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Security!

posted: 6.12.07 by Barclay Barrios

Well, I guess that by now most of you know that this past Firday we had a bit of a break in here at Bedford Bits; someone hacked the host and overwrote our index page. Aiiiii-yaa! Ironically, I was thinking of talking about security anyway, though in terms of student work and grades.

Friday I was contacted by a student from my Spring class looking for her final paper. Since I had graded electronically using the comment feature in Word, I was able to print it out and leave it for her to pick up. But that got me thinking about what we do with student work when the students are gone, how we handle archiving, and how we address questions of security (which seem more important now than ever). These questions surfaced again for me yesterday. We were reading part of Richard E. Miller’s As If Learning Mattered for class and he talked about how hard it was to find actual student work in his research, which impacted the shape and direction of his project.

Practices connected to all of these concerns have shifted dramatically since I started teaching. When I first began we could post final grades by last four digits of SSN. I remember, too, the halls of the building that housed English littered with little boxes filled with graded student papers waiting for pick up. I even used to send grades through email. As schools got serious about FERPA a lot of that changed but now there are other emergent concerns too: intellectual property rights, identity theft, network security, terrorism. I know that last one might sound crazy, but there are a lot–A LOT–of student SSNs that seem to float through our office here and (gulp) we don’t have a shredder; it wouldn’t take much for someone to poach an identity for more than credit card applications.

Schools think about archives but I’m not sure they’ve thought about security. At my previous institution, we had this dark, musty room called the crypt that stored years of leftover student work from all the people teaching in the writing program. On more than one occasion we had to excavate its dark interior for some old paper for some very late grade dispute. Here at FAU we have state-mandated policies about archiving ALL documents, including student work. I think the minimum is one year. We have a space–not as roomy as the crypt–that we use for this purpose. Oddly, neither institution has/had any policies about disposing of sensitive papers securely. Hrm.

I think what