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.

26 thoughts on “should we tell our students to blog pseudonymously?

  1. Anne

    Thank you Jill for helping me work through some concerns that emerged after teaching this term. I often think about “informed” consent. Like when my students consent to having their final projects put online, I wonder if they really understand what they are consenting to. (Do they know where their work is hosted? Who controls access to it? For how long? Do they understand the reach of Google’s eye?) Then I feel guilty for thinking that they’re stupid or immature or inexperienced or for some reason incapable of understanding. (Yes, I still struggle with how to act with expertise.)

    But pseudonyms seem very appropriate. They reduce risk and allow both students and teachers a space in which to get better at what they do. I also think the broader issues include professionalism and reputation, and I wonder what blogging teaches our students about these values? Does it have something to do with “establishing a durable online identity that youíd be happy for anyone to see”?

  2. Bill Seitz

    If you host the blogs at the university, and give the students the option of having their work deleted at the end of the term, would that help?

    You could use an engine that could export their work for their own private re-use.

    You could probably block outside aggregators, or even all access from off-campus.

  3. Jill

    I think we do need to teach students about reputation, and about using their full names online appropriately – I just don’t think we should start first years out like that when they have no experience with it.

    Mark responded too on his blog – oh, I hate his not having comments! I want to respond THERE, because most people who read that post won’t come here! Anyway, Mark, I was talking about a process of learning, I’m not saying people shouldn’t get out there and participate in the network usign their real names, I just don’t think all students should be exposed to that. If you blow the Rachmaninov at your debut concert after years of studying music you’re no longer a learner and that’s tough. If you miss some notes at the age of ten or for that matter twenty while playing for your classmates parents you’ll be upset but it won’t really affect your career. Obviously the prosess of learning should be a movement towards more and more independence and less and less protection from teachers and the environment.

    Some students, no matter how young, need no protection; they already know how to do this and that they’re building their reputation without us fussing about it. These are often the students who were blogging long before we turned up, or who just understand the medium. Grad students should probably all be blogging using their real names, building their professional identities.

  4. John Norvell

    Thanks for the provocative entry! In the Internet course I taught this semester, I had students put their projects and associated artifacts on a wiki open only to enrolled students. This got us around confidentiality issues with their informants. Then, they all had to blog, but the choice to do so pseudonymously or not was theirs, and they had constantly to triangulate their ethical obligations to each other and their informants when figuring out what to post and how.

  5. Identity and Student Bloggers

    (via Clancy Ratliff ) Interesting couple of threads running through the higher ed universe regarding how students should refer to themselves in their class blogs.

  6. Dennis G. Jerz

    A “forced blogging” assignment that requires a student to divulge personal information is going over the line, And it would be another matter entirely if a studente were worried about a cyberstalker.

    My division chair agreed to my proposal to create blogs.setonhill.edu (a community of about 200 academic blogs), so long as the students posted using their real names.

    For the most part I don’t ask students to post formal research online. And if students do post projects, a beta review is required, so that they have the chance to correct sloppy citation or copyright infringement before the course is over. I’ll be teaching a newswritng course in the fall, and while students will use blogs, I won’t have them post sample stories or mock news articles online. That’s because many will make very basic mistakes, and nobody wants to read blog entries with titles like “Chapter 9 Homework.”

    After I have had students blogging for a few weeks, I ask them questions about the reputation of websites they encounter. Most say that they have been taught to question .com websites, but they trust .edu sites.

    When I ask how many of them have posted to a website with a .edu domain, usually only one or two people immediately “get” that their weblogs are published on a .edu site. Someone ususually mentions this fact, then I see the light break out on everyone’s faces. They suddenly realize that somebody “out there” is going to Google and find their postings.

    I see the value in letting students blog anonymously but I also believe there is pedagogical value in asking students to be willing to commit to something that they can say publically about a given topic. They have other venues in which to share the thoughts that they don’t want to make public.

