Tag Archives: privacy

Emerson on WordPress, Part 1

3 problems, one solution.


Elizabeth Parfitt wanted to get first year writing students to be engaged, motivated and to feel like their classroom work was important and relevant.

The WERS News team wanted a professional looking website – but WERS is run entirely by students who have limited time, resources, and web development experience.

Tim Riley wanted an easier way to manage his files and collect assignments.

Surprisingly, all 3 problems were addressed by using the same tool.

Part 1: WordPress and Research Writing


Elizabeth Parfitt teaches WR121: a research writing class required for freshmen. Required courses can be difficult to teach, as keeping students engaged can be challenging. In order to increase student motivation, Beth wanted the work her students were doing in the classroom to be connected to the world outside of the classroom.

Beth designed her section to focus on Boston and the Creative Process. There are several components to the syllabus:

  • Students work in groups to research, write, and design Public Service Announcements for ONEin3 Boston, an organization that “connects Boston’s young adults with resources related to home buying, business development, professional networking, and civic engagement.” In order to facilitate communication with ONEin3 as well as with the filmmakers who will film the PSAs, Beth wanted to find a way to keep the work in a central place that is accessible to those outside Emerson.
  • Students do independent study research that relates to the city of Boston.
  • Students also study blogs as a genre of writing: their purpose, best practices of blog writing, and how bloggers convey a persona and voice.


screenshot of Research Boston blog

Beth has a group blog that all students can post to (She teaches two sections of this class, and both sections share the group space.) This blog is the hub of class activity, and is used for course management. Students post their ONEin3 PSA work to this class blog for peer review. Classmates comment on the blog post, and Beth comments there as well. Students know that Beth will be looking at the feedback they give to their peers, and they do write quite a bit! When it is time to revise, both student and professor feedback is located in one convenient place.

Students also have individual blogs, where they document their progress on individual research projects. Links to the individual blogs for both sections are located in the sidebar of the group blog. Students are writing for an audience outside of walls of classroom here as well: this is a chance for them to share their solo work with a community of writers.

On the first day of the semester, Beth establishes that public peer review and collaboration will be a foundation of the class. Students who would rather not participate are free to join one of the 44 other sections of the course. As far as privacy goes, Beth never releases grades through WordPress, but she does publicly comment on student work. However, the blogs are set up so that students need to approve comments before they appear. If there is a comment they don’t want the world to see, they can choose not to approve it – the comment will still be visible to them.


  • “Students who don’t like to talk in class love to talk on the blog – all of a sudden they have a voice!”
  • If students “write for their mom” instead of for an academic audience, it can result in better writing. It may be less formal, but it is more succinct and focused.
  • Students should write their posts and comments in Word first, and then paste them into the comment box.
  • The public nature of the blogs made the work feel relevant and important. Students could send the send their blog link to family, friends, and anyone else they would like to show.
  • Students were more interested in designing and personalizing their blogs than Beth had anticipated. Some of the blogs became quite customized and professional looking.
  • The blogs have worked wonderfully to develop student voice. Some blogs become fan favorites and racked up lots of visits. On the midterm evaluation, students indicated that they wanted to do even more reading of each other’s work.
  • There was a learning curve in the first couple of weeks for students and professor both. (Beth hadn’t used WordPress before this semester). Once everyone started using it, they picked it up relatively quickly.

screenshot of student blog
screenshot of student blog

FERPA and Teaching With Technology

Security / David Goehring / http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
FERPA is the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. It regulates the privacy of student educational records and data.
How does this involve teaching with blogs, wikis, and social media?
Emerson College Registrar’s office considers educational records to be:

  • Grades / transcripts
  • Student schedules
  • Names of Students’ advisors
  • Papers / student thesis / tests
  • Personal information such as Social Security number

They go on to advise

To avoid violations of FERPA rules, DO NOT:
  • Use the Social Security number of a student in a public posting of grades, or link the name of a student with that student’s Social Security number in any public manner;
  • Leave graded tests in a stack for students to pick up by sorting through the papers of all students;
  • Circulate a printed class list with student name and Social Security number or grades as an attendance roster;
  • Discuss the progress of any student with anyone other than student (including parents) without the consent of the student or verifying that the student has granted access to the third party by contacting the office of Student Administrative Services;
  • Provide anyone outside the College with lists of students enrolled in classes;
  • Provide anyone with student schedules or assist anyone other than College employees in finding a student on campus

