How to Respect Students’ Privacy in Online Spaces

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Online LearningStudent Success
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Essie Childers is a professor of Student Success at Blinn College in Bryan, Texas


In March 2020, the entire world came to a halt with COVID-19. Administrators soared to the challenge of preparing faculty to teach online by adjusting course material. In addition to crisis teaching, some faculty needed training in Zoom and other virtual platforms to accommodate students’ learning. With millions of students participating in online learning formats, there are new concerns about students’ privacy. Below are some valid student concerns that have been brought into the conversation regarding their privacy while taking online classes and exams.


“I am concerned about my privacy and respecting my environment.”

When a student is in class, it may not be possible to block out the view behind the student. Pictures on the wall, visible books, empty wine bottles on a counter, clothes piled up, and other items can prompt one to formulate implicit bias. Requiring cameras to be on also may place students who are vulnerable in an uncomfortable position. Students who fall into this category may be disabled, undocumented students, English language students, LGBTQIA+ students, and others. Furthermore, background items can be a distraction to other students in the Zoom class. The faculty must respect the fact that students have a right to keep their cameras off. No student should feel guilt or embarrassment about their living conditions. Still, the level of engagement with cameras on versus camera off continues to be an ongoing debate.


“I am concerned about my personal information when I log on.”

Many students are not able to afford antivirus software. Some are concerned that hackers can access their username and password. There is an increase in cybercriminals who are experts in stealing social security numbers, student IDs, addresses, and other sensitive information. According to The Wall Street Journal, when students leave the school’s website and venture to other sites for research, those sites are not protected by the Federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Schools continue to research best practices on how to keep students’ personal information safe.


“I am nervous about taking an online exam.”

Colleges and universities have invested in technology to monitor students’ exams. Here again, like the requirement to keep the camera on, some students feel their privacy has been invaded. Daley states, “For-profit tech startups like ProctorU, Examity, Respondus, and Proctorio monitor students’ laptops during an exam. Proctoring tools can monitor eye movementscapture students’ keystrokesrecord their screens, and track their searches as well as their home environments and physical behaviors.” Some proctoring tools require facial recognition that works poorly with students of darker skin tones. Furthermore, students who do not keep their eyes on the camera during the entire testing period could receive a red flag to indicate possible cheating. Students have reported experiencing test anxiety and stress while taking an online exam.

Online learning is here to stay. Students who never took an online class before COVID-19 indicated a desire to take other online or blended courses. However, the concern with privacy and online exam monitoring continues to be a serious concern for many students. Educators must collaborate with tech companies to find ways to create an inclusive setting for online exam monitoring that doesn’t invade students’ privacy.


To learn more about Tech Ethics and how it impacts online teaching and learning, watch Tech Ethicist David Ryan Polgar’s webinar recording.