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 Maddy Caffrey (not her real name), a sophomore basketball player studying early childhood and special education at an east coast private liberal college. She reflects on her experience on campus this fall 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?
Maddy: We were required to download this app, and each morning we have to type in our name, email, if we’ve been around someone with COVID-19, if we got tested, and if we’re living on or off campus. Also, we answer all of these different questions about how we’re feeling today and the symptoms. So we have to submit all of this every day, and we have to show our teachers the green check mark on the app before entering class.
Alexis: So how do you feel about the daily check-ins? Do you think it’s too much, too little?
Maddy: I think it’s a really good thing to use at school, but people can definitely lie on it so it’s easy to just get out of it. But my school is doing a really good job of keeping everyone safe on campus. There are different quarantine zones on campus and stuff like that. They’re taking all the health precautions that they need to.
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, body position, resting and sleeping patterns. What do you think about a school doing something like this, even if it is optional? Would you wear one?
Maddy: I think that is a really good idea, especially since we are in the middle of a pandemic. And being on a college campus right now is really just a good thing and an opportunity that not a lot of kids are given this year. So if I had to go to a school that recommended that I do it, I would definitely do it because, first, it will protect the people around me, and second, it would protect myself.
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?
Maddy: Our school uses something [like that], and there are different options for teachers to pick from. One is the software just locks down your computer and you can’t open up new tabs. But then there’s another setting where the software tracks your microphone, you have to have your camera turned on, and you have to circle your laptop around the room and make sure there’s no notes out, no other people in the room, and that there are no phones. So I’ve never had to take the test with my camera on, but I’ve had to take one with the no tabs being open and the exam is just locked on the screen.
Alexis: What was that like for you?
Maddy: I don’t think it’s that terrible. I think the laptop with the camera on is harder than the no tabs being open, especially living on campus and if you have roommates. If the roommates don’t know and they walk into the room while you’re taking the test, it will just shut down your test automatically. The same thing would happen if you looked away from the computer for a second or if noises were being made. I would definitely stress about who is going to come in the room. So, now students are stressing out about their environment in addition to stressing out about the exam itself.
Alexis: How do you feel about professors recording online classes, and what do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of doing this?
Maddy: I think an advantage of this is that students who can’t make a class or don’t feel safe to go to a class some days can have the option of watching the class online. I don’t think there’s any disadvantages.
Alexis: How do you feel about professors requiring video cameras to be turned on at all times during class? Is that happening at school?
Maddy: At my school there are some classes that require you to put your camera on, and if you don’t put it on the professor will call you out for it. But in some classes, professors don’t stress putting your camera on because they understand that you’re in your room, there are different distractions, and then that distracts the rest of the class if your camera is on.
I have friends at other schools that actually require you to put a uniform on. High schools are doing that. And you have to put on at least your uniform top, and you can’t be seen in, like, a tank top on [online conferencing platform] calls, which I think should not be allowed. I think uniforms shouldn’t be required for a [online conferencing platform] class.
Alexis: Have you or any of your friends had any tech-related challenges this semester?
Maddy: There are different WiFi networks at my school, and sometimes too many people are on it, especially with all the online classes, so it just crashes. And then it’s hard to get back into the room on a different WiFi, and it takes about 10 minutes. So you’re missing 10 minutes of class. Exam-wise I haven’t had a problem, like, it hasn’t logged me out of a test and I get a bad grade on it yet.
Alexis: Do you have a dedicated space for learning that affords you some privacy/ability to study and engage fully in learning and studying?
Maddy: My roommate and I have a different class schedule, which is nice because when one of us needs the bedroom, the other one is sitting in our common room. But it definitely would be an issue if we didn’t have a common room, like last year I was in just a double room, and I feel like it would have been more of an issue last year if this was happening. There’d be no escaping that bedroom. I guess you can go to a library, but there are other people in there, so you can’t really participate in class discussions.
Alexis: What does privacy mean to you? Does that change whether you’re in person or online?
Maddy: Privacy to me is really just not overstepping boundaries to the point where you don’t feel comfortable and free to explore. I feel like if you have your camera off, and the teacher asks, “what are you doing right now?” and you’re in the bathroom, you’re not going to say you’re in the bathroom. That’s privacy. If you need to put the camera off, you need it off, and there should be no questions asked.
Alexis: Do you feel your school is making an effort to protect your privacy and any information collected about you this semester?
Maddy: I think they are making every effort. They’re trying to not overstep the boundaries of being so overprotective of us, and they’re trying to give us the freedom you should have as a college kid. But they’re also putting restrictions on things that they need to, with the pandemic going on.