Saturday, July 04, 2009

A Digital Footprint Growth Model

(Note: This originally started out as a comment on my previous post, but it turns out Blogger has a 4096 character limit on comments - who knew?! This post works best if you read the previous post and the great comments to that post first.)

Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. Instead of trying to respond to each one individually, I’ll try to sum up my thoughts in a reply specifically to Dan Maas’s comment. (FYI - Dan is my district’s CIO, and a good one.)

@Dan Maas – I understand the argument but, in the end, I don’t agree with it. I think back to what Tim Tyson said at the TIE Keynote when he asked, “How old do you have to be to make a meaningful contribution?” As Tim and others have argued, our current concept of childhood is really rather new. It was just a couple of generations ago when teenagers – and even younger – were expected to contribute to the family effort, whether it was farming or working in the factory or working in the family-owned business.

Now, I’m very happy that our children typically don’t have to work to help support the family, and I’m certainly not suggesting that we ask our kids to do hard labor. But I think our current period of “extended adolescence” is not good for our students – or our society. I disagree when you say that we ask kids to face adult issues earlier and earlier. I agree that we certainly have been exposing our kids to some adult issues earlier and earlier, and the concomitant pressure that goes with that, but I think we are actually shielding our kids from a responsibility for the life they are living right now. I think our students can make a meaningful contribution now, and that they can handle more responsibility for their actions – and their words.

I’m sensitive to the argument that our students shouldn’t be held to the exact same standards as adults, and that they should be allowed to make mistakes without it haunting them forever. But I think folks are incorrect when they single out technology and students’ digital footprints as somehow different in this respect. After all, students currently earn grades in high school that go on their transcript, and those are certainly looked at by colleges when determining admission. Would you suggest that our students should be anonymous and not have transcripts?

Our student-athletes currently compete under their real names, and statistics and highlight videos are shared with college coaches. Should they compete anonymously? (Or better yet, Dan, given your competitive nature, perhaps we just shouldn’t keep score? :-)

Our student journalists on the school newspaper and the yearbook currently “sign” their name to their stories and take credit – and blame – for their work, and that work is published and freely available (and, as you know, often picked up by local and sometimes national media). Should our newspapers and yearbooks be written anonymously?

And, of course, there’s the press releases that the school and district put out with full names, accomplishments and often pictures of our students; and the district website – take a look at the second story down that's currently on the LPS home page.

Yes, students will sometimes make poor choices and include items in their digital footprints that they should not (either due to inappropriateness or simply low quality). And, yes, our thinking does mature over time and sometimes our earlier thinking might be slightly embarrassing. And, if students are creating that footprint with their real names, it will indeed be part of their “permanent record.” But that’s even more reason to talk about this with them, and to have them create that footprint with their real names. As I said in the post, it will encourage them to be more responsible and help us to help them to be thoughtful in everything they do.

Aren’t we always espousing the idea that asking questions is good (“there are no bad questions”), that sharing our thinking is good (as well as reflecting on that thinking as well as others’ thinking), that responsible risk-taking is good and that we can and should learn from our mistakes (and that mistakes are part of learning – and life), that education is the process of “becoming” and that we want our students to learn and grow over time (lifelong learning) and we won’t hold them completely accountable for their former selves (formative versus summative)? If we truly believe those things, then aren’t we being hypocritical if we then say, “Whoa! You better not let anyone see that process.” Over time, their footprints should get better and better and future colleges/employers/spouses will be able to see the improvement and growth in their work.

It’s a Digital Footprint Growth Model if you will, and I think the vast majority of folks will take that into account and will appreciate the entirety of their footprint and not give undue weight to something posted as a ninth grader (or earlier). I think that those students who have a body of work to examine will have an advantage over those that do not (both in terms of their learning and in terms of their future prospects), and I think that any future colleges/employers/spouses that are unable to look at the growth appropriately (they “hold it against” the student in your verbiage) will end up being less successful because they will miss out on the best talent available. (While I’m not an unfettered capitalist, isn’t this essentially a free markets approach, that adults who can’t look at the entirety of the record will lose out in the marketplace to those that can and eventually will become “endangered”, if not “extinct”?)

