Privacy for online teaching

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As universities, colleges, and other institutions cope with COVID-19, many faculty and other educational workers find themselves asked to shift their teaching and learning activities entirely online. Use of digital technologies in education have long raised privacy concerns for both learners and teachers, and the massive scale-up demands that we all proceed thoughtfully and critically.

As a teacher, consider the following:

  • Practice data minimization and encourage your students to do the same. This means thinking carefully about what data you actually need in order to get the work done. Just because you are used to a face-to-face course, do you actually need to see everyone's faces? Also, once a shared doc is no longer being used, go ahead and delete it.
  • Ask students to review the data privacy policy for any digital tool they must use, and invite them to share concerns with you and their peers. (This page from the University of Texas gives some tips for how to read a privacy policy: https://identity.utexas.edu/id-perspectives/how-to-read-a-privacy-policy.) Work together to mitigate those concerns, or to reduce the potential for harm. You could write a class privacy policy, or include privacy considerations in any community agreements you use.
  • In your syllabus, be clear about what work will be monitored. For example, if your LMS captures time that students spend logged in, or working on particular activities, note that. While using Zoom, the transcript of any chats (including private ones between participants) are sent to the host (potentially the teacher) following a session. Students may not be aware of the ways that university tools are already tracking them. Transparency builds trust.
  • Add a digital privacy component to your course, like asking students to walk through the Data Detox (https://www.datadetoxkit.org/en/home) and share a short reflection on their experience. No matter what the course content is, if you are teaching online, privacy and security issues are baked into your work. Even something as small as encouraging everyone to cover up their webcams after any virtual sessions or meetings can be a step in the direction of privacy!
  • While you may be required by your institution to use certain tools, when you have flexibility, consider using tools that were developed to protect user privacy, such as the following:
  • Even if you require online students in regular conditions to use proctoring software or record themselves taking tests, avoid doing so for students who are only online for disease-related reasons. They did not sign up for an online class, which limits their consent. If possible, design tests to be open-note.
  • Before you or your students share your screens, be sure to remove anything you would prefer to stay private.

As a learner, consider the following:

  • If you have concerns about the privacy implications of a tool or practice, ask your instructor if there are other options. Particularly for courses that were not designed to be fully online, your instructor may be trying out new things, and may welcome constructive suggestions. If you have concerns, others probably do too.
  • Teach yourself (and your classmates and your instructors) about digital privacy and security issues. Under federal law, you can request your educational record from the university -- start by checking with the registrar's office.

Beyond your individual courses, we can all advocate for protecting learner and worker privacy on our campuses. Find out what you can about how data from your LMS and any digital tools are stored and used. How can students and workers opt out, or find out what is stored about them?