Monday, October 29, 2007

Student Privacy in the Digital Age

I learned something tonight that truly horrified me. Nearly every course at Dartmouth uses Blackboard, an online software service that lets professors post materials and give online exams for their courses, along with an array of other features. Well, it turns out that professors can track student usage - when each individual students logs in or out of the course website, and when they looked at specific course readings. I'm sure that almost every Dartmouth student has no idea that this features exists. There is no privacy warning on the Blackboard website and no professor I have had has ever mentioned it. For student usage to be tracked without warning is a major invasion of privacy. In comparison to all the hubbub about the Patriot Act, this is a million times worse on a personal level for students at Dartmouth. Students should be free to read or not to read course materials without being spied upon. It might not seem that bad, but consider the equivalent in a non-digital era - surveillance cameras in Baker-Berry library or in study lounges. The importance of online privacy is paramount in this panopticonic age, and allowing professors to track student reading habits without their knowledge is certainly a serious violation.


John Bruce said...

I'm a little more ambivalent about this -- maybe even in favor. I spent four years as a TA in an English comp program, and that was long before the various aids that can do something to prevent plagiarism and rent-a-paper schemes. Most TAs estimate that somewhere around 60 percent of all freshman comp papers are plagiarized, but unless you're able to track down the book or periodical or paper mill they came from, you've got no choice but to give them a grade as if they were original.

Consider another situation, which probably applies more to upperclassmen: the charming, glib, flattering student who's able to con the prof into thinking he or she is interested in the course. Doesn't it hurt the student who's willing to do the readings and risk making mistakes in really understanding the course's content if the charmer can get an A, and probably letters of recommendation and whatever else, with less work?

There are probably many profs who'd be afraid to discover the "excellent" student hadn't done the readings, just like TAs of my generation didn't really want to know how many papers had been plagiarized.

But having some way to find the truth of such situations ought in general to work to the benefit of the student who's really trying to get an education. How would this differ from the insightful prof who can tell if a student is trying to charm his or her way through a discussion? Isn't seeing past a front in a case like that also an invasion of "privacy"?

Anonymous said...

Students go to class expecting profs to tell if they are just charming their way through the discussion. That is no more an invasion of privacy than occurs when two people talk.

Profs would still be able to tell who logs on the most or the least if Blackboard gave students a warning that their usage might be monitored. In case you did not read David's post, he has a problem with the lack of a warning, not with the monitoring per se.

Anonymous said...

Oh shit! Don't post this so publicly, Dave, some profs might not know about the tool at their disposal! And now they do, and I might get busted for not doing the readings!

BAH! :(