In the end, I think we cannot make decisions for our students based on the fears and future ignorance of some adults. (“Fear always springs from ignorance.” Ralph Waldo Emerson.) We can do better. Let’s educate our students – and the adults in our communities – about how best to learn, work and live in a digital society. (“Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.” Benjamin Franklin.) If not us, then who? If not now, then when?


  1. Although I like the idea of teaching students how to grow their online identity, I find myself disagreeing with your idea of grade 9 students creating a permanent digital footprint. In your post you say:

    "After all, students currently earn grades in high school... Would you suggest that our students should be anonymous and not have transcripts?"

    That is a little dramatic. Students and parents have control over who sees their transcripts. Typically it is just family and the registrars office at the colleges they apply to. They are not published anywhere for public consumption. Also, once you finish your undergraduate degree you never have to provide your high-school marks again. Why would I want my bad high-school poetry available to the world when I apply for my first big job? Why can't I start with a clean slate when I first enter an institution of adult learning?

    I also don't think that the situation in the past where children were required to work in the fields is necessarily a good model for how we want children to take on responsibility now. The life expectancy was incredibly low then, and children needed to grow up, get married and start reproducing fast or miss the boat.

    Now we ask them to develop as individuals, we ask them to learn a myriad of professional skills requiring many hours of learning. there is so much preparation required to become a competent adult that we have to understand that there is a longer on-ramp to adulthood than there was before the industrial revolution.

    If you want to look at the past, for tradeskills there was a very long apprenticeship period with many stages where an apprentice was made to do tasks meant to prepare them for journeyman status. Only then could they complete a final project to become a master.

    We give kids partial responsibility as they are ready for it, which is a bumpy and individual process best managed by parents and teachers. Handing a 13 year old full responsibility for their permanent digital footprint may not be appropriate for all children (in fact I am sure it is not). Giving children the time and space to develop as individuals, out of the spotlight, as they navigate the lingering aftereffects of puberty respects them as not fully developed humans.

    As for the students whose name and pictures end up in the local papers - that is hardly the same as having the identity of each of your students available to anyone over the internet. Plus, newspapers have to get parental consent for any pictures they publish (at least they do in Ontario where I am).

    Forcing students to put their full names and identities on the internet before they are entitled to vote or drive a car robs adolescents of their right to privacy as they develop. I agree they need to learn web skills, but I think you are asking them to reveal their whole selves to the world too early. Think of pseudonyms as training wheels, we let them go at their own pace, and when we take them off, we don't let go of the bike until they are ready to go!

    So I would say let fluffybunny64 or student3978 stay partially protected at school for a little longer.

  2. @annette - Thanks for the thoughtful response. A few thoughts.

    Why would you publish bad poetry if it was a meaningful and relevant assignment to you, and if you knew you were sharing it with the world? And if it wasn't meaningful and relevant, then why would we (schools) ask you to do it? Also, as I indicated, I really don't think anyone is going to hold it against you many years later (which is analogous to the transcript argument - it's relevant for admission to college or your first job only, so time-bound). If we as adults look at a ninth grader's poetry and judge them based on that, then we're the ones with the problem.

    I think we probably disagree on when students are ready for responsibility. I think we spend too much time preparing students for the "real world" and to be "competent adults," and ignore the fact that school is the real world for them right now, and this is their real life. I think we do them a disservice when we treat students as "not fully developed humans." Many atrocious decisions have been made over the years using that kind of thinking applied to kids and groups of adults alike. Yes, our students will continue to mature and grow as humans, but that's a very different statement.

    I agree that our students should be given the opportunity and space to develop as individuals, but I don't see that as in opposition to having a digital footprint attached to their real name. And I would suggest that it is best managed by parents, teachers and the students themselves. (Why do we continue to leave them out?) Our students have complete opt-out in my district for any assignment at any time for any reason. If there's something they don't want to publish, they don't have to. But why do we ask them to lie when they do have something to publish?

    I don't see a whole lot of difference between stuff published in newspapers or broadcast on our TV stations and stuff published online - especially considering our students would have control over what they publish online, and besides those "local" papers and tv stations publish their stuff online as well. I would be very surprised if the high school athletes in Ontario have complete control over whether their names and stats are published in the paper, or whether they local tv station takes footage at the games. And none of the students in Ontario - or anywhere else - has much control over what happens to the print media (newspapers, yearbooks) that our schools currently produce and publish en masse.

