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No Expectation of Privacy

March 25, 2015

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration briefly considered but ultimately decided against expanding a new student privacy bill beyond K-12 education, according to sources with knowledge of the drafting process. The resulting draft is a “missed opportunity” for the White House to address privacy in higher education, legal scholars say.

The Student Digital Privacy and Parental Rights Act of 2015, which will be introduced later this week by U.S. House Representatives Luke Messer and Jared S. Polis, seeks to limit how educational technology companies can use data they collect from students using their products. It builds on a proposal released by the White House in January, which in turn resembles a student privacy law passed in California last year.

The bill was supposed to be filed on Monday, but by the end of the day, lawmakers were “still working through some of the technical nuances of the bill,” a spokeswoman for Messer said in an email. Those involving in drafting the bill -- a joint effort between the White House and the two representatives -- were reportedly asking for outside input as recently as this past weekend, suggesting a difficult balancing act between concerns raised by privacy advocates and pressure from the private sector.

A recent draft of the bill attempts to strike a compromise, according to The New York Times. It would prevent companies from using educational data for marketing purposes, but allow data to be disclosed for student “employment opportunities.” While the bill would allow students and their parents to request to see and correct data -- and let schools request that those records be deleted -- it would also enable companies to change their privacy policies after schools sign a contract to use their services.

And as the name suggest, the bill has nothing to do with higher education. Although the White House made initial contact with at least one higher education organization earlier this year to discuss privacy issues, conversations about whether or not to expand the bill’s scope did not move past that stage.

The decision did not come as a surprise to legal scholars who have followed the administration’s recent privacy initiatives. When Obama in January outlinednew privacy proposals, he focused on two groups: individual consumers and students under the age of 18. In his State of the Union address the following month, he called on Congress to “protect our children’s information.” Last year’s student data privacy pledge, which has drawn support from more than 100 education and technology companies and an endorsement from the White House, was also aimed at K-12 students.

Still, Elana J. Zeide, a privacy research fellow at New York University’s Information Law Institute, called the administration’s decision not to make a broader statement on privacy “myopic.”

“At least on the most basic level, federal privacy law recognizes that higher education students should have privacy rights as well,” Zeide said. “Even if they’re not as vulnerable, higher education students can still suffer the harm that drives privacy concerns in the K-12 space.”

Zeide acknowledged that the bill “reflects most of the privacy conversation, which has really focused on children and the K-12 space.” Apart from the frequent malicious attacks that target colleges and universities, most of the major student privacy concerns that have surfaced in the past year have been related to students under the age of 18. Collapses of companies such as ConnectEDU and inBloom have triggered debates about data stewardship, for example, while Google’s practice of scanning student email for ad keywords raised questions about the terms of service that come with the ed-tech products schools use.

Yet those incidents also had higher education implications. ConnectEDU offered both college and career planning services, and Google provides email for many colleges and universities.

Limiting the privacy bill to K-12 education may also be a matter of “political expediency,” Zeide said, as politicians may be more willing to pass protections for minors than for legal adults, then extend those protections, if necessary. “Sometimes it sets the pace for protections that then bleed into -- or are seen as appropriate for adults to have also,” she said.

But not including higher education in the privacy bill could promote a “chilling effect” at colleges and universities, potentially limiting emotional expression and political activism, Zeide and other legal scholars pointed out. Recent research suggests this year’s freshman class is spending more time on social media and less on face-to-face socializing, meaning more information about their life in college is being collected and stored.

“The process of learning and the pursuit of truth in research requires privacy,” higher education consultant Tracy B. Mitrano, former director of I.T. policy at Cornell University, said. “Surveillance, whether it’s governmental or commercial, chills that process.”

Mitrano, who also blogs for Inside Higher Ed, said it would be a “mistake” not to extend the protections in the bill to students at colleges and universities. “It’s not about age,” Mitrano said. “It’s about the missions of higher education.”

