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gh - ethicLiz Homan is a doctoral candidate in the Joint Program in English and Education at The University of Michigan. Her research focuses on secondary teachers’ digital practices and social networks. You can find her on Twitter at @lizhoman or on her blog, Gone Digital

Free stuff. It’s everywhere these days. Especially if you have a high-speed Internet connection or if you cart around your smart phone everywhere you go. Maybe it isn’t tangible stuff, but many fun things can be found online for free, free, free!

Other gradhackers have talked here about the possibilities of Pinterest in the classroom and shared various other online tools to improve our productivity as instructors. Some of my personal favorite tools for course organization and collaboration in the past have included Google Apps like Drive and Calendar; Remind101, which lets teachers send text message reminders to students without direct exchange of phone numbers; and Doodle, which allows easy scheduling of writing conferences with students. I recently discovered Popplet, which is similar to concept mapping and brainstorming spaces, but with a collaborative component. And a high school teacher recently told me about gClass Folders, which streamlines the process of course management in Google by creating student folders and providing easy ways to add and remove students from course lists. And it’s all free!

Well, sort of. Google certainly makes money when your students sign up for Google accounts. And WordPress benefits from the creation and readership of my students’ lively blogs. Which means that I need to consider the rights of my students and my responsibilities as their instructor when I require the use of digital tools for coursework. As teachers, we are ethically responsible for the technology we ask our students to use, and we have to be aware of the ethical, legal, and user limitations of certain “free” technologies.

Which has raised a number of questions for me in recent years, specifically when I promote the use of an online tool in my classroom:

  • Who “owns,” or even has access to, my students’ work?
  • What access issues do I need to consider?
  • What are my responsibilities as an instructor to provide options?

I do not have all of the answers to these questions, but I have endeavored to gather a bit of information on each one.  

Who “owns” my students’ online work? The answer to that is — your students. Or at least, that should be the answer. And according to Google’s Terms of Service, “what belongs to you stays yours,” at least when it comes to content. Herein lies an important distinction—content and information are different. While students’ content (for example,  Google documents they author) is legally theirs and is considered their intellectual property, the personal information students provide to the service becomes the property of the service. They can sell it, use it as internal data, or share it with their affiliates.

Privacy Policies and Terms of Service:








This echoes the privacy policy of Dropbox, which ensures that data will only be kept as long as you maintain your account (unless you have shared items with existing users, in which case items will remain as long as shared users do not delete them), and iCloud, which provides an avenue through which to report copyright violations. As for who has access – that question is harder to answer. Verbiage on all of these sites suggests that they require either your permission or legal warrants to release any of your content. However, the companies certainly have access to students’ work, and iCloud in particular retains the right to delete or ban content. Furthermore, security in email services may be different from cloud and sharing services, and Google has recently come under fire for their email privacy policies. The takeaway: Make sure your students are informed about and have access to the privacy policies of Google or any other service you use, and keep FERPA guidelines in mind. This means no grading on Google ( including sending grades back-and-forth via e-mail), and no sharing of student work without their consent.

What access issues do I need to consider? When my university “went Google” last year, faculty and graduate student instructors became aware of some of the access issues present in Google Apps.  Specifically, Google Apps are not friendly to screen readers, which use nested menus to help individuals with visual impairments navigate the web. I recently (last week) received a troubling email in my inbox warning against the use of Google due to accessibility concerns:

“Much work remains to make the experience acceptable and equitable for individuals who have disabilities. Because Google Docs and Drive, Chat, Sites, and other collaborative technologies in the Google suite do not work well with standard assistive technologies, we have instructed the faculty not to require students to use them in coursework, and to be sensitive and avoid situations in which students who have disabilities may be disadvantaged if the Google suite is the preferred alternative.”

Indeed, Google has recently made improvements to Apps to improve accessibility for diverse users. However, these adjustments were not enough to impress many advocates for individuals with disabilities. The takeaway: always ask access questions. What access problems does the tool present for any and all of your students? What technologies will your students use to access the tool (phones? screen readers? laptops? tablets? desktops?) What other options can you provide if a barrier to access arises?

What are my responsibilities as an instructor? Certainly, the affordances of the free web cannot be overstated -- there are many resources available to instructors across disciplines that all of us at GradHacker love to find, share, and use in our classrooms. However, it is also our responsibility to protect our students’ rights as learners and their abilities to succeed in our courses. Because most apps, and almost all Google Apps, were designed for the general public, they do have the same security features as programs designed for and purchased by schools.

However, the fact that these apps were designed for the general public is also a strength—they speak to our students on a more authentic level than Blackboard, for instance, and allow them to publish and share their work with wider audiences. It is our responsibility to weigh those advantages and disadvantages against one another, and to engage in ethical teaching practices that do not jeopardize our students’ privacy or intellectual property rights. The takeaways: Based on what I’ve learned so far from conversations with other instructors, my own practices, and reading various terms and conditions statements, I think it is important that, as graduate student instructors, we

  1. Inform ourselves about the technologies we are using with students and our responsibilities as their teachers—both legally according to FERPA and ethically according to our beliefs and our students’ best interests. To that end, I’ve provided links to the policy and privacy statements of all of the apps and technologies mentioned in this post in the fact box above.
  2. Engage our students in conversations about whatever apps or technologies we will be using in our courses, including conversations about what will be done with their personal information or content.
  3. Offer options whenever possible as alternatives to particular web services. This gets tricky when using reminder or organizational applications, but you can always use multiple reminder services (Twitter and Remind101, for example) to keep students up-to-date on changes to the syllabus, or give groups options for online collaboration when they are completing collaborative projects.

As with all of our pedagogical decisions, it is most important that we question, reflect, and critique our practices on a regular basis. This means avoiding the wholesale adoption of any one technology without thinking about what obstacles our students might encounter, the potential drawbacks of the coolest new app, or how the technology does or does not align with our goals.

Tell us: how do you use the free web in your classroom? How do you keep students’ needs and rights in mind when you incorporate new digital technologies?

[Image by Phil Galfond, used under Creative Commons License]

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