Privacy, Equity, Accessibility: Reducing Risk of Harm

Whether you have recently pivoted to remote teaching or are thoughtfully crafting an online course for fall or summer, you are probably discovering how difficult online course design and teaching are. Because few professors have taken online courses, we don’t have the experience of being online learners. And few of us have training in pedagogy in general, much less online teaching. So there is a lot to learn, and we must, of course, be gentle with ourselves when we make mistakes.

But there are three areas where should give a lot of attention to not making mistakes (even if that means giving less of our attention to other tasks in course design):

  1. Privacy: We must, without demanding justification, design courses to respect students’ privacy and our own right to privacy.
  2. Equity: We must design our classes so that students of varying economic backgrounds can fully participate in them without disclosing their economic status.
  3. Accessibility: We must design our courses so that every component of them is fully accessible to students with disabilities without being informed of what those specific disabilities are.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will encounter these ideas over and over here.

One way to check yourself as you make decisions about your online course is to ask yourself, with each choice:

If I made this choice, what kind of harm could result?

Note that this is not Who could be hurt by choice? That question, too, is a good one, but our imaginations are likely to be limited by who we know. If, for example, I decide to use COVID data to illustrate a point in statistics, I might think Who could be hurt by this? Because none of my students have COVID, I might think there is no harm in using it as an illustration.

But I don’t know my students as well as I think. I have no right to know if any of them have COVID or have a loved one with it or who has died from or been harmed by it.

If I ask instead If I use COVID data to illustrate a concept in statistics, what kind of harm could result? I am more likely to get to a thoughtful answer: A student who is ill or who has an ill loved one to this disease could feel distressed about the chance of death associated with this illness.

Then I would choose not to use COVID data to illustrate a point because I can imagine the harm that could result. In this moment, the chance of hurting someone is too high, so I would look for other data to illustrate the point.

We should ask this question–What is the harm that could result?–each time we design an assignment, select a piece of technology, or craft a policy. If it is difficult to imagine answers, ask a teaching colleague to review your work with this question in mind.

File:Meeting of doctors at the university of Paris.jpg

Above, A Meeting of Doctors at the University of Paris (1537) by Etienne Colaud shows two rows of men seated at desks. They wear scholarly garb and books are open before them. Above them, another man is seated on an ornate chair and also has a book open before him.

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