    Students who “make mistakes” writing for the school paper have had their mistakes archived long before the arrival of the internet. Online editions make those mistakes more visible, but students still write for student papers.

  7. Jill

    So what DO your students blog about, Dennis, if it’s not personal and they don’t post projects before they’ve been reviewed? My students certainly aren’t required to post about their personal lives, but I do expect them to post about their learning process, and to be frank, that’s pretty personal, don’t you think?

    I’m going to have to think more about the school paper point. Here students CHOOSE to write for the student newspaper, and it’s entirely student run, with an elected editor and editorial board — all students — and all the rest of it. With 70 students, as I have now, there’s no way I can really follow up on everything they blog, as I could when I had 30 of them. They’re learning online, sure, but they’re not getting feedback on it all from teacher.

    You’ll notice also that I’m suggest pseudonymity, not anonymity. We all know how attached you get to a pseudonym you create online. Do any of us take less notice of what Bitch PhD posts because we don’t know her real name? And I’m sure her investment in that online personality is as great as

    I’m not arguing students should never be asked to blog using their full names. I just think that beginner students should be given the choice of using a pseudonym, and that we should be quite sure that they understand what publishing online means.

    I’d hesitate to lock students away in a zone only they can access, because I think some of the greatest learning experiences in this kind fo work are in finding your own voice in hte network and realising that others actually read and may respond to what you write. Neither am I that thrilled abotu the idea of depublishing.

    But I agree, it’s a knotty issue.

  8. Frode

    As a blogging student I find this discussion very interesting. While the whole blogging assignement was very positive on the whole (and still is), my blogs sudden popularity made quite nervous. I made the blog more of a personal blog than just an academic one, and wrote stuff I imagined only my friends would see. I made some negative remarks about a magazine (FHM) and some “famous” Norwegian people, and suddenly Google ranked those pages (if you searched on the people I wrote about) higher than for example interviews in our biggest paper (vg).

    I was even contacted by people who had been featured in FHM who asked me if it was them I critized (but it was of course the concept). Now I deleted those posts, but google still has a cache on them.

    Of course, I have no problem with my own opinions, but it¥s easy to publish something you wrote in 4 minutes without much thinking…

    But learning to publish stuff online is very important, and therefore I think to “hide” students work and opinions in a closed enviroment is a bad idea. But it¥s important to emphasize how reachable your blog is to the public, and that google is finding everything! I have learned by doing, and feel that after all that is the best way.

    Here is my post when I first found out about the “issues” (in norwegian): frodekommode.com: N?Âr google slÂ?r til…

  9. Matthew

    I too find this discussion interesting as I have been concerned about this issue for a long time. I am also a blogging student. From what I can see, the level of comfort in disclosing private stats varies greatly from person to person. Some will hide nothing while other wonít tell you a thing. And naturally everything in between. Being asked to cross the line, wherever that line is for you, is in my opinion not quite right. You have to feel comfortable while publishing online. The sad truth is that we leave fingerprints all over the net. I know of several cases where peopleís privacy was invaded, weíre talking stalkers here. Yet a lot of people never have problems. Ultimately, I think it boils down to what it is you do. If youíre doing things like running your own business or youíre doing something you want others to see then using your real stats will come off as the most trustworthy. If youíre a student blogging for class then displaying your private stats is not at all necessary. You may choose to do so but I think itís important for people to understand that itís not something they have to or should do. Quite often I see people putting it all out there and then I wonder whether I am too protective of my privacy or are they just displaying too much? The bottom line is that everything on the net can be found and accessibility awareness is important. One should be aware of the fact that oneís flaws might be really exposed in a whole different way when displaying real stats.

    I canít remember where I heard this, but there was this guy who went on a date and they kisses when the date ended. The guy didnít think much of her kissing skills and made an entry about it on his blog. In some way or another, that post from his blog reached the girl and well, you can imagine from there…Obviously, he did not make an attempt to hide his name (and probably not the girlís name), and maybe more.

