Notes on Student Privacy and Online Pedagogy

In the past 2+ years in my position as a digital scholarship librarian, I’ve been concerned with a variety of issues of privacy in online networked environments. Lately, that concern has been focused on the particular case of online pedagogical methods in undergraduate humanities education. It seems that barely a week goes by where I do not stumble upon a post extolling the virtues of Twitter-based pedagogy (and then promptly mute another course hashtag), or a syllabus in which undergraduates are asked to perform “public humanities” online. And while I assume most instructors are considering the ethical implications of their networked pedagogical activities, the frequency in which I come across posts on student privacy pale in comparison to the ones in which “being public” seems to simply be the default brand of “innovative” pedagogy.

I’m currently working on an essay on student privacy and online pedagogy, but while I do so, I wanted to give a quick and modest signal boost to some excellent work on understanding and activating privacy in web-based pedagogical contexts. It’s my ultimate hope that this work will increasingly become less one-off, and more intimately integrated into our pedagogical frameworks—from the syllabuses we create, the institutional policies we craft, to the way in which we understand and talk about all that it means to be “public” online. For instance, in the United States, the legal foundations of student privacy are elaborated in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and while every college and university has FERPA guidelines, most do not have, for example, guidelines for using social media in the classroom.

Thankfully, some ground-up work has been happening in this area.

For uderstanding why we should care about student privacy online, I recommend “Why Students Should Not Be Required to Publicly Participate Online” by Tiffany Gallicano, “The Teaching of Labor and the Labor of Teaching: Reflections on Publicness and Professionalism” by Karen Gregory, “An Experiment in Trolling: A Teaching Moment” by Jade E. Davis, and “ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2013” from EDUCAUSE.

For implementing actionable guidelines, I recommend “For Instructors: Student Privacy and FERPA Compliance” by the University of Oregon Libraries, “Use of Social Networks, Blogs, Wikis, and Other Third-Party Hosted Tools in Instruction” by Indiana University, and “Guidelines for Public, Student Class Blogs: Ethics, Legalities, FERPA and More” by Kevin Smith.

For the tl;dr crowd, please consider the following before implementing online, web and social media based pedagogical activities in the undergraduate classroom:

  • Provide the class with a password-protected environment accessible only to the instructor, students, and others affiliated with the course.
  • Inform students in advance (no later than the deadline to withdraw) that they will be performing publicly in the course, and allow for private meetings with each student should they be needed.
  • Allow students to perform publicly under an alias or pseudonym that is shared with only the instructor and the class.
  • Provide alternate ways for students to complete assignments, including using the password-protected course management system or via email.
  • Allow students to perform publicly under their real name only after signing a consent form (University of Oregon provides such a form).
  • Promote digital literacy in the classroom, including discussions of online privacy.

Privacy and publicness should not be treated as a dichotomous binary, but rather, following from Daniel J. Solove’s conceptualization in Understanding Privacy, need to be understood contextually; and in the context of the undergraduate classroom, that should begin with empathetic and emphatic concern for student safety, which can include everything from physical safety to a safe space in which to grow and flourish intellectually. As Tressie McMillan Cottom recently wrote, “I tell them that expanded social networks weigh heaviest at the intersections of multiple oppressions. … If some people do not want to sign up for that, I think that is more than okay given the reasons some people have for not wanting to do so.”