If your institution is anything like mine, privacy concerns surrounding student information is HUGE. As instructors, we are constantly urged to encrypt our hard drives, and be aware of what we put on flash drives or email servers. Breaches of privacy are a big problem these days. Up here in the Great White North, we have an additional worry when trying to protect the personal information of our students, which relates to the geographic location of the servers that run our technology. We are constantly being discouraged from using gmail to stay in touch with students, and every time a promising new technology comes along that we want to try with our classes, we are first asked where its servers live, and how much personal information they require. Names and student numbers are the big issue. On their own, either in isolation is less of a concern (though many, including me, would argue that student numbers should always be protected). Put them together, however, and you have the magic privacy breach combination.
So as instructors at Canadian universities, we face an interesting dilemma… how to use technology to its fullest when we must also protect the privacy of our students?
I faced this issue just this week, while trying to find a new platform for my discussion boards. Our current learning management system (which shall remain nameless) is not very well like by our student population (or the instructors, for that matter) and the result has been a severe drop in online participation. This past winter I could even pay them to post (in the form of participation marks). I constantly hover around 10% (or less) online participation, and marks seem to make no difference whatsoever. So its left me searching for a new way to generate online discussion, something that is considered to be essential to our (1200 person) second year cell biology course. Another promising discussion board platform was mentioned by a colleague, and it looked quite promising until a casual conversation with my department head brought up the inevitable questions…
Sounds great, but where are the servers located? And how much information do they take about our students?
Rather inevitably, the answer to this question is usually the US (though the Genius Bar people around here told me rather unconvincingly that their iCloud servers were on a satellite, and thus not subject to any nation’s laws). The result of this is that if I truly want to use the software, I must jump through several hoops to protect the privacy of of my students (up to and often not being able to require it, if I cannot find a way to adequately protect them by any other means). Alternately I can use the approved software promoted by my institution, because its safe, even if its buggy and clunky and generally painful to use.
It seems to me that in the day and age there is no reason to put up with bad software. There’s simply too many options out there. But in globalized internet age few people seem to be concerned about where that software runs. Canadians (and probably many other countries) need home grown (or at least home-hosted) solutions to their tech problems… but they need to work. Our students won’t use software that isn’t easy to use, and they shouldn’t have to.
I feel like there’s this great wealth of opportunity for Canadian software engineers. Universities are practically begging for well-designed (cheap) software that serves their purposes and protects the privacy of their students… I know I am. In the meantime I’d love to hear any thoughts on the issue?