More on teaching and blogs

by Eszter Hargittai on September 30, 2003

A couple of weeks ago Henry posted an entry about blogs and teaching, or perhaps more broadly about the (potential) role of blogs in academia.

In the meantime, I’ve been having discussions with people at Northwestern’s Academic Technologies about the use of blogs here on campus. During these discussions, an interesting point came up that has some implications for the use of blogs in teaching. Apparently, it is illegal for a university to disclose information about who is enrolled in a course. When I asked for the legal basis of this, I was pointed to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Reading that document, I can’t say this becomes obvious. But if it is the case then it has implications for requiring students to participate in world-accessible blogs. If we require students to maintain a blog or post to a central blog then we are making their course enrollment public.

In light of this policy, it seems blogs that require students to post in the context of a course cannot be public. And if teaching blogs cannot be public then I think they lose much of what makes them more interesting than a discussion thread for the purposes of teaching. As someone noted, it is exciting and educational for students to learn that some of the authors they discuss are real-live people out there who may stumble upon their comments. Students may then take the material more seriously and pay more attention to how they comment about issues. However, if a blog cannot be public then this won’t happen. So at that point, what distinguishes a blog from the combination of a message thread and a course Web page?



Chun the Unavoidable 09.30.03 at 1:52 am

I can’t believe that to be the case because the large university I work for publishes class rolls right, left, and center. It’s possible they do not know that it’s “illegal,” don’t care, or particularly don’t care about how they do it up North.


Ted Barlow 09.30.03 at 2:02 am

It can’t be illegal to publish the fact that any given student is enrolled in any given class, though. Otherwise, it would be illegal for the Daily Northwestern to describe anyone as (say) a freshman Music student, since that reveals the information that the person is in keyboard skills, aural skills, etc. And if a student volunteers the information, you’d think there would be some loophole. (Especially since you can’t identify the clause in question; it can’t be especially strict.)


eszter 09.30.03 at 2:13 am

Simply publishing that someone is a Music student wouldn’t give away their course schedule for that semester. Even if there are required courses, an observer wouldn’t know if they’re in that course that particular semester.

As I said, the legality of all this wasn’t clear from the Act to which I link. But people seemed to be pretty serious about it so they must be basing their approach on something.

Any legal scholars out there or someone more knowledgable about education policy?


PZ Myers 09.30.03 at 2:21 am

I don’t quite get the problem. I require students in some of my courses to post stuff on the net, but get around the privacy issue rather easily: they get to use pseudonyms.


Alex 09.30.03 at 2:46 am

Yup, someone beat me to it. My current U doesn’t really care much about FERPA, but my last one did. I simply made pseudonyms an option. Only one person took me up on it; she had a stalker. It was not a problem.


pathos 09.30.03 at 3:46 am

Right. You make pseudonyms an option, but only if the student requests that right for a good reason.

A “good reason” would be, for example, a desire to exercise one’s rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. It is, of course, not your right to point out that they have that right. Also, you insist that anyone using a pseudonym distribute that pseudonym to other classmates (there’s no right to keep your enrollment secret from your classmates!).

In the end, you get one or two students tops using pseudonyms, tops.


Ian 09.30.03 at 10:57 am

Bernie Goldbach on fairly regularly has posts on his blog from students in his courses. He seems to use the blog as an adjunct to his teaching with posts coming during teaching sessions.


Robert Schwartz 09.30.03 at 2:26 pm

My 2 daughters are at NWU. I do not think your informant is correct. At any rate there are always code names. When I was in law school in the previous millenium, all grades were posted on a bulliten board. All exams were identified only by code number and grades were posted on under those numbers. I don’t see why that would not work.


PZ Myers 09.30.03 at 3:03 pm

Hmmm. I haven’t made my pseudonym-using students distribute their identities to the rest of the class — I don’t have a problem with students wanting to keep online stuff separate from the rest of their interactions.

And I’m seeing that about half use pseudonyms. Many do it, not because they are particularly concerned about privacy, but because they’ve got an online identity/pseudonym that they already routinely use in IM and web boards.

(That’s another interesting phenomenon in online culture. I’ve also learned that all 3 of my kids, who are active in chat/bb communities/e-mail, do all of that under peculiar little names that I would never have thought of. I didn’t have to tell them to watch their privacy — it’s more a matter of their peers valuing creative, imaginative labels.)

(note to self: be cautious in flaming weirdly named kids encountered on the net.)


Claire Stewart 09.30.03 at 3:13 pm

I agree that there is some ambiguity in the law and that universities are likely to vary in interpretation. My reading of FERPA is that the law reserves for the university the right to disclose publicly directory information only (student name, address, general enrollment status, etc.) but that other personally identifiable information is not to be publicly accessible. Probably there’s a continuum: that a student is in the School of Music is OK, that he or she is taking a class with Prof. Smith OK-ish, that the class is History of Rock and meets at 10am in the Music building less OK, that she got a D on the last exam definitely NOT OK, etc. etc. I was present for the discussion with Eszter but I work in the library so I’ll have to defer to AT colleagues to respond definitively, this is more their domain.


Maria 09.30.03 at 3:25 pm

Ian, small world – I knew Bernie Goldbach a few years ago. He taught me html! Thanks a million for this link.

cheers, Maria


Vicki 09.30.03 at 5:27 pm

This is a quote from FERPA:
“Schools must have written permission from the parent or eligible student in order to release any information from a student’s education record.” Class enrollment information, grades, etc., are part of the “education record” and subject to this law. Students over age 18 are “eligible” and yes – even parents paying the bills do not have the legal right to access this legally protected information without the expressed consent from the student. (Just wait til you try to explain THAT one to an angry parent!) The law is not ambiguous, but many institutions are perhaps unaware of it, or don’t feel it applies to them. If the culture of an institution is to ignore this law, that makes such disclosure no less illegal. Here’s what the law says about the directory issue:
“Schools may disclose, without consent, “directory” information such as a student’s name, address, telephone number, date and place of birth, honors and awards, and dates of attendance. However, schools must tell parents and eligible students about directory information and allow parents and eligible students a reasonable amount of time to request that the school not disclose directory information about them.”


Pem 09.30.03 at 6:24 pm

I have my students write their own blogs and haven’t had any complaints. My blog with links to theirs is at:, my assignment is at: Blogs aren’t big here but online portfolios are, which raise some of the same issues. I wouldn’t have any trouble with a student who was uncomfortable using a pseudonym. What did bother me a couple of years ago was a student who didn’t want to post to a discussion board because she didn’t want other students getting the benefit of her work.


Anne 09.30.03 at 7:30 pm

When I set up my class blog ealier this semester as an alternative to the poorly functioning bb, I did not really question the legal side of my project. Nonetheless, in the perspective of opening the conversations to a larger audience, keeping the extremely academic title of my course (genealogies of feminine identities) did not seem the best idea. So I changed it! The blog is called ‘Virgins, mothers, and bitches’ ( and is hosted by a website unrelated to the university; the students’ privacy is respected, while their posts do not technically remain anonymous. If this system may still remain unrespectful of the law, it creates a safe distance between the students at the university, and the students on line.

Comments on this entry are closed.