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The Privacy of the Classroom

5.11.15


How private is a Harvard classroom—the space protected for free exchanges of ideas between teacher and student-learners? That issue arose during the fall semester, when Gordon McKay professor of computer science Harry Lewis (now interim dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences) informed the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) about a study of lecture attendance undertaken by the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teachng (HILT). HILT researchers had deployed cameras to photograph lecture halls and count full or empty seats, to track attendance during the course of various classes; neither teachers nor students were advised in advance. (For a full account of the FAS discussions, see “Faculty Tensions I: The Sanctity of the Classroom” and “The Sanctity of the Classroom, Continued.”)

Oversight Committee Views

During the conversations, President Drew Faust told the faculty that she would refer the issues raised to the oversight committee on electronic communications policy. That body had itself been created by a task force led by then Green professor of public law David Barron (now a federal judge) in the wake of the 2012-2013 academic-misconduct investigations; in the course of those investigations, it was revealed that administrators had investigated resident deans’ e-mail accounts without notice, setting in train a concerted effort to establish coherent University policy on the privacy of electronic communications.

At the May 5 FAS faculty meeting, the last regular meeting of the academic year, Faust released a memorandum from the oversight committee. Strictly speaking, it is an explanation of why the HILT attendance studies do not fall under the committee’s jurisdiction:

…the photographing of students in their classroom seats is not an instance of the University gaining “access” to a user’s “electronic information.” The same conclusion applies to the temporary retention of digital files containing photographic images of students. Our understanding is that these files were not located in files and accounts associated with a particular user. Also, they did not amount to or contain information generated by automated processes triggered by the user’s use of University systems, and, in any event, were apparently gathered without identifying or seeking to identify any particular user. Accordingly, the Policy appears not to be implicated in this instance, as HILT researchers were not accessing “user electronic information.”

That formality dispensed with, the oversight committee then explores issues to which the University ought to attend. The committee observes, “Inevitably, there is a tension between the University’s establishment of classroom space as a locus of free and open discourse and its use of classrooms as ‘laboratories’ to study teaching and learning.” It hastens to note that observing classrooms for research purposes can be entirely appropriate: “Indeed, students and teachers are likely to be the chief beneficiaries of such study.”

The question to be addressed concerns the appropriate ground rules for conducting such studies while respecting the privacy of images and information, and notifying study subjects and/or securing their consent. (As examples of general notice to students about the use of information in studies, the committee appends the overriding Harvard privacy policy for the Canvas course-management software system, and Harvard Business School’s notice to students and faculty members on the recording of classroom activities; both address research use of information for educational purposes.)

In general, the committee finds, “some form of prior notice seems desirable” except where it would undermine the validity of “a vitally important study that could not be performed without such notice.” It goes on to discuss sharing the results of such studies with faculty members, protecting junior faculty members, and other matters. In general, the committee concludes:

[A]ny proposed study of a classroom, including those involving photography or videography, should be designed and implemented with credible assurances as to limitations on the use of any data collected, as well as sensitivity to the context in which a faculty member is being asked to consent to the study.

Institutional Changes to Safeguard Study Subjects

The committee also observes that several changes in University procedures have been introduced “since the time of the [HILT] attendance study” (without detailing whether those changes took place before or after the FAS discussion last fall). The memorandum details two. First,

As required by law, the University has established Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), including the Committee on the Use of Human Subjects (CUHS), to review and approve protocols for human subject research, including classroom studies that aim to contribute to generalizable knowledge. The Committee’s understanding is that, since the time of the attendance study, modifications have been made to CUHS procedures according to which any protocol for research involving Harvard students will automatically be subjected to greater scrutiny, and will include input from the Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Education acting as a liaison to CUHS. [emphasis added]

And second,

[T]he Committee understands that a research organization is being formed within the Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning [to which HILT reports] that will serve as an oversight body for learning-related research projects conducted at the University. It further understands that this research organization will operate with an advisory committee comprised of faculty members, and that, for each learning-related research project, the research organization will coordinate with an official or officials from the school(s) in which the research is being conducted. [emphasis added]

Given changing education technologies, including “course management software [that] increasingly is available to serve as a research tool,” the oversight committee

respectfully recommends that the University’s IRBs and the Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning review the rules and practices that they employ for assessing proposed studies of teaching and learning (including future classroom studies) so as to ensure that those rules and practices are sufficiently attentive to, and protective of, the student and faculty interests identified above.

Because the use of new technologies for the study of teaching and learning seem likely to continue to generate trust issues between students and faculty, on the one hand, and researchers and administrators, on the other, the Committee further recommends that the Office of the President or the Provost take concrete steps to facilitate ongoing discussion of these matters, perhaps through occasional meetings overseen by the Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning.

Finally, given the evolving educational and technological environment, the Committee invites the Office of the President or the Provost to identify the University and unit-level bodies that currently bear oversight responsibility for aspects of University-related privacy matters, and to consider whether there is a need for greater coordination among them (e.g., regular meetings of committee chairs), or for some manner of reorganization to ensure that issues raised by the use of photography and videography in the classroom and elsewhere, as well as other technologies such as course management software, are identified and appropriately addressed.

In other words, given the interest in enhancing teaching and learning outcomes, and the wide deployment of new technological tools in classroom use, classroom privacy is all but certain to remain an issue requiring close attention.

In her brief remarks referring faculty members to the oversight committee’s report, President Faust said that she accepted and would act on its recommendations. She stressed the measures that had already been adopted (the IRB’s modification of procedures to include greater College scrutiny of studies that involve students; and greater faculty oversight within the office of the vice provost for learning-related research studies conducted at Harvard): a new foundation for addressing what will continue to be what she called “complex issues.”

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