Maintaining Privacy in Online Teaching

Respecting the privacy of others is important, and maybe especially so when teaching online. There are multiple ways of inadvertently sharing personal details that you did not mean to share. This article considers ways of reducing the likelihood of oversharing when teaching online and using Zoom. 

Important note: The information contained below is intended as a starting point. Different institutions have different policies, and there may be specific legislation that governs privacy in class – you should consult with policies at your institution for further guidance. 

Types of private information

There are several forms of private information that may accidentally disclose when working on Zoom. These include:

  • Student private information: Information about students that they may share during class. 
  • Your personal information: For example personal emails or your calendar appointments.
  • General personal lifestyle: Your office and living environment

Below are some approaches for taking into account privacy considerations when using Zoom.

Ensuring nothing is visible onscreen

One of the key dangers of sharing your screen is that you accidentally reveal private material that you may have visible. Whether it is an email that pops-up on screen, the sites that you are looking at, or the icons that you have on your desktop, you may unintentionally reveal details that you did not mean to display.

Even if such information is not directly private, it can be distracting for users – the moment you have your browser bookmarks or desktop shortcuts open, students will spend more time looking at these shortcuts than on the presentation. 

Share only the program, not your entire screen

The most basic advice to reduce the likelihood that you will share private information is to only share the program that you want to share, rather than your entire screen.

Even if you think you have closed private tabs, there is always a danger of a pop-up that you never intended, and only sharing the desired application reduces the likelihood of that impacting your call. 

Closing all applications prior to starting your call

Even if you plan on sharing a specific application, it is good practice to close all other applications (and maybe especially private ones like email applications). If you have a lot of applications open it is easy to click the wrong one when video sharing, or to accidentally share your entire screen.

One approach: Different log-on account

One approach for ensuring that nothing else is on-screen, or possible to pop-up when screen sharing is to have a completely separate login account that you create just for teaching. This can be particularly useful if you have email messages that pop up on your main account. 

Ensuring nothing visible in the background

One of the key dangers of recording classes from your office (or bedroom) is that personal information or photos may be visible in the background. While many of these may not be confidential, it may still not be the personal window that you want to share with your students.

Ways of reducing the likelihood that you are over-sharing, potentially without even realizing it include:

  • Systematically tidying your office: This may seem an obvious suggestion, but the more cluttered your backdrop is, the greater the likelihood that there are personal items on display without you even realizing it. 
  • Reviewing your backdrop: Finally, it’s important to systematically review how you look onscreen, considering how your background appears to those that will be on the call. Sometimes it’s possible to assume that you have everything sufficiently tidy, however only to notice things on the recording that are not visible when assessing your backdrop in person.
  • Virtual background: Another possibility is to use the virtual background available in Zoom. This ensures that even if you have a cluttered office, then all of the items that are on display. I no longer visible on your webcam.

Reducing the likelihood students don't share private details in recorded discussions

Many institutions have policies about class recordings. Some schools and universities mandate class recordings of online classes to allow students who are not able to make the original recording to make the class. Others may prevent it, potentially due to privacy concerns, to provide a safe place for open student discussions, or to ensure that students actually attend classes in person.

If you are recording classes, it is important to: 

  • Make students aware if the class is recorded: Students may reveal information express opinions during the call, without realizing that the call is being recorded. Even though Zoom includes a notification indicating the recording, it is also important to highlight to students if the class will be recorded and made available afterwards. 
  • Remove content that contains private material: If you become aware that students have shared private discussions (e.g., particularly sensitive material that they would not want becoming known), it is important to remove it from the recording.
  • Consider the duration that the recording will be available: You may also consider only making available the recording for a limited period of time (e.g., a few months after the class) – providing the benefit of students who missed class being able to catch up, while ensuring that the recording does not persist indefinitely (while recognizing that it may still be possible for students to download it in the intermediary period). 
  • Consider where the recording is made available: It is also important to consider how the video will be made available, limiting its availability to only those who need to access to it rather than making it publicly available online. 

Summary

Ensuring privacy in an online setting is not easy. There are competing depends for making sure that the class is accessible to all, including those who may not be able to attend for example due to illness, as well as respecting the privacy of those on the call.

Overall though, it is important to be aware of the situations where private information – including your own – may be inadvertently shared. Some simple steps can often reduce the likelihood of issues arising during the call. 

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