Public Writing and Student Privacy

Jack Dougherty

A Dilemma of Competing Values

Well into the fall semester of 2011, when I first assigned my class to write on the open web, I discovered 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—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 for another open peer-reviewed book at that time. But as a college educator, I was searching for an ethical way to balance the competing values of public writing and student privacy in my classroom.

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.[2] Elsewhere on my campus, faculty assign students to post essays and comment on other students’ work on password-protected course sites, or even 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 my mid-level undergraduate course to publish their writing on the public web, preferably under their real names, yet to retain control over their own words.

Current U.S. student privacy law is grounded in FERPA, the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, and its subsequent amendments.[3] Greater awareness of this federal law has sharply curtailed past practices of openly posting student grades on a 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.[4] 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?[5]

Since I am not a lawyer and have no legal expertise in this subject, 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.[6] Based on my layperson’s understanding of FERPA, I wrote up the following statement for my online syllabi, which explains my motivating principle behind public writing, while affirming students’ rights to control their own words, with instructions on how to do so. See the statement with visuals and links in context.[7]

Public writing and student privacy policy:

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.

Although all student 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. If a student needs additional privacy, please speak with the instructor to arrange accommodations.

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. In turn, the instructor promises to maintain student 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.

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 or his prior coursework appears in the search rankings. The student’s results usually appear within the top five listings. Judging from the audible gasps, several students are surprised by the outcome—and it still surprises me that some so-called “digital native” millennials do not already know this—and I briefly 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. In the first case, a former student published a web essay under her full name, which helped her to earn a prestigious internship with a non-profit organization. In the second case, another former student published a web essay on a controversial legal topic, and initially decided to identify herself only with initials in the byline to reduce the risk of detection by authorities, then deleted it after the course ended. To wrap up the lesson, I demonstrate how students have control over how to display their name in their user profile settings of our site, and ask them to make an informed decision when assigning their first post. While this public-private 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.

How have students responded to the public-private policy? After implementing this change in 2011, I tracked responses by a total of 71 students in two different classes over two years. Both classes enrolled 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 setting (their network username such as jsmith3) to their full name. [8]

How Students Elected to Display Bylines or Protect/Remove Final Web Essays, by percent

Course (year) Enrolled Full
Alias Deleted
Ed 308 (2011) 17 71% 18% 12%
Ed 308 (2012) 11 100%
Ed 300 (2012) 23 91% 4% 4%
Ed 300 (2013) 20 90% 5% 5%
Total 71 87% 4% 3% 1% 4%

If You Build It, Will They Come. . . and Comment?

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 with 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.

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 a writer’s words did not successfully generate a public response.[9] By 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.

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.[10] 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?

One experiment was the laissez-faire approach. During the spring 2012 semester of my Educ 300 Education Reform, Past & Present class, I did absolutely nothing to attract readers to my students’ web writing. I did not email, tweet, nor promote their existence. 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.[11] While the absence of comments may suggest that my students had few readers, the web statistics tell a very different story. To avoid counting active student use, I tabulated web hits during the six-month break in this spring course, from mid-May 2012 through December 2012. Nearly 25,000 unique users visited our non-advertised course site. 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 during this period, 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). Of course, the quantity of hits is not necessarily linked to the quality of the student essay, but the average length of time spent by visitors on our course site suggested that, despite the absence of visible comments, my students had successfully engaged the public through their writing.[12]

A second experiment in public engagement was to commission recent alumni to serve as guest commentators on student web essays. 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 increase 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.[13]

A third experiment expanded upon the guest evaluator model to include student peers at other liberal arts colleges as part of a planned academic exchange. In Fall 2012, the second year of my Educ 308 Cities Suburbs & Schools seminar web writing assignment, a group of students from nearby Wesleyan University and I made a deal. The co-organizers of a student-taught course, 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.[14] In return, 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 nervous about this experiment, as the two groups never met face-to-face or even via videoconference. Overall, a vast majority 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 arranged, yet unpaid readers made the exercise worthwhile.[15]

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? These issues and others are not fully resolved. Nevertheless, while I do not argue that web writing is appropriate for every class, these initial results should challenge liberal arts faculty to consider news ways of engaging our student writers with the public, while protecting their privacy.

About the author: Jack Dougherty is an associate professor of educational studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, who tweets about web writing at @DoughertyJack.

How to cite:

Jack Dougherty, “Public Writing and Student Privacy,” in Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning, ed. Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O’Donnell (University of Michigan Press/Trinity College ePress edition, 2014), http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/chapter/dougherty-public.

See an earlier version of this essay with open peer review comments.[16]

  1. "Mission," Trinity College, Hartford CT, http://www.trincoll.edu/AboutTrinity/mission/Pages/default.aspx.
  2. Photo of hallway paper by author, uploaded to http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/?attachment_id=925.
  3. Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, U.S. Department of Education, http://www.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/ferpa/index.html.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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/.
  7. “Public Writing and Student Privacy” policy statement, Educ 300: Education Reform: Past and Present, Spring 2014, Trinity College, http://commons.trincoll.edu/edreform/resources/student-privacy/. In some seminars, I also point students to additional resources such as "Copyright Overview," Copyright and Fair Use, Stanford University Libraries, http://fairuse.stanford.edu/; and "About the Licenses," Creative Commons, http://creativecommons.org.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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/.
  12. 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/.
  13. Screenshot of typical guest evaluator comment, uploaded to http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/?attachment_id=82,from Educ 308 Cities Suburbs & Schools seminar web essays, Fall 2011, http://commons.trincoll.edu/cssp/web-essays/.
  14. Sociology 419: Education Policy in the United States, Wesleyan University, Fall 2012, http://soc419.wordpress.com/.
  15. Screenshot of typical Wesleyan student guest evaluator comment, uploaded to http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/?attachment_id=83, Ed 308 Cities Suburbs and Schools seminar web essays, Fall 2012, http://commons.trincoll.edu/cssp/web-essays/.
  16. Dougherty, "Public Writing and Student Privacy," in Web Writing (Open peer review edition, Fall 2013), http://webwriting2013.trincoll.edu/engagement/dougherty-pub-priv-2013/.