Student privacy proves to be important during virtual learning

Nov. 3, 2020, 3:09 p.m. | By Tharindi Jayatilake | 11 months, 3 weeks ago

How serious are the privacy issues with online school?

As Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) reach the three-month milestone of school, teachers and students are settling into a normal routine. However, even as everyone begins to familiarize themselves with virtual learning and the recording of classes, privacy issues bring about controversies, including the questions - how private is student information right now and how concerned should students be about their privacy?

Photo: Students use MyMCPS classroom and Synergy to navigate virtual learning (courtesy of Abby Yokoyama)

Many, if not all, students value their privacy immensely, especially when in respect to school. Junior Gelila Isayas views her information as something she does not want shared with people she does not trust, and this may include anyone from government officials to teachers. "When it comes to school - unless I can completely trust the person or the application - I value my privacy a lot," says Isayas. With the new technology brought in by online learning, a lot of student information that used to be private is now open to teachers and supervisors. For example, teachers have access to all student emails on Synergy, including drafts. All of these current technologies used for online school severely reduce student privacy, which should be protected regardless of the circumstances. 

Privacy provides boundaries and allows us to keep our information safe from outside authorities that could easily utilize it in harmful ways. As students, we release a lot of information to MCPS, including but not limited to: our addresses, our health details, our test scores and more. As a result, multiple controversies have arisen concerning student privacy since online school began. 

Zoom recordings are a primary concern. MCPS has required teachers to record their classes so that students who were absent can watch the class recordings to catch up. Although this is a good plan for helping students who miss class, recording Zoom meetings can easily be seen as an invasion of a student's privacy. Some may argue that students have the ability to turn their camera off if they feel uncomfortable with being taped, but teachers often encourage students to turn on their camera to observe student feedback and increase class participation. 

According to Inside Higher Ed, professors stated that it was disheartening to teach to "a bunch of black boxes with names on them." The article continued to explain that calling on said boxes regularly ensued in awkward silence rather than the participation teachers were used to. Blair technology teacher John Kaluta emphasized that participation was necessary for him to understand his students. "There might be 6 or 8 [students] that really aren't paying attention as closely as you'd like. In a classroom, you can see that. You kind of walk over their way and remind them, 'we're doing this right now.,'" He said. "But on Zoom, if their camera's not on and I can't see their face, I can't really tell."

One major concern with Zoom recordings is consent for recording. When a teacher begins videotaping, a pop-up notification informs students that a recording has started. However, the recording starts before the student presses 'continue' or leaves the meeting. Junior Asher Labovich expressed his unease with Zoom’s lack of consent. "[The Zoom meeting] starts recording you before you click 'continue'," he said. "There are problems with recording someone without their consent."

Another issue with virtual learning is the new ability of teachers to access student emails through Synergy, MCPS' newest education platform. Synergy’s main goal is to keep track of a student's transcripts, gradebook and emails to teachers. Students often conduct conversations with teachers through Synergy, sending them emails to ask about assignments. Synergy also allows teachers to view their students' emails, including drafts, sent emails and received emails. Kaluta further explained that he can view most student information through the platform. "The Synergy format is open record. For instance, if I needed or felt I needed to see something from another class of yours... I can get to that," he said. 

A further concern is the lack of awareness among Blair students. Both Labovich and Isayas communicated their surprise at hearing the news. "I never knew about [teacher's access to student emails] until you told me," Isayas said. With such an obvious invasion of privacy, the fact that so many students at Blair are unaware is simply unacceptable, compounded by the fact that emails are personal items that could easily cause harm if shared to other teachers or posted on a non-encrypted domain. 

Further concerning transparency issues, parents may opt their children out of Zoom lessons if they feel it's important that their child is not recorded, but not all parents are aware of this fact. Even so, this form of opting-out could also cause major problems for students, as it could give them less time to effectively interact with the teacher.

Both students and parents should be aware and knowledgeable of the privacy issues circling virtual learning right now. Students especially should know about a teacher's ability to view their emails through Synergy because it directly affects them. 

Virtual learning has been a rough transition for parents, students, and teachers, but that should not lessen the importance of privacy protection. With new technologies, including but not limited to Zoom, Synergy, Canvas etc., we must all be careful with our personal information in order to maintain a sense of security. All students should be conscious of when and where their privacy is being invaded as well as be aware of how to keep their personal information safe.

Last updated: Nov. 3, 2020, 3:12 p.m.

Tharindi Jayatilake. Hey, I'm Tharindi [she/her] :D In my free time, you can find me dancing or listening to music. More »

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