Last year I agreed to submit my saliva for a DNA test. My mother, a genealogist, wanted to see whether DNA from the “Smetters” line had matches with other surnames. My brothers didn’t want to donate their saliva, and I must admit that I was uncomfortable having my DNA placed in a database that could be cross-matched with others. It was a privacy issue.
Privacy has been a hot topic in education for most of this decade. In the United States, government-issued Social Security numbers were widely used for student identification until just a few years ago (much to the delight of identity thieves).
Following the terrorist attacks in 2001, the Patriot Act gave the U.S. government the right to search any web server for national security purposes.
Several months ago, privacy concerns bubbled to the surface again when the U.S. Congress approved the Higher Education Act of 2008. One paragraph in this 1200-page legislative act created frenzy among educators:
(Section 496 ii) “the [accreditation] agency or association requires an institution that offers distance education or correspondence education to have processes through which the institution establishes that the student who registers in a distance education or correspondence education course or program is the same student who participates in and completes the program and receives the academic credit.”
Media and countless blogs stoked fear across campuses with sensational stories1 of big brother swooping into homes of distance learners to scan eyeballs, acquire fingerprints, and capture every sound and movement of the learner. The privacy alarms didn’t quiet down until various policy experts debunked these notions, including the widely-circulated response2 by Steve Worona, the Director of Policy & Networking Programs at EDUCAUSE.
Privacy has different meanings to different people. Students, for example, state that one of their top privacy concerns is instructors trying to befriend them in Facebook or MySpace. Students say things like, “It’s just freaky when teachers do that. It’s an invasion of privacy.”
But one thing everyone seems to agree with is that privacy issues in education are on the rise. FERPA, which sounds strikingly similar to the indigestion it creates for administrators, is the mother of all privacy laws for student education records. It’s a massive piece of U.S. legislation that defines the do’s and don’ts of privacy. FERPA is gaining mindshare in education, just as online accessibility policies gained awareness and compliance over the past decade.
As a software vendor, there’s an inclination to deal with privacy issues and FERPA as an after-thought. When we were planning the architecture for StudyMate Class two years ago, I sometimes found myself in development meetings blurting out, “Are you serious?” “We can’t store student grades on our server? Are you serious?”
I’m now glad we confronted privacy issues at the beginning. I’ll share a few ways we did that. To address concerns about storing student grades on the StudyMate server, we used the Building Block and PowerLink technology in the Blackboard Learning System to pass grades directly to the Blackboard gradebook.
To avoid concerns about how user IDs and passwords are handled by StudyMate Class, we again used the Building Block and PowerLink technology to achieve single sign-on and to make our application look like a native Blackboard tool.
Privacy issues are real, and an awareness of these issues will only increase. But, alas, don’t tell my mother. She’s just happy to know that my DNA matches families with surnames Smithers, Smathers, Smuthers, and probably those quirky Smothers brothers.
1. See, Chronicle of Higher Education, “New Systems Keep a Close Eye on Online Students at Home”, July 25, 2008, http://chronicle.com/free/v54/i46/46a00103.htm . See also, eSchool News, “New law aims to validate online learning”, September 15, 2008, http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/top-news/news-by-subject/index.cfm?i=55224
2. See, Steven L. Worona, “Identity verification for distance-ed students: FUD lingers”, October 15, 2008, http://www.educause.edu/blog/SLWorona/Identityverificationfordistanc/167911
Originally Published: January 27, 2009