Safe Blogging Advice for Teachers

by Larry Magid

 Chances are you’ve heard the term “blog” or “web log.” Certainly, your students know about them and there’s a very good chance that some of them maintain their own blogs.

A blog is simply a web site — typically maintained by an individual — that can contain anything the person cares to publish. Many professional and citizen journalists maintain blogs where they comment on current events or offer-up opinions of a wide variety of subjects.  Non-profit organizations sometimes use blogs to advocate for their cause and businesses occasionally maintain blogs to promote products or services.  A blog can be one-way, with postings coming only from the blog’s owner, or it can be interactive, with a comment or feedback area that invites visitors to add their remarks/responses. Some blogging services allow bloggers to post photos or link to music and video files.

Blogs can also be used as a teaching tool to supplement classroom material and encourage discussion and interaction amongst the students.  Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, NJ, for example, maintains a blog where staff keeps the community informed about upcoming events, teachers summarize the day’s assignments and students share their research with their peers.

Blogs can also be useful sources of information. Journalists from the New York Times, CBS News and many other reputable news organizations maintain blogs where they supplement what goes on the air or into the newspaper. Some independent bloggers have built a reputation for accuracy and integrity. Others are hoaxes.

Young people’s blogging is a whole category of its own. Millions of young people maintain their own blogs or “spaces” using  a variety of free services that allow them to post comments, articles, pictures and, in some cases, audio and video to share with their friends, people from their school or the public at large. Researchers from the Children's Digital Media Center at Georgetown University estimate that more than half of all blogs are run by 13-to-19-year-olds.

Sites like MySpace, LiveJournal, Xanga and MSN Spaces are extremely popular among young people. In fact, they are starting to replace chatting as a one-to-many and many-to-many communications tool.  These sites allow teens to express themselves, share their interests and passions and get feedback from others.  Facebook.com, which is available to students at select colleges (and now high schools), serves as a social-networking tool and a form of directory assistance, making it easier for students to find and keep in touch with other students who shares their interests, come from the same hometown, or – in some cases — live down the hall in the same dormitory.  In compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, most of these sites are open only to children 13 or older (although check the Terms of Use for any particular site to be sure), but younger children to lie about their age if they're determined to create a blog.

Like so many other positive things there is also a dark side to blogs and spaces.  Because they are open forums where you can post just about anything, they are also subject to misuse. Some students, for example, have put personal information on blogs that make it too easy for a stranger to locate them, call them on the phone or send them e-mail. Others have posted photos which can make it easier for a stranger to identify them. There are cases where students have also posted photos with inappropriate poses and clothing, or lack thereof.  Some student reference or even celebrate the use of drugs, alcohol or harmful diets. Tragically, there have even been blogs that encourage suicide.

Education officials have also expressed concern about blogs being used to abuse, harass or disclose inappropriate material about, teachers, staff, the school in general or other students.  These can range from blogs to contain debasing, dangerous or libelous information about others to those that criticize school policies or officials.

Of course, it’s not possible to police the entire Internet but it is possible to set standards for your students and provide education to better inform them about what is and isn’t appropriate for their blogs.  Before creating guidelines or talking with students, it’s important to set your priorities and pick your battles carefully.  Like it or not, blogs are here to stay – at least for awhile – so it may not be practical to ban them altogether. It may also not be practical to prohibit students from using blogs to express their opinions and feelings, but you can talk with students about the type of material that is and is not appropriate.

 


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