A Privacy Story

One of those emails arrived in my inbox recently that cause me to start a response, then another. One the third restart, I sent him an invite to a virtual meeting, started it, and waited for him to join. He summarized the situation he was facing: 

  1. He had been asked to redesign some courses for a small college. The instructor was retiring and the administration wanted it refreshed for the first time in more than a decade. He is a skilled professional, so revising a course was no big deal. 
  1. He was granted an “Under construction” shell in the learning management system and got to work redesigning. 
  1. When he was happy with the course, and within a week of the start of classes, he copied the “Under construction” shell into the shell in which students were enrolled and he opened the course so students could start exploring. 
  1. A part of the redesign process at the college, and a step necessary for him to be paid the course redesign stipend, the course was to be reviewed by the instructional designer employed by the college. 

The story is not troubling to this point. Redesigning course and reviewing redesigned courses is a good idea. Even those of us with decades of experience teaching online benefit from “fresh-eyes” looking at our courses. The troubling turn comes when my colleague asked the instructional designed to review the “Under construction” shell rather than the shell being used by students. 

His rationale was explained: “Students are beginning to participate in the course, and I have not told them that someone might be in the course and potentially seeing discussion responses, questions they had posed, or other participation.” 

The instructional designer ignored his request and reviewed the shell in which the students were enrolled and even commented on their participation when reviewing the course redesign. To me, (and to my colleague), the instructional designer was quite unethical. By accessing a course, they did not have permission to access and to observer students work without their consent, they violated the students’ privacy. 

When dealing with similar situations in the past, I heard the common response, “the ID wasn’t hurting anyone, it is part of their job, you and the students need to take it easy.” I find this an offensive response. 

We live in an environment where our data is everywhere. Whenever we have the opportunity to keep some of it private, even if it is one or two instructional designers, we should. Further, we have the right to know who might be looking at our data and why they might be looking at it. If students were informed the ID would be in the course and had not objected, that is not the same not knowing they were there and not objecting. 

My colleague asked what I thought he should do. I was not sure and we discussed it for some minutes before we arrived at consensus. He decided to do nothing. He did not bring is concern to the dean or the leader of the ID team. He did announce to the students that someone had been in the course and potentially seen some of their work. No one responded. 

I suppose my colleague and I overreacted; there wasn’t much of a threat here. But did we overreact? When professionals ignore simple privacy requests—requests to protect the privacy of our most vulnerable clients we should be concerned.