FIPPA consent forms: A pedagogical opportunity for one B.C. post-secondary educator

Online privacy is an important issue for all Canadians, but it’s especially important to students. Post-secondary students are adults, however, it’s surprising how little thought goes into signing online privacy waivers. But students of all ages are affected: Grade-schoolers are not only learning the use of digital tools, but also face online privacy issues before they can understand their implications.

Post by BCcampus’ editorial team

The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) stipulates that personal information collected must be stored on servers within Canada unless a person consents to storing their information outside of Canada. With many web-based learning tools using servers located outside of Canada, gathering informed consent from students can be a barrier. Brian Lamb, Director, Innovation – Open Learning at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) says that FIPPA regulations and the use of online learning tools aren’t necessarily incompatible, though certainly there is a tension. This tension requires that instructors need to be mindful of the kinds of technologies they use, and should consider alternative platforms that may provide the same function but without the potential FIPPA breech. Brian cautions that educators shouldn’t passively leave these concerns to others—“it’s not merely of concern to learning technologists, librarians, and media studies professors—it affects every subject area.” Considering these options may take more work, but it’s the only way to ensure that instructors use the most effective tools to facilitate online learning.

What should instructors consider when evaluating an online tool?

Brian suggests that the first concern should be how appropriate the technology is for the purpose. However, the track record of the software provider should also come into consideration—have they ever violated their stated privacy policies or not? And finally, it’s worthwhile to check if these resources have already been assessed, and at TRU, Brian helps in this regard. If an instructor decides to use an online tool that isn’t Canada-based, Brian ensures students understand the privacy issues and coordinates the necessary waivers. But rather than just give them to the instructor to pass out in class, Brian often visits the classroom with the waivers and uses the opportunity to engage students in a discussion about online privacy.  “Brian’s use of the waiver as a teaching tool is a great way to address FIPPA privacy issues in the classroom,” says Clint Lalonde, Manager, Educational Technology and Development, BCcampus. “While some may view the signing of a consent form as an administrative task, Brian has turned it into a pedagogical activity and an opportunity to engage students in a deeper discussion about privacy.”

Brian wants to make sure that students understand their rights to have their privacy protected, that they understand the issues (including horror stories about online privacy breaches, like how recently we became aware that Google tracks your credit card purchases and connects it to your profile), and that they know what options are available to them. He’s found that few students are aware that they have the right to protect their personal information by using a pseudonym online, and this is now becoming the standard, rather than the rarity, when using online educational tools. Brian takes that as a good sign of student interest—indeed a growing number of students request more info and inquire if there are classes available on this topic.

Privacy in B.C.’s post-secondary sector

Many in the higher education community are discussing the issue of informed consent regarding the provincial FIPPA legislation. The Educational Technology Users Group (ETUG) has recently created a privacy channel within their Slack group as a way for educational technologists to share tips and ideas for addressing privacy issues in educational technology. BCcampus also works closely with BCNET on monitoring and advising institutions on FIPPA risks for provincial shared educational technology services.

Brian has seen a diminishing adoption rate of online tools because of these issues around privacy. However, this hesitation is coming from the instructors, not the students. In Brian’s experience, once informed of the issues around privacy protection, no adult student has ever refused to sign consent forms. This may indicate that most students are more comfortable in the online environment than instructors are. However, where does this leave parents of school-aged children on the topic of privacy? As a parent, Brian also has to tackle these issues but he takes the opportunity to educate his son on the problem, and to create good online habits (like using a VPN whenever on a wireless network). Teachers are caught in the middle of this issue, trying to teach digital skills, but without the agency to control what tools are used (these are school district-level decisions). Whether you’re a learner, educator, or the parent of school-aged children, Brian thinks, “this is a civic engagement issue rather than a technology-adoption issue.” He says that the only way we’re going to address these issues is to ask questions and raise concerns.

Notable quote:

“Building awareness at both the student and instructor level Is key to the civic engagement Brian speaks of.  Where we were once focused on FIPPA compliance and risk, we are now looking at best practices with a pedagogical lens in terms of online privacy.” – Denise Goudy, Director, BCcampus

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