Protecting Your Privacy with Online Classes

Protecting Your Privacy with Online Classes

With a rise in the number of identity theft occurrences, online students may become apprehensive about their privacy when working or participating in class if they believe that their information can be easily accessed. Are you familiar with the privacy guidelines your school must follow? Do you know how you can protect your privacy in the online classroom?

Privacy Guidelines
The guidelines that schools must follow to protect your privacy are stated in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), “a Federal law that is administered by the Family Policy Compliance Office (Office) in the U.S. Department of Education (Department).”

FERPA defined: “Once a student reaches 18 years of age or attends a postsecondary institution, he or she becomes an ‘eligible student,’ and all rights formerly given to parents under FERPA transfer to the student. The eligible student has the right to have access to his or her education records, the right to seek to have the records amended, the right to have control over the disclosure of personally identifiable information from the records (except in certain circumstances specified in the FERPA regulations, some of which are discussed below), and the right to file a complaint with the Department. The term ‘education records’ is defined as those records that contain information directly related to a student and which are maintained by an educational agency or institution or by a party acting for the agency or institution.”

The FERPA basics include the following:
•    Access to Education Records – you have a right to make a request to view your school records. The school must provide you with access to your records within 45 days of your request.
•    Amendment of Education Records – if you believe that there is “inaccurate or misleading information” within your records, you can request that the records be amended. Your school is not required to make the amendment; however, they are required to review your request.
•    Disclosure of Education Records – your school is not allowed to disclose “personally identifiable information” contained within your records (such as a Social Security number) to “any third party” unless they have received a written consent from you.
If you have a complaint about your academic records, specifically with regards to your right to review, request corrections, or keep your personal information private, there is a procedure established through the US Department of Education's Family Policy Compliance Office (FPCO).
Here are the specifics:
•    “If an eligible student believes that a school has failed to comply with his or her request for access to education records, the student may complete a FERPA complaint form and should include the following specific information: the date of the request for access to the education records; the name of the school official to whom the request was made (a dated copy of any written request to the school should be provided, if possible); the response of the school official, if any; and the specific nature of the information requested.”
A complaint form is not available online; however, students are instructed to mail their information to the: Family Compliance Office.

In addition to following the FERPA guidelines, you will also find that schools provide a privacy statement on their website. If you have never reviewed the statement issued by your school, take some time to read it. Here are two examples of current privacy statements:
•    Colorado Technical University's (CTU) Privacy Statement contains the following topics: IP address, cookies, contact form, security, links to other website, and changes to the privacy policy. A FERPA Statement can be found within the school catalog.
•    National American University's (NAU) Privacy Statement provides an explanation about collecting information, your right to opt out, the use and distribution of information, security, and access to your information. A FERPA Statement can also be found on the school website.

Protecting Your Privacy

There are steps that you can take as a student to protect your privacy within the online classroom. As an online instructor, I monitor the messages students post in the classroom and some of the suggestions I recommend are: 1) don't include personal information in email signatures, 2) use your school's email account to keep in contact with other students.

The National Cyber Security Alliance has developed a helpful checklist for students: Internet Safety and Security for College Students. There are five categories listed that will help you protect your information and work:
1.    Keep a Clean Machine. One of the most important suggestions provided in this section is a reminder to have updated security software installed. As a student, you will often search websites for sources of information, download files, and email documents through your school email account. Each of these activities has a potential to expose your computer to viruses. The use of security software will help to minimize that risk.
2.    Protect Your Personal Information. One of the suggestions provided that I would recommend is to develop complex passwords, which helps to protect your login identification.
3.    Connect with Care. Consider limited use of unsecured public WI-FI hotspots because these sites provide unsecured public Internet access. Try to limit use of a hotspot and adjust your Internet browser settings to a higher safety level when utilizing public Internet access.    
4.    Be Web Wise. This is similar to a suggestion that I often make for my students – be sure to back up your documents and files. One of the least expensive methods of data back-up and retrieval is through the use of a flash drive. You don’t want to lose your hard work if your computer should malfunction for any reason.
5.    Be a Good Online Citizen. This section provides general advice about the impact of your actions, along with a method for reporting cybercrime.

Your privacy is protected through a combination of guidelines that your school follows to protect your academic records and the actions you take when you are working in class and interacting with others. Take care when sharing information with others, especially personal identifiers, and alert your instructor or school any time you believe your information has been compromised.

What methods do you use to protect your Internet privacy? Please share your examples via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

By Dr. Bruce Johnson

Photo © Michael A. Keller/Corbis

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