Even if higher education were included in the bill, chances are privacy advocates still would not be satisfied. After a draft of the bill was circulated earlier this week, privacy groups were quick to criticize what they saw as loopholes in the legislation -- such as the ability to change privacy policies after the fact.

Asked how she would improve the bill, Mitrano pointed to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. “I believe that FERPA already covers the issues raised in this privacy bill, mainly gathering of data by ed-tech companies and using it for their commercial purposes,” Mitrano said. “Rather than have this bill, I would amend FERPA to make it crystal clear… and then add technology security regulations, damages and a private right of action.”

The bill may grant the right to view and correct records, but that provision requires students and parents to take an active role in protecting the information. Zeide suggested more proactive regulations.

“One thing that would have to be in the bill is it provides protection without respect to students' and parents’ consent.” Zeide said. “Even if parents and students can make informed and meaningful choices -- which they have a difficult time doing in general -- it’s important that there are baseline rules and baseline protections.”

Mitchell L. Stevens, director of digital research and planning at Stanford University, said one policy that attempts to regulate both K-12 and postsecondary education would be a "bad idea."

"For adult learners, privacy is the wrong place to start," Stevens, associate professor of sociology, said. "I think privacy is the word we use to voice anxiety about the purposes of data when we don’t know what other language to invoke."

Stevens last year helped organize the Asilomar Convention for Learning Research in Higher Education, a gathering of faculty members and researchers to discuss appropriate use of data in higher education. The goal of the convention was to find new ethical guidelines for the glut of data produced at colleges and universities.

On Tuesday, Stevens also challenged the idea that students above the age of 18 should by default have full control of the data they produce.

"If you think about any empirical trace of instruction -- K-12 or postsecondary -- they’re really joint products," Stevens said. "The learner plays a role, the institution plays a role and the particular instructor plays a role. I think it’s fairly simplistic to default to the presumption that the data that are generated through that venture are primarily owned by one party."

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/03/25/federal-privacy-bill-missed-opportunity-obama-administration-legal-scholars-say

Bigotry or Metaphor?

March 25, 2015

A six-month-old Facebook post about the conflict in Gaza, receiving attention only recently, has spurred a debate over hate speech at Connecticut College that has some students calling on the administration to condemn racist remarks.

Andrew Pessin, a professor of philosophy, says the students who accuse him of being a racist are deliberately misrepresenting words he used as a metaphor and that he was referring to Hamas, not all Palestinians. Students -- in letters to the student newspaper and an online petition -- say Pessin dehumanized Palestinians with offensive language.

The post in question was written on Aug. 11, during the height of fighting between Israel and Hamas. In it, Pessin describes the situation in Gaza as one in which “a rabid pit bull is chained in a cage, regularly making mass efforts to escape.” In Gaza, according to the post, the conflict is a cycle of giving the dog a chance by letting it out of its cage, only to have to put the pit bull back in the cage when it snarls and goes for the owner’s throat. (See the full post below.)

The student newspaper, The College Voice, published three letters this month from students and an alumnus who were outraged and repulsed by the post.

The letters acknowledge that Pessin has a right to free speech. But they also call on the administration to make underrepresented students feel more comfortable by making it clear that the university doesn’t agree with Pessin’s views. How can the university support its diversity goals, the students ask, if it won't call racist language what it is?

“Racism takes root when we have influential academics in our school who publicly express views of bigotry,” sophomore Lamiya Khandaker wrote in one of the letters. “Racism is accepted when the institution fails to address the responsibility of academics to watch what they say.”

Nowhere in the post does Pessin say “Palestinians,” but he also doesn’t say “Hamas.”

In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Pessin said he acknowledges that the post was ambiguous. He posted it after a series of 10 other comments written between July 23 and Aug. 11 about Hamas and the group’s tactics and goals. Reading those preceding posts would have made it clearer that he was using the metaphor of a pit bull to describe Hamas, he said.

“Let me say unequivocally, I am not a racist,” he said. “I am a passionate promoter of equal rights for all peoples. I’m a supporter of a two-state solution.”

