As Second Life matures, educators more and more concern themselves with legal aspects of using it for education, just as we did when the Web was developing 10, 12, 15 years ago. Just as with the Web, first we thought about how to use it for education. Once patterns began to emerge along those lines, we started thinking about legal implications, which led to updates in copyright law, library practices, and course management software, among many others.
I’m hearing a lot of discussion about concerns regarding the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a far-ranging act that has had a huge impact on education since its passage. The Wrightslaw site says this about FERPA:
FERPA deals with:
access to educational records
parental right to inspect and review records
amendment of records
- destruction of records
FERPA applies to all agencies and institutions that receive federal funds, including elementary and secondary schools, colleges, and universities. The statute is in the United States Code at 20 U. S. C. 1232g and 1232h. The regulations are in the Code of Federal Regulations at 34 C.F.R Part 99.
Since the vast majority of college students are adults, one of the ironic effects of FERPA is that we cannot legally reveal any details about a student’s education to his parents without his/her consent, despite the stated goal of ensuring parental access. For college educators, the issue usually boils down to preventing anyone else from finding out how well (or how poorly) the student is doing without that student’s consent.
Because of FERPA, college instructors could no longer post grade results on the classroom door. Many switched to using Social Security numbers, figuring that only the student would know the number. That was ruled unacceptable long ago, so teachers resorted to various schemes to maintain privacy while still making grades accessible to students (without having to field hundreds of individual inquiries).
Password-protected course management software rendered most of that a moot point. When a student logs in, s/he only sees his/her own grades. Problem solved.
We have different issues in Second Life. Among them:
- How do we make sure no one gets course material that they shouldn’t (which usually means they haven’t registered with “our” institution)?
- How do we make sure no one overhears a student’s discussion and the subsequent feedback from the instructor? When other students who have registered in a class hear such feedback, it’s generally accepted as enough privacy, especially when the instructor does not say a grade out loud. Doors and wall keep anyone else from hearing. But just anyone can wander by a class in SL and, if that anyone is within 20 meters (virtually speaking), “hear” what is being said, virtual walls notwithstanding.
It is at this point that I must said IANALBIKSWI (I am not a lawyer, but I know someone who is). This is strictly opinion, my own, with no legal standing whatsoever.
So far, protective efforts have centered around controlling access to the space used for education. SL land owners (and group members who have been given the privilege) can control access to a parcel, either automatically (by software-controlled group access) or manually (by closing the parcel and admitting individuals one by one).
Practical problems can make this difficult or impossible. The main problem is that you have to somehow control the parcel in order to effect this. If you take a group of students on a field trip to, for instance, the International Space Museum, you have absolutely no way to shut off eavesdroppers. The obviously solution is to not go on such field trips–but that robs SL of much of its educational value. It’s like saying, “If you don’t want to be overheard, then just don’t go to college.” It works, but at too great a price.
I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a solution that is so simple, we’ve just overlooked it, one that is built into the culture of SL, i.e., your avatar name has no necessary connection with your real-life self as far as the knowledge of other people. SL’s terms of service, in fact, prohibit revealing the real-life identity of any given avatar without that person’s consent.
If I wander by your class and hear “Swifty Tizzy” say something, I have no way to connect that avatar name to the real-life student behind it, unless the student shouts his/her real name out. Other students in the class may or may not know the real-life name, but for FERPA purposes it doesn’t matter–at least, no more than it matters in a real-life classroom.
Doesn’t this provide enough privacy protection to satisfy FERPA? IANAL, so I don’t know–I don’t know if the ones who can type “IAAL” know. But I think it’s worth checking into. Anyone have any input on this?