Privacy and Scaffolding

Last week, I introduced my grade seven students to the online community that they will soon start populating with their poems and discussions. They were very enthusiastic about participating in a community of writers with grade nine students and an accomplished Canadian poet, Douglas Burnet Smith. We talked about constructive criticism, engaging in discussions, and even avatars! I was surprised, however, when they started asking questions about privacy. Right after I explained how they can register and create their own usernames and passwords, I was asked the following:

Does that mean that anybody can register?

Can people find our poems on Google?

Can you stop people from creating accounts?

When I mentioned that we will also film poetry discussions, post them on a wiki, and have students recite their poems to create podcasts, the questions, once again, were primarily about privacy:

Can other people find this?

What if someone puts it on YouTube?

Can people find out who we are and where the school is?

They seemed very relieved when I explained that, due to the school's privacy policies, the site is password protected and that no outsiders will be able to access their work.

Then, while driving home, I thought: "How sad! This would be a great opportunity for all of them to share their talents with the rest of the world (well, anyone who would be willing to read or listen) and, instead, they see it as a potential threat and are very happy with what I consider to be a very restrictive privacy policy! Why?"

I want to emphasize that they are all very excited about this project. They couldn't wait to create their accounts and start posting their work and comments. I know that I will see many constructive discussions online about writing and about poetry. Yet, I keep thinking about their initial response to putting their work online. What caused it? Why are they so preoccupied with privacy? Where are all these questions coming from?

My guess is that a lot of it has filtered down to them from the media or from their parents. After all, they have probably heard many stories about people their age being targeted by online predators. I also think that the reason they are concerned about privacy is because they will be posting their creative work, some of which at least is likely to be quite personal.

Their insistence on privacy, while surprising, is not likely to have any effect on our online community, at least not initially. After all, they do not need to have their writing available to the whole wide world in order to develop into a community and become stronger, more confident writers. However, having used blogging communities with middle school students for the past three years, I know that these grade seven students will eventually want to venture outside their community. I know that they will want to start creating their own networks - a task which can be accomplished only if their online presence is not part of some walled garden, regardless of how nurturing that garden is. I'm beginning to think that walled gardens are not a bad strategy in elementary schools and that, at least initially, young learners do need a safe place in which to share their ideas and interact with texts. However, as students begin to exhibit more and more interest in creating their own connections and in building networks, we need to have the flexibility to remove the walls and encourage students to set up their own places outside of officially sanctioned school blogs or wikis.

So, while the official school policy on privacy is not a problem now, it is likely to be an obstacle in the future. I cannot continue to confine the students to our walled garden because, regardless of how supportive and effective it is now, it will eventually become stifling. Right now, the sense of privacy that the community affords seems to be something that the students really want. However, I'm pretty sure that within a year or so, most of them will be ready to share their work online and will not want to limit themselves to our classroom community.

I am hoping that the current project, with an acclaimed writer and a group of grade nine students, will foster a sense of community, a sense of belonging. I hope that once the students get used to this they will want to share their work, no matter how personal and intimate. They will have learned that sharing their voice leads to empowerment, and that privacy, the way the media and many adults understand it, is the equivalent of staying at home and reading one's poetry out loud in an empty room. The interactions they will experience online in our walled garden community will lead them to experience connective knowledge. After that, they will become interested in forming their own networks. What they see now, it seems to me, is a chaotic, intimidating online world. They have not yet had a chance to assert themselves in it. They have not yet experienced the joy that comes from making connections. I hope that the current experience will help them see how to form their own order from the seemingly disparate sources. They will inevitably form bonds with some of their classmates and remain fairly indifferent to others. They will learn that they can pick and choose their own path through the community. Soon after, they will understand that meaning can emerge from the chaos of voices. That is when they will begin to look for voices outside of their walled garden and that is when the walls will have to collapse. Otherwise, they will continue to stifle what Clarence Fisher recently called "the potential for network formation" which allows students to develop as learners and active citizens:

People who are willing to open the potential for network formation up, will find that students will grow and mature in their information access, organization, and comprehension skills. Certainly unintended consequences will arise, but they will very, very rarely be negative. These consequences are the ones which will allow students to grow and flourish as information prosumers and to become active citizens.

The walls in our community will need to be, as Clarence says, gradually thinned out as "students learn to push out and work with others while still retaining the safety of a local group."

In other words, they need the freedom to define their own online spaces. The conversations they engage in should not tie them to a specific, school sanctioned place. George Siemens is right:

The separation of space from dialogue allows each individual to form the connections they find of interest. The formation of their network results in the creation of their own space - a space not held or controlled by others. I fully expect that we will start to see a much more pronounced demarcation between the "come talk us in our space" mindset and the "I'm here talking in my own space" mindset.

What my students need right now is modeling, coaching, and scaffolding. Currently, privacy is a support mechanism that, for whatever reason, the students find comforting and reassuring. Gradually, the need for it will be replaced by the need to have the freedom to create their own networks. Gradually, their conversations, their interest in creating their own networks will outgrow the space that the school provides for them now. When that happens, the walls will need to come tumbling down. As their individual voices and their sense of empowerment and independence continue to grow, the walls around them need to gradually disappear. If they don't, the students will view their online community with the same indifference that they now feel towards traditional classrooms where they are expected to sit and listen.