Home » Teaching and Learning with Technology » Another in the Long List of Reasons Student Projects Should be Public

Another in the Long List of Reasons Student Projects Should be Public

Something interesting happened last week. I got a phone call from a gentleman who is involved in an organization of families and descendants of the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Since the 100th anniversary of the fire is coming up this year, the family members are coming together to organize memorial events and information for the public.

He told me that the family of one of the victims had asked him to contact me because they had come across a course website from one of the Macaulay seminars, where students posted their research about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. The site, from 2008, with the student’s research, was giving the family a good source of information about their ancestor.

One of the things the student noted in his research was that the woman he was studying had her name spelled in several different ways in some of the contemporary and historical sources he found. He speculated a bit about these misspellings, and tried to think about reasons they might have occurred. It was a good example of a student engaging with real historical research–the kind of problem that does occur when using primary texts.

The family members had decided, in recent years, that they wanted to standardize the spelling for themselves. So they contacted me to ask that on the site, we try to acknowledge their wishes. Easily and gladly done (with a simple note that the family contacted us and made the request–which added to the whole discussion of the various spellings)–and even better, I got to notify the student, now a senior, that the work he had done as a freshman was still around, still of value, and actually having an impact on the descendants of the historical figures he studied. Of course he was thrilled!

Frequently I hear an objection about having students do public-facing work: “What if they have errors? What if there are mistakes? Won’t it make us look bad?” I think this case makes a good answer. Yes. There will be mistakes (this is not the first time I’ve been contacted about a student-created website from a previous year). But no, they don’t make us look bad. They make the learning for the students (and the public) go on beyond the boundaries of the semester or the class, and they give students a commitment and an engagement to their work. And they give students real evidence that their work can really matter–that they can learn not just to think like historians (or literary critics or biologists or whatever), but to actually do what historians do. And to have their work have meaning for real people, outside the classroom and outside the college, in all the ways that historians’ work has meaning.


  1. Thanks Joe as well.

    I just want to echo @jjordan comment about making learning visible and how important that it is to give students the option to make their work public or private.

    On a platform like WordPress (York uses it as well) students can choose to make their work private, but we can encourage them to choose to make it public. Or even select specific pieces to make public. It’s their opportunity to say, “This is my work, I think it’s good work, and I want others to have the opportunity to see it.”

    This kind of encouragement to go “public” means encouraging students to think beyond what the professor thinks about the work. Definitely beyond the simple assessment of a grade provided by the professor at the end of the semester.

  2. Joseph,

    As part of the process of making learning visible, technology provides us with so many options, and sometimes NO FILTERS. Having that thoughtful discussion about what is private and what is public is a useful part of the learning process.

    At City Tech, because of Matt and a creative group of educators, Title V gives us an exciting opportunity this spring to work with our first group of faculty from across disciplines to raise this and other questions about what education in the 21st century could / should / may look like in a college of technology.

  3. Excellent point, Matt, thanks. Not just that the privacy control is fine-grained, but that the control rests in the hands of the students (or the users here). That makes it an even better tool–sometimes private IS better, and it’s great to challenge students and faculty to think about when and why that might be the case. Private vs. public is a choice–and a choice that should be made for real reasons and real advantages and disadvantages.

  4. Thanks for this post, Joe, which many of us will point to as we continue to push for more openness on our campuses.

    I think it’s important to note that on WordPress installations like the one you have at MHC, the one we have here on the Commons, and the one we’re building at City Tech, publicness doesn’t have to be an either/or sitewide choice — some individual posts can be public and some can be private, depending on a student’s own preferences. But it’s arguments like the one you’ve made here that make going public more and more attractive for students and professors.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *