Protecting Privacy in Synchronous Activities

In any situation, we have to be attentive to student (and our own) privacy. In a F2F class, we do that by following FERPA rules, asking only questions that are appropriate and related to our students’ learning, and closing the classroom door when students are sharing.

Online spaces require us to think about privacy differently. Privacy concerns are one of the two major reasons why I encourage asynchronous rather than synchronous activity. (The other reason is equity.) Reserve synchronous activities for those times when the learning objective cannot be met otherwise. (I mean this strictly: if you are planning a synchronous activity, think hard about whether students could meet the learning objective even if they didn’t have to show up. If they could, then ditch the synchronous activity in favor of an asynchronous one.)

There will be some cases when synchronous activity is the only option, though. In these cases, remember that students are sharing their space with others, which produces two problems: 1) those others may see and hear what classmates are saying and 2) those others may be seen and heard by classmates. You must make the risks to privacy around these two issues clear before students even begin the class, and you must do all you can to reduce them.

If you do require synchronous engagement that uses audio and/or video (so, not a live chat in a discussion board, like a Reddit AMA), require the use of headphones (which you cannot then assess if a student isn’t using a webcam, so now you have a tension–if you require a webcam, you undermine their privacy, but if you can’t determine if folks are using headphones, you undermine their classmates’ privacy). Otherwise, their classmates’ contributions to class may be broadcast to people they do not know.

If you don’t think that students will share anything in a synchronous session that they would hesitate to share in front of eavesdroppers, ask yourself, again, why you are holding a synchronous session. If it is not to solicit vulnerable contributions from students, what are you there for? If it’s just so that students can see you or hear you, then replace it with a video or podcast lecture. If it is so you can see your students’ faces in order to help you maintain your teaching energy, find another way to achieve that. If it is to build warmth, find another way to achieve that. If it is to allow students to ask questions about content they do not understand, then remember that this is, in fact, an act of vulnerability, and students should not have to do it in front of people they do not know, so require headphones.

Also remember that students’ very identities are areas of vulnerability. A student who is visibly queer cannot hide that on a screen. Race and disability and gender may likewise be highly visible on screen (but not in asynchronous activities unless students chose to disclose it, especially if they are able to use their chosen names when they engage with their classmates). Being able to engage classmates’ ideas without these being a barrier is one reason some students take online classes, and synchronous engagement undermines that.

And students who are vulnerable should not have to share their vulnerabilities with people who they do not know. They may trust a classmate to treat them respectfully if they show up in an online space that reveals that they are poor, queer, or have a disability, but they have no reason to trust that eavesdroppers to that situation will be respectful of them.

You cannot prevent all bad actors in an online classroom, of course–even with the most invasive technology. (Someone can always be off camera, recording.) And you can’t prevent it in a F2F classroom, either.

But you can help your students learn to be respectful learners online. More about how to do that in another post.

File:Vittorio Reggianini Eavesdropping.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Eavesdropping by Vittorio Regianini shows a woman in a pink dress moving the pink curtains that cover a door so that she can better hear the conversation on the other side. 19th century.

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