Monday, June 22, 2009

Student Display Names: I Was Wrong

I had the opportunity to be involved with some staff development a couple of weeks ago around our Inspired Writing project. All of our freshmen Language Arts classes next year will have carts of Asus eee 1000 netbooks for use during class, with a focus on writing (and perhaps the broader idea of composing/creating if I’ve made any impact at all on my school).

As you might expect, the staff development focused heavily on the writing process and how we could use these netbooks to help with that process, but there was also a piece about Internet safety. It talked about the usual things, and was not a “scared straight” kind of presentation, so overall I thought it was done well. As part of the discussion that resulted we also talked about how students should identify themselves online and whether they should come up with a completely unidentifiable display name (except it would be known to their teacher), or whether they should use something like first name last initial (our current convention at the high school level).

The point was made that first name last initial really didn’t protect the students all that much, since – along with the readily available school information – it might not be that hard to completely identify the student. I gave my usual counterexample that – at the high school level at least – we already make more than that much information available all the time (often with photos) – in press releases, sports teams’ rosters, newspaper articles (both school newspaper and local/regional newspapers) booster club websites and, of course, television broadcasts of sporting events. While first name last initial probably isn’t that secure, it seems relatively anonymous compared to what we already make available.

But the reason for this post is that this got me thinking again about the whole idea of a student’s digital footprint. I talk a lot about how we should be discussing this idea with students and that whatever they publish – whether on a blog or a wiki or Facebook or MySpace or Twitter or. . . [fill in your favorite site here] - that it very likely will be able to be found later by a potential college, employer or spouse. I also talk about how we shouldn’t just be talking to students about not putting potentially compromising stuff out there, but that they should also be building a positive digital footprint, so that when they are Googled – and they will be – that folks will find really good stuff about them, that they should think of this as part of their digital resume/portfolio.

But if that’s a reasonable thing for them to be doing, then isn’t a policy of first name last initial (or especially the unidentifiable display names) actually counterproductive? Shouldn’t we instead be asking our students to use their full names to build their B-D (Birth-Death) digital footprint/resume/portfolio? I’ve long argued when talking about Internet filters that we should educate our students on how to be safe, ethical and effective users of the Internet instead of blocking everything, but now I recognize that I’ve completely blown it in this area.

I know there will be safety concerns, and there should be, but I’ve come to the realization that this is yet one more reason to educate our students about how to do this well, and that if we ask/require them to use their full name, it will actually encourage them to do this well. Instead of hiding behind unidentifiable or at least slightly disguised display names, students would now be asked to stand behind everything they put online with their full name, and also asked to be wise stewards of their online identity and reputation. Now, I’m not sure that I’ll be able to convince the folks in my school/district to go along with this, but I’m certainly going to give it a shot.

What are your thoughts? Can we do this? Should we do this?


  1. My initial and gut reaction is yes! I've been pretty vocal for building this footprint for a while.

    The struggle I have is around choice. While I would love all students to create these great public profiles, should they have the choice? At the same time, we really don't give them a choice if we publish their accomplishments in school newsletters or the local media. Because these are always "filtered" works or accomplishments, no one ever questions if it should be posted.

    I know I have to work harder at presenting the option for students and teachers. I know the benefits and you know the benefits but we've a ways to go before parents, students and even teachers understand the benefits.

  2. We, as a school, couldn't come to consensus on this, so we compromised. From sixth to tenth grade, students use their first initials, FA (for the school) and their grad year (tdfa12) as the login for blogs, wikis, and other social media. But beginning in eleventh, we encourage them to go and change their logins to their real names, if possible. We talk often about creating that positive online presence. I actually talk about it here:

  3. Interesting discussion! In the past, I've just set up accounts for my students with first initial + last name. This year I let them choose their own, and while some went the same way as before, some chose some fantastical alias (SuperPirate, for instance). Because it wasn't always easy for me to associate a student with a login, I was considering going to your choice (first name + last initial) to protect privacy and to have a common login format across all blogs.

    Now you're making me reconsider all that! Also, in a school of 2200 students, as more students begin using our blogging platform, we'd inevitably run into duplicates on a first name + last initial setup. Maybe full names is the way to go, since we're in high school and everything.

  4. Funny, I was just discussing this with a friend over lunch today.

    Although my personal preference is to see students publish with their full names, if I as a classroom teacher am given the choice between "they can publish anonymously" or "they can't publish at all", I'm going to go with anonymous publishing. I think that even with that condition, there are still benefits to be gained from publishing, and in many districts, getting permission to have any student work published online is no minor feat.

    I'm interested to hear how your administrators respond to your advocacy. Fight the good fight.

  5. I think it is a real conundrum. Building a digital footprint is important but on the other side of the coin would I have wanted my adolescent and teenage thought process laid open for all. What I am saying is that as we mature so does our thinking. Over time we may find that we moderate our views on topics about which we were once very passionate. Yet in today's world those earlier opinions may come back to haunt us.

    This weekend I was camping with some friends and one shared that in certain professions a digital footprint could be a problem. The example discussed was that of working as a lawyer. I am not sure I agreed with what was said but I did understand the issues.

