should we tell our students to blog pseudonymously?

Lilia writes interestingly about her discomfort with being researched by students who’d been given the assignment of writing a wiki page about her research. She doesn’t mind being researched, but was uncomfortable about whether or not it was OK for her to respond to this public research on her by blogging about it and linking back to them. Had they been her peers, she wouldn’t have hesitated (as I read her, anyway), but they’re not her peers, they’re students just entering this realm who are being required to do this research and who are learning how to do it. In a way my post the other day about a student’s blog with lots of great links on fictional blogs ran in to the same problem when my sending unexpected readers to this student resulted in her sloppy citation practice being exposed. Such public exposure of learners’ mistakes (and of course learners will make mistakes, that’s the whole point of learning) can lead to far direr consequences than the harshest disciplinary measures taken by a university. Which would you rather: fail an exam or have your name indelibly connected to something bad on the internet? Which could potentially affect your future the most?

The students researching Lilia haven’t done anything bad, that’s not the point. They’ve probably had a valuable learning experience in finding that the researcher they’re assigned to research not only happily responds to their questions but also reflects publically about the process. Realising that you’re visible and that you have a voice in the world is a wonderful experience and one I love seeing in my students. At the same time, it is important to learn how research has become more transparent on the web. Nowadays, people being researched speak back, whereas previously, researchers have had the privilege (?) of pretty much ignoring what the people being researched might think about it. You can read a compressed version of my thoughts on this in my summary of a talk I gave at Brown a year and a half ago.

On the other hand, perhaps we should be protecting our students rather than forcing them to expose themselves in public. I thought a lot about this last year, around the same time as Lilia wrote about weblog research ethics.

I’ve come to think that learning in public is extremely valuable, but that we should allow our students the choice of using pseudonyms in public, or perhaps even require it of them.

Although most academic learning happens in closed spaces, there are other kinds of learning where public performance is an important part of that learning. If you’re learning to play a musical instrument, for instance, you’ll be given a lot of opportunities to perform in public from a very young age. Opting out is pretty much unheard of.

While young musicians perform in concerts that are open to anyone in principle, in practice only their families turn up. Academics have had the same luxury. Yes, it’s published, but only your colleagues are likely to read it. The people you write about usually won’t. In contrast, students performing on the network can be tracked down at any time in the future. What you do on the network will be read by your future employers, lovers and children. If you play badly at a concert, it’ll probably be forgotten by the time you audition for a job, if you end up a professional musician. Also, the audition will likely be blind, and the jury probably won’t have been at your concert.

If a student has to publish under her full name during her learning experience, and makes mistakes, they’ll show up for every future employer or lover who googles her name. That doesn’t seem like a safe environment for learning.

That’s why I’ve recommended to my blogging students this semester that they use pseudonyms unless they’re quite comfortable about claiming their identity online. Many of them do. As they become more secure in the environment, and especially once they understand, really understand, that anyone can read it now and in the future, then real names are just fine and a good part of establishing a durable online identity that you’d be happy for anyone to see.

05. May 2005 by Jill
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