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 Olivia Levine (not her name), a junior studying sociology and Israel studies at a public research university on the west coast. She reflects on her experience as a new transfer student attending from her off-campus apartment and offers her 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?
Olivia: Oh, I don’t know anything about that. But if my data is being used to help other people, I don’t have an issue with that. I guess because [her university] is a research institution, it would make sense that they are collecting data. All of my communication with [her university] has been through email since I am a new student, and I don’t recall anything about privacy or data collection being mentioned.
Alexis: What do you think about having daily health checks or having to check in on an app? Does your school do this? If so, have you been complying?
Olivia: I think that living off campus, we’re supposed to do daily check-ins, but I haven’t gotten information about that other than the fact that we’re supposed to do them. They’re not enforcing it, especially since I’m not living in [her university] housing. If you are living in [her university] housing, however, students have to participate in testing and daily symptom checks.
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, and sleeping and resting patterns. What do you think about a school doing something like this, even if it is optional? Would you wear one?
Olivia: I think that’s really invasive. I understand the need for monitoring COVID-19 symptoms, but I think the BioButton is kind of pushing it. Tracking your sleep goes beyond acceptable boundaries. I wouldn’t want to wear one of those.
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?
Olivia: I think it just causes more test anxiety because you have to explain every single movement that you make. My friends who have had that have been locked out of their exams, and in some cases they have had to redo them. Having software like this just adds a whole new level of stress. The system asks you to put your video on, and it tracks your eye movement. I do think that cheating is a huge issue, but there should be a balance. You don’t want the testing curve to be offset by people who are cheating. But at the same time, people with testing anxiety are put into an environment that is even more stressful than one for in-person testing. Also, these students are already not getting the accommodations that they would normally get for testing anxiety.
Alexis: How do you feel about professors recording online classes? What are the advantages and disadvantages to this?
Olivia: A lot of my professors are recording classes, and they let us know beforehand that if we have our video on, then we’re going to be in the recording. We have the option to have our video off if that’s something that bothers us. So I don’t really mind it because of that option.
Alexis: How would you feel if your professor required that your video cameras be turned on at all times during class? Would you be comfortable with this?
Olivia: In one of my classes that requires having the video turned on, it’s unfortunate because when my video is on, my WiFi doesn’t really work. I had my video on yesterday and then the WiFi kicked me out, and it took me seven minutes to get back to my 50-minute discussion. So I missed a huge chunk of the class. It’s nice being able to see people, but I think that specifically the WiFi in [her city] is not really working because of how overused it is. And this makes it difficult for students to participate in class because of the lag. When more people are on video, it is even more difficult for the conversation to load.
Alexis: Besides the WiFi, have you had any other tech issues this semester?
Olivia: Yes. And we’re still in the first week of school, as classes began on October 1st. For example, one of my classes is recorded, and there’s no live discussion. The professor doesn’t realize that in the recording she posts, a significant chunk of the PowerPoint is cut off. And the professor didn’t post the recording at the time she said she would post it because of the technical difficulties. Also, my other professor could not hear the students for the entirety of the class; maybe his computer was muted or maybe it was a tech issue. He would ask questions to the class and we would answer them, and he’d say “No one has an answer?” and move on. He couldn’t read the chat or hear us. We tried to tell him, but he couldn’t hear us. And then at the end of class, when he had a guest speaker come and he couldn’t hear her but we all could, he realized there was a technology issue.
Alexis: Do you have a dedicated space that gives you some privacy to learn and study and allows you to fully engage in what you’re doing?
Olivia: More or less. I share a room with a roommate, so it’s a little hard. We’re just trying to make it work. We have a calendar that indicates the times that we have class, so we can stay organized.
Alexis: What does privacy mean to you? How do you think about/define it in the context of school?
Olivia: I’ve never really thought about that. I mean, given the fact that everything is on [my schools’ video conference platform], I don’t think there’s any privacy. For example, yesterday I went to [her university] therapy on [the platform], and not only were people walking in and out of the “room” but it was all over [the platform], and people say that [the platform] may be storing videos elsewhere.
Alexis: Do you feel that your school is making an effort to protect your privacy and any information they have collected about you? Why or why not? How do you see them/not see them doing this?
Olivia: Something that’s good for our privacy but is kind of frustrating is that whenever we need to log into [her university] website to do anything, we need to confirm that it is us on a different device. So, it’s good we have second-factor authentication to make sure it’s not someone else hacking into our account.