Published on 2013/01/08

Student Privacy and Online Distance Learning: What Safeguards Will Help Us Protect Our Students?

Student Privacy and Online Distance Learning: What Safeguards Will Help Us Protect Our Students?

With the rapid shift to online learning in the past few years, and the move to cloud-based computing and cloud-based applications, there is a need to revisit the protection of student rights and the intent of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Faculty members and instructional designers must consider what can be done in these open environments that are not under institutional authentication protocols, and what students themselves need to be aware of. Although the FERPA Act is primarily written to protect student educational records, how far into course curriculum the intent of the act covers is open to some interpretation. However, there is a key phrase in the language, ‘identifying data’, which should make us all think for a moment about what can be open to those outside the class environment.

At Penn State’s World Campus we have taken a conservative approach to the new technology environments as they unfold, and at the center of our decision process is the notion of keeping student identity private. Only with the express consent of the student or by their own hand is private information exposed on non-university systems. Case in point: while we integrate Google Maps into our courses to give students a sense of presence and to let them know where other classmates are located, it is always optional and up to the student to decide if they want to indicate their location. Further, in all our video and audio productions no student likeness is used unless we have the written consent of the student. Although it would be an extreme situation, it is possible that you could have a student taking an online course who is in the witness protection program, or has a restraining order against an ex-spouse or another individual; it is of the utmost importance that their identity remain private and protected. So if you encourage the posting of video assignments on YouTube, you need to have an alternative assignment ready if a student does not want their likeness in a public space. This approach would also hold for Wiki Spaces, Google Docs, or other open communication environments.

Thus, before designers or faculty integrate the new cloud-based tools into their online course designs, they need to determine how they will to protect student identity so it is only visible to those within a class; they need to determine how to inform students of their rights, and of the steps they should take to assure they are not posting information that they do not want to be public. Further, it is worth pointing out that higher education is a time for students to explore and debate what are sometimes radical ideas, so that they can be exposed to both sides of an argument. Students and faculty should be aware that a student’s opinions on different debates and issues that emerge from a course, if publicly posted, may be detrimental to that student in the future, if the comments are viewed out of context as a person’s individual position on a topic rather than an academic exploration of that topic.

Fortunately for institutions of higher education and for faculty, we are starting to see Learning Management System (LMS) providers like Pearson, Blackboard, and others integrate social dashboards and platforms into their products, which are password-protected environments. This new features will allow faculty to build into their course environments a better online social presence with their learners and have them engage in richer social interactions and dialogue than is sometimes possible with existing discussion forum tools.

For further information on FERPA please click here.

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Readers Comments

Ryan Loche 2013/01/08 at 10:39 am

This is a really important topic and I’m glad it’s beginning to garner attention across higher education.

Students provide a huge amount of personal information to higher education institutions both in and out of the registration process. Something as simple as a list of students in a given class will often include email addresses and phone numbers. We need to be absolutely certain that when this information goes online, it is secure from any prying eyes.

Vera Matthews 2013/01/09 at 12:32 pm

Forgive my ignorance — would these security systems stretch class to class, discipline to discipline, or across institutions? This is to say, are we protecting students’ information from other parts of the same institution?

I see this as having the capacity to greatly increase the number and size of silos seperating different arms of the institution, rather than bringing together and securing everyone.

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