When Khandaker emailed Pessin about the post in February, he apologized and said she misunderstood his intent. He deleted the post that day.

Pessin thought that was the end of it, but a couple weeks later, he said the student newspaper published the letters without warning him. The letters appeared in the last edition before spring break began.

That ignited a firestorm without him having the opportunity to reply publicly, Pessin said.

At first, Pessin thought it was just “sloppy college journalism” not to reach out to him for a comment. He wrote a brief letter to the editor in which -- based on advice from the administration -- he apologized for any hurt he caused. He wanted to defend himself, but he recognized that could put the blame on students who misinterpreted his words, he said.

Instead, the apology has been read as an admission of his guilt, he said. And now, he thinks publishing the letters without giving him a fair chance to explain himself was a part of a deliberate tactic to target him for his views. Pessin, who is Jewish, regularly writes and speaks out in support of Israel.

“In my opinion, what this has become is not a matter of some students with hurt feelings, but it’s a fairly deliberate and drawn-out campaign to silence someone who openly advocates for Israel,” Pessin said.

The college newspaper's editor in chief, Ayla Zuraw-Friedland, said she published the letters under the same policy that she always does -- in the order they are received and without any editing. The paper published Pessin's letter of apology online within 24 hours of receiving it, despite being on spring break, she said.

Zuraw-Friedland also was one of several people who cowrote an online petition asking the administration to issue a statement saying the university doesn't condone “Pessin’s racism and dehumanization.”

“Dehumanization is a tool of racism,” the petition states. “Dehumanization has been used all throughout human history to justify genocide, colonialism and hatred of many communities.”

The petition includes a photo of the Facebook post, though it only shows half of the post. Pessin feels that was a deliberate decision, too.

Students who are asking for the administration to speak out say that Pessin isn’t their target. His post was only a catalyst to address larger issues around diversity and how marginalized students can feel unsafe on campus when people in more powerful positions make biased remarks.

In her letter, Khandaker says that she took a class with Pessin and, as a Muslim, she never felt uncomfortable in class. But just because Pessin’s views don’t interfere in his teaching doesn’t mean they’re not a problem, she argues. In fact, because he is smart, influential and well liked in classes, students are more likely to listen to his posts on sociopolitical issues, she wrote.

Khandaker is chair of diversity and equity for the student government, in which she's responsible for bringing the concerns of underrepresented student to the administration.

Other students who criticized Pessin’s post said they did so to start a campuswide conversation about something they felt was important.

“We call upon students, faculty and alumni to ask themselves: Is there a place for this language at Connecticut College?” wrote Michael Fratt and Kaitlyn Garbe. “We wonder ourselves how this particular situation would play out had this professor spoken out against Jews or L.G.B.T.Q. individuals.”

Fratt said in an interview Tuesday that his purpose in writing the letter was to encourage the campus to listen to the concerns of the students who were affected by and hurt by Pessin’s post.

Those students who have spoke out against Pessin’s comment have faced backlash and have been insulted on social media and Yik Yak, an app where users post anonymous comments.

“I think most of the student body thinks Pessin should not be fired and this whole thing is students playing the offended card,” one post reads. “The majority should be louder than the whining bullies at this school.”

There also were several anti-Semitic comments made on campus and via Yik Yak after the letters were first published, Pessin said. He decided this week to take a medical leave of absence for the remainder of the semester, partially due to the stress the accusations against him have caused.

Later today, students, faculty and staff will gather for a forum hosted by the administration on free speech, equity and inclusion. In two campus emails announcing the forum, President Katherine Bergeron said the comments stemming from Pessin's Facebook post have posed larger questions about the nature of free speech and the values of a diverse community. Connecticut College is a community that is aiming for "inclusive excellence," she said.

"The conversations of the past few days -- including some anonymous comments on Yik Yak -- are evidence of how much work we have to do to reach our aspirations."

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/03/25/students-criticize-administrations-response-what-they-term-hate-speech-professor

Blogs, Essays or Both?