    So while my initial reaction is go for it....I also want to pause and think about what we are publishing.
    Thanks for making me think...

  6. I teach middle school students and am also in a district that allows students to peruse information online, but does not allow them to publish online. I want my students to publish online as there is immense power (especially when working with jr. high school students) in discovering that other people might actually be interested in what you have to say. I think that a changing point of view should be represented in one's digital footprint. It teaches one to be cautious, and also presents a well rounded person...hopefully. I believe that students should begin building their online identity as soon as possible, because any digital body of work needs time to be built.

    That being said though, I think that students under a certain age need to be monitored consistently when they access the online webatorium of thoughts, ideas and dangers. Just as you would not let a grade school student go to the park without an escort I believe young students need a digital escort. I believe that jr. high should be a time of guided independence and then possibly in high school students would need to publish as independent thinkers. I think that using digital security measures would allay some of the need to protect a students' online identity. I definitely think that students should identify themselves as publicly as possible.

    This also goes to the heart of issues like cyber-stalking and other forms of digital abuse of another individual. Anonymity allows students to avoid accountability for their actions.

  7. interesting thoughts.

    i have waffled back and forth. my latest landing - kids use initials - and at the end of high school - sort of like a final portfolio - they pull up all they are most proud of and repost with real names.
    (allowing for what barbara refers to as protecting adolescent thought processes from world-wide transparency.)

    reading your post today though karl- made me wonder if kids would indeed produce higher quality writing, etc, if they were publishing their true identity from the get go. would they put more stock into all they do in highschool?
    i'm leaning towards yes. and am again rethinking full names.

  8. As a social media professional, I think it's great to be able to give students the opportunity to choose what kind of identity they want to use. Give them the pros and cons but don't force them to do it one way. Let them use their names or their nickname or a number. Let them build their digital footprint the way that they want to. You have an obligation to protect them from viruses and phishing scams and the like, but let them choose their lifetime online identity even if it will end up changing.

  9. And by the way, you can go to a garage sale and maybe find a yearbook with pictures, comments and the like with real names and that is not something that is protected. What matters is what we DO with that information legally or illegally; do we sacrifice self-expression for protection or do we give them the opportunity to make an informed choice?

  10. I listened to a Cool Cat Teacher 1-26-07 podcast today with Vicki Davis, Darren Kuropatwa and Terry Freedman. Darren and Terry had served as two of four judges for the student work created as part of the 2006 Flat World Project: I think their conversation is relevant to this conversation.

    In the podcast they speak about how best to communicate to students the expectations the judges will have for the student work. The all acknowledge the importance of doing so early in the project so students can grow into an understanding of their potential excellence. Rubrics are mentioned as a key feature in the conversation.

    It's not so much a podcast with "answers;" rather it is a rich and robust conversation about how teachers, students and "judges" can begin to learn about and demonstrate standards of excellence.

    A lot more in the podcast that I can't go into here. But for this conversation...

    Is publishing your work online with your name attached a sign of intellectual leadership? When I take responsibility for my opinions and what I say, write, create, am I contributing to the community something of value?

    It might benefit this conversation to think of rubrics (or stages of development or a continuum). If we consider Karl's description in the post to be what we want students to work toward, how would we flesh out the levels of performance for the rubrics, stages of development or continuum in ways that describe a natural order of student learning and growth?

    If we do a good job of description with models and appropriate supportive learning experiences that engage and challenge the kids as they grow, couldn't each student then progress toward clearly visioned habits of responsibility and value as they demonstrate their readiness and capacity over time?

  11. great discussion here. (please note that we do not have the same issues here with parents, privacy, legalities here in nz as you do in the states).

    as i have my year 11 students prepare real cv's for summer jobs, i encourage... no, i *push* that they use business-appropriate email addresses and screen names as they step into the adult world. after all, i tell them, who is going to email for a job? well, maybe someone would; what do i know?

    but after reading your post, and the others' replies, i realised that a) i'm grateful we don't have the same issues, and b) i didn't give much thought to how i handled my students id's. my juniors, with whom i am entering the blogging/wiki (wiki-ing?) arena, didn't get a choice. i created the user names on our blog site for each, and made it pretty simple: first name-9XX (class). of course, i have multiple popular names, such as matt, and those were matt-b-9XX, etc.

    however, on our wiki, they joined with whatever name they wanted. while i encouraged them to use something i (and their classmates) would identify with them, some did choose their own original monikers, including one boy who chose a (long) series of numbers! i asked that they change them back. after all, it's a collaborative project, and if your peers can't identify you, how can they feel comfortable enough to share in an academic setting?

    i personally move back and forth between personal (professional) and anonymous participation on the web. anything related to education is a personal endeavour, as i chose to build a professional network online. however, i prefer to participate in my hobbies anonymously, as i don't think my students, among others, need to follow me everywhere i go (i can't even update my family on facebook without students reading it, and they follow me on twitter too).

    should students get a choice? i think it's an option students themselves should consider as part of their e-learning: choosing which part of themselves they want to share online, and how they want to do so. (of course, i can say this because i teach secondary school, not primary!)

    i lean towards "no", they shouldn't get a choice. if they are participating in a class blog, or class wiki, or any other online academic project, they are representing their school to the world, just like they do on their teams and in their clubs, and as their school reps, they should be appropriately identifiable.

    however, i look forward to the continuing debate!

