A Reminder of Who is Hurt by Insisting that Students Share Images of their Personal Lives

If you require that students attend live classes digitally, you are putting their privacy at risk. The data that you demand is stolen by tech companies, the class can be terrorized by racists and other kinds of bigots, and the images that you require can be captured by others and circulated online forever.

Students and colleagues alike must be able to say “no” to digital meetings that require outsiders entering the private space of their homes for the reason alone that they do not wish to have guests in those spaces. That’s sufficient. A switch in job duties related to a move to remote teaching is not enough to mandate that people invite others into the sanctuary of their homes. You find a baby on your doorstep in the  middle of a blizzard? Yes, you have an obligation to bring the child inside to warmth and save a life. Your college president tells you you have to host a live class session from your bathroom, since that’s the only room that has a lock on the door that keeps your toddler away from you? No. (And, yes, I know some of you aren’t in a position to tell your college president no. But a lot of you can still speak up on behalf of those who cannot, and if you are a tenured faculty, make use of your tenure by leading the charge against this bad labor practice, bad teaching practice, and bad learning practice.)

But there are more specific reasons, too, why a person is endangered if you demand that they show participate in a digital meeting.  Like, for example:

  • they are abused, and their abuser limits their access to outsiders or to technology that helps them connect to the outside.
  • they have fled an abuser and need to protect information about where they live (including from their classmates, who may know their abuser<–yes, this happens all the time, on every campus).
  • they live with people who are undocumented, and recording the inside of their home endangers those people. Remember that ICE continues to raid homes even right now.
  • they live with children who they do not want to appear online, even if by accident.
  • they live with children who are in foster care and whose privacy must be protected to even greater extent than their biological children’s privacy.
  • they live with people who are engaged in illicit activities, such as parents or siblings who use drugs, and they do not wish to risk any of that appearing on screen.
  • they live in poverty and do not wish to share that information with their professors or peers; some are homeless.
  • they lack privacy and do not wish to risk exposing other people’s personal information–people who are not enrolled in this class and who you did not seek permission to view or record–to their teachers or classmates.
  • they may lack the ability to maintain a tidy environment, especially if they live with others, and understand–correctly–that they will be judged by their professors and peers for this.
  • their only private space is where they sleep, and they reserve this place for sleeping, rather than work, in order to maintain good sleep hygiene.
  • their only private space is where they sleep, and they do not wish to share such intimacy with strangers; doing so may be a significant violation of their boundaries around gender or sexual behavior.
  • their only private space includes evidence of information they may not wish to share with others–including, for example, who else they live with to disabilities they may have.

Note that telling them to add a Zoom background does not fix any of this; these backgrounds do not work with all computers, use valuable computer resources, and do not prevent others from appearing on the screen.

The Poor Family III (also known as Interior or Refugees) | Georges Rouault | Oil Painting

Above, George Rouault’s The Poor Family III (1912). The painting is also called Interior or Refugee. A man in blue pants and a white shirt sits and a table while a woman in red stands in the back, perhaps carrying a child, while two other small figures appear in the background.

Even if none of these things apply to your students now (which you have no right to know), they could arise later. Will you you count students absent if they later cannot attend an online meeting for one of these reasons? Will you demand that they bring you these excuses for your evaluation? Should a student have to risk telling you that they are limited to 20 minutes a day of interaction with others by an abusive boyfriend for you to design a course that respects everyone’s privacy? Should they tell you that their undocumented father just moved into their apartment–and risk you telling someone else?

They will not. They’ll just not show up, and then you’ll be worried. Or you’ll be irritated at them.

****

If you didn’t think about these things before you moved to remote teaching, don’t berate yourself–that’s just evidence that teaching online requires a different way of thinking as a teacher than does teaching F2F, and since you haven’t been taught it, you don’t know it.

But you need to stop requiring that students show up and show you their lives, especially in ways that can be recorded by their peers and then circulated online.

That you didn’t read about Zoom’s terrible track record on privacy before you mandated such participation should make you ask yourself What else am I possibly ignoring? Why am I naive about how surveillance technology can harm people? And if you did not fully explain the privacy implications of such technology on students, you should ask yourself What assumptions do I hold about my role as teacher? Why do I assume that I–not students–should decide if the risks I am demanding they take are safe for them?

It’s okay to remote teach imperfectly, but privacy violations are not a place where you, as the teacher, can repeat mistakes. To be blunt: people can die, go to jail, be deported, and be exposed to online bullying if you do.

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11 thoughts on “A Reminder of Who is Hurt by Insisting that Students Share Images of their Personal Lives

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  1. Excellent discussion which we ned to engage with intesively as the imperative to ‘act fast’ in the rapidly changing lamdscape is fraught with dangers, so well articulated here.

  2. Thank you for drafting such a thoughtful, caring and useful post. I am in the middle of designing a course on social movements and ecosystemic change and I will not only enfold these prescriptions, I will make sure (if applicable next fall) to include a substantial discussion around these concerns at the start of the semester. – James

  3. This is an extremely thoughtful and important piece and has implications in many other environments. At least some government offices are requiring employees to enable cameras during meetings. I work on privacy issues and technology, advising government agencies, and have not come across this issue directly yet, but I expect to in the course of this crisis. I have shared this link with other privacy professionals and expect they will be similarly concerned.

    I’d like to share this link with the International Association of Privacy Professionals, and see if they’d be interested in reblogging. This is a message that needs to be more widely-read and appreciated.

