Students, Academic Work and the Web

This was originally posted in 2010 and has stood the test of time so we’re re-posting as we think it’s a helpful reminder about FERPA and how it relates to student work.  ______________________________________________________________________

In collaboration with IT and the Registrar’s Office, CELT will be developing some boilerplate text for faculty to use on their syllabi regarding student FERPA rights.

Syllabi should always have some FERPA guidance on them, but the situation is particularly important to classes using Web 2.0 technology, where encouraging students to cultivate a public presence is often an important pedagogical technique. In discussion with the Registrar and IT we determined that :

  • Classes using such techniques must provide reasonable accommodation to students who have issues with “being public”
  • For issues that relate to “being public”, that accommodation can be agreed on between the student and the professor.  It could involve the use of pseudonyms, or an alternative non-public assignment the student could work on. The professor should always state this in the syllabus, so that students understand they have the option to request this.
  • For issues relating to grades, or official records, there is a much more rigid line. Under no circumstance can any official educational record be divulged without explicit written permission of the student, specifying exactly the people to whom the record will be released.
  • Professor comments on blogs are not, in most cases, official student records. They are not information maintained by the college, not part of any permanent assessment, and as long as they do not mention grades, etc., are probably best seen as ephemeral notes or classroom comments.
  • Here’s an interesting point I hadn’t thought of before: if you can’t do it on the web because of FERPA, you can’t do it in class either. FERPA makes no distinction between revealing elements of the educational record to a students classmates and revealing them to the greater web. A comment that related to a student’s grade that was illegal on the web would likely also be illegal in the classroom. If you can’t force students to post their art on the web (and you likely can’t — you have to provide an alternative to those who ask), you can’t force them to post it in the school’s hallway either.

That said, the key word is accommodation. With the exception of official student records, which must be treated strictly, most FERPA issues come down to whether the professor and the student can jointly work out an alternative that meets the needs of the course and with which the student feels comfortable.  And the first step in that process is letting students know they can request accommodation, and that doing so will not affect their grade.

Which, coming full circle here, is why we hope to develop some syllabus boilerplate that deals with this issue. And we’d like to thank the Registrar’s office and IT for offering to work with us on this very exciting project (and Jenny and Matt for starting this ball rolling).