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What educators should know about privacy

Modified on: Fri, Jul 7, 2017 at 10:06 AM


(What is the issue and why is it important?)

A private learning environment allows students and instructors to collaborate in a safe and secure space to encourage teaching and learning. In the learning management system, the term “privacy” can refer to the system’s use and treatment of personal information, as well as the student or instructor’s ability to control settings that may affect privacy, like notifications, public information or images. Personal information can refer to email addresses, phone numbers, address birthdates and grades.

Privacy is often protected at the administrative level where information technology divisions evaluate technology products for security and privacy. In addition, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a federal law designed to protect the privacy rights of students. FERPA is designed to limit access to a student’s educational records and personal information.

In addition to FERPA and security issues, students and instructors value a certain amount of privacy within the learning environment so that information can be exchanged freely. Some examples of privacy that a student or instructor may expect in a learning environment are:

  • Ability to control notifications
  • Options for displaying personal information
  • Informed consent options for use of data
  • Keeping course content and assignments within the learning environment

Real-Life Examples / Lessons Learned

(Why should faculty and students care about this?)

Instructors should take appropriate measures to protect the personal information of others while teaching. This can include removing personally identifiable information from course content (ie. case studies, authentic files, etc.), student exemplars, or requesting that students do not post sensitive information (political, religious, race or philosophical opinions) in course discussion forums unless it is applicable to course objectives.

Recommendations / Best Practices

(My time is limited. Where should I start for the most impact?)

  • Grades. Disclosing grades in public forums (such as a discussion thread or web conferencing platform) is considered to be a violation of FERPA as confidentiality cannot be guaranteed. Similarly, grades cannot be posted anywhere in the course that other students may see them. The best place for posting grade information is in the Canvas grades, where students see only their own information.
  • Profile Image. Allow students to choose what image they would like to upload to represent them. In Canvas, students are able to upload a profile image that will show beside their name in discussions and in the course user list. Some students may choose to upload a picture of their likeness, but some may choose one that represents them.
  • Personal Information. In discussion boards, try to refrain from asking questions that ask students to identify personal information about themselves, such as questions about their family or job.
  • Course Content. Ask students to refrain from posting course material outside of the learning management system. This can include course materials (lectures, videos, readings) or course communication (emails, discussions).
  • Anonymity options. The discussion board has an option to allow for posts to be made anonymously. While an anonymous post will make it hard to track a post to a student for a grade, it may be appropriate for some non-graded discussions to allow students to post anonymously. Clickers also have an option to collect anonymous data. Also, the survey tool in Canvas will allow you to collect anonymous data from students. While you will be able to see the results of the survey, you will not be able to see which student answered what.
  • Data collection. Some software tools will provide information to instructors about how the student is using the system, such as when they are logging in, what areas of the learning management system they are accessing and other activity. Instructors must provide a balance between using this data and protecting the personal information of students. Some instructors inform students as to what data they will use and how.
  • Privacy policies. If students will use technology in your course, it's also recommended by Quality Matters to link to the privacy policies provided by the software companies so students can view how their data will be used by that company.

Sample Language for Your Syllabus

(What do students need to know?)

The notice on disclosure and distribution asks students to refrain from redistributing course content to others outside of the course. While this is mostly a copyright issue, it is also a privacy issue in that communication that happens within a course should stay within a course. This language is recommended by the provost office to include in all syllabi:

Restrictions on Disclosure and Distribution

Students may make audio or video recordings of course activity unless specifically prohibited by the faculty member. To foster a safe environment for learning, however, the redistribution of audio or video recordings of statements or comments from the course to individuals who are not students in the course is prohibited without the express permission of the faculty member and of any students who are recorded. Unauthorized distribution of such materials is a violation of academic standards and may violate copyright laws and/or privacy rights. Students found to have violated this policy are subject to discipline in accordance with the provisions of Section 200.020 of the Collected Rules and Regulations of the University of Missouri pertaining to student conduct matters. 

To Learn More

MU resources

(Where can I go on campus for help?)

MU Registrar—Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)

General resources

(Can you recommend 1-2 great resources where I could learn more about this topic?)

Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)

Privacy Technical Assistance Center (U.S. Department of  Education)

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