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Taking steps to respect student privacy in public work

December 19, 2011

Closed for BusinessMany faculty want students to write online; I’ve had fascinating consultations with professors who have great ideas for using blogs. In nearly every case there is hesitation regarding student privacy, and I think it’s wonderful that folks are concerned about protecting students’ anonymity. That being said, we seem t0 have reached a state of panic regarding FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a US federal law that protects the privacy of student records).

Some people believe it’s illegal to release a student’s name in connection with any activity. If that were correct we couldn’t have sporting events or concerts. True, those are not classes, but what about the acting class that produces a play or the journalism course that publishes a newspaper? There are clearly situations whose nature dictates that student names are going to become public knowledge.

The student publication and privacy issue came to a head a month ago when Georgia Tech closed down its wiki service after a student complained that his name was listed with a course website. The entire course roster was evidently posted online. In my opinion, this was a FERPA violation that could have been avoided with better oversight and better-informed faculty. This is not an all-or-nothing issue.

I teach a multimedia course where students create projects that are published online. It is very valuable to be able make some work visible to the public; students take tasks more seriously when they know the results will be viewed by outsiders. Moreover, this particular course is about applying multimedia skills in the real world. Here’s how I ensure students have appropriate protection for their privacy rights:

  • Explain on day one that due to of the nature of the course students are required to publish work on the Internet. If they were unaware of that fact and have a major problem with it, they can drop the course.
  • Let students know they have privacy rights and are not required to reveal personal information. Reassure them that the professor will not release such information and enjoin them not to disclose personal information about other students.
  • Give specific advice about protecting personal information, such as:
  1. When creating an account, only provide information that is required
  2. Use profile settings to hide information that is not to be made public
  3. Use a screen name or invent a fake name (here’s a random name generator)
  4. Instead of a real photo in a profile use an artwork or geometric design
  5. Create a separate email address for account registrations
  • Have students sign a disclaimer (see below) regarding privacy rights and options. I got legal advice on the one I use, and you should do the same.
  • Finally, I believe it is important to couple all of this with a statement on copyright and intellectual property. Tell students that when a person creates original material they have the right to control who uses their intellectual property and how. When producing media they should both protect their rights and also respect those of other people. Encourage students to post a Creative Commons statement with their own work and, when incorporating someone else’s work, always cite the source.

Further information

Disclaimer: This article is neither an official legal opinion nor a bona fide interpretation of FERPA. Discuss this issue with someone knowledgeable at your own institution. Below is the form I use with my class, in case you would like to use it as a starting point.

View this document on Scribd

Sources: Flickr image “Closed for business” by maistora.

[Note – resource added – July 3, 2014]

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