cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo shared by onkel_wart (thomas lieser)

Last week I sat in a demonstration of a new sort of academic social networking environment that has many levels for privacy and permission. This is not a criticism at all of the software, but more at the curious attitudes of higher education.

A number of faculty/staff in the audience commended the tool for how it allowed for safe and private areas for classes, compared to open public social networks.

I find myself bothered by this as what seems like prevalent mode of online learning environments.

I remind you this was not at say the elementary school level, we are talking about young adults, who are (or whose parents are) paying many thousands of dollars per year ostensibly to become thinkers, leaders in the world.

So in the realm of higher education, probably the most ideal places learners should get the most opportunity to explore, experiment, try, fail– are we so damned maternalistic in wanting to “protect” online activity? How exactly are we preparing students for the world beyond the diploma by coddling them? By making things safe? That seems to me counter to what the university experience should be, especially at that age of young people becoming who they will be in the world.

Do not get me wrong. I understand there are places for private discussions. But the majority of discourse I fail to see a reason why we should not be embracing, encouraging the use of communication tools that graduates will use beyond the walls?

Could there not be a more ideal time and place for them to be immersed in the open spaces of net? Should they learn their mistakes in communication while on the payroll of your company or organization?

Why are we focused on making things safe, protected, and easy? School should be hard, challenging. I always like how Jeff McClurken talks about wanting to make his students “uncomfortable but not paralyzed”- enough to provoke them to move out of that state.

cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo shared by The Rocketeer

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Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. Do you think we’ve confused people with ideas? We want to protect people. But we’ve got this great opportunity for many of their ideas to be made public. We are afraid that they will be afraid to post their ideas in public, because someone may not like them and the criticism may hurt the person. So we try to protect them from being hurt. If we could separate the ideas from the person (through a pseudonym maybe?) perhaps we could engage in the public civil discourse they need without the pain.

    1. I’m not sure, this is all of course, wild conjecture. The fear of releasing open ideas seems more a projection of the general reluctance to share things not fully formed and vetted.

      I’m thinking more its fear of legal liability and/or just a sheer under-estimation of young people’s ability to deal with chaos and lack of structure (ditto on projection, hence my love for Jeff’s approach of wanting to have students struggle)

  2. I’ve been making this argument for years. Facebook didn’t even exist when I started making this argument. Now, I think we can say that our students are already putting their ideas in public, just not always their intellectual ideas. It seems to me that school is the perfect place to post your work online. You have the guidance of a teacher and the support of your classmates. I have done the pseudonym thing for the squeamish. It works well, and I’ve had some students later claim that work in their real name.

    I’ve heard the “the classroom should be private, protected space” argument from those in administration and oddly, the education department. It seems to me they’re trying to hide something. And they might be afraid to challenge themselves or their students, which is a shame.

    I’m very lucky in that my administration and many of my colleagues (and we’re K-12) believe in students sharing their work and opening their classrooms. Yes, we have to protect our students, but we also believe in showing them the benefits of being public with their work.

  3. I agree… as always, with some contextual differences. (And I’d also quibble slightly that this mode is maternalistic. I suspect the qualifier depends on intent! But I’ll leave this aside for a moment! :-) )

    1. If you are learning and live in a political environment where making statements (however well or ill-formed, informed) in public can get you arrested, doing these things in public can, well, get you arrested. This is a hard one, because doing it within a government sponsored institution is about the same thing as doing it in public, but you get my drift. There are some things that bear hatching in a cave and then seeing the light of day. So a blanket statement about openness always holds the possibility of contextual variations, right?

    2. Learning to discern what should and should not be public is important. So having a variety of environments with gradations of openness is also a laboratory for learning. Human society has all these gradations. We should learn about them, be aware of them, and experience them. So “all or nothing” seems to be a tricky proposition, eh?

    So in the end, it goes to the points you, Alan, and Laura and Lisa have made above. It is about the learning!!!

    1. I should have made that “ma/paternalistic” bad gender siding on me.

      Absolutely correct that there is a spectrum of mix between being private, for reasons cited above, and full public. It’s not only about learning, its the living.

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