A dilemma that faces many educators new to blogging is the question of whether they should be publishing their students’ information and work online.
They might wonder if their class or student blogs should be public for anyone to see, or private for a limited audience (or no one) to view.
This question can be so daunting that it can freeze some educators into inaction. Their class or student blogs may never get off the ground because they can’t decide on the best model to follow.
Does this sound familiar? We’re here to help.
Often, the decision of private vs public is taken out of an individual educator’s hands. School or district administrators can be so concerned about potential headaches associated with public posting online, that they put a blanket ban on the idea.
But is banning public blogs the way to go?
Despite many Edublogs users opting to activate the privacy features built into our platform, we believe it is always a good idea to keep questioning our practice as educators.
In 2013, Ronnie Burt wrote an insightful post that explored whether student work should be public on the web. Let’s reopen the debate today by looking at the pros, cons, and options associated with having a public class or student blog.
The Case For Private Blogs
We can’t speak for everyone, so if you have used a private blog with your students we strongly encourage you to share with us the reasons why you made this choice.
Sometimes, teachers make blogs private because they’re told to, or they’re following the model that other bloggers at their school use.
In other instances, there are educators who are very new to blogging and want to be able to learn and explore without the pressure of a public audience.
Schools and educators sometimes see the concept of allowing students to freely express themselves online to be too big of a burden. They might be concerned about the added workload of monitoring and moderating posts and comments. Or, they might have concerns about students writing inappropriate content, bullying, or creating questionable digital footprints.
Indeed, researcher Danah Boyd reminds us that,
Digital technology makes our communications more visible, spreadable, searchable, and persistent.
With this comes positives and negatives; risk and reward.
When Ronnie presented his arguments around the benefits of public student blogs in his 2013 post, there were some well considered opposing views presented in the comment section.
J. McNulty argued the consequence of permanence,
Try to imagine that every stammering oral presentation, every 5th grade writing sample and every stick finger drawing you ever made in a classroom was permanently posted online, forever. As a teacher how would you feel if your class of iPad toting students were surfing through your complete ‘virtual portfolio’ while you were trying to assign them an essay?
It’s absolutely important to consider what sort of digital footprint our students are creating.
A further consideration when weighing up whether to make a blog public is the comfort level of our students. Some students may not feel comfortable broadcasting their true thoughts, opinions and developing ideas. They may hold themselves back which isn’t really what we want when trying to extend our students as learners, is it?
A final thought on the case for private blogs is the idea that public writing can be misinterpreted or taken out of context. Once something is ‘on the record’ it can be hard to erase. Publishing with this thought in the back of your mind can be onerous for students and their teachers.
The Case For Public Blogs
We believe there are many advantages to making your class or student blogs public. Let’s take a look at some of them.
Positive Digital Reputations
Publishing online means putting yourself out there for others to see. The whole concept of digital footprints or online reputations is becoming more important than ever.
Students are growing up in a digital world where the distinction between their online and offline lives is blurred.
Managing one’s digital identity is a skill that students need to be taught and need to practice. Let’s consider: would you rather your students are guided in the process of publishing online and given a ‘less risky’ platform to practice with? Or, would you like them to go it alone? Because we know they will anyway.
We also know that having no digital footprint at all is no longer an ideal option. Potential employers and higher education institutions increasingly consider individuals’ online profiles and search results when making selections.
In his book, Why School?: How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere, Will Richardson poses this question,
How can you make sure that every student who walks on graduation day is well googled by his or her full name?
Not long ago, this question would not have even been on an educator’s radar. Now it’s something worth considering if we truly want to prepare our students for a rapidly advancing digital world.
The Problem With Passwords
Ronnie raised some excellent arguments about the advantages of public blogs in his 2013 post, including the power of an authentic audience, ease of access, and the potential for collaboration.
If you hide student work behind passwords, then you might as well have them print everything out and hand it in the old-fashioned way. You are losing out on connections, extended dialogues, and the motivating factor of working for an authentic purpose.
Well known edtech leader, Wesley Fryer adds to the conversation on the disadvantages of private class blogs and password protected sites.
He points out that a private classroom blog is better than not having a blog at all. No arguments from us there!
Wesley explains that it’s all about making it as easy as possible for families and other visitors to read and comment on blog posts.
I’ve found that the more barriers (like logins requiring userIDs and passwords) we put up for online student content, the FEWER parents will visit and comment. It’s VERY hard to get parents to not only look at student digital work online amidst our busy lives today, it’s even harder to get them to comment. If you make your classroom blog private, you’ll likely rob your students of the opportunity to receive feedback from outside your classroom walls. Feedback is what makes interactive writing powerful and even feel magical at times.
The Power Of An Authentic Audience
Consider this powerful quote by Rushton Hurley:Does this ring true to you?
Let’s put ourselves in our students’ shoes. Imagine you are at a professional development day. The presenter might ask you to jot down some reflections on your experience. No doubt, you would do an okay job.
Now imagine if you were asked to present to your school district on your experience or write a school newsletter article about the day. Would you put more effort into your work? Not just in terms of creation but also in terms revising, editing, researching, seeking feedback, and meeting your deadline?
We can’t underestimate the power of an authentic audience. Many teachers will attest to the fact that students seem to be more motivated and produce higher quality work when they have an authentic audience. These anecdotes are also backed up by research.
