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 Nicholas Parker (not his real name), a senior studying psychology and economics at a private liberal arts college in the northeast. He reflects on his experience attending college virtually and offers his thoughts 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?
Nicholas: I don’t know anything about what they do. That may be because I just don’t care enough to pay attention to it. I’m sure if I sought out that type of information, I might be able to find something. I’d imagine that it’s not anything too intense in terms of what they collect on me. I’m sure they know my SSN, my addresses, and phone numbers. But I think as far as personal information, that’s it. Probably that’s standard. I don’t really care about people taking my information, personally. I have nothing to hide.
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?
Nicholas: I think that’s a really great idea. I’ve heard of that. It’s obviously a privacy concern. My school has not asked me to do anything like that because we’re not on campus, and those who are on campus don’t have to because that’s not a thing. But I would do it if it were offered to me. I think that the benefits outweigh the costs in terms of preventing COVID-19 transmission and stuff like that. I guess there are concerns because it can know what you’re doing, where you are, and who you associate with, which is, like, everything. But I guess maybe as long as they don’t use that information for anything other than COVID-19, then that would be fine by most people, I imagine. Or maybe if the collected data was encrypted somehow so it’s only accessible if it’s related to an instance.
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?
Nicholas: I wouldn’t do very well if that were the case for me. That’s a little extreme, and even under normal circumstances that’s not the level of security for exams. I mean, I guess it encourages people to do the right thing. But I think that’s kind of extreme. Let’s say that you’re taking an exam and you get a message saying your mom is in the hospital; obviously you’re going to want to open that message. I assume that, under whatever system you described, that would be tracked. Now, all of a sudden, the professor not only thinks you’re cheating but they also know your mom is in the hospital, and maybe you don’t want them to know that. So I guess that’s a circumstance where that would be a violation of privacy.
Alexis: Do you see a better solution?
Nicholas: Giving up and just letting students do whatever they want, in all honesty. I mean, I have an accounting exam on Monday, which is a [online conferencing platform] meeting with 89 people. She can’t even scroll through pages enough to know what everyone is doing at any moment. Practically speaking, given the circumstances, I say just let it ride and make this semester kind of a wash. But that’s obviously not a productive use of an education.
Alexis: Do you know how your professor plans on proctoring the test Monday?
Nicholas: Yeah, we already had one. She just let us do it. All of my professors tell us what the expectations are for the exam. It’s not like I’m signing anything; it’s just a Word doc, and it says no other modes of communication, or don’t take calls and don’t text people. But other than grading, there’s literally nothing she can do because she’s not there, so people are going to do what they need to do.
Alexis: In the news recently, students discovered that their assignments were being graded by an algorithm, not their professor. These algorithms graded assignments based on specific, predetermined keywords. The students figured out that the algorithm was trained to look for these keywords, and changed answers on future assignments to beat the algorithm, by using as many keywords as possible rather than answering the questions as they might have if their professor were grading the assignment. What do you think about the reliance on algorithms for grading? How would you have responded to an assignment that was graded this way?
Nicholas: That’s interesting. I would do something in the middle, but I assume I would have to either do really well or do really poorly to figure out the algorithm. So, I mean, that’s kind of the same idea as resume filters in that you’re not getting the quality or getting to see what the work is. You’re just relying on objectivity; under the circumstances, professors don’t have the time to grade all the things they would, but then they should just change the mode of testing. What are their jobs if not grading?
Alexis: How do you feel about professors recording lectures?
Nicholas: I think it’s good. My professors are doing it for all of them. I get the logic behind it: if you missed a lecture or if you want to study or review, you could do it. They record it and they post it to whatever page that the class has. And that’s good, I guess. But where’s it going after that? Are they having teacher conferences where they make fun of people who got caught picking their nose or something? I don’t know.
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?
Nicholas: Yeah, all of my professors require it. And I am fine with it. When people don’t turn their cameras on, it’s really impersonal. It’s hard to communicate to an icon on a screen. You want to see them receiving the information, and I guess in terms of kids learning, seeing confused faces in a classroom is really important to a teacher because that’s how they know that people aren’t getting it. Students don’t always have the confidence to ask a question. I think it should be necessary, and it is necessary for me. But there are professors who say if your setting is not appropriate for class or you don’t feel comfortable, you don’t have to. But I’m sure kids are taking advantage of that and are watching TV during class.
Alexis: Have you or any friends had any tech challenges to fully engaging in class?
Nicholas: Yeah, I had a class that was cancelled because [the online conferencing platform] went down. Full class cancelled––and then she posted a horrible version of what the lecture should have been. We missed out on asking questions and clarifying things, and she changed what she would have said because no one could ask questions. So that’s an example.
Alexis: Have you personally had any Wifi issues?
Nicholas: Yeah, I’ve had awful WiFi. I’ve been kicked out of class multiple times and had to miss things and log back on.
Alexis: Do you have a dedicated space for learning that affords you some privacy/ability to study and engage fully in learning and studying?
Nicholas: Yeah. I have my bedroom at home, and I think it’s important to have that type of formal working environment. But it’s obviously not what it would have been. I guess you make do with what you have. I would like to have a better desk or a bigger chair or whatever.