Online Assignments and Student Privacy

A redacted FBI document on "flying saucers."

A redacted FBI document on “flying saucers.”

The more that instructors incorporate online writing assignments into their courses, the more we need to think about the issues surrounding student-produced Web content. One of these issues is that of ensuring students’ privacy online while having them produce public-facing online work. So, what exactly is the concern for student-produced Web projects, and what can we do as instructors to protect our students’ privacy?

Student Web Assignments and FERPA

In the United States, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects information about a student’s educational records, only allowing it to be released without the student’s written consent under certain conditions. As instructors, in short this means that we can’t show student’s grades or other information about their coursework to anyone other than the student (and in some cases, the student’s parents).  In the words of the U.S. Department of Education’s website on FERPA, “Generally, schools must have written permission from the parent or eligible student in order to release any information from a student’s education record.”

As it is with new technologies, the legals system hasn’t quite caught up with more recent practices in education that use online technologies for student projects.  Therefore, it’s unclear as to whether requiring that students blog (or otherwise write for a public-facing website) is a FERPA violation or not. On the HASTAC blog, contributor Kevin sums up the unclear legality of this issue:

When we want students to post directly to publicly accessible blogs, it is not certain that those student works ever actually become “educational records” under the law because they are never “in our keeping.”  That is, we do not see the record until after the student has made it public.  This helps, but there are still some privacy concerns.  After all, we are potentially requiring students to release information, including the information about what class they are enrolled in, which would normally be protected.

Letting students know when an online assignment you require of them could be visible to others is the first step to ensuring student privacy, but there are other things that you can do to make sure that students have a positive experience with their Web-based assignments.

Making an Online Space Private

Keeping an online course space private is one option, but it may undermine some of your teaching objectives.

Keeping an online course space private is one option, but it may undermine some of your teaching objectives. [Image courtesy of Flickr user tristanf.]

Many blogs, websites, wikis, and other online spaces can be made accessible only to the users of the site (i.e. you and the students). Making an online space private is one option, but for most folks requiring students to write for the Web, not a feasible one. I did this for a course wiki that I had students use for group projects in a women’s studies course. I used a wiki because wikis are great tools for collaborative writing, and using one lent itself well to the required group project. I didn’t need the public-facing side of the wiki to meet the learning objectives for my students.

Unfortunately, this won’t work in most situations, because “public writing” is one of the plusses for class blogs and other public-facing online projects. Proponents suggest that students writing for a public audience will write differently (and better, some argue) than when writing a traditional paper. Making a blog or other online course space only visible to you and your students negates a lot of the potential benefits for having students write for the Web.

Encourage Students to Use an Alias

One of Kevin’s suggestions on the HASTAC blog post is to have students use aliases when writing for the Web. Not having students use their real names is probably a good idea for reasons other than FERPA — somewhat frequently, former students might write to blog administrators at W&M to have a post deleted because it comes up in Google searches.  Most people don’t want something that they wrote for a class when they were nineteen coming up on a Google search for potential employers to see.

Having students write with an alias also encourages them to think about their online presence in a world where one’s digital identity is becoming more and more accessible.

Get Written Permission from Students

Another option is to get written permission from students to have them release information about themselves via the online content you’re having them produce.  This might be a printed release that students sign at the beginning of the semester, or an addendum to the syllabus. Using this option takes a particular teaching style, however, and might create a different atmosphere around the course and assignments than some faculty would want.

Talking with Students About What It Means to Write for the Web

The last tip I have for helping to maintain student privacy when asking them to create Web projects is to communicate with them about what you’re asking, and what they should keep in mind about Web writing. I use this technique for many types of assignments and in-class work. Open lines of communications about, say, what makes a good in-class discussion, helps make sure that students are clear about expectations, but it also helps to give them a sense of control over their own learning, which is a crucial part of the liberal arts educational experience.

Similarly, having a discussion with them about the public nature of Web projects can help you address concerns students might have about privacy as well as give them a sense of responsibility about how they present themselves on the Web. With the recent news about the U.S. government’s surveillance program PRISM, issues of the privacy of information are only going to become more pertinent.

About Kim Mann

Kim Mann is the editor and a writer for the Academic Technology Blog. She earned her BA in English from the University of Minnesota in 2003 and her MA in American Studies from William & Mary in 2009, and her PhD in American Studies at the College in 2014. Her research is on technology, the interface, and the body in mid-twentieth century science fiction.