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Student privacy issues, ethics, and solving the guest lecturer dilemma in online courses

By Virgil E. Varvel / September 2005

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In an era where our privacy seems to be slowly dwindling---when our email can be viewed by our employers and cameras sit perched on street corners---some strongholds of privacy do remain. And, perhaps surprisingly, one such stronghold carries over to the online realm. While your face may be on camera and your words in print, your identity remains protected and privileged information. Of interest then is the special situation when an individual enrolls in an online course. For some, it is the very nature of online anonymity that prompts an educational move to online courses.

Many assume that anonymity is a given in the virtual course, but the truth is that there are many levels of anonymity. A teacher/tutor may not know what the student looks like or even the gender of that student, but some things are known, such as the student's name and email address, for instance. (Of course, it is also known that the individual is enrolled in the given course at the given institution!) Through community development and ice-breaking activities, even more may be shared among virtual classroom participants. The sharing of personal information should end with the class community. When a student posts information in a forum, the intent is not that it will be shared with the world. Herein lies a problem for the online instructor.

In the online classroom, student identities are available to those with access to the course, and must remain protected from those outside of it. In the United States, such protection in education is more than just ethical, it legally falls under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). (For an overview of FERPA, see The intent of such laws is not to prohibit educational activity within the course, but unintended consequences that might arise due to the nature of the online environment such as guest lecturers.

When we allow a guest into an online course, he or she may have access to a list of students in the course, potentially violating FERPA. In a face-to-face setting, the guest gets to physically interact with the students; they're generally not given a roster and will not know students' names. However, such information is clearly visible in most online classrooms. In addition, the guest in a face-to-face setting only experiences what happens on any given day. In an online course, however, the guest may have access to the entire history of course discussion; in forums that have nothing to do with the content that guest led or took part in. (Although this second situation would not necessarily be under FERPA provisions and newer course-management systems may begin to make it possible to limit an individual's access to a single forum.)

To hide student information from those with access to the course is considerably difficult with today's online course-management systems. Instructors might have to go so far as to provide all of the students with aliases to protect their identities. One could also limit the guest's interaction to an external synchronous or asynchronous discussion platform within which students are given aliases and prior course discussion is not present. The end result could lead to a situation non-conducive to an effective educational climate. Extensive attempts to protect identity could result in hampered and, perhaps, guarded student discussions.

While laws were enacted to protect student privacy, the intent of such laws was not to inhibit the educational process. The interpretation above may seem too strict by some who might argue that guests are nothing more than extensions of the course instructor-much like a teaching assistant-and, thus, no violations have occurred. This discussion could then be extended to ask whether guests not affiliated with the delivery institution could be so described: We are once again left with a dilemma.

The legal aspects may be simple to alleviate. In addition to statements within a student handbook regarding the use of online guest lecturers, additional provisions can be written into registration agreements to insure active consent. In the strictest sense, the registration must be completed by a parent or legal guardian for those under the age of 18. Upon registration, a simple statement explaining that by accepting registration, permission is granted for guest lecturer access, may be necessary. Unfortunately, a lengthy privacy statement may result when the possibilities are taken into account, but I believe in the old adage It is better to be safe that sorry. Considering that the penalty for violation of FERPA can be loss of federal grant money, such protections are not unwarranted.

Assuming that the legal aspects regarding the use of guest lecturers have been taken into account, other issues still remain such as the permanency, ownership, and etiquette of online communications. Many programs will include orientations that explain these issues to students, but guest lecturers will probably not be exposed to such information and may be inexperienced in the online classroom. Therefore, it becomes important to inform all involved that, in general: students retain copyright on all of their posts, information contained in posts may not be shared outside of classrooms, and there are rules of behavior that have developed in the given course. Guest lecturers should also be informed of privacy issues concerning student information.

An ironic part of this dilemma is that if too much emphasis is placed on these privacy issues, we run the risk of affecting the social dynamics of the online classroom. Although, it might be argued that a possible advantage of the online classroom is that the lack of physical contact may reduce altered behavior that sometimes occurs when new individuals enter into a traditional setting. The goal should never be to mislead students to where they do not realize that a guest is present. It becomes a pedagogical challenge then to understand the dynamics of the given course so as to best present notification of the guest's presence and activity.

Finally, while the bulk of this article has centered on the situation in the United States, the issue does not stop there. Without addressing the issue of jurisdiction, it can be stated that many countries have privacy standards for the protection of their students. Such rules that may apply include Australia's National Privacy Principles, various European Union Data Directives and other laws, and Canada's Privacy Act and Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, to name a few.

In retrospect, the above may seem a bit overbearing in such a way as to reduce one's desire to make use of guest lecturers in online classrooms. It would be such a shame to lose the valuable tool of colleagues that I would be remiss if I did not leave you with reassurance. It is as simple as proper consent and/or notification to make use of the guest. The key is simply to understand the issue and take it into account.


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