Student Privacy in a Public World

  • Faculty & Staff

Free commercial tools such as WordPress make it easy for instructors and students to create web sites for course projects. But planning a web project requires more than just finding the right technology platform. As an instructor, you need to consider what type of material is – and is not – appropriate for their students to post on open web sites. You need to be mindful of your students’ rights concerning the privacy of their personal information and academic work.

Privacy of student information is a complex topic. Technical, pedagogical, cultural and legal factors will all impact how your students share their work in public forums. Educause published a very helpful guide on one type of public web assignment – student blogging. See and another useful whitepaper called, "Privacy Considerations in Cloud-Based Teaching and Learning Environments." 

U.C. Berkeley has a concise and helpful page with suggestions to instructors planning online projects. Please see

When planning an assignment that will have students posting materials to public web sites, please consider the following:

Be clear about activities and goals. Students are usually enthusiastic about the opportunity to publish their course work on open web sites. They welcome the opportunity to have their work contribute to the community or advance scholarship in their field. Make it clear to your students from the outset what aspects of their work will be posted publicly, and why. Discuss issues of appropriate content and ask your students to let you know if they have concerns about posting their work publicly. If at all possible, review the plan for these activities at the start of the term so students will know what to expect and can decide if they want to continue with the course.

Offer alternatives. Your students have the legal right to control how their academic work is shared. If students express concerns about the privacy of their work, be prepared to offer alternative ways for them to complete the course requirements.

Avoid discussing sensitive personal information. Avoid activities which might lead students to disclose sensitive personal information about themselves or others. Caution them not to post information which could lead to identity theft (home address, date of birth, etc.) or compromise the privacy of their family, friends or classmates. This is especially important when medical or psychological history may be involved. If you have an activity that might lead students to disclose personal information, plan to conduct those activities using Canvas or other systems provided by your school which will restrict access to students enrolled in the course.

Protect the identity of individual contributors. It may be possible for students to include their work in a course site without publicly disclosing personal identifying information. For example, you may have students composing the contents of a web site in a wiki on Canvas or another protected system. The wiki will allow you to see and evaluate individual contributions, then export the final draft to a web-ready format which won’t reveal who contributed what. In other cases, you can have your students post to blogs or other forums using pseudonyms to protect their privacy.

Get permission from people who appear in photos or recordings. If your students will be posting pictures or audio/video recordings to publicly viewable sites, they need to get permission from the people who are seen or heard in those pictures or recordings. This is especially important when dealing with telling personal stories or commenting on controversial issues.

Respect copyright and provide citations. Appropriate use of copyrighted material in educational activities is a very complex subject in its own right. If you’re planning activities in which students might want to re-purpose copyrighted materials you need to become familiar with the principals of “fair use” and review those guidelines with your students. Of course, the usual rules about citation for academic work also apply to work posted on the web.

Encourage students to save their work. Commercial services such as Blogger, Wikipedia, Google Sites and others offer great functionality and convenience. But you and your students have little control over what will happen to these sites over time. Whenever possible, students should save personal copies of the materials they post to these sites. This can help protect against possible loss and assure that they will continue to have access to their own intellectual work products. 

I encourage instructors of courses in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences to contact me if they have questions about issues concerning privacy of student work, or if they are planning assignments in which students will post their work to publicly viewable web sites.

John MacDermott
Director for Instructional Technology
SAS Computing