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On Being Open—Or Not

By Michelle Schira Hagerman
 | Mar 24, 2016

ThinkstockPhotos-177712157_x300On the first day of classes last fall, I asked education undergraduates to create a professional Web space where they would document their growth as teachers. In addition to learning core content, I explained we would work to develop professional digital literacies skills, including skills allowing us to create online content and participate openly in professional online networks. I explained that students would share their in-process work on their blogs. I encouraged them to chronicle and curate evidence of their emergent teaching skills, too. Add images, videos, lesson plans—even the ones that flop, I said. Looking around the room, I saw dozens of millennial faces—fresh, eager, and terrified.

At the end of class, I invited students to submit pressing questions on exit slips. I expected nerves about lesson plans, differentiation, whether they could hack it as a teacher. I did not expect that 20 out of 80 comments would be about online participation.

One student wrote: “I prefer to keep close control over what I put online. And I feel that might stifle what I’m willing to put out there. Plus, I might want to save the best ideas for myself.”

Others wrote:

  • “I don’t like putting information online.”
  • “I have no idea  how to create a blogging space.”
  • “I have privacy concerns about public assignments.”
  • “I’m a little concerned about creating a digital hub and a Twitter account, as this is all really new for me.”
  • “What are we allowed and not allowed to put online as far as professionalism goes?”

At mid-term, I invited more feedback.

One student wrote: “I don't want to be on Twitter, nor will I be required to be on Twitter as a teacher, yet it is a requirement for this class. Same for the personal website. I will not be required to have a website as a teacher.”

From my perspective, the benefits of social, networked learning have been well documented by scholars including Roy Pea, Henry Jenkins, Lev Vygotsky, Christine Greenhow, and danah boyd. As a learner, I think with, through, and because of others. To me, sharing and learning from others online is beneficial. Some of my students felt differently.

Professors Jon Dron and Terry Anderson of Athabasca University offer an explanation that resonates. In their recent chapter entitled “Agoraphobia and the modern learner,” they point out that when learning moves into the open, as it did in my class, students can feel vulnerable. Skillful online learners know when, how, and how much to share in networked spaces, but for novices, the networked world brings new reasons for fear. Online work might reify their ignorance, or expose them as inadequate. Moreover, the authors note that offline social structures in any learning community play a significant role in learners’ willingness to contribute openly. On the first day of their professional preparation program, I bet nobody felt sure of their place offline or online. 

A report published by MediaSmarts in 2015 places openness at the center of its model of teaching and learning in the digital terrain. Mozilla’s Web literacy framework does, too. Together, these frameworks suggest that literacy today includes sharing, collaborating, participating, and understanding how to use and create openly accessible resources, without (as Dron and Anderson also say) shame or fear of being wrong. My experience with teacher education students suggests there is work to do. 

With support from ILA’s Literacy, eLearning, Communications, and Culture Committee, Ian O’Byrne, Heather Woods, and I soon will launch a survey of digital literacies teaching practices at We’re particularly interested in the ways teachers design learning experiences that build confident online collaborators. Our processes, our data, and our analyses will be shared openly on our website. As the project grows, we will invite your thoughts and critical perspectives. Importantly, we hope the project will generate new understandings of what literacies educators around the world are doing to prepare children, teens, and adults to live and learn in open, digitally networked spaces.

Michelle Schira Hagerman is assistant professor of educational technology at the University of Ottawa.

This article is part of a series from the International Reading Association’s Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).



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  4. Cathy Mann | Mar 24, 2016

    I love the idea of a teacher/professor created page on which students are invited to contribute, respond, etc. That seems welcoming to me and may be less threatening to others. However, requiring that students create on-line sites can infringe upon cultural norms and beliefs, personal value systems, and on an individual's right to choose what their digital footprint looks like. It seems heavy handed. I may choose to create a blog about one topic, but not another. Choose is the key word.

    Please do not take away freedom to choose based on your interests or even what scholars in the field are saying. There are simply too many factors. What if a student is fleeing from an abusive relationship and needs to be discreet and private for their personal safety or for the safety of their children? What if my home culture frowns upon such a spotlight. Do my needs and values get trampled on because your need to teach a certain way trumps my needs?

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