star article on the subject and asks, "Do you think that starting social networking at a young age helps students say safer as teens who use sites like MySpace, FaceBook and Xanga? Explain."

Clay Burell said...

Bruce, your response adequately demonstrates the basic fact that students never were and never will be invisible in our schools. "Don't talk to strangers" is something most children hear from their parents at four years old, and parents seem to trust their children to follow that advice by the time they release them into first grade.

Perhaps parents need to tell their children that again in this new context.

The other option--parental refusal of student participation in this powerful new tool to expand their child's writing and worldview--is easy enough to offer and implement, though it seems analogous to banning the child from playing on the sports team because his or her name might make the newspapers.

What bears recognizing above all is that student last names are not being used, which makes them half-anonymous already. Maybe a compromise may lie in having students write with code names or anagrams? (There are anagram generators online that could be used. Warlick posted about them lately.)

But, as an international educator who has lived in Germany, China, and Korea--and worked and studied in several other nations--I must say this fear is uniquely American. The "1% solution" in action.

I advise the parent (with whom I also sympathize) to weigh the costs of being ruled by a statistically improbable fear against the obvious benefits of allowing his child to learn to harness the power of digital communication and connectedness.

Final thought: have you considered barring all mention of the school from student posts? And maybe a training period of blogging "prison" or "boot camp," after which students are freed to connect to the world only after demonstrating their awareness of identity and privacy issues by practicing "privacy-responsible" blogging for a set period of time?

And it seems a parent outreach, that educates the parents on how radically their children's present and future lives differ from that of their teachers' and parents' past, should take place first, so parents can learn more about this new world before making such an important decision?

Good luck to you. I have little doubt that what you are pioneering now in your school will, within a decade, be common practice--and better practice too, due to community conversations like the one on this post.

Transitions are always challenging. Gutenberg's strange invention called the "book" probably had its opponents 500 years ago too.

Conversation and constructive problem-solving between all parties concerned--communication, not debate, as you say--are key.

One last thought: where is the student's voice in all of this? I hear teacher and parent, but no student....

CT said...

B – I check into your blog regularly and was of course intrigued by this set of conversations. It reminds me how even my close friends wonder about the “safety” of having my picture and full name on my blog, even though I am well-past teenage years.

Teens already use AOL Instant Messenger and MySpace with reckless abandon, both of which have the option of private or public viewing. One could see, then, with student blogs, a set up where students choose to have their blog be public or private, and if they choose public, are instructed not to mention Punahou, but instead P School (think of most of Murakami’s writing where initials are used for prefectures, schools, and even names at times), and perform other identity-cloaking measures (such as no identifiable pictures and no linking to other blogs they may already have, or an email address contact that is the teacher’s so that anyone trying to contact the person will instead contact the instructor).

As a writer and writing teacher, I think awareness of an actual audience outside students’ peers and teachers can do a lot to get students caring more about the clarity, substance, and presentation of their work. In as much as a blog can facilitate this, even among their peers, who often only see each other’s work in the likely rushed and dreadful “draft” form, it seems a worthy place to begin in experimenting with technology. It also seems worthy in its likely ability foster a sense of ownership and pride in students’ work, as well as confidence in their ideas and writing.

Using this technology at all, and especially in the classroom, is new, and as such will be a learning curve and work-in-progress for all. The choice is either to work against it or work with it, for teachers and parents alike. Though I admire this parent’s willingness to converse with his child’s teacher and to be so involved, I think it’s too easy to act purely out of fear. Assuming the child is entrusted to the school as a place that offers cutting-edge education, and trusting that the educators hired know what they’re doing, then could a parent (or a student) then assume that blogging assignments have good intentions aligned with the mission of the school?

If so, the question might become not how could you do this and not see this problem, this reaction, this issue, but how can we, as teachers or parents, continue to access new methods of teaching to reach different kinds of learners, harness the effective parts of technology like blogging and its place in the classroom, move forward into the changing landscape of the world and the world of teaching, while also addressing safeguards to prevent unwanted problems?

