Online sites and services may deprive students of privacy and ownership-agency over their creations.

What happens in the classroom, stays in the classroom—or it did in a previous century. Student work could of course be sent home to parents, and adorable artwork and exemplary essays might be posted on classroom and hallway walls, both routinely and for events such as parent-teacher nights, when they might be seen by classmates’ family members. Beyond such sharing, student work was not routinely ‘published’.

Today, the case is very different. Instructors may require students to make use of sites and services that remove student work from the confines of brick-and-mortar classrooms and place it on offsite servers or in cloud storage. In order to fulfill course requirements, students may be directed to submit work to social media such as Facebook or YouTube, to online tutoring and plagiarism detection services, to course or learning management systems, and to online course packages. As a result, not only student data but student work is liable to be published in some sense. This de facto publication of student work may challenge privacy and student ownership-agency, with pedagogical implications.

Students’ privacy may be breached in any number of ways. The third-party service or site may inadvertently allow student work to become visible through a software or setting error, or the site may be breached by a hacker. The student herself may inadvertently publish her work through misunderstanding the original terms of service or changes in terms of service. As a result, whether through failure to change a default setting or through clicking on the wrong box, work that the student never intended to share may become visible to classmates—or even strangers. A student’s work may also be broadcast by a classmate who shares it with a friend, with or without realizing that it may then be seen by a friend of friend, and so forth.

Another way student work is shared, however, is with the full knowledge of the student but with ‘consent’ that may be meaningless because it is in effect coerced. A student who is required to upload her work to online tutoring services loses both privacy and ownership-agency. Strangers will access something she created for an audience that consisted of an instructor and/or peers—for a long time the immediate audience for student work even when assignment directions specified a hypothetical audience beyond the classroom.

We want our students to take on challenges and to explore difficult and sometimes sensitive topics. As an instructor of composition, I have often been trusted with thoughts that my students have never felt comfortable sharing anywhere else. But requiring students to publish their creations alters or even destroys that intellectual space in which we were asking our students to take risks.    

Student creations are their intellectual property even if they have neither the intention nor the prospect of ‘monetizing’ their work. (The fact that student creations do have monetary value of a sort is demonstrated by the fact that third parties, such as online tutoring and plagiarism detection services, profit when students are required to upload their work to them.) However, even though the discussion may not be framed in monetary terms, student ownership-agency should be respected if only for reasons of pedagogy.

The U.S. Department of Education has created the Privacy Technical Assistance Centerbecause of concern over the privacy of student records in a digital environment. That same concern for privacy should extend to student work and should include protecting the right to decide when and where to publish it. As educators, we need to help our students avoid inadvertent publication by choosing sites and services wisely, with an eye toward security and appropriateness of terms of service. We should also educate our students in how to protect their privacy when we require them to use online sites and services. In addition, we need to think carefully about when or whether it is appropriate to insist that students publish their intellectual property.

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