    1. Thank you for this encouraging feedback, Dan! I would LOVE to hear what experts in privacy are saying and doing about these issues—which too few of our bosses and administrators seem to be thinking about.

  4. These are important issues, Rebecca, although I know that some of my colleagues ARE planning to do their entire 10-week spring quarter class (which starts this week) as a series of live Zoom sessions, even though most of our academic technology and teaching/learning folks have been recommending asynchronous teaching or at most a blend of synchronous and asynchronous. I was planning to do occasional live Zoom sessions at the end of each of our 8 learning modules, but your post makes me wonder if letting students have the option of “audio only” would prevent the possibility of the kinds of harms you mention. Based on my limited experience with Zoom so far, some people (students, staff, and faculty) just have their official campus photo or even just their name in the box where the live image of them would otherwise be, and they can just turn on the audio and NOT the video. They could opt not to have even their official campus photo visible, I think, since I’ve been in two faculty workshops where all I saw was someone’s name and not their campus photo. And we’re all going to be reminding students that they should mute the Zoom audio when they’re not talking (and faculty can mute everyone’s audio until they want to speak). We’ve been reminded to make the Zoom sessions private and even require a password to enter, so I think (or hope?) that might help with the security issues and the risk of Zoombombing.

    Do you think that would be protective enough? At my university, for those of us who only teach undergraduates, almost all our undergrads are traditional age (18-22) and middle class or even upper class (with some low-income and first-generation students, too, but I don’t think there are many, if any, homeless students here). Most of these students are now living in their parents’ homes since the dorms closed at the end of winter quarter. It’s possible but fairly unlikely that in any given class, there might be one or two students who would be in the kinds of the situations you mention. Many of the faculty (including me) sent out technology access surveys, querying students about computer access (and all of my students have it), internet access (which they all have), about time and space to work, and asking if they have any concerns about learning online. One student mentioned living in a very small space with a parent and sibling, but no one else mentioned any concerns about privacy or home situations interfering with class participation. (Students’ responses went directly to faculty, by the way, so no one else could see them.)

    1. I think we know our students less well than we think we know them. This is especially true of students who are adept at handling their own problems in a typical semester. While some of us would respond with empathy to their plights, others would decide that such students “don’t have what it takes” to be at school. Students are wise enough to know that asking for help can get them labeled as “high needs” or even just “poor”– and neither label brings about good things in their lives.

      The tech changes regularly, and Zoom may have a different approach by spring, but companies that offer free services typically make you pay in privacy.

      The other thing to remember is that even if you survey students now, their situations will change. Given the global pandemic, we can’t even predict how they might change. I recommend lifting every possible barrier. Can you teach without a mandatory synchronous meeting? If you can, do. (And it might be that in some disciplines, this is impossible, and in those cases, we should reserve all the resources, including student energy for synchronous sessions, we can for them. Like, if the choice is between students listening to my online lecture live or students being able to show their nursing professor how they can apply a tourniquet, I should step aside and let students use their resources for their nursing class.)

      I know this is a hard adjustment, especially for those of us who love F2F connection with students. But there are almost always ways to help students learn that are just as good as more burdensome, privacy-invading solutions.

    2. This overlaps with some issues that Rebecca brought up in her post about “Do a bad job putting your course online” (or something to that effect).

      When transitioning to online teaching, instructors need to ask themselves: “Is X really necessary to teach the class?” In the case of webcams and other types of cameras, many classes simply don’t need them (outside of proctoring tests) and can be shut off. H***, when I’m lecturing, even my webcam is off. (I use a powerpoint-type presentation and a program similiar to the Whiteboard app in Zoom. Besides, they already know what I look like. 😎 )

      Proctoring tests is the really tricky aspect of online teaching, but you need to be able to verify that they are who they say they are. This would be a case where the answer to the question “Is X really necessary to teach the class?” is yes.

      1. In my case and that of other faculty on the quarter system, my spring quarter students have NEVER met me–or seen me (although I posted a photo on Canvas, which I later removed), since or spring quarter just started this week. I’m in English, so I have no concerns with proctoring tests (since I’m giving essay exams for both the midterm and final, and I always give a take-home final in this course anyway) but I wanted to have one live session every 7-10 days so that students can hear and see me, ask questions of me to which other students can also hear the answers, and, more importantly, so that students can hear, see, and work with each other in breakout groups. As I mentioned in my initial reply to Rebecca, students can opt to have audio only if they don’t want to be seen or have their environments seen. My classes are always discussion-based rather than lecture-based, although I do give mini-lectures at times, and I also adjust each class to the “temperature in the room”–assessing whether students are understanding or having blank looks on their faces or answering my and each others’ questions thoughtfully or pursuing new issues regarding the readings than I had thought of, etc. Clearly, in F2F classes–the only kind I’ve ever taught before–that’s easier to do than it will be using Zoom (esp. if some students do opt to be audio-only or even just phone in to the “meeting”–which is another option if students don’t want to be seen for whatever reasons). I know faculty who decided just to have live Zoom classes twice or three times/week (depending on when their spring classes meet), and I knew I didn’t want to do that, so I opted for sort of a “blended” approach–lots of Canvas discussions and the occasional live Zoom session. My students will also be doing narrated slideshows or short video presentations–their choice (and I’m even giving the choice to write a paper in lieu of either of those options). I’m trying out various options and will be asking students regularly how they think the class is going and if they have any suggestions for improvement, and my peer educator can also keep me apprised of how students are feeling about the class. finding

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