Student Privacy Concerns Online

Questions have been coming up in every online workshop and discussion session we have been having about what we need to think about in terms of student privacy issues as we are moving instruction online. Here are the key points we have distilled.

  1. FERPA mandates that you do not have any activities for class that will require students to reveal their identities publicly in connection with your specific course or course material. 
  2. In addition, there may be students for whom identifying information may be a vulnerable thing to make public, in terms of their person, their immigration status, or many other private issues, and who thus cannot be expected to do the work of the classes in public forums.
  3. This means that as we are moving our courses online, we need to think carefully about where we locate assignments, requirements, and materials, and how we expect students to interact on those platforms.

Public online platforms

You should not require students to use public platforms (e.g. Facebook Live, YouTube, document annotation plug-ins such as, blogging platforms, Twitter, etc.) while revealing their faces or using their actual names. You CAN use public platforms IF students’ faces are not shown AND they have an option to use a screen name which will effectively make them anonymous in public. Then you and the class can have an index as to whose screen names are whose. (e.g. We all pick a screen-name that is a color, and I go by Violet.)

As matters of best practice: 1) You should not simply ask students if they are comfortable with a public forum and then proceed with it if everyone says “yes,” since their hypothetical comfort level may decrease during an actual classroom conversation or activity, if the topics of conversation become more sensitive. 2) You should not rely on students individually to use the privacy controls on video-based public platforms like YouTube, since anyone might forget to do so. 3) Anything that requires an account (e.g., Instagram, Tiktok) for which a student can select an avatar and a screen name is fine, so long as you are not then requiring that they post publicly-viewable videos of themselves.

Privacy-controlled online platforms

In many cases, there are privacy-controlled online platforms with equal functionality to the public ones, which will enable you to restrict activity and viewing to members of the class. For example, Zoom, VoiceThread, Google docs, and Moodle discussion threads can all be limited to invitees only, which makes all of them compliant from a FERPA perspective.

It is important to know, and to let your students know, that even invite-only spaces such as a Zoom meeting may have some gaps in privacy controls. For example, while Zoom sessions cannot be recorded by anyone but the host of the session, which protects students from others’ recording without their consent, the host DOES also have the option to save the ongoing typed chat. This may be something you want to do, as a record of the notes during the discussion. However, doing so may enable the host to see not just the public chat messages but also the private ones. Other platforms may have similar kinds of concerns, which makes it prudent to let students know that they should use the platforms during class time only for purposes for which they would be comfortable with their instructor knowing or seeing. 

Please also keep in mind the the classroom recording policy if you plan to record any live class periods. If you intend to record a class session (i.e. in Zoom) for viewing by other students later, you will need to notify, in advance of the class session, all students in the course.

Finally, as always, it’s important to remember that as faculty you can participate in discussion forums, blogs, group documents, etc. with your comments and interjections, but you cannot post in any such forum any evaluative comments that are tied to grading, since all students have the right to privacy even from other members of the class when it comes to the individual evaluative feedback and grades they receive.

If you have any questions about activities you have planned, in terms of how they intersect with student privacy concerns, please feel free to reach out to your AIA or the DRC Manager. The Registrar, Timothy Traffie, is the chief FERPA officer on campus, and any questions we cannot answer, we will direct to him.