Open Digital Pedagogy & FERPA

In these posts this semester, I’ve covered some big, sweeping topics — and continued that conversation in the Digital Pedagogy Workshop last month. As the semester begins to wrap up, there’s one or two final elements to using Digital Pedagogy that we haven’t covered. As we ask students to engage with High Impact Practices, participate in our RSCA activities, represent the public face of SJSU, we also need to consider the boundaries of openness.

What follows are a series of responses that the 3 authors of the introduction to Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities have discussed or experienced in our long journey towards completing this project.

[from DRAFT “Introduction” of Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities, authored by Rebecca Frost Davis, Matthew K. Gold, and Katherine D. Harris. Reference to draft version of May 1, 2019 — due for final digital, open access completion in 2019 on a searchable & user-friendly digital platform]

BUT . . .  FERPA!

“How can students do work openly online and still comply with FERPA?”

While openness is a key concept underlying digital pedagogy, the idea of open pedagogy, challenges traditional academic structures and policies. One of the most common objections raised to open pedagogy is concern for FERPA  (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), a US federal law which governs what and how student information can be made public.  The basic objection this law presents to openness is that student work done in public may compromise the privacy of student data. Both the keywords in Digital Pedagogy in the HumanitiesHybrid” and “Public” include as an artifact Kevin Smith’s HASTAC post, “Guidelines for Public, Student Class Blogs: Ethics, Legalities, FERPA and More“, which reviews effective practices for having students complete public assignments on blogs or other social media. Smith recommends that students be told about the public assignment up front, that they be allowed to post anonymously if desired, that the instructor remind them not to post private information (which entails teaching them what that information is), and that they be given an alternate assignment if they still do not want to post publicly.

Many FERPA-related objections to open digital pedagogy are the result of an institutionally-based, risk-averse approach to implementing FERPA by keeping all student work private. While FERPA restricts academic institutions and the faculty who work for them from sharing student educational and personal records openly, it does not and should not prevent students and faculty from working in public and semi-public spaces such as open course blogs. While instructors are not allowed to post student grades in such spaces, or perform evaluative grading work on them in public ways (since that could amount to the sharing or student records if real student names are used), many FERPA-related objections reflect a culture of fear grounded in the inherent conservatism of institutions concerned about potential legal actions. So long as instructors are not sharing private student information in public ways, and are not sharing grades or evaluations in public spaces, instructors may push back against such institutional conservative pressures. Such pushback has led, in many spaces, to the establishment of institution-wide public and semi-public teaching spaces such as UMW Blogs at the University of Mary Washington, The CUNY Academic Commons at the City University of New York, Blogs@Baruch at Baruch College, and the CityTech OpenLab at the New York City College of Technology. Such examples–and the privacy policies and terms of service documents that undergird them–offer positive examples that other institutions might emulate.

Indeed, many of the keywords in the Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities collection highlight ways that open digital pedagogy can help students better understand issues of privacy. In the keyword, “Public,” Jeff McClurken emphasizes that it is important to teach students about the implications of their public digital identity, while in the keyword, “Hybrid” Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris emphasize the importance of student agency in making determinations about privacy. By asking students to review the privacy statement for a social media site and record the results in a Google spreadsheet collaboratively populated by the class, the “Privacy Assignment” in Marisa Parham’s keyword “Hashtag” raises students’ awareness about how their data is used and shared. Likewise, Spencer Keralis’ keyword, “Labor,” includes an artifact that makes student choices about data privacy concrete in the form of the “Consent for Disclosure of Education Record.” This form gives students three choices for completing an assignment, choices that allow them to determine their desired level of privacy and officially record that choice. The form also gives the instructor a mechanism for documenting student choice. In the end, instructors can empower students to control their own data by teaching them about the implications of that control and allowing them to exercise it.

In case you’re still wondering about SJSU’s specific policy on FERPA, check “Privacy Rights of Students in Education Records.” In the end, if we incorporate students into the discussion about managing their data through these teachable moments, we also empower them in the current debates about owning and controlling their digital identities.

[All links provided point towards the open access GitHub post-peer review version of keywords and pedagogical artifacts. Currently in copyedits and transfer to its final digital platform, the project is due to finalization in 2019.]

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