    With the rapid evolution of blogs, which are basically very, very public diaries containing anything you can imagine, the cross-linking, referrals and stumbling upon things by accident is inevitable. In the end, we are all responsible for our actions, good and bad. If we get away with something bad, like shoplifting or a “copy & paste” paper, it doesnít that make it any less illegal or dishonest.

    Let me end my long post with a truly golden rule I learned ages ago: Donít write anything you wouldnít want to be read to you in a courtroom!

  10. Scott

    Hmmm — this is an interesting question. I do require my students to write public blogs, though the only posts I require of them are responses to specific questions, what I call position papers. They are free, and encouraged, to use the blog for whatever else they would like to. While some of the position papers get into personal opinion, they would rarely call for them to divulge anything that would embarass them in the future. If the problem is just a general sense of “I’m embarrassed by how I wrote when I was 20,” well, so what? Aren’t we all? When we were in college, we were learning to write well. I also think that there are benefits to thinking of writing, at least of most forms of writing for school, as “public writing.”

    One of the side benefits of assigned blogging is that students come to think of their assignment as not only for their professor, but for a wider audience. When the audience is conceived of as “prof only,” the nature of what they write changes, and often suffers as a result. Like Dennis, I’ve had many more experiences in which students have excitedly told me that some other internet site has linked to their blog, or that someone has cited their paper in another paper, or that their page-rank has risen on Stockton’s “Most-Read Blogs” list.

    As far as posting projects before they’ve been reviewed, I don’t really see the problem there either. So the incremental steps of the learning and writing process are online. Is that a problem? It sounds more like Ted Nelson’s vision of how drafts would be integrated into final “works” than a problem. I would frankly see more problems with anonymous blogging than with accountable public writing. The idea shouldn’t be that “anyone can write anything, with no consequence” but that “you can write anything in public, that anyone could read and associate with you” unless the course is specifically about personal pseudonymous diary writing, or confessional poetry writing, or the like.

  11. Dennis G. Jerz

    Jill asks, “So what DO your students blog about, Dennis…?”

    For a recent assignment, I asked students in “Intro to Literary Study” to get in pairs and read each other’s papers aloud. I asked them to blog about what they learned from hearing their paper read out loud, OR about some other classroom activity that they found noteworthy. That’s in case a student was horrified by the experience, and didn’t want to confess that in their blog.

    I haven’t made it an official part of the syllabus, but I do occasionally suggest that a student who wants so share something touch with me can send me an e-mail or slip a note under my office door. Perhaps I should make that more explicit.

    I also have experienced student bloggers give an informal presentation about how to make the most of your academic blog, and that presentation includes a discussion of privacy issues and the persistence of blogged writing. One student’s grandmother regularly reads her academic blog; a recent graduate got some freelance writing work because someone read her food-related entries. I should probably have students Google themselves at the beginning of the term, in order to impress upon themsleves the public nature of a weblog.

    My students do post projects online, but a project is a genre that differs from a research paper.

  12. Mark Federman

    The horse has not only bolted on this one, the barn has burned down! What we are experiencing in the apparent ethical dilemma over this is the disruption caused by the lag of attitudes at the break boundary between the effects of the literate (Gutenberg) era and the effects of the audile (ubiquitous instantaneous communications) era.

    The persistence of undergraduate blogged writing coming back to haunt the post-doctoral grant applicant, for instance, is a problem for the book-bound adjudicator. In fifty years, this discussion will not only be moot, but our concern over it will be considered naive and quaint. Consider the dilemma of the student who has been trained to become completely paranoid over online postings that they simply don’t exist in Google. The adjudicator, having to choose between an applicant with a sea of work over ten years – some of which is understandably sophomoric, but some being of superious quality – and an applicant who simply does not exist (online) will come to a simple conclusion: Better the learner who progresses and understands the reversal of privacy to publicy.