One of my favorite things about having a class blog was the opportunity to make global connections. These opportunities truly had my students excited about walking in the school door to learn, share, and collaborate.
William Chamberlain, who came up with Comments4Kids, noted in a comment on Ronnie’s post,
Blogs can be used for a myriad of things, but the most powerful is to create conversations among people that don’t share a local community. While closing blogs is acceptable, it will not help the students reach beyond the local community. The real power is in conversations created with those whom the student otherwise would not have contact with.
When you use a blog to flatten your classroom walls, amazing things can happen. Of course, the potential for global collaboration is much easier with a public class blog.
Read more in our Edublogger’s Guide to Global Collaboration.
Developing Your Thinking
Many bloggers report on the transformative effect writing down your thoughts has on clarifying your thinking. This is something we really want leverage for our students. It’s one of the great benefits of blogging.
What exactly is this transformative effect?
In his book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, Clive Thompson tells us,
Professional writers have long described the way that the act of writing forces them to distill their vague notions into clear ideas. By putting half-formed thoughts on the page, we externalize them and are able to evaluate them much more objectively. This is why writers often find that it’s only when they start writing that they figure out what they want to say.
Alan Levine takes this idea one step further when he says,
Writing in public … makes you accountable for your ideas. Stating your ideas in public is fearful if you think of it being a means for people to criticize, but it also makes your writing and thinking stronger if you take a public stand.
Perhaps this phenomenon is even more powerful when your audience is ‘real’.
That’s not to say our students’ published thoughts have to be ‘complete’ either. Even Will Richardson has mentioned that he is more compelled to comment on a post ‘where the author is obviously testing unfinished ideas.’
Helping students learn how to be happy, safe and productive online is another increasingly important topic. Blogging is a fantastic way to teach students about digital citizenship in a structured and authentic way.
Learning about digital citizenship via a private blog just wouldn’t have the same impact.
Blogging and digital citizenship is a topic we explored in detail in this post.
Exploring Your Options
As you read about the advantages of having a public blog for your class or students, you may be nodding your head in agreement but still feel unsure about taking the leap. I understand. It’s scary. You care deeply about your students, and the feeling of push-back from colleagues, leaders or parents can also be a major hurdle. Who wants to rock the boat?
Silvia Tolisano has responded to the question of ‘how to take away fear from teachers about putting students blogs out there?’
(Teachers) need to educate themselves about the topic, weigh advantages and disadvantages and have the mindset of a risk taker to try something new, move outside their comfort zone, and be willing to learn along the way.
We need to capture and document evidence of learning opportunities that are being created that support new literacies and skills, vital (for) learners today that far outweigh potential risks when ‘putting students blogs out there’.
Of course, the public vs private debate is not a black and white issue. There are options. Let’s look at some specific scenarios.
Just new to blogging with students? There is certainly nothing wrong with starting small and having a private blog and/or a blog that is totally teacher controlled. When you become more familiar and confident, you can consider changing your privacy settings.
Not sure whether you should be the one deciding on the audience for your students? Why not give students a choice? At The Geelong College, students are encouraged to decide for themselves whether their blogs will be public or password protected. This might be an option to consider for your classroom or school.
Happy to have an open blog but don’t want it to be discovered by just anyone? Blocking search engines is easy and reduces the chance of random visitors landing on your blog. You’ll find this option in Settings > Reading. You can also go to Settings > Discussion and choose ‘Users must be registered and logged in to comment’. This way, not just anyone can leave a comment.
Too busy to be moderating all student posts and comments? Luckily, moderation is easier than it used to be in the early days of blogging. With My Class, you can moderate from the dashboard of your class blog — no need to open up 25 tabs! Also, consider that some teachers start out approving posts and/or comments. Then, once students show they can handle it, give up the control. This might be worth considering, especially if your students are older or familiar with blogging. You can also monitor and alter any posts or comments after they are published if need be.
Don’t want to reveal too much about your students’ identities? Having a public blog doesn’t mean you have to post personal information such as surnames, photos, location etc. These are decisions you would make as part of your blogging guidelines.
Unsure about using photos of students? This post explains the approach we recommend you follow if you have a public blog.
Only want to share some posts publicly? You can simply create a public blog but password protect certain posts or pages. Or, some educators and students use a blog publicly and use other avenues for private work such as a learning management system, or more traditional tools (eg. word processors, or pen and paper!).
It’s important for students to realize that there are times when our work should be private. Maybe we don’t want to share every ‘failed’ attempt or evidence of messy learning. While there are benefits to documenting the process of learning, weighing this up with the goal of constructing a positive digital footprint is crucial.
Learning how to make the decision of what work should be public is another critical skill we really need to guide our students on. The curation and documentation of learning and artifacts is a powerful process to explore. George Couros talks about the idea of sharing student work publicly more in his post on invisible student portfolios. George’s thinking on the topics of digital footprints, student portfolios, and navigating our digital world are always very insightful.
Thanks to the power of technology, we are now able to offer our students incredible opportunities that weren’t available when we were at school. Perhaps it’s worth considering the best way to take advantage of this while ensuring all students are safe and no one feels out of their depth.
Over To You
Do you think class and student blogs should be public or private?
Do you believe the benefits of having students publish online outweigh the disadvantages?
What other barriers to having a public blog have you faced?
Please leave a comment and let us know how you have approached this contentious issue.