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?