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img00139At the beginning of each year, I usually receive an onslaught of survey material for my students to fill out.   These surveys are not supplied by the school or district, and usually query students about their backgrounds, interests and future plans.

While some teachers diligently have students complete them immediately, others simply use this material for ‘filler’, administering the survey when they have a few extra minutes in class.  The ones addressed to me take a two-step journey to the recycle bin.

I have always been curious about how these surveys are used, and apparently I am not alone.  In fact, the Educational Research Center of America, Inc (ERCA) recently (October 2008) agreed to change its practices for obtaining and handling personal information it collects from high school student surveys, under an agreement reached with the Attorneys General of 36 states and the District of Columbia.  See press release from Maryland.

Wisconsin is not on this list.

Nonetheless, my policy has been to avoid distributing these surveys for a variety of reasons:

  1. Administering a survey to my students is clearly a waste of my precious classroom time.  I can think of a hundred curricularly appropriate things to do with 20 minutes than cater to the wishes of a company masquerading benefits to me and to my students.*
  2. This information is a marketing tool, and is sold to interested parties.  I believe it is irresponsible to use taxpayer money to facilitate their business model.
  3. I am always weary of surveys that collect student information other than for blind research practices.  As we continually preach to students about protecting their online identities, we should model the same practice in school as well.
  4. In this day and age, students have many more options available to them in finding information about their future.  The fact that I don’t need to say the “I” word simply illustrates my point.

*There are a few entities that sell “educational products” and entice educators with freebies and other benefits in the name of education.  The bottom line is that they are businesses whose fundamental goal is to make money; beware of the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

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My district has recently installed Microsoft Sharepoint.  This is a dynamic tool (albeit from the MotherShip) that allows me to create and control groups where users can collaborate though shared documents, discussions boards, blogs, and wikis (and many other features).

My initial observations of Sharepoint made me realize that it has a distinct Microsoft footprint – heavy on tools, but clunky to use.  It reminds me of that spoof video fantasizing if Microsoft had packaged the iPod.  In any case, I futzed around with it for a while until I was semi-satisfied.

I have to admit – the discussion board is a powerful tool.  It engages my students on a level that they would not comfortable with in the classroom.  It challenges them to raise questions they would not ask in class.  It actually brings more discussion into the classroom.  And this was only after a week of discussion.  (NOTE: the power of a discussion board is not new to me, but this is the first time I am able to use one under my district’s IT reign).

This is exactly a tool I have been looking for, as I have a colleague in Sweden who wants to have our classes collaborate on a project.  Since SKYPE is blocked, this would allow the students to actually have that collaboration – supervised by me and my Swedish colleague.

Sharepoint is quite powerful in that it allows multiple configurations for its users with many layers of permission.  There are a few no-brainers that I already have setup to protect my students.  First – they can only post, but can’t edit or delete their entries.  This helps to reinforce the idea that once something is posted on the internet, it is always there.  Secondly, I don’t allow anonymous outside registration either – outside registration would have to be added by me or would have to be requested.

But I am not clear how to setup other student permissions/identities and if I should allow outside access for viewing.  I have a few options:

  1. Lock down the site so that ONLY students in my class can see and participate in the discussions
  2. Lock down the site as above, but allow it to be viewed by any student or teacher in the district
  3. Allow outside viewing, but protect student identities – make them create unidentifiable usernames
  4. Other options?

If you use student discussion boards, what advice do you have?  What are the benefits and drawbacks of these configurations?  I want students to be safe, feel free to speak their mind, but I also want to emulate the outside world as well.

You can see what I’ve done (and what the students have done) so far.  Their identities are protected – so I am currently using option #3.  Most likely, these settings will change in the future. [Link]

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You Are What You Post
by Michelle Conlin

This Yahoo Finance article discusses the fact that that there is no such thing as an eraser on the Internet.” In times where our students are posting personal and provacative information about themselves in healthy does to sites such as MySpace and Xanga, this surely offers a teachable moment.

As educators, we can encourage our students to podcast and blog in an educational setting, while exposing them to the dangers of personal disclosure on the internet, while illuminating the future consequences of their impetuous actions.

I would also encourage you as educators to see what your students are posting about you and other teachers in your building. Search through MySpace, Xanga, Google and Rate My Teacher (and many others). Be careful, as there is often graphic and offensive language on these sites. Note that some students post pictures of themselves as well – if there is any nudity, this can be construed as child pornography.

In closing, I will add a personal story where this did affect me and a student. I had a former student who decided to create a site on Xanga with my name as a pseudonym (that is, he pretended to be me for fun). This was mostly harmless, and not directly offensive to me – it was actually somewhat comical. In any case, a student from another school (who had been kicked out of my summer school class and knowing that it wasn’t me running the site) posted a very offensive message – a death threat. Obviously, this was found and turned over to the police. Knowing the student, I was fairly convinced that I was in no danger, but in our post-Columbine era, that didn’t matter much to the police. Thus, thinking he was anonymously posting something to a site where he thought no one would see it, this student now has this activity on police record.

You can access this site here.