Elevating Student Voices: Conversations about Student Privacy with Undergraduates During COVID-19

Elevating Student Voices: Conversations about Student Privacy with Undergraduates During COVID-19

While student privacy advocates and educators have recognized privacy issues in higher education during COVID-19, a gap remains between their voices and students’ perspectives. To address this gap, Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) policy consultant Alexis Shore talked to undergraduate students from across the United States in the fall of 2020 to gauge their perspectives on student privacy in the midst of COVID-19. The purpose of this interview series is to elevate student voices to help higher education decision makers understand how their choices affect students. Extensive data collection and pervasive technologies will continue beyond the pandemic, so it is important that student experiences inform future data and privacy practices. By incorporating student voices, leaders in higher education can foster educational communities that prioritize student privacy while maintaining safety during the pandemic.

FPF has deidentified all interviews to maintain the privacy of both the students and the institutions in which they are enrolled. The interviews represent public and private institutions from the west coast, northeast, and southern US. The students interviewed vary in age, gender, and major area of study. All students were attending school remotely from their apartments, dorm rooms, or family homes.

Students were asked to describe the data collection practices they experienced during the fall 2020 semester, such as daily symptom monitoring, exam proctoring, and distance learning via video conferencing. They were also prompted to voice their opinions on student privacy issues at other US higher education institutions as reflected in the media. Through this semi-structured interview process, several themes emerged: 

  1. Most students do not actually know which data their school collects about them, revealing that higher education institutions lack sufficient transparency regarding data collection and prioritizing student privacy. 
  2. All of the students were confined to single spaces for learning. While some students had the luxury of private spaces, others had to navigate the challenges of sharing with roommates.
  3. All of the students had either experienced or heard of teachers at their schools using third-party software to proctor exams. They all believed that this was both disruptive and an invasion of privacy, and one student noted that the software likely does not reduce the prevalence of cheating. 
  4. Students felt that it was not fair for class participation to depend on their willingness to turn their video cameras on, although they understood that their professors benefited from this policy.

Although the students shared some common experiences, their opinions and practices of their schools also revealed differences. While privacy was deemed as an important factor for students, others were willing to sacrifice their personal privacy for the sake of COVID-19 prevention. Additionally, there was variance between schools regarding the extent they required students to provide check-in data. In addition to elevating students’ voices, these unique interviews provide an inside look at the policies and practices of different universities at the intersection of the COVID-19 pandemic and student privacy. 

You can read the interviews in full by clicking on the links below.

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