    In today’s world, very little is “small or exclusive audience only,” even if it is originally intended as such. This, too, is a vitally important lesson for students who will be existing everywhere all at once as a natural state of being.

  13. torill

    As you know, I never ask my students to blog about their private life, and give them topics I want them to research and then express opinions or thoughts on. I tell them to enter into discussions though, and more than once I have had to tell them to moderate their language and remember others read what they write – particularly future employers who want to check out their portfolio from the college.

    We do tell them to make a personal website, but we are also clear about this being a promotional page for themselves, where they can link to projects they do while at the college, post work they are particularly happy about or promote their hobbies, if they have a passion they want to write about. But this webpage is reviewed regularly by us, and screened for public reading. My students are after all supposed to learn how to edit the appearance of their company, and being told what they can’t reveal about themselves is part of that.

  14. Jill

    I stirred up a bit of a storm here, didn’t I? I hadn’t expected that. I get the feeling that people are arguing against the idea that students should blog anonymously and write lots of personal stuff, which is so far from what I’m saying that I wonder where it even came from.

    I think students should be given the option of writing under a pseudonym or first name only. I think they should make the choice after seeing/hearing about some examples of how bloggers have ended up exposing things they didn’t intend to expose, or at least not to expose to particular people. The idea of having them google themselves is excellent. There should be lots of discussion about this stuff. Probably an assignment where they describe someone somewhat public (the author of one of their textbooks for instance) based on what they can find about the person online would be useful. Stuff about plagiarism, accountability and considering the way you want to appear online to a variety of different people (future employers, clients, lovers, children etc) could all very fruitfully go into this first section of a class that uses blogs.

    If you choose to make students use their full names, you and they should simply be very aware that they’re not in a protected learning environment and that they need to be circumspect.

    I found the comments from students particularly interesting. Interestingly, both students wield their blogs expertly, using only their first names. They can claim their identities whenever they want to simply by adding their last names.

    Oh, and backchannel I was told that pseudonymity at at least one college led to students not feeling accountable for their writing, and misuing their blogs to write racist comments and bullying. Again: I’m not talking about anonymity. I’m talking about students using first names only, or a pseudonym that their classmates know and connect to the person they see several times a week. Certainly a few years back when we were all teaching in MOOS and chatrooms and stuff we seemed to agree that a person’s online nickname could be as valuable to them as a “real name” is.

    Btw, Mark F., your comment really made me laugh. You’re fighting windmills if you’re trying to call me bookbound! Hihi!

  15. Jill

    Other bloggers who’ve continued this discussion (because trackbacks are only working sometimes):
    Sacco has chosen an in-between strategy and uses a pseudonym (“Sacco”) but links to an about page that has his full name. An interesting additional point he makes is that while he’ll stand by opinions expressed on his website, he doesn’t want them seen out of context, as happens with search engines. I know what he means.
    Clancy Ratliff, brings up the depublishing issue.

  16. Matt Pasiewicz

    blogging pseudonymously

  17. jill/txt » predatory linking

    […] jill/txt 10/5/2005 [predatory linking] Profgrrrl (who yes, writes pseudonymously) has a really interesting post about blogging about personal things and the risk involved and what we g […]

  18. bgblogging

    How Far’s Too Far: Blog Boundaries

    Just when I think the semester is about wrapped up and I can catch up on some reading and writing, reflect a bit about this year’s explorations of multimedia, including podcasting and digital storytelling, along come my students with more…

  19. Jill

    Wow, that’s really interesting. My students have not yet used pseudonyms aggressively or to escape accountability, but this is exactly what my friend told me had happened at their college (see my comment above). So that’s another issue.

