COVID-19 has placed undergraduate institutions in unprecedented circumstances as they attempt to balance health concerns and academic responsibilities, without causing students to feel constantly monitored. We have heard much about this topic from privacy and education professionals but little from students. For this interview series, Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) has asked undergraduate students to reflect on their transition back to school this fall and on their feelings about the practices of their own and other postsecondary institutions.
Alexis Shore, a policy consultant on FPF’s youth and education team, spoke with Ariel Bernan (not her real name), a senior studying biology and society, business, and Latino studies at a private research university in the northeast. She reflects on her experience participating in the university’s hybrid model and on student privacy more generally.
Alexis: What do you know about the information schools are collecting about you? How do you feel about your school collecting and using your information?
Ariel: Yeah, so we have this daily check now, where it asks, are you on campus today? Have you traveled in the last 30 days? If so, where and when? How? By what mode of transportation? They also collect symptoms related to COVID-19, such as asking if you have been near anyone who has tested positive recently. And we have to do that every day, or we aren’t allowed on campus.
I understand the precaution for health related checks since I want to be on campus with the rest of the community. I don’t want to transmit any virus to anyone. It feels a little invasive, but I definitely understand. Especially with the traveling, I feel like it becomes a little bit more about them watching our every move. Like I recently had to go to Rochester, NY to take the MCAT, and so I had to mark that down, and I was thinking, “What are they going to do with that? Are they going to follow me to Rochester?” It was a little strange that I had to tell them exactly where I was going, how long I was going to be there, and when I was coming back. My parents took me, but they wanted to make sure I didn’t take any public transportation. I think this was all for the contact tracing. So they could know what bus you were on, so that if someone tested positive on that bus, they could trace it back to somebody else. So, it was a lot of information that doesn’t seem very significant.
Alexis: At one university, students are encouraged to wear a BioButton. This device sticks to a user’s chest and monitors health conditions indicative of COVID-19, including temperature, respiratory rate, heart rate, sleeping and resting patterns. What do you think about a school doing something like this, even if it is optional? Would you wear one?
Ariel: I definitely would not wear one. That’s so invasive, oh my gosh. Wow, that’s real? I understand the extent of looking at body temperature and, I guess, heart rate for symptom-related things, but in terms of respiratory rate and sleep, that’s definitely not necessary data, and that can be tracked and followed. And what if I’m doing something that’s personal? That’s information that is not necessary for tracking COVID-19.
Alexis: Some schools have been using software that proctors exams in place of a teacher monitoring. Proctoring systems take control of computer videos and microphones so they can track and record students taking exams. This includes tracking whether a student opens other tabs on their computer, looks away from their screens, interacts with anyone beyond the screen, and/or how they move their body behind the computer. What do you think about this? Have you experienced this sort of technology? If so, how did having to use this tool make you feel about your privacy?
Ariel: So, actually, none of the classes I’ve taken have had any of this. I understand the monitoring for cheating, so to some extent I think it is valid. But I have a friend [whose university] installed a camera where they have to pan their entire room and it tracks their eye movements, which is way too personal because what if you were just trying to look around? I’m a very antsy person, so when I’m taking a test on my computer I don’t want to just sit and stare at my computer. I’ll look around. I’ll tap on something. I’ll write something down. I feel like there are a lot of ways where it can seem like I’m cheating based off of this extensive monitoring. I understand the tab switching, to some extent, but I feel like they take it a little too far.
Alexis: How do you feel about professors recording online classes?
Ariel: I like it when professors record their classes in terms of me not being able to watch, like for my asynchronous participation. But I have a problem with it when the professors require their students to put on their cameras while they’re recording the class. There are professors who do that. And that’s very uncomfortable. Nobody signed up to be recorded while watching their lecture online.
Alexis: So, the recording component aside, how do you feel about video cameras being required at all? What concerns do you have about that, or what benefits do you see?
