[This is part of a draft of the chapter I’m writing for the International Handbook of Virtual Learning Environments, forthcoming from Springer.]
The most obvious difference between keeping a traditional journal or portfolio of work and keeping a weblog is that the former is likely to remain relatively private–shared between the author, a teacher, and perhaps friends, parents, or in some cases an employer. Weblogs have the potential of being far more public. In the extreme case, a weblog entry might attract millions of readers. But it is not quite right to place these two media on opposite sides of a public/private dichotomy. Weblogs exist in a gray area, the unfiltered expressions of a private individual, within reach of a broad audience. Some have compared their role to the salons of nineteenth century France: a fundamentally public sphere, but relying on personal interactions and dialogue to arrive at understanding (Mortensen & Walker, 2002; Habermas, 1991).
The word “public,” especially in contemporaneous usage, suggests some form of broadcasting is taking place. A better word might be “transparent.” The interactions between the teacher and the students, and among the students, are radically open to observation. For those students who are already steeped in a culture of open discussion in the classroom, this might feel familiar, but especially within large universities, this openness of exchange is a relatively novel and exciting experience for many students.
This transparency is initially and primarily among the students in a class. In many cases, despite public accessibility of course websites, dialogue with those outside the class is comparatively sparse, especially when students are just getting started. It might seem that a student would be most concerned with what a teacher thinks about her work, but students are often far more concerned with how their peers view their work. In some cases, of course, this can be a difficulty. A student may be apprehensive about sharing her own work with her classmates, but the advantages to open work can be enormous. Students are generally interested in helping one another succeed, and when presented with assignments that invite collaboration, they find the work both enjoyable and fulfilling.
Some see the absence of school walls as removing a protective barrier to the outside world, particularly for younger students. Clearly, students should be made aware of dangers in their environment, and guidelines should be established to ensure their safety and privacy. Since the protective walls (and firewalls) of the school are only temporary, it is important that students learn the skills needed to protect their privacy online and off. At the beginning, students may not realize how widely their voices carry, and the influence they can have. With that power to influence comes the responsibility to wield it appropriately. One way to protect students’ privacy is to make certain topics or identifiable information off-limits. A further measure is to have students create an alternative identity. This comes at the cost of making the virtual environment even less real and more virtual, but in order to maintain the safety of students, this may be a necessary price to pay.
Habermas, J. (1991). The structural transformation of the public sphere. Cambridge: MIT Press.