    I'm not suggesting that our students reveal their whole selves to the world, but that they carefully, thoughtfully, and purposefully create their online identity, with the scaffolding and help that we in schools can offer. If we don't help them do this, then fluffybunny64 will continue to see school and "the real world" as two different things, and will continue to think that life is something they should be "protected" from, instead of something that should be lived, and I think that would be a tragedy.

  3. Why do we take zero objection to student first names/last names, etc being posted on school athletic team websites, but when it comes to using full names on rich academic ePortfolio learning spaces, we take objection? What kind of message does this send about the value of athletics in comparison to academics?

  4. As the mother of a teenager and as a high school teacher, I am keenly aware of how easily teenagers can be manipulated, coerced, and propagandized. A charismatic teacher has an incredible impact on students.

    I was in the audience during the Skype session with Cory Doctorow and Ms. Smith’s students from Arapahoe High School (ustreamed on The Fischbowl on Monday, May 18, 2009.) Doctorow explained to the students that adults worry about on-line strangers preying on students, when in fact the majority of sexual predators are parents and authority figures such as teachers, scoutmasters, and priests. Schools spend an inordinate time guarding their students from strangers; when in fact known authority figures are statistically more dangerous to the safety of young people.

    Karl, I’m being somewhat—but not wholly—facetious when I ask, are you overlooking the dangers of the authority figures who sit in our schools when you argue that students have the right to establish an online footprint when they are in 9th, 10th, and 11th grade? In your comment to @annette, you write, “Why would you publish bad poetry if it was a meaningful and relevant assignment to you, and if you knew you were sharing it with the world? And if it wasn't meaningful and relevant, then why would we (schools) ask you to do it?” Well, that is exactly what worries me. Much of the writing that appears in class blogs is forced upon the students by their teachers. It isn’t always “meaningful and relevant” to the students who are writing.

    Frankly, I sometimes suspect the motives of the teacher who requires that students publish a poem or post an essay or participate in an on-line debate. Could a teacher hope that his blog or her Wikki will improve the teacher’s own digital footprint? Are students being exploited?

    Students comply with their teacher’s request to publish. They post their poems, essays, debates, conversations. But I suspect not every word they write is “meaningful and relevant” to them. They often write what they think will please their teacher. Sometimes they write merely to earn points, to obtain a good grade. I know, Karl, that you despise grades and teacher-centered classrooms. I know that true learning stems from the yearnings and curiosity of the student. I know that a good teacher would never force a student to express inauthentic thoughts. But…still I worry. Doctorow’s point about the dangerous authority figures troubles my mind.

    I haven’t completely decided where I stand on the issue you raise in this post. But I am not wholly convinced that what students write for their teachers (and they ARE trying to impress their teachers when they publish on a class blog) should become part of that indelible digital footprint that you seem to believe teenagers need to stamp into the future.

  5. Hi Cheryl, thanks for joining in.

    First of all, I haven't "completely decided where I stand" either - that's a big part of why I blog (write), so that I can flesh out my thinking and receive pushback from folks like Annette and yourself. By participating in the commons I hope to improve my own thinking, perhaps impact others' thinking, and in the end improve the learning going on in our schools. I feel this is very powerful, which is one of the reasons that I want our students doing it as well.

    You make a good point about authority figures and I certainly agree that this is something we need to be careful of. But it's also something we need to educate our students about and, while I haven't completely thought this part through, I think by helping our students be their own authority, by giving them an authentic voice, a platform to publish, and by connecting it with their real identity, we actually help inoculate them against that manipulation. I think it is much easier to manipulate them when they are "confined" to a classroom, and much harder when we give them the ability to consume and produce in the media forms of the day (Jason Ohler, University of Alaska). (Again, I need to think about that more, but I think there's something worth thinking about there.)

    As far as students being exploited, I'm sure that happens. I have not, however, experienced that at AHS. Every conversation I've had with teachers at AHS has been pretty thoughtful about whether a proposed digitally published activity is actually beneficial for the students and better than whatever previous method was used. My standard question to teachers is a combination of, "What can we do because of the technology that we couldn't do before?" and "How is this better?"

