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Privacy Reminders for Operating in an Online, Distance Environment

Please contact your institution’s IT department to verify vetted and approved online learning and web tools that you may use to engage your students.

Establishing Privacy Expectations Online

Setting privacy and online expectations prior to each session/class is considered a best practice. Informing and/or reminding yourself, as instructor, and your students of these simple realities PRIOR to the session/class can be extremely helpful:

  1. Set Engagement Expectations

    For this session/class do you expect them to engage or not? Are they just listening or are they expected to speak or engage in discussion? These engagement expectations also include knowing in advance if they are to be on video. Reminders of these expectations prior to each session/class can make everyone more prepared and reduce privacy concerns.

  2. Audio and Video Engagement

    Remind students to mute when not speaking and unmute when speaking; this is a common error in an online environment. Additionally, reminding students (and yourself) that if video is engaged not to do anything they/you wouldn’t want the entire class to see. It is a best practice to have students first join with audio/video muted. Finally, remind your students to disconnect from the online platform at the conclusion of the class/session, ending all audio and video connections.

  3. Privacy of Others

    For you, as instructor and for your students, remember the privacy of others that may be around you while you are in an online environment. For example, if you have children, roommates, significant others, etc., in the location where you are connecting from, please keep their privacy in mind.

  4. Duration

    Set clear expectations of how long your students are expected to be online and don’t go over that time. Scheduling issues can increase privacy concerns for many different reasons. For example, if students are using a space for the session that may be occupied by others at different times.

  5. Online Platform Instructions

    Be sure to provide clear instructions on the key functions of the online platform you are utilizing. These typically include: how and when to connect; how to mute/unmute once connected; how to turn on/off video once connected; how to engage within the session/class (raise hand, how to respond to questions throughout the lesson or interact with peers); and how to use the chat.

Enhancing Privacy During Instruction

There are simple things you as the instructor can do to enhance the privacy of your online sessions/classes.

  1. Sharing Screens/Information

    Almost every online instructor shares content during sessions, whether that is within the learning management system (LMS) [D2L, Canvas, etc.] or within a live, online web tool. For information on your institution’s LMS guidelines and/or approved web tools, please reach out to your institution’s IT department.

    Share document, not screen. Many platforms allow for specific document sharing versus sharing your entire screen. It may be best to share the document and not your screen to reduce the chance that you may inadvertently share unintended information. In full screen sharing anything that comes on your screen can be shared with others. Notifications, including notifications of emails you are receiving, instant messages, etc. It is better to share documents (Word, PowerPoint, Excel, specific webpage, etc.) rather than your screen. This goes for your students as well, when they are sharing, if necessary.

  2. Session/Classroom Control

    Setting up your online environment for privacy includes implementing controls to protect the privacy of you, your students and the content being shared.

    You are the Presenter. Make sure you are the only participant labeled as “presenter” in the session/class. You may always invite a participant or student to be a presenter at specific times, but the default should be you as the lone presenter and the only one sharing any content (at least initially).

    Mute attendee’s audio and video upon entry. This control allows the instructor to verify who is in the session/class prior to any content being shared and eliminates the opportunity for things such as Zoom Bombing or Skype Heist, where someone is sharing audio or video not as a part of the session/class. Most platforms have this option; you can reach out to your institutions IT department on guidance in activating the function. Note: Remember to inform students they will be muted upon entry and to expect that.

Remember Student Privacy

Student privacy, as always, is of the utmost importance. A few key reminders as we move to more online and distance environments:

  1. Do not Email Grades

    As it has always been, grades or academic performance information is not to be shared in unsecured environments in alignment with both FERPA and USG policies, as well as other federal and state laws and regulations. Please use your institution’s designated online learning management system (LMS) [D2L, Canvas, etc.] grade book. Note: Do not ever open Banner or your learning management system when in a screen-sharing mode. FERPA requires that a student’s information is protected at all times. If faculty are not able to keep grades in their institutions LMS, they may keep grades in a personal gradebook or spreadsheet on an institution approved computer and communicate grades to students via telephone. It is important when communicating academic performance or grades with students via phone that you are verifying identification with that student prior. We recommend having the student verify their institutional student ID, as using DOB or SSN may be information that is readily available to the students’ parents. Faculty cannot communicate grades via email. Email is an unsecure channel and transmitting grades via email is a FERPA violation.

  2. Student Verification

    With moving online and being unable to meet in-person with your students, please remember to verify your student’s identity prior to sharing any academic performance feedback (particularly grades). A good way to do this is to have the student verify their student ID number. Note: This will mean you must know their student ID number prior to interaction.

  3. Disability or Other Accommodations

    Provide a safe and private way for students to discuss any sensitive information with you. In the past, many instructors said things like “meet me before or after class to discuss.” You do not want students inside the online session/class discussing such things when others could have already joined and/or not left the session.

Social Media Guidance

The lines between public and private, personal and professional are blurred in the digital world. By virtue of identifying yourself as a faculty member of the USG, you should be mindful of your status as a government/state employee. The USG encourages you to use caution in engaging in personal social-networking friendships on Facebook or other social networking sites with students. The USG recognizes that many graduates become colleagues with their former faculty, and this is when “friending” and other social media connections would be more appropriate. In addition, the USG cautions any faculty member to request or require students to connect with them in any way on social media. Please visit your institutions social media policies and contact your institutions human resources department for further guidance.

Additional Resources:

U.S. Department of Education

Protecting Student Privacy Website

Protecting Student Privacy Post Secondary

Protecting Student Privacy While Using Online Educational Services Requirements and Best Practices


2019 Study of Faculty and Information Technology

Connect Safely

Educator’s Guide to Student Privacy