  20. Johan

    Discussions about pseudonymity, anonymity, and traceability on the Internet is nothing new, and did not start with blogs. Is has gone for years and years on Usenet and probably all kinds of other communities.
    http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?GhostOfUsenetPostingsPast

    (Writing this makes me feel very old, talking about “old” technology and complaining about the youngsters who think the current Internet fad is more revolutionary than it really is. :))

    Yes, when you publish stuff on the Internet it stays out there, and can be found. I can go to groups.google.com and find things I posted on Usenet in the mid-nineties. And so can anybody else who wants to check on me. To be honest, that is a bit scary. (Me having a relatively uncommon name doesn’t help at all.)

    I think it’s necessary to think this through when using Internet publishing as part of teaching, and to give students a lecture on it at the start.

    The time-honored opinion in most Usenet groups has been that anonymity fosters irresponsibility and more aggressive, disruptive behaviour. Having people identifying as themselves encourages posters to consider what they are saying, to not say things they don’t want to be held accountable for. Of course, there are some people who don’t consider what they say anyway. Teachers may have to take that into account, and possibly take steps to protect those students against their own follies. And in many cases, especially during teaching, a little unaccountability and freedom from google searches ten years later can be a good thing. If the idea is to foster _writing_, having students worry too much about the long-term consequences of their blogging might not be the best idea.

    I think using a pseudonym, something that can be connected to you by your peers but does not lead name googlers directly to your coursework blog, will be a good middle ground in many cases. I’m not sure how well hidden the real name should be. (One thing to consider is that in small classes, the identity behind even relatively well-hidden pseudonyms are likely to become common knowledge among students very quickly. In a larger class, people may to a larger degree feel – and indeed be – safe behind pseudonyms throughout the course.)

    Context is important too. Something that’s clearly undergraduate coursework is not likely to haunt you. Much. Yes, people may read it, but they’ll understand that it’s coursework. People who understand blogging will also know that a blog entry is usually more a spur of the moment thought than a researched paper. Read in the wrong context, though, an old blog entry might be misinterpreted and given more weight than it deserves. (For years, I took my Usenet posting history calmly, counting on those who knew enough about Usenet to search on DejaNews to understand the context. Google’s takeover of the Deja archive, putting Usenet searches just one click away from web searches, made me less confident about that.) Perhaps it is a good idea to put students’ blogging somewhere where the connection to the course is clear, to require the course name in the header of each student’s blog, things like that. And also consider what happens to it after the course finishes.

  21. i1277

    I don’t think anyone suggested the discussion was new. But the situation now is fundamentally different from the pre-web days. Everyone is online these days, not just geeks and early adopters. That means everyone can leave traces – and everyone can follow them. The tools for tracing information are also and easier to use. (Before Google Groups, my embarrassing Usenet past was mercifully well-hidden…)

    To some people, the alternative to writing pseudonymously is not writing at all. As someone who values the internet for its information sharing capabilities, the former is the preferred option.

    (I wrote more on this in a post but the trackback seems to have missed its mark).

  22. Jill

    Nathan Matias wrote a thoughtful post on this yesterday, and here’s i1277‘s post.

  23. i1277 » Blog Archive »

    […] er det greit ?• velge f??rstnevnte”. (Dette skulle egentlig v?¶re en kommentar til Jill Walkers post om hvorvidt studenter som blogger b??r bruke fullt navn eller pseudonym. Siden det jeg skrev ble ufo […]

  24. gracecardriver123

    I completely agree with you on this one jill. I don’t think anyone should have a tarnished reputation just because of a mistake they while trying to learn to write the English language. Although i agree with you on confidentiality of blogging, i believe that if someone wants to be known for who they are regardless of their flaws they should be able to. I guess it is a personal preference. -gracecardriver123 out!

  25. gracecardriver123

    Sorry i made a typo in my paragraph. I meant to say “a mistake they made while trying to write the English language.” Correction

  26. […] Ethical issues do need to be thought through – what happens if we make students participate in the public sphere? What are the consquences to them and what are our responsibilities to other people they might (no, will) offend? Probably we should insist students blog psuedonymously. […]

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