Data Privacy and Ethics of Remote Learning (Lessons)

What is data privacy and ethics of remote learning?


When the transition to online teaching and learning first began, a plethora of digital platforms and tools emerged. From Zoom classes to Blackboard forum discussions, we were given a really short amount of time to "make do" and adapt our original syllabus. As weStudents who still have concerns can choose an alternative assignment or we can discuss other possible avenues and possibilities for file sharing. might we facilitate remote learning. Many of us may have heard of the security vulnerabilities associated with Zoom, and while it is addressed in the latest version, there are still concerns for using it as a platform for remote learning. For example, Zoom maintains a Government Requests Guide that allows the government to request user information, including location data from Zoom about particular users. In choosing to use Zoom (and other similar platforms and tools), even within our educational settings, we are exposing ourselves and our students to additional vulnerabilities that differs from in-person class.

Data Privacy

As educators, considering how students' learning data can be accessed and used is an important part of creating a safe and equitable class environment. Recently, the CUNY UFS Committee on Libraries and Information Technology produced a faculty senate resolution on student data to address concerns about using and working with third-party vendors in the creation of our remote learning environment. Primarily, we are not always aware of how "learning data," created in the course of fulfilling academic requirements, is being mined and captured by the platforms and tools we have integrated in our class. Considering that CUNY colleges serve a significant portion of undocumented and marginalized students, we need to be cautious with the learning data generated. Where are they stored? Who have access to the data? How would they have access?

As we move away from face-to-face instruction, we often crave being able to see our students in class and, whether intentionally or not, ask them to turn on their webcams as part of their participation in class meetings. We may feel uncomfortable if they choose not to do so. However, we should also consider why it may not be appropriate to ask our students to turn on their webcams or why they might be reluctant. For example, in a regular classroom setting, where we are meeting in a place of study or work, we do not have the same access to our students lives as when we ask them to turn on their webcam in their private living situation. If your student has to work, rest, and eat in the same room, asking them to turn on their webcam can be an uncomfortable request, as they are exposing their private lives (e.g. their bedroom, their families) to you and their classmates, whom they may be meeting for the first time in Fall. In addition, students with unstable internet access may also choose to turn off video to prioritize staying connected to the class meetings and participating in discussions. Turning off video can help decrease the load on internet bandwidth and help them maintain a more stable connection. Hence, if you're adamant about having your students turn on their webcams, it will be useful to ask yourself why this is so and if you will be willing to compromise with students that are unable to or reluctant to do so.

Ethics of Remote Learning

Students' access to technology is unevenly distributed. We know that CUNY had taken steps to address this by distributing laptops, chromebooks, and tablets in the previous semester but whether or not students will have continued access to computers and reliable internet in the upcoming semester is unclear. Hence, when we consider the platforms and tools to include in our course, we need to also think about how our students might access these materials. For example, might they be using their phones or tablets as the main device to access course material? If they're on limited internet access, can they stream or download video lectures?

On top of considering the methods of gaining access to our materials, we should also consider how accessible our chosen tools and platforms are for students with different abilities in our classrooms. For example, is closed captioning available on your video lecture? Can the journal articles or book chapter be easily read by a screen-reader?

Also consider how this pandemic has caused a shift in work-life balance in many of our students (and ourselves!). Even before this crisis, we know that most of our students juggle with taking on multiple roles in their lives, such as being a care-giver, an employee and a student. In this current moment, many have to take on new roles and responsibilities or deal with sickness and death, and may not be able to prioritized the role of a student. Despite this, they may not be able to take a leave of absence due to a variety of reasons, such as access to healthcare, income, and/or maintenance of status. As such, when we plan for our classes for the upcoming semester, we should also consider these realities that may be impacting our students ability to participate in classes. Our students have chosen to take our classes and often desire to participate fully in them; hence, we, as educators, have to learn how to be flexible and adaptable with our plans and to approach with an ethics of care in creating our remote learning environment.

Let's Practice

Let's try to apply some of the considerations illustrated above in a course you're planning to teach in Fall.

