Unsolicited privacy boundaries for digital learning

The landscape of digital privacy has always been a difficult one to navigate, as information on the web is easily accessible, manipulatable and, most importantly, permanent. Yet it must be said that privacy in regards to online schooling is completely different from general instances of data theft, mainly due to the type of environment that schools are expected to provide. 

Relatively recent examples of this relate to the nature of distance learning, in which administration and teachers have found it necessary to institute extra security measures to prevent the cheating that is so prevalent at Diamond Bar High School.

To maintain fair scoring systems for honest students, teachers have resorted to a multitude of methods to make sure that students are not doing anything they shouldn’t be during exams. 

Some of the methods commonly used include making students keep their hands and faces in front of the camera so they will be seen if they attempt to look up answers on their phones or textbooks; making tests more difficult; requiring free-response answers so that students cannot help one another; and having students keep their microphones unmuted so that they’ll be heard if they try to communicate with others. 

While these methods, among others, have drawn criticism from students for their inconvenience, they are necessary measures that must be taken to maintain testing integrity. The microphone method is an exception in certain cases, for the student might have a difficult home situation they do not wish to disclose to their class, or when household background noise disrupts the testing environment. 

Students may be bothered for the duration of the testing, but other than these trivial concerns there are few other actions teachers can take without invading their students’ privacy.

Of topics relating to overall web privacy concerns for students, some may also feel uncomfortable with the fact that their district-issued Google  accounts are under district surveillance, as school administrators are able to view students’ search history and all of their Google Drive files without permission when students are logged into their account.

These would be important security concerns were it not for the fact that even though students may use these accounts frequently for schoolwork and to attend their classes, these accounts were never intended for personal use. 

It’s also not as if district accounts should be banned from personal computers, because many students prefer to add their accounts to their browsers for the sake of convenience. As long as students are not actively using their school accounts to make personal searches, then the district cannot  access search histories.

As long as students are using them only for assignments, the purpose for which the accounts were issued, they will encounter no issues with privacy or security, because administration is only notified when certain keywords are registered in browsers under the accounts.

Using the WVUSD accounts to search for items of personal interest and then asking to keep the search hidden would be the same as trying to check out a school library book without letting the librarian see which book it is. The district monitors audio and video for the same reasons students are not allowed to wear hoods or non-DBHS hats on campus, and that is for the overall safety and wellbeing of the student body.

Furthermore, it is important for students to remember that distance learning is new to everyone, so teachers and school administration are likely to  struggle to maintain an easily accessible and functional school environment. Since they are unable to meet face-to-face with their students, teachers have had to come up with more creative methods on the fly to familiarize themselves with their classes. 

Activities such as these that allow students to take screenshots while their classmates are on the screen sometimes qualify as potential privacy concerns, since not all students are entirely comfortable with having their picture taken without prior authorization, regardless of whether they end up in the background or not. 

However, these activities are generally optional, which means that students who have chosen to participate have actively consented to, for example, putting their picture on a shared slideshow that their teacher and classmates can access.

 In the same manner, teachers’ recordings of classes aren’t meant to capture students’ faces, but are usually recorded with the intent for students to review, either for improved understanding of the lesson or if they missed class. Either way, it should not be seen as a subject of much importance, as getting caught in the background of a lecture is no different than showing up in a yearbook photo taken at a school rally.

Other worries that have been raised by students include keeping and recording of student logins for external websites, which are mainly recorded in the case that the student forgets their login and needs to sign in to complete a homework assignment. When they are unable to reset their password, or would choose to not rest their password, they can email their teachers for their login information on websites like ALEKS and Accelerated Reader.

It’s also not as if the information the school is recording is extremely personal, either. At most, teachers may ask students to join a Remind or Google Classroom to receive updates for their classes. Neither system asks for information beyond an email or a phone number, information the school already has on record for teachers to freely access.

Additional issues may include the sharing of information by third parties, an issue which Zoom faced criticism over recently, and other students taking screenshots of calls and capturing the faces of their classmates.

Unencrypted data, especially in the current age of technology, is a serious concern that deserves to be addressed, because it leaves all information gathered during the video calls open to third parties. As both students and teachers can be negatively impacted by this, DBHS should terminate use of the program and standardize class meets to Google Meets 

However, pictures taken by students of their peers are not as much of an issue as there are many ways for students to protect their identities while showing their active participation in class. For example, students can opt to show only the upper half of their face on camera, which effectively obscures their identities within the bounds of school camera regulations.

There is also no reason students should be concerned about having their picture taken through a screen when it can just as easily be taken out in the open at school, since phones are allowed to be used on campus.

Both students and the administration are trying their best to make sure Distance Learning is as comfortable as possible for everyone. Even if the validity of the listed privacy issues is disregarded, many of these so-called security concerns can just as easily be applied outside of the remote curriculum and should not be treated as entirely new threats to student privacy resulting from the transition to internet schooling.