For more information on Emerson’s FERPA policy, view the excellent FERPA Tutorial.
This sounds complicated, terrifying and a good reason to avoid teaching with technology, right? Fear not: it’s actually pretty simple to comply.
If your content is protected by login so that it is viewable only by members of the class: You’re all set (this includes WebCT). This way the public cannot access class enrollment lists, student work, and grades or other feedback. No worries!
(Note: to change the visibility of your WordPress blog, go to Settings -> Privacy.)
If your content is viewable by anyone (desirable if your intent is interaction with the wider community):

“Communicate the issues, conditions, and risks associated with any tool you choose at the beginning of the academic term, preferably in the syllabus. This allows students who object to withdraw from the course or to request alternate assignments or other solutions. However, be sensitive to the fact that withdrawal may not be possible if the course is required, the course is offered in a sequence, the course is not offered regularly, or the course is only offered by one instructor.” (Ohio State University)

  • Students should be told that they are posting info that will be publicly available on the internet.
  • Encourage them to use an alias, and to be careful about posting personal info.
  • You should never post student grades, schedules, student ID numbers or Social Security numbers.
  • There should be an option to opt-out and submit assignments in some other fashion (WebCT’s Discussion board Blog feature might work for this).
  • If students choose to post personally identifiable info about themselves, they are completely free to do so! FERPA only covers what faculty can and cannot do.
  • You should remind students to be careful about posting information about their classmates (schedules, real names, etc.), who might not have the same comfort levels.
  • If you’re using Facebook for discussion, create a private group for your class. (More information on Facebook in the classroom).
  • If you’re using Twitter, allow your students create accounts without using their real names.
  • Interesting note: If students are trading documents or projects for peer review, FERPA does not apply until the work reaches the faculty.

Finally, I leave you with North Carolina State’s excellent disclaimer(doc):

Please note that FERPA was written before the Internet existed, it is an awkward fit to modern teaching, and concerns about the workability or usefulness of FERPA are better addressed to the U.S. Department of Education.


Facebook in the classroom: Pros and Cons

facebook logo
How does Facebook relate to Higher Ed?
Inside Higher Ed gives you an overview here.
What could you use Facebook for?
It’s been used as place for discussion groups, as a learning management system, and as a character role-playing tool.
Why SHOULD I use it?

  • It promotes collaboration.
  • The interface is familiar to students: it’s not one more program they have to learn.
  • Using Facebook in class gives you an opportunity to discuss digital literacy with students. Per Professor Melanie McBride: “The greatest goal for educators using social media is to teach students to think critically about the uses and abuses of these tools. Namely, about user controls, privacy, democracy, ethics, compassion, and all the other things the corporate developers of social media would rather they DIDN’T learn.”

Why SHOULDN’T I use it?

  • This is perhaps obvious, but Facebook is not run by Emerson. That means that it can do whatever it wants with user data and accounts, and we have no control over it. It also has a small amount of ads.
  • Concerns about privacy: your privacy, and students’ privacy.
  • The “creepy treehouse” issue: defined by Prof Hacker as “the requirement, enforced by someone in authority, that others interact socially with them.”

What are the best practices for using it?

  • Take a look at your privacy settings (a good idea for everyone!)
  • Look at Facebook’s guidelines for educators. There are ways to interact that protect everyone’s privacy.
  • Have a plan for how you will handle the students that are not comfortable being on Facebook for whatever reason (opting out of technology, privacy needs because of abuse, etc.) How will this affect their grade?

Tips from ProfHacker (abridged):

  • Be transparent. Explain why it’s required, what students will be graded on, etc. Explain the tool’s ownership and logistics.
  • Deputize worthwhile ad-hoc groups. This encourages the perception-which hopefully is accurate!-that the class’s social media usage is bottom-up, and not top-down.
  • Be nimble. Notice how students are interacting with your course material, and put resources where they feel most comfortable.

Where should I look for further research?
danah boyd does a lot of research on teen and young adult social media use.