    Yes, as I think you know, I would probably make some changes in what we do at school (including our current assessment practices, which would help some in terms of the "coerced" issue). And, yes, much of what students currently do is forced on them. But I think that if we legitimately empower them, that will help bring about some of those changes. And I worry that if we don't, they will leave us - and I still fervently believe that schools have much to offer students and that it would be detrimental to them, to us, and to society as a whole if that were to happen.

  6. As I read through everyone's thoughts on the matter I had to put in my 2 cents worth. As a parent and an educator I can see both sides of the coin as well. But as I read through the comments I started to think about responsibility. Back in my youth I was given the opportunity to behave in a responsible matter. Sometimes I used best judgement, sometimes not so much. Today kids (and adults) have to make decisions about what to make public. There have been many examples of kids using cell phone cameras or texts in stupid ways. My point is if we, as educators don't show students how to publish and post responsibly when and where will they learn? I think if my daughter was in school now (K-12), I would like her to have to privilege to publish her poem or story online. As she gained new knowledge and skills she (we) could reflect at her growth as a writer. It may seem to some like we are pushing kids to do things, but I think what they can learn may supersede the value of some of the content they write about. Being responsible and making good choices as an online author should be taught to all students. I am afraid that animosity tends to take away from validity of the author. As educators we should give them a forum to learn to be authentic responsible publishers.

  7. I believe that we are in the middle of an evolutionary phase. In economics, we are beginning to discuss dropping the scarcity approach in lieu of a bountiful approach. In school, we are moving from teaching content to teaching students how to learn. In society (excuse me, but I'm talking about connected society; I do realize that most people in the world do not have this advantage, yet), we are becoming publishers and have on-line identities.

    I have both fictional identities and my personal/professional (I don't separate the two)identity. However, I have been using my fictional identities less and less in the past year and focusing more on my single and published identity. I don't really see the need to hide behind a fictional identity anymore. I am who I am and am willing to say so in public. I am noticing this trend and believe that more and more people will adopt the same attitude.

    As for students and digital portfolio names, I side completely with Carl. We should encourage students to develop a digital portfolio that they can call theirs. We should not mandate this; we wouldn't embarrass a student with dyslexia by making them read aloud to the class without adequate prep time and we shouldn't ask students to publish something until they are comfortable with it.

    However, giving them the chance to develop a life-long body of work might make a meaningful difference in their progress. I know that the scrutiny of public reading of some of my youthful work would have been very helpful to me and probably improved my outcomes. Let's give our students that chance.

  8. Lots of great thoughts and comments on here. As I read them my own opinion yo-yos back and forth...

    Karl, the power and need for authenticity and ownership that you keep coming back to you is valid and rings true.

    But I think that how you are portraying the real world in your comments sounds naive. Society and institutions operate by labeling people and sorting them into categories. You don't have to get an official label like "felon" to have unpleasant consequences. I almost lost my first job when a newspaper article describing my...ahem..."pre-serious" days made it into the inbox of a board member.

    What seems most appropriate for the here and now is what "blog for peace" wrote on the first post - work with 18 year-olds to create a graduation celebration of a full name digital portfolio.

    I'd like to make one final point in this comment which could destroy my whole argument. Starting in June, Facebook has made every user public (and googleable) by default. This could suggest that the floodgates are open, and it is naive of me to suggest that we try to limit the "digital growth".

    This whole issue of safety and identity online has me flummoxed. I've been putting up more thoughts on it over at my new blog,, and I'm looking forward to following this thread here.

  9. @jeffreygene - You may be right. But where you see naive, I see optimistic. I'm optimistic that we can do better, that society as a whole can progress in how it treats people. We've seen it with racial and gender issues (among many others), why not with this? I think that the human race is capable of getting better, of evolving if you will, and that we can get past labeling and sorting - and I think schools can play a leading role in this.

    And, after all, you almost lost that first job, but you didn't. Plus, it's interesting to me that so many of the objections of folks seem to go right to the negative, assuming that the majority of our students are going to do the wrong thing. In my experience, kids tend to live up to expectations. I think that for most kids the argument is indeed more about whether "bad poetry" might reflect poorly on them later, not on pre-collegiate exploits. If we do our jobs right as educators, then our students won't be posting that as part of their digital footprint (certainly not at school, and hopefully not in Facebook either).