Privacy Statements in Higher Education Syllabi

Improving Digital Citizenship for You and Your Students

Privacy Statements in Higher Education Syllabi

Privacy statements are relatively new and often not incorporated into higher education course syllabi, even as the need for such statements has increased. In their 2019 research¹, Dr. Kyle Jones and Dr. Amy VanScoy note that few faculty include privacy statements in their course syllabi, and when they do, they are “inherently limited by the contracts institutions sign with vendors—and their institution’s student data practices. Instructors may wish to implement protections that aren’t actually possible.” Complex data use by higher education institutions makes it difficult for faculty and their students to understand which data institutions and vendors collect through educational technologies such as learning management systems and technologies used more frequently during the COVID-19 pandemic, like video conferencing tools.   

That is why incorporating a privacy statement into syllabi is essential. The privacy statement not only signals faculty members’ duty of care toward their students (and their students’ data), but it also prompts faculty and students to think about privacy. As Dr. Jones mentioned in our recent conversation, “the higher degree of privacy literacy by instructors, the more they will be able to address student privacy in their instructional designs and advocate for privacy on behalf of their students.”

Instructional designer Autumm Caines and digital scholarship librarian Dr. Erin Glass recommend that faculty incorporate the following questions into their syllabi to improve their students’ and their own data literacy:

  • What types of personal data do you think are collected through your use of digital tools for educational activities?
  • What value does your personal data have for different contexts and entities? Consider how your data might be valued by your instructor, the institution, yourself, and companies.
  • Who owns your personal data, who can sell it, and who can use it?
  • Do you have concerns about how your personal data can be used? If so, what are they?
  • Are there aspects of your identity or life that you feel would put you in a place of special vulnerability if certain data were known about you or used against you?

Drawing on Caines and Glass’s recommendation, I use these questions in my higher education syllabus privacy statement (which can be found below in plain text, or as a Google Doc through this link, or as a PDF file through the “Download Report” button on the right side of your screen) and encourage students to reach out to discuss their data concerns. I have also worked to understand how my institution uses data and to communicate how I use student data and work to protect it in my classes. 

What should you consider as you write your privacy statement? Privacy statements should reflect your style, your course, and your institutional context. For instance, you should write the statement conversationally, use plain language your students will understand, ideally tie it to learning outcomes of the course, and, if possible, reference your department or institution’s privacy policies. You can also use your privacy statement to encourage your students to be actively involved, as a community, in protecting their individual and collective privacy, and to outline mechanisms for doing that. For instance, if your teaching is now predominantly online, you can set parameters for video-conference recording and expectations for shared community privacy standards.   

As Dr. Jones emphasized in our conversation, “What is most important is that privacy statements are written in a personal tone, that they demonstrate that instructors have taken student privacy seriously, and detail what students can do to protect themselves and their peers.” Your syllabus is not just a contract between you, your institution, and your students; it is also an opportunity to start a conversation about privacy and encourage your students’ active participation in the cultivation of their digital citizenship. 

 

Do you use privacy statements in your syllabi? If so, please share them in our syllabus privacy statement repository, so we can make these statements available for broad use. Email [email protected] to share your work and thinking.

Dr. Carrie Klein’s Syllabus Privacy Statement²

As a learning community, we are collectively responsible for upholding privacy protection standards. This is especially important as much of our teaching and learning has moved on to online platforms, which moves learning beyond the confines of the classroom. As your instructors, we are committed to protecting your privacy by only using university-approved course technologies and adhering to Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) guidelines. This includes only using your educational data for legitimate educational purposes and only sharing that with the university for legitimate purposes (for instance, submitting your final grades to the registrar’s office). Regarding video-conferencing, while we ask, to the extent you are comfortable and able, that you keep your videos on during lessons to aid in the development of our learning community, we also understand that that may not always be possible. Know that you will not be penalized for choosing to disable your video during synchronous course sessions. Also, while we do not plan on recording our course sessions, if a need to record our class arises, we will give everyone notice prior to the recording, so that you may turn off your videos should you not wish to be recorded.  

As learning community members, we also ask that each of us commit to the following basic privacy protection standards:

  • Not pinning or taking screenshots of fellow classmates or recording sessions during synchronous online sessions or sharing discussion thread posts from the learning management system. 
  • Just as in in-person courses, do not post images or identifiable conversations that occur in class to social media or to those beyond our learning community (this violates both general privacy and FERPA standards). 
  • Also, to protect your own privacy, remember that when using video conferencing, consider editing your physical background (if you don’t want fellow classmates seeing where you are joining from) and your computer background (so that you don’t inadvertently share browser tabs, internet history, or document/folder titles you don’t want public). You may also want to turn off notifications and alerts, so those aren’t shared to the group.

Finally, we encourage you to become active agents in understanding how your personal data is used and protected by the university/college to support your learning and institutional resources and priorities. Per Caines & Glass (2019), answer the following to better understand “how and why your data is collected, the potential risks of this collection, and how to better protect your personal data” (para. 7):

  • What types of personal data do you think are collected through your use of digital tools for educational activities?
  • What value does your personal data have for different contexts and entities? Consider how your data might be valued by your instructor, the institution, yourself, and companies.
  • Who owns your personal data, who can sell it, and who can use it?
  • Do you have concerns about how your personal data can be used? If so, what are they?
  • Are there aspects of your identity or life that you feel would put you in a place of special vulnerability if certain data were known about you or used against you?

If after asking yourself these questions you have concerns, I invite you to reach out to me to discuss them. I may not have easy answers to the questions or concerns that you bring to me (often in these matters no one has these answers), but I will happily explore them further with you or find someone more knowledgeable who can help answer your questions.

 

1  K.M. Jones and A. VanScoy, The Syllabus As a Student Privacy Document in An Age of Learning Analytics, Journal of Documentation, (2019), 75 (6): 1333–1355.

2  Feel free to borrow any of this language you would like in your own syllabi, but please provide attribution.