Guidelines for Public, Student Class Blogs: Ethics, Legalities, FERPA and More
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Do you require your students to blog in class? Do they post their blogs publicly? Have you worried about legal, ethical, or FERPA issues? We talked about all of this in a recent meeting of the Duke PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge and, realizing we were out of our depth, we forwarded our questions to Kevin Smith, Duke University’s Director of Copyright and Scholarly Communication.
Kevin has generously responded, most pointedly to the FERPA implications in using online blogs, Twitter, and other public social media in undergraduate and graduate courses at Duke. We think you will learn as much from his answer as we have. Feel free to pass it on--and check out Kevin's own blog "Scholarly Communications@Duke" here: http://blogs.library.duke.edu/scholcomm/
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Please be aware that the following information is provided for the purposes of educating PhD Lab scholars concerning FERPA and is not offered as a legal opinion nor does it represent Duke’s official position.
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The following, then, is Kevin’s wonderfully informative perspective:
Basically, FERPA says that university employees cannot release student “educational records,” defined as any personally identifiable record in our keeping, without written consent from the students. It also allows us to specify certain types of “directory information” that will be released without prior consent, but it also allows students to prevent even that release of information if they inform us of that intention.
When we want students to post directly to publicly accessible blogs, it is not certain that those student works ever actually become “educational records” under the law because they are never “in our keeping.” That is, we do not see the record until after the student has made it public. This helps, but there are still some privacy concerns. After all, we are potentially requiring students to release information, including the information about what class they are enrolled in, which would normally be protected.
I usually suggest four steps to mitigate these potential problems. I think these steps are congruent with the information on the sites I will list below.
First, inform students at the beginning of the course that they will be required to post to a public blog(s) and give them the opportunity to speak with you privately if they have any concerns about their privacy when doing so. This kind of requirement should never be a surprise to students after they have already begun the class; they should know about it in time to withdraw from the class if they feel that need.
Second, make it possible for students to participate in the blog under an alias or pseudonym. Most advice actually says that students should be encouraged to use pseudonyms. It is fine for you (of course) and the other class members to know who is who, but remind everyone to protect the anonymity of any aliases while online.
Third, strongly remind students not to post private information – their addresses or dorm location, social security numbers, etc. on the site.
Fourth, consider whether you should provide an alternative way for a student to fulfill the class requirements if they are really concerned about participating in a public blog, even under an alias. Most students will think this is a perfectly fine, natural activity. But FERPA is in place to protect the rare, unfortunate student who may need to hide from a stalker or abuser. In those situations, fear may be a strong motivator for the student, and we need, of course, to take that apprehension seriously.
The following three sites at other universities address this topic in a reasonable way:
- FERPA and Teaching With Technology (see section toward the bottom that deals with publicly postings to social media tools)
- Teaching Methods - Use of Social Networks, Blogs, Wikis, and Other Third-Party Hosted Tools in Instruction
- FERPA Privacy Checklist for Online Course Hosting - (Microsoft Word document)