Should we encourage (or even allow) students to publish their work on the web or social media?


Moodle is great; I use it in every course I teach. But there are, I believe, advantages to using other web technologies as well, particarly those apps and platforms that reach well beyond the walls of the college itself.

Why assign coursework that is findable on the web?

There are really three answers to this question: audience, audience, audience.

1. Audience: Studies show that students invest much more time and attention in assignments that will be read by someone in addition to the professor. Those who teach writing have known this forever. While the ideal audience for most undergraduate academic essays (and, believe me, I’m not against such essays, I’m an English prof!) may be other members of a discipline’s discourse community, students experience tells them that only the professor will actually read it. And, while that professor may write a whole bunch of words in the margins of that essay, only one letter really matters.

How many times have you returned essays to students to see them breezily flip through the pages, seemingly ignoring all the good advice and commentary you spent hours writing, searching for the all-powerful single letter grade?

If students publish (some of their carefully polished) work on the web, the dynamics of what counts dramatically changes. Their parents could read it. Or their friends. Or people they don’t know. (All  reasons to think about FERPA; see below.) If it’s published on a widely-used source like Wikipedia, for example, it could even become influential, read by hundreds or thousands of people. And students really understand this distinction. We all do! I get it as I type these words, trying to imagine you, my unknown reader, and figure out how best to connect to you.

2. Audience: Okay, so publishing student work on a blog (any Whittier faculty member can quickly build a WordPress site for their class that works with our single sign-on; ask DigLibArts for more information) activates a potential readership, but most blogs get very few actual readers, so the audience for student work is still largely an abstraction.

However, if you and your students publicize their web-published work using Facebook, Twitter, etc., the audience will become much more concrete. And numerous. And at that point, when web published student work attracts a real readership, student work has ceased to be mere “exercises” and has become actual public scholarship (dare I say “undergraduate research”?). In many of our disciplines, in fact, (high quality) undergraduate explanations may be the perfect level to reach a broad audience of non-specialists. In other words, your undergraduate students may be supremely well-situated to become the translators of highly complex topics in your discipline to the general public. Now isn’t that an exciting (and terrifying) prospect!

If we take student work seriously, and treat it as real scholarship, might they take it seriously, too?

3. Audience: If you want students to become lifelong learners, then doesn’t it make sense to integrate learning into the kinds of things they do every day? Meet them where they are at is one of the mantras of good teaching. Why not meet them on Twitter? Or Tumblr? Or Facebook, even? The platform really doesn’t matter; this year’s social media favorite may be forgotten in 5 years, or even in 3 years. But social media in general is around to stay. So if we–and our students–develop habits of using social media to discuss ideas of relevance to your course, to your discipline, or to our shared global future, wouldn’t that be a good investment in the likelihood that those conversations may continue beyond an individual course, maybe even beyond the college years themselves? And, oh by the way, there is always that additional benefit with social media: if our students are discussing scholarly topics on social media, then that discourse is reaching many  people beyond the students themselves.

Interested, but thinking about FERPA implications? My next post will be on FERPA and social media assignments. Coming soon…