FERPA Law and Digital Tools

UW offers an impressive array of digital tools to support classroom instruction and student learning: notably, Google Drive (documents, forms, presentations, and sites–which some instructors use for student projects and portfolios) and Canvas, which has lots of options for in- and out-of-class engagement (for example: peer review, Canvas-friendly appsPanopto, and of course portfolios).

But there are also lots of other great digital tools out there, and many of us are using them in innovative ways to engage our students. We’re here to support you in finding tools that advance your pedagogical goals. But there are also some ethical and legal considerations to keep in mind when you’re thinking about tools that aren’t protected by UW NetID access.

FERPA law

We all know not to post student grades on office doors or leave boxes out for student paper drop-off or pick-up, and we know we cannot discuss grades over email. But did you know that you also should not store electronic copies of student papers or grades in your personal Dropbox or other cloud service? It’s true: any digital copies of student work or grades should be kept in your UW NetID-protected Google Drive or on Canvas or Catalyst.

Why? Because FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974) says that educational records (which include not only students’ grades, but also records that identify students’ course numbers/titles/times/instructors) cannot be revealed to a third party without the written consent of the students. (Check out a quick overview of FERPA guidelines here.)

Because UW cannot guarantee the security of internet-based resources outside the UW NetID, keeping student records anywhere else is a risk (and UW can’t help us legally if there’s a data breach outside their NetID protection). And requiring students to use social media (with their real names or other identifying information) for class participation or projects, particularly with hashtags or group/page names that identify the course, without their written consent is a violation of FERPA.

Does this mean we can’t use any digital tools outside the UW NetID protection? Not at all! But it does mean we need to be informed about students’ rights to privacy, and we need to be judicious (and legally correct) about using other digital tools. Essentially, this means two important things:

  1. Obtain students’ written consent whenever you ask them to use a non-UW-protected digital tool (I’ve included a sample consent form below). Note that if students create anonymous user names, you do not have to get their written consent, but you do need to be prepared to provide an alternative for students who have legitimate concerns about putting their work online.
  2. Give students a viable alternative to using the non-UW-protected digital tool: they should not be penalized in any way for not using the non-UW-protected tool.

Taking these simple steps allows you to safely and conscientiously use great digital tools and resources in your class.And it’s a good idea to keep your EWP and IWP administrators in the loop, too. Here’s an example from a course I taught last spring:

A Digital Platform for Peer Review

Peer review is a central element of my pedagogy, and I was excited when I learned about Eli Review, a digital peer review platform that provides some more sophisticated options than Canvas. But Eli isn’t protected by the UW NetID, so with the help of then-EWP director Anis Bawarshi, I developed a consent form informing students of their rights, the security specifications of the platform, and their right to opt out:

All the work you do in this course, including your peer review work, is your property, and you have legal control over who has access to it.  Eli Review is a platform for conducting peer review and revisions on your projects in this class; it is password protected, and peer review projects will be restricted to members of our class.  Your work will be stored in a secure database accessible only to Eli developers for the purposes of site-wide, de-identified statistics or system diagnostics. Your name will be attached to the work stored in the program database, because you will create a profile in the system in order for the system to generate the individual reports you will see after you complete a peer review task.  You do retain legal rights to your work.

By agreeing to use Eli Review in this class, you are consenting to allowing your work to be non-anonymously stored on the Eli database.  If you are not comfortable with this, you can use Canvas for peer review instead, and you will not be penalized in any way.

I hereby DO/DO NOT consent to use Eli Review for course-related review and revision work in ENGL 131 during Spring 2014 quarter.

I understand that consenting or not consenting to use Eli Review will not affect my grade in the course.

As it turns out, all students in my class opted to use Eli Review, and we had great success with it. You can read more about how I used Eli Review here and here. And feel free to borrow that consent form language!

So the point here is that we can and should be exploring and using a full range of tools to support our students’ learning; we just also need to be conscientious about protecting our students’ right to privacy.

Here are a few more resources on navigating UW and Washington State policies for technology use and information storage:

And of course, feel free to get in touch with us (Ann and Kimberlee) or your EWP or IWP administrator with any questions.
By Ann Shivers-McNair

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