Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Case of Web 2.0 vs. FERPA: What Do We Need to Know about Public Writing and Learning in the Digital U.S.?

Late last year, Georgia Tech took down all course wikis developed by students and instructors at the institution since 1997. The reason: GA Tech was concerned that the public could associate students names with the courses in which they were enrolled based on wiki content, which might be a violation of FERPA’s privacy rules about making “educational records” public. (See more of the story here: The United States has always upheld values of privacy, protection, ownership, and personal property. In education settings, we see this with FERPA, authorship, and academic integrity. However, when our legal culture begins to intrude on progress in education and the learning process, where is the line drawn? The commenters on the GA Tech article above suggest that students and instructors can protect themselves from the legal implications of FERPA and still use Web 2.0 tools to teach and learn by asking students to create pseudonyms and avatars and avoid reference to personal identifiers or institutional affiliation. Since it seems to be too late for GA Tech to “save” and share the wonderful knowledge and meaning-making in these wikis for a new generation of learners, what steps can educators, students, and administrators take to ensure that learning is upheld and avoid legal interference in the future?

Social learning, collaborative writing, digital literacy, and writing for authentic audiences are highly valued by educators in composition and rhetoric throughout the U.S. When using Web 2.0 tools and platforms in the classroom, students’ develop their digital literacy and skills with multi-modal media while learning more about the importance of writing well, understanding audience, and civic engagement via the written word and other rhetorical modes of communication. At the Conference on College Composition and Communication last year, there were several talks on studies, methods, and best practices for integrating Web 2.0 tools such as blogs, wikis, Facebook, YouTube, virtual worlds, and Twitter into the writing classroom and beyond to strengthen students’ writing skills and practice. For an excellent review of writing/Web 2.0 theories and strategies in composition, as well as a comprehensive list of references, see

Scholars have suggested that with the integration of Web 2.0 tools in the writing classroom (and any classroom, for that matter), educators must devote time to understand the technologies and develop best practices for pedagogy in digital environments (see Clark, 2010, Vie, 2008, Maranto and Barton, 2010). However, what seems to be a more immediate issue considering the GA Tech case, and what is not often discussed in the literature, is the importance of administrators, teachers, and students discussing issues surrounding public writing and representation and online participation, not only to protect the students, but the institution as well. Students need to know about public identity, the permanence of internet postings, representations of their selves, employers, and institutions, awareness of the vast internet audience (whether intended or unintended), and the value of digital literacy and participation for learning.

While there is some evidence that composition teachers discuss these issues with their students in the composition classroom, especially if Web 2.0 tools are used, I believe what is most important in this digital age is an ongoing conversation and collaborative effort across scholarly communities and across universities to continue investigating and exploring digital literacy, privacy, and representation issues such as these so we never again have to “take down” the learning and knowing that happens in our digital worlds.

I can't help but reflect on what Michael Wesch said in 2007 at the end of his You Tube video, "The Machine is Us/ing Us":

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