March 24, 2015

Asking students to blog for an audience of their classmates instead of writing an essay for a professor can bring out different qualities in their writing, according to a study published in next month’s volume of Teaching Sociology. But don’t expect instructors to do away with essays just yet.

“One general conclusion one can draw from these findings is that journals and blogs each have their own strengths in terms of their ability to engage students in deep reflection,” author Drew Foster writes. “Specifically, students appear to be overall more likely to take greater intellectual risks in blogs, which they know will be read and commented upon by their peers. Conversely, journals -- the more private option -- compel students to be vulnerable and take morepersonal risks in their reflection.”

Journaling has long been a common course requirement in the humanities, especially in courses heavy on reading assignments. Requiring students to reflect on assigned texts -- either for the students’ own benefit or to ensure that they actually did their homework -- gives instructors another method of helping students retain the knowledge.

Blogging is a “natural extension of class journals in the digital age,” Foster, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Michigan, writes. He launched the study after getting a chance to teach the university’s Introduction to Sociology course during a summer session. Unlike previous sections, he experimented with assigning blogging, not private journaling, and came away impressed by the quality of the student writing.

“Maybe students are writing more high-quality stuff when they’re writing in this kind of open format and they know their peers are going to be reading their stuff?” Foster said in an interview.

The fall 2013 and winter 2014 sections of the course both included a reflection assignment worth 10 percent of the final grade. But while students in the fall section wrote nine journal entries viewable only to teaching assistants, those in the winter section wrote six blog posts and commented at least nine times on other students’ posts.

Apart from the reflection assignment medium, the two large lecture courses, which both enrolled 225 mostly first- and second-year students, were “nearly identical.” Students in each section were split into 9 discussion groups of 25 students each, and students could only view the blog posts of fellow group members.

Tasked with sifting through 1,049 journal entries and 1,021 blog posts, Foster and three undergraduate research assistants tracked eight “traits” of reflective writing, many of them developed from a 2004 report written by the American Sociological Association’s task force on the undergraduate major.

Specifically, the researchers looked for students to compare two or more readings, explain a personally held misconception, take a position on an issue, form a personal theory, link readings to a personal experience, discuss their own class, gender or race, or reference an outside source. Foster also counted the instances where students made three or more grammatical errors, hypothesizing that bloggers -- whose entries could be seen by other students -- would be more careful not to make subject-verb agreement mistakes, switch tenses or write run-on sentences, among other errors. The study confirmed Foster’s hypothesis -- journal entries were 3 percent more likely to contain three or more mistakes -- as well as his suspicion that students required to blog would want to “show off to their friends.”

The results from journal and blog entries diverged on five of the eight traits, not including the one about grammatical mistakes. Students posting on blogs were more likely to take a stand on an issue or come up with a personal theory than those writing in journals, but less likely to admit to a personal misconception, connect a reading to a personal experience or compare two or more readings.

In other words, some journal entries trended toward the “particularly private and intimate,” while blogging “potentially opens the author up to attack and critique.” Meanwhile, the “specter of peer readership” causes bloggers to be more aware of grammatical and mechanical rules, Foster writes.

To Foster’s surprise, however, blogging did not cause more students to reference outside sources, even though copying and pasting a hyperlink is less complicated than penning a manual citation. Students in both sections were about equally as likely to bring up their own class, gender or race in their entries.

Those findings could extend beyond introductory courses, said Foster. He suggested future studies could, for example, look at whether students in large online courses are less comfortable with making the kinds of personal risks that they would in a class where they know their peers.

The findings likely also mean that instructors won’t rush to replace essays with blogs, but that they should consider tailoring assignments to produce the kind of writing they are looking for.

“Where I thought that either traditional essays or blogs were going to get objectively better writing out of students, in actuality, it turns out it’s about these types of risks,” Foster said. “Institutions should be cognizant of the format that students are writing in and try to link up the kind of risks they want students to be taking in their writing.”

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/03/24/blogs-and-essays-can-complement-not-replace-each-other-study-finds