Student comments:
My recommendation for future group work projects on Learn has to do with privacy. Our team wasn’t always comfortable with the fact that other groups could download our assignments. In terms of privacy and potential plagiarism, I feel that there should be a more secure place to save one’s work.

One criticism of Learn is that other groups can see what we’re working on and download our assignments. That bothered us somewhat as a group because our preliminary code of ethics was downloaded several times, and not by us. We would appreciate a bit more privacy. This is something I feel strongly about with regards to personal assignments too. I don't like other people being able to download my assignments.

"PUBLIC" KNOWLEDGE. From the 2007 Rhetoric & WWW Syllabus...

“Knowledge Sharing”: You will normally post each assignment as an attachment within a specific Discussion forum. According to standard practice for many online courses, and in the spirit of knowledge sharing and community building, you need to know and be comfortable with the fact that all your assignments can be read by your classmates. In the case of the online team presentation and seminar discussion, such sharing with classmates is a requirement.

As an online instructor and as an online student, I have set up and worked within both private ("locked") and open discussion forums for collaborative project planning. I wanted to see the extent to which a certain openness of both process and product might contribute to knowledge-sharing as well as constitute a more vital rhetorical situation than the typical transactional approach between professor and student.

In the end, two students out of 24 expressed discomfort with this openness, and their comments are quoted above. Also, see my April 7, 2007 LiveJournal entry (as well as the two entries following that one) for more discussion about about tensions between knowledge sharing and privacy.

SHARING "VS" PRIVACY. To some extent, institutional and student concerns about privacy and plagiarism have roots in the "atomistic inventor" paradigm of writing and institutional assessment. Candace Spigelman's research into textual ownership articulates tensions between "two theoretical frameworks: expressivism and social constructionism." In the first, "the ideas articulated ... are very much the property of the author"; in the second, "texts are always a composite of the social and cultural conditions that construct writers" (qtd. in Breuch, 2004, p. 87). According to Breuch, Spigelman argues that peer review and collaborative writing groups speak to a Bakhtinian fluidity of "text and utterances ... that texts are always a response to previous utterances and therefore resist individual ownership" (qtd. in Breuch, 2004, p. 87).

It's worth considering whether there are analogies between this "fluidity" of text/utterance and computer-based mash-ups or digital sampling. Both are enhanced and made much easier to accomplish using online technologies. It might be worth engaging students in discussions about differences between sharing knowledge within a "protected" learning community and composing mash-ups ... to get them (and instructors) thinking about texts--and knowledge itself--as "composites" rather than absolutes.

PRIVACY AND PRACTICALITY. I think we need to be conscious of two "privacy" issues in online collaborative writing. One is the extent to which assignments are available for peer viewing and/or peer feedback. I argue this practice is justifiable given the goals and philosophical underpinnings of collaborative learning and peer review. But we should be prepared for some students to feel disoriented in a context when "knowledge" in the form of an assignment is redefined as shared rather than as a private transaction.

Thus, it's critically important for instructors to make their knowledge-sharing goals and pedagogical choices--i.e. keeping forums "open"--as clear as possible to students. In retrospect, the rewards and the risks of making each other’s work freely available within a learning community via discussion forums might be an excellent discussion to have with students as part of the course. To help prepare students for such a discussion, I would recommend providing some foundational background reading in this area, such as the materials I've excerpted under the "Rhetorical Theory" section of this wiki.

A second, more practical issue is ensuring that information that should be personal (for ethical and legal reasons) remains private. For example, it's essential to assure students that you'll communicate their marks via private messages/e-mails or "locked" files (i.e. Learn's Drop Boxes), and that nothing posted in the course site's discussion forums or other "open" spaces can be viewed by anyone outside the course site. For example--

While you need to post assignments in forums rather than submit them to me privately, the larger public will not have access to any work submitted in this site. All instructor feedback and marks for assignments are private information and will be conveyed to you within “Learn” via your personal Drop Box (which only you can access) or by Private Message. No one but you will receive this information. For team assignments, each member will individually receive instructor feedback and the mark for the team.

To respect practical/legal privacy requirements, then, the following basics must be in place:
  1. The institution must be able to ensure the security and privacy of the web environment.
  2. Online instructors must be aware of and follow departmental and legal policies concerning information and privacy.
  3. On Day 1, online instructors should clarify for students what materials and topics are private between the student and instructor (and why), and what materials form part of the community’s knowledge base (and why).
  4. The online writing syllabus must refer to standard institutional policies about plagiarism and academic misconduct (even if those policies don't quite speak to the "fluidity of text and utterances"


Breuch, L. K. (2004). Virtual peer review: teaching and learning about writing in online environments. Albany: State University of New York, Albany.