Ariel: I feel like for small group discussions it’s definitely best to have your camera on. But it definitely should not be required because it’s a total invasion of privacy, and people may not want to be sharing their living space or just to that extent. I definitely think it’s helpful for small-group discussions, so I can see why it’s encouraged for that, but I definitely don’t think that in big lectures that’s necessary at all. Especially because people can just be swiping and looking and watching other kids, which is kind of creepy.
Alexis: Have you or any of your friends had any tech-related challenges this semester?
Ariel: Apparently, when you don’t log in through your university email, you get kicked out of the [online conferencing platform], or if you’re late and not on your university email, you’re not even let into the class and your teacher will kick you out. I haven’t had that problem personally, but I know professors talked about that. At some point they stop manually letting people in from the waiting room, so beyond five minutes of class, you just can’t attend the lecture anymore. Aside from that, I’ve had some WiFi issues and microphone issues but nothing major.
Actually, for my financial accounting class, my professor likes to go into some studio and write on a whiteboard, and he often does not look at the chat on [the online conferencing platform]. I have this issue with a lot of professors who don’t look at the chat frequently enough during lecture to know when they’re screwing up and when they’re not doing stuff the students can keep up with. And he writes on a whiteboard, but the camera quality is just not good enough to capture what he’s writing. And he looks at the chat like 45 minutes after, and by that point I’ve already checked out because I wasn’t able to follow. So that has happened.
Alexis: So, has the teacher changed the way he does his lectures because of this?
Ariel: Well, he thinks that since he can see it on his screen that we should be able to see it on our screen, which is just not how the technology works. Everyone is typing in the chat, and the professor says, “It’s super clear on my computer; this is absurd.” And we’re just like, “Okay.”
Alexis: Do you have a dedicated space for learning that gives you some privacy to learn and study and allows you to fully engage in what you’re doing?
Ariel: As unfortunate as it is, it is my bedroom. I share my living space with my roommate, which is totally fine. I don’t like to do my classes where I have a small group discussion in the common area just because I don’t want to bother her. There aren’t many spaces on campus where I’m able to do my classes otherwise, because we don’t have a lot of study spaces conducive for discussion classes. I feel like it’s hard to do classes outside on the arts quad when I have to participate. So, it is my bedroom, and I don’t really get out of it very much.
Alexis: From a privacy perspective, what do you wish your school had done differently in their transition to online learning this fall, if anything?
Ariel: I wish the professors would be more open-minded about online participation. I feel like they don’t really understand how awkward it can be and how uncomfortable it is with the whole camera invasion-of-privacy aspect of it. I feel like that totally goes over their heads because they want to see all of you. They think it’s just like a total replacement for in-person classes, which it’s not. It’s very different. So, I feel like they overlook all the privacy aspects of that. I wish they’d be more open minded with the “I want to see into your whole life.”
One of my business classes measures our participation based on the fact that our videos are on and we’re nodding along or that we turn our audio on to say something once in a while, which is a lot of pressure. Having your camera off is not an option. The professor will call you out. He’ll be like, “Why don’t you put your camera on?” He’ll put you on the spot, and then it’ll be even more uncomfortable if you don’t turn it on.
And some professors also aren’t very conducive to the whole time-change thing. There are a lot of students in these classes in other states or countries around the world. And they require live, synchronous participation with their classes. So if you’re not in the same time zone, it’s kind of like “oh, well” for you.
Alexis: Have you seen anything in these online settings that people wouldn’t want others to see because their cameras are on in the background?
Ariel: I personally have not had this experience, but I know someone where everyone in the class was required to have their cameras on, and one person didn’t realize they didn’t turn it off when they went to use the bathroom with their laptop in hand, camera still. It was terrible. Some people don’t really care anymore where they do their classes from, and you see their animals running around and people talking in the background and shuffling. So, it can get distracting because people are starting not to care at all because now it’s just a requirement. People are doing their things, walking around, cooking, and doing stuff.
Alexis: What does privacy mean to you?
Ariel: Privacy to me means being able to keep what I find to be personal to myself. I feel like privacy is whatever I decide not to disclose to other people. So, whether that be a picture or a part of my life or an assignment or anything I choose not to disclose, it is private.