Georgia Tech Invokes FERPA, Cripples School's Wikis

Does FERPA ban schools from allowing students to post their schoolwork on the open Web?

Of the trio of laws that address children's and students' privacy and safety online, FERPA is often the one least cited outside of educational circles. The other two, COPPA and CIPA, tend to be in the news more often; the former as it relates to some of the ongoing discussions about privacy and social networking, the latter as it relates to BYOD and filtering programs. But in all cases, there seems to be a growing gulf between the laws and their practical application or interpretation, particularly since these pieces of legislation are quite old: COPPA was enacted in 1998, and CIPA in 2000. FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, dates all the way back to 1974.

FERPA is meant to give students control over access to and disclosure of their educational records. This prevents schools from divulging information about a student's grades, behavior or school work to anyone other than the student without that student's consent (with some exceptions, such as to parties involved with student aid or to schools to which students are transferring). The classic example used to explain how FERPA works: you can't post a list of students' names and grades on a bulletin board in the hallway.

But what about posting students' work publicly online?

Although it's up to the U.S. Department of Education to enforce FERPA compliance, there's news from Georgia Tech today that the school has made a decision to interpret FERPA as prohibiting just this sort of thing.

Yesterday, Georgia Tech deleted all student history and participation from the school's "Swikis," the wikis that students use for their coursework. Georgia Tech has been using wikis for this purpose since 1997, pioneering the usage of the collaborative tools for undergraduate education. One of the features of the school's wikis was that they allowed for cross-course and cross-semester communication. You could, should you choose, remain in a wiki for a class you'd taken previously, for example.

Mark Guzdial, a professor in the School of Interactive Computing, describes the university's decision on this Computing Education Blog:

"Georgia Tech's interpretation of FERPA is that protected information includes the fact that a student is enrolled at all. The folks at GT responsible for oversight of FERPA realized that a student's name in a website that references a course is evidence of enrollment. Yesterday, in one stroke, every Swiki ever used for a course was removed. None of those uses I described can continue. For example, you can't have cross-semester discussions or public galleries, because students in one semester of a course can't know the identities of other students who had taken the course previously."

Guzdial fears that not only does this undermine constructivist learning on campus, but that this interpretation may spread to other schools.

The Department of Education is currently revising FERPA laws, but it's primarily to make student data available for more longitudinal studies. No word from campus officials or from the Department of Education what prompted this move, but it does point to a fairly common occurrence: schools interpreting these pieces of legislation to restrict students' communication and access online, right at the time when the Web has such great potential for teaching and learning.


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