Because I have to admit, when I saw student blogs popping up, I just thought, well that’s interesting, and wondered what would develop—I didn’t think about danger. Perhaps this is because, as MarcoPolo mentioned, they’re already doing it on their own. I would think that MySpace has much more potential for danger than blogs about literature and critical thinking, and instead saw class blogs initially as mini, online literary magazines.

It’s the beginning of teachers catching up with the technology that’s already out there and being used by students in their personal lives, and connecting what we do in the classroom with the texture of their everyday experiences; and thus it’s also the beginning of parents catching up with their kids, and the arrival of technology as integral to the classroom. So then these conversations are also the start of being smarter about how we use this kind of technology, at least when we (teachers) have some measure of oversight. It seems to me that’s the only way it happens. Sometimes you don’t learn about what needs to be done better until you start actually doing it.

As Clare wrote, what do the students think?

Bruce Schauble said...

Thanks to all of you who responded. I've read all the comments and have had many hours of thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion about all of these issues. We have finalized a draft of a letter which will be sent home to parents this week, and we have emerging drafts of a number of other documents that will help us provide guidelines and support for our teachers and students. I don't expect that it is going to answer all our questions or solve all our problems, but it's a start.

I am aware that we have not yet solicited feedback from the students about their own attitudes toward the opportunities they see and the challenges they face in navigating the complexities of online communication. That's something that we will be doing as we continue our discussions.

Bruce Schauble said...

From a student via email:

Hey Mr. Schauble, I just happened to come across your blog entry about student blogs and online privacy concerns and I thought I'd like to comment on the issue.

You said:

"One solution, which the parent endorsed, was to create a blog environment in which the only people who can access the blog are the people in that particular class. That way you would get the advantage of learning to use the technology and of being able to carry on a dialogue without opening the window to outsiders. In certain situations, that might work, but it sacrifices the benefits of having student work placed before a larger audience."

I haven't actually had a class that used an online blog, but the idea definitely sounds promising.

Creating blogs where only students in one class section could have access would, in my opinion, defeat the purpose of the online blog. Keeping the blogs open to the public, as we've seen, raises privacy concerns. If I were in charge of setting up online blogs/sites to be used in the classroom, I would set up a system where students blogs would be available to the entire Punahou community, but completely invisible to the outside world.

One way I address privacy concerns with the videos on my website is by making certain videos available only "to those with an ePunahou email address" which allows the content to be seen by a large audience but still keeps them private from anyone else. Since everyone at Punahou has an ePunahou email address, it's fairly easy to verify a persons identity online even if I don't know them simply by sending out an email to an ePunahou address with a confirmation link that grants users access to private content.

So those are just my thoughts on what an appropriate level of access is for personal information posted online for a class. I'll be interested to know how blogs or other online components are used in the classroom in the future so be sure to keep me updated :P

Marco Polo said...

One way I address privacy concerns with the videos on my website is by making certain videos available only "to those with an ePunahou email address" which allows the content to be seen by a large audience but still keeps them private from anyone else.
This sounds an interesting, creative, possible solution. Can you or your student explain how this might be done, say, using WordPress or Blogger?

Marco Polo said...

Bruce, a little late but, here's a blogpost and comments on a related subject: typical reactionary, erm, reactions to new technology over the ages, culminating in "no iPods, cellphones, whatever, in class, OR ELSE!" But the parental voice is missing.

Bruce Schauble said...


That's a really interesting link. Thanks for the reference. I'll check with the student to see how he structures access to his site.


- B

Clay Burell said...

I appreciate the constructive mind of the student who wrote,

"One way I address privacy concerns with the videos on my website is by making certain videos available only "to those with an ePunahou email address" which allows the content to be seen by a large audience but still keeps them private from anyone else. Since everyone at Punahou has an ePunahou email address, it's fairly easy to verify a persons identity online even if I don't know them simply by sending out an email to an ePunahou address with a confirmation link that grants users access to private content."

--But I respectfully disagree. The result of this would be to wall your community in. Blogging is about the opposite: forming networks across the world. "My island only" is woefully provincial. If your work (video, writing, whatever) is good, why settle for a local readership of maybe hundreds, when this new tool, properly managed, could give you world readership in the tens of thousands?

We can find better solutions, so let's keep trying!