Trilogy Blog

What You Need to Know About Online Tutoring and Privacy

As the field of education is throttled into an online environment, it's critical that educators understand how to protect the privacy of their students.

Author: Erika R. Carson, Ed.S.

Published: July 31, 2020

For many people learning online feels like the natural progression of education, but for others, they fear the transition from brick-and-mortar schools to online learning environments. Both in-person and online learning experiences have some obvious and slightly less obvious pros and cons, but more importantly, it needs to be noted that a carefully thought out and well planned online learning experience can be just as effective as an in-person learning experience. 

It is important that as administrators, instructors, and program designers, we carefully consider the new variables that are introduced into the learning environment when we transition to an online classroom, and that we understand the level of control that we have over this new virtual environment. We also need to evaluate the privacy concerns that we may have taken for granted in the in-person classroom – concerns that should have triggered alarms for us in an in-person environment but didn’t. In an in-person environment, there are probably lots of things that we should have been saying about respecting the privacy, choices, and learning levels of other students, especially when it comes to each student’s medical information, but we don’t. Students are part of a wider school community, and we may make the assumption that the information will remain within the four walls of the classroom or school – when information does leak outside of a school, it’s much harder to pinpoint the source. Working with students online, in a synchronous (live) session completely changes the level of responsibility that teachers have for protecting students’ and their families’ privacy.

When a parent makes the decision to allow their child to work online with an instructor, the parent is trusting the instructor with more than just their student’s academic success. When a parent commits to an online learning experience they may be nervous about what the inside of their home looks like, ashamed about the things that they do not have in their home, uncomfortable sharing their lifestyle choices, and/or fearful that someone outside the home might take notice of inappropriate behaviors. The latter being the most severe of the potential issues an instructor may encounter when they virtually enter a student’s home, given that these behaviors may require reporting to child protective services. Suddenly any information that a child or parent shares has to be protected at a much higher level. Information about medical conditions, learning challenges, and family issues need to be securely protected in accordance with online standards and federal guidelines related to HIPAA, COPPA, and FERPA. As a result, we need to stay very mindful of not sharing personal or identifiable information, or relaying details of private conversations to third parties. This may be a challenge, but these guidelines must be adhered to. These are issues that instructors actually do have some level of control over in a one-on-on online session, but when additional students are introduced into this online learning environment protecting student information becomes increasingly difficult. 

As the instructor, you lose a certain level of control as you introduce more and more students into your online classroom. You go from being a single observer to a juggler managing the conversations between you and your students, to making sure that students are not exposed to inappropriate information, environments, and/or conversations taking place at other students’ homes. Families suddenly become an extension of the online learning experience.

In an effort to maintain as much privacy and minimize the risks related to online learning it is important that you: 

  • Don’t share any video or photos of students outside the virtual classroom
  • Use virtual classroom platforms that provide instructors with management controls
  • Establish and model positive behaviors, communicate expectations and rules for behavior, recognize ideal behaviors and in instances where behaviors don’t line up with expectations or violate classroom rules, discuss the better choices that could have been made
  • Don’t discuss any information that would violate students’ or their families trust and/or rights to privacy

If you’re not sure if information should be shared, don’t share it. You want students and their families to feel comfortable learning online. Given that there are already so many concerns about online learning experiences, you do not want to be a contributing factor.

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