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.
On October 30, Alexis Shore, a policy consultant on FPF’s youth and education team, spoke with Eliza Skylar (not her real name), a senior studying dance and creative writing at a public research university in the south. She reflects on her experience attending college virtually this semester.
Alexis: What do you know about the information your school is collecting about you? How do you feel about your school collecting and using your information?
Eliza: I don’t know much. All I know is that we started to get more data collected about us when the pandemic started. So we had to download these new apps but that’s really it. We have this one app that basically just keeps data on all of the kids who get tested for COVID at the university and symptoms for each student. And you have to download it in order to get tested here. But that is all the application does. Like when I get tested for COVID-19 the app tells me if I’m negative or positive and I assume they just keep the data to regulate the number of cases to see if it is increasing or decreasing. And I’m fine with that. We don’t have to do daily health check ins or anything like other schools do.
From my own observations about the stuff we have to fill out in [her state], there really isn’t anything that shows us where our information is being handled or if there is any privacy toward what we fill out or anything. So I can’t really answer the second question because I personally don’t even know.
Alexis: Outside of the context of COVID-19, are you aware of any other sort of data collection your university does?
Eliza: I mean they collect data on our grades and I assume like when we register for classes that it is all collected somewhere. Also I guess when we have to fill out certain forms about ourselves to register. I don’t really think about anything else other than registration for classes for data collection.
Alexis: At another 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?
Eliza: I’ve never heard of a technology like that so let me think about this. I don’t know… I feel a little weird about it. Honestly I feel like it would increase the panic that people feel around the pandemic that’s occurring. If you have to wear something every single day to check in if you have it or not like that would freak me out. I think a lot of people would panic about that. I don’t really think about the data involved in it per say. I think more about the mental health issues that it would cause students. Just like thinking about COVID-19 around the clock. I don’t think that’s good for anyone.
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?
Eliza: So I haven’t done it personally but I know my friends have taken tests online where they have to download this software. Honestly I think it’s an invasion of privacy. I think that no one should have that sort of access to your personal files and browsing. Also access to stare at you while you’re taking a test is really intimidating. Even if it’s for a test, I really don’t think they should allow that type of access.
Alexis: So what is the exact access professors are getting using this software?
Eliza: Like I said, I haven’t done it, but basically my friends have had to download something where someone watches them – so full video access. Then the professors can also see if tabs on their computer are open or not. That’s all I really know about it because I have not done it.
Alexis: How do you feel about professors recording lectures?
Eliza: I think that recording the classes could possibly benefit students if they were not able to attend the class. So they can go back and look at the recordings. I don’t think it’s an invasion of privacy. But I think [web conferencing platform] classes in general are not very fruitful. After doing it for a couple months now I really don’t like it. There are some teachers who are not good teachers and who need push from students in order to get us the help that we need. So I’m in a class right now where one of my teachers is not a good teacher so he’s having a lot of trouble with [the web conferencing platform], especially because no one in the class is speaking. This may be because it’s an 8AM class so the time definitely hurts his case, but also he just doesn’t know where to go. I feel like when you’re a teacher you rely on the physical environment to determine if the student know what you’re talking about. You can see their body language. I feel like over [a web conferencing platform] where we can mute our voices and mute our videos, it’s really hard to be a teacher.
Alexis: Do your professors require you to turn your video on during classes? Is that something you’re comfortable with or do you have concerns about it?
Eliza: Well one of my professors does for my dance class, like we have to have our video cameras on the entire time. And some days it’s kind of sucky because you don’t feel like you wanna put the video camera on one day because it’s just so exhausting doing [web conferencing classes] over and over again. Sometimes you just want a break and not show your face but still do the class. So it’s hard when you have an option to do that but the professor takes it away from you.
But then you can think back to how it was in the physical classroom. I can’t mute my face. This has just become a new option for everyone. I guess we just got used to it. So I think it’s going to be really interesting to go back to class in person.
Alexis: Have you or any friends had any tech challenges to fully engaging in class?
Eliza: Yeah. I have very bad WiFi in my apartment and a lot of times when I’m trying to listen, it logs me out and then I have to take a couple seconds to get back into the [web conferencing] session which is frustrating. It’s totally out of my control.
Alexis: Do you have a dedicated space for learning that affords you some privacy/ability to study and engage fully in learning and studying?
Eliza: At this point I’ve just been doing class in my apartment which is kind of hard sometimes because you feel like you’re confined to your apartment all day every day on your computer which can be very stressful and tiresome.
Alexis: Are there any options to do class outside of your apartment?
Eliza: There are some options on campus. Some of our campus buildings are open but you’d have to wear a mask if you wanted to go there. So that’s kind of hard on [web conferencing platforms] if you have to have your video camera on.
Alexis: What does privacy mean to you?
Eliza: Privacy means just to have a respect for my own personal space. I don’t know – I really haven’t thought about this.
I guess most of the privacy issues are confined within the Internet. Most of the places where our privacy is violated is through the Internet; it’s not really taken from you as much when you are face-to-face.