Activity 1:

Look through the privacy policy of a platform and/or tool you plan to use in your remote learning environment. You can find the privacy policy of some of the common platforms and tools that are used in the list below:

As you read, make note of:

  • Who has access to the data? (Look out for how the organization shares data, such as Zoom's Government Requests Guide and Prezi's Who we share your Personal Data with guideline.)
  • Are we comfortable with the intended use of this data (e.g. access by dept)?
  • Are we comfortable with the unintended use of this data (e.g. ICE)?
  • How can we minimize unintended usage?

Further questions for consideration:

  • What is the motivation for selecting this tool?
    • Is it ease of use for you? Ease of use for your students?
  • What compromises do we make with regard to privacy and data surveillance by making this choice?
  • How can you protect yours and your students' data as we engage in this remote environment?

For example:

Zoom has no direct access to our meetings but have access to each meeting participants' geolocation. I am comfortable with my department using the data but not with the unintended use, especially given the recent situation (and ongoing) with ICE. I may have to consider alternative platforms, perhaps video conferencing platforms that CUNY has licensed (e.g. Webex (available through Aug 31st), Microsoft Teams, Blackboard Collaborate). My unfamiliarity with the alternatives have put me off adopting it for class, but as I am uncomfortable with Zoom after learning about their privacy policy, I am choosing to make the switch. As I learn about the new tool, I am also prepared to be honest with students about learning together and to troubleshoot together. I will also not choose to record our class meetings to minimize the data produced as a result of our remote learning example.

Activity 2:

Find a website you are interested in having your students explore in your course. For example, your Blackboard course site or a site like Brooklyn Historical Society's Oral History Collection

  • How did it fare against the Web Accessibility Evaluation (WAVE) Tool?
  • What does the result of the WAVE Tool mean?
  • If it did not fare well (e.g. there is a lot of red flags), what are some steps you can take to ensure students with different abilities can access the desired materials?
    • e.g. If you own the site, perhaps you can work on what is flagged by WAVE. Otherwise, consider different materials or print (Crtl/Cmd + p) the page to a pdf document.

How does the mobile version and web version of the platform you choose deliver the material of the course look like? For example, Blackboard has a mobile app and can also be accessed on a mobile browser, does your course site look the way you intended?

  • Are materials easily accessible?
  • What are some restrictions of not having a laptop and internet in accessing your course?
  • How can you modify/accommodate those needs?

Some Concluding Thoughts

Introducing new technologies into courses means that we are introducing new questions to consider that don't always have "right" answers. Many times how you proceed is a matter of making a judgement call and assessing the context of your choice. In other words,there is no way to craft a universal guideline on data privacy and ethics in remote learning. What might work in one course may not work in another, and we learn when we can afford to, or have to, compromise with the platform and tools we employ. The point, though, is to consider what are the values of your pedagogical approach, and to ask yourself whether or not the technologies you use are in keeping with those values.

Perhaps a useful way to consider our compromise is to also share it with our students so that they are aware of the concerns with and justifications for the tech we've chosen to use. Because students have the right to decide for themselves if our concerns and justifications is sufficient, we also need to be open to alternatives and compromises.

For example, I may include a course assignment that asks students to make a short video for class. As part of the assignment, I've asked students to upload it on YouTube instead of emailing it to me. As the instructor of the class, I will explain my choices for doing so, such as the auto-captioning (in English) makes it easier to offer multiple forms of access in experiencing the video, and uploading it on YouTube means that everyone in class can access the video simultaneously while reducing the load of downloading it onto a local computer which takes up storage space. Streaming from YouTube also allows more bandwidth flexibility (e.g. we can make the choice of streaming a lower quality video to reduce internet bandwidth usage). As video files are usually large files that are difficult to attach in an email, by uploading on YouTube, students also need not host the video on a private server (which usually cost money to maintain) for sharing.

I will also explain some of the concerns I have for using YouTube, such as how the videos will be reviewed by YouTube systems and human reviewers even if it is uploaded as a private video. Because Google is the parent company, this data is also shared with Google and vice versa. I will suggest that students upload their video assignment as a private video which allows them to share the video directly with the class instead of having it as an unlisted or public video which produces a shareable link, and to delete the video after the semester. Students can also choose to make a new user profile on YouTube just for the assignment to reduce links to their personal accounts. In preparation for students who may still have concerns, I will suggest alternative ways to turn in the assignment or to offer a different assignment altogether.

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