  12. I like the idea of an authentic digital footprint - and agree with most of your reasoning (and that of other comments). But I'll play devil's advocate - and probably sound like the district legal department... What about those kids who need to hide from an abusive situation? What about the kids who don't "get" the idea that their digital footprint goes beyond just their circle of friends and teachers. I was a fairly dumb teenager. I would hate for someone to judge me professionally at the age of 40 based on things I said and did at 14.

  13. Lots of great comments here, folks, and I hope to get a chance in the next couple of days to respond to all of them. But, real quick before I board the plane, I wanted to respond to Dan's comment.

    1) Yes, of course we would make exceptions for situations where there's an abusive situation or other case where a student needs to remain anonymous. But that doesn't apply to most students, and is not a reason not to do this for most students.

    2) It's our job to help them figure this out - if they don't get it now, do you think they're going to get it if we don't do this with them? And I think those students that figure out from the age of 14 (or whatever) how to do this well will have an advantage, but I also think that most folks will be smart enough not to judge a 40 year old completely on what they said at the age of 14. And I think anyone that can't do that, I wouldn't want to work for anyway.

  14. I would cautious about over exposure of students and their identities online. We should be careful about applying adult sensibilities to minors. In an age when we ask kids to grow up and face adult issues earlier and earlier, I'm not convinced it is always healthy. As such, I would think the prudent course of action would be to set the default to a level of reasonable anonymity with student choice leading to any full disclosure of an identity tied to student work. Recall that a juvenile who commits a felony has that record expunged by age 18 because the courts realize that the decisions made as a minor should not be held against the adult version of the same person. As such, I suggest kids will claim credit for their work when they are ready and that we as educators should set our mindset on the cautious side of the spectrum so as not to push students into the deep end too quickly. We should not underestmiate the power and impact of global publishing and school should be a safe place to learn the ropes.

    -Dan Maas

  15. I think Barbara may have hit on an important consideration...
    "would I have wanted my adolescent and teenage thought process laid open for all?"

    When addressing a student who as made a poor decision, I've been known to say "high school is a place where you get to make a few mistakes before it counts for too much... so I'm going to assume you learned something from this and let's move on".

    I think perhaps students need some opportunities to learn about proper digital citizenship before it really counts for much... ie: having some degree of anonymity while in school might be a "good thing" and allow students to learn from minor missteps without any lasting consequences.

  16. How will they know what the consequences are if they post as "FluffyBunny2025"? If they are going to learn how to build their digital selves (and let's not kid ourselves that they're starting that in high school anymore), there needs to be some weight behind the decisions they make w/r/t what to post, how to comment, etc.

  17. I as a classroom teacher am given the choice between "they can publish anonymously" or "they can't publish at all", I'm going to go with anonymous publishing. I think that even with that condition, there are still benefits to be gained from publishing, and in many districts, getting permission to have any student work published online is no minor feat.

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  18. Okay, I had a really nice response to all this, but it turns out blogger has a 4096 character limit on comments. Who knew? (And, yes, I'm incredibly wordy.)

    So, I'll create a new post with the comment I was going to make. Please read it if you're interested.

  19. As I teach in a prep to year 12 school, and as we started blogging as individuals 18 months ago, I was extremely careful of hiding behind usernames and avatars that bore no identity to the person involved - me included. That meant as I constantly kept applying for web2.0 tool registration, I had to keep changing my username as someone else had grabbed it. Now, I use my full name and wished that I had done so,right from the start.
    For younger students I still encourage their student code id's for user names, but they write and 'about me' page that shows their first name and school they attend. I was recently asked by my education department to refrain from using first names, and even mentioning if the child was a twin as they were so easily traceable and recognizable.
    These were grade 5 and 6 students who also work on global projects where I strongly feel they should use and be known by their first names, so I shall continue on, until told again. I fear that we will hide behind fake identities and avatars and start to lose our own real, true identity becoming a persona that is not at all appropriate or realistic. I do like your argument of maintaining a good digital footprint and shall keep that for future reference.

  20. I tell my high school students (and other teenagers) regularly that they need to be careful about what they post online. Unfortunately, I don't really think it sinks in with most of them. My guess is it will take another generation for them to realize how easy it is for potential employers, etc... to find out things from their past.

    As educators we also need to remember to model these habits. We should be careful about our digital footprint and what we use when we post things.

    As for student display names, I'm sure each district can easily come up with an acceptable way to do this without giving away too much information. Some combination of initials, and some other numbers or coding should work.

  21. I really beieve that education is the key. Yet, we all know that no matter how hard we try to educate students...whether they're young or old, it is ultimately up to what that person does with the education.

    Furthermore, so much of what we thought was "private" is actually been made public for us through technology. We don't need to accidentally help give more away.