Blog Post

Guidelines for Public, Student Class Blogs: Ethics, Legalities, FERPA and More

Do you require your students to blog in class?  Do they post their blogs publicly?  Have you worried about legal, ethical, or FERPA issues?   We talked about all of this in a recent meeting of the Duke PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge and, realizing we were out of our depth, we forwarded our questions to Kevin Smith, Duke University’s Director of Copyright and Scholarly Communication. 

Kevin has generously responded, most pointedly to the FERPA implications in using online blogs, Twitter, and other public social media in undergraduate and graduate courses at Duke.  We think you will learn as much from his answer as we have.  Feel free to pass it on--and check out Kevin's own blog "Scholarly Communications@Duke" here:

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Please be aware that the following information is provided for the purposes of educating PhD Lab scholars concerning FERPA and is not offered as a legal opinion nor does it represent Duke’s official position.

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The following, then, is Kevin’s wonderfully informative perspective:


Basically, FERPA says that university employees cannot release student “educational records,” defined as any personally identifiable record in our keeping, without written consent from the students.  It also allows us to specify certain types of “directory information” that will be released without prior consent, but it also allows students to prevent even that release of information if they inform us of that intention.

When we want students to post directly to publicly accessible blogs, it is not certain that those student works ever actually become “educational records” under the law because they are never “in our keeping.”  That is, we do not see the record until after the student has made it public.  This helps, but there are still some privacy concerns.  After all, we are potentially requiring students to release information, including the information about what class they are enrolled in, which would normally be protected.

I usually suggest four steps to mitigate these potential problems.  I think these steps are congruent with the information on the sites I will list below.

First, inform students at the beginning of the course that they will be required to post to a public blog(s) and give them the opportunity to speak with you privately if they have any concerns about their privacy when doing so.  This kind of requirement should never be a surprise to students after they have already begun the class; they should know about it in time to withdraw from the class if they feel that need.

Second, make it possible for students to participate in the blog under an alias or pseudonym.  Most advice actually says that students should be encouraged to use pseudonyms.  It is fine for you (of course) and the other class members to know who is who, but remind everyone to protect the anonymity of any aliases while online.

Third, strongly remind students not to post private information – their addresses or dorm location, social security numbers, etc. on the site.

Fourth, consider whether you should provide an alternative way for a student to fulfill the class requirements if they are really concerned about participating in a public blog, even under an alias.  Most students will think this is a perfectly fine, natural activity.  But FERPA is in place to protect the rare, unfortunate student who may need to hide from a stalker or abuser.  In those situations, fear may be a strong motivator for the student, and we need, of course, to take that apprehension seriously.


The following three sites at other universities address this topic in a reasonable way:



Kevin has been and continues to be an incredibly eloquent source of important information on academic publishing as well. PhD students who have had an article accepted for publication should read the publication agreement very carefully, and if they do not understand all the implications of the agreement, they should not hesitate to consult Kevin.



From 2004 to 2008, Duke (and other) Marine Invertebrate Zoology students that took a semester in Bermuda were asked to pick any species and write an online report on it (  I believe that this was one of the first online student projects.   Over the years more species were added and coverage eventually included most of the more common and interesting species in eight different phyla.  Today I had the pleasure of discovering that one of my former students is now an accomplished teacher herself and is using online assignments for her students.

I think it is incredibly important to give students; especially university aged students, a chance to create something that matters in the real world and to have the opportunity (but not the requirement) to put their real name on it.  Many of them took a lot of pride in their writing.  For many students, this was the first time they had ever published something in their name.   After the class, many put their work on their CVs.  I think it is also important to expose students to new technology; in this case I made it as easy as I could by creating an html template with sections that they could drop content into.   I also asked the students that knew html to help those that didn’t when they had formatting issues.  Some discovered that they could write html and developed in that direction. 

James B. Wood





James, I agree completely.  In all my classes, we have assignments that I call "public contributions to knowledge."  I want students to translate what they are learning into something that does good somewhere beyond the classroom.  Often, when they post information or insights, they receive feedback from anonymous others on the Web and the students cannot believe that, even as students, they can have an impact and make a contribution.  In some classes, we do virtually all the class work on line so others may learn along with us.   That's why we asked Kevin Smith to help give us guidelines for the ethical, legal implications of making public blogging a class assignment.  In my opinion, our educational benefits can benefit others and it helps all of us if students realize this and contribute.  How to do so within ethical and legal parameters is crucial.   Thanks so much for writing.  Yours is an inspiring story.  


This gave me pause:

As I was thinking about using social media tools in the classroom, I ran across this article, which raises some important questions about what the classroom space is.  I'm not saying I agree with the positions stated here, but this might provoke reflection about the hybrid online/in-person spaces with which we as teachers are now confronted.  Should portables be in the classroom every day?  Should there be days when they are brought in?  Should preparation of social media postings of all sorts always be outside the classroom space?  Food for thought.

Dear Cathy, et al.:

Many thanks for hosting this important conversation. Our students have a wealth of creativity, knowledge, and skill that is far too valuable to lock up in the walled garden of a classroom or course management system, then tossed away at the end of each term. Let's design many more courses and activitites that extend student work into the world. Cathy, your upcoming meta-MOOC looks like a great way to show how students at research universities are more than consumers of knowledge, they can (and should) be involved in building knowledge. I look forward to seeing how it goes.

In the meantime, privacy policies (including FERPA) were established for good reason and we need to adhere to them wisely. Overinterpreting policy stifles innovation, but underintepreting or ignoring policy puts the institution and future innovations at risk.  Here is the guidance we currently offer University of Oregon instructors who are using course-related blogs, social media, or other internet-based activities with potential for public view:

This site links to the Registrar's Office approved form for documenting student options:

I hope these are helpful thoughts. Thanks again and best wishes,

Andrew Bonamici, University of Oregon Libraries


Thanks for writing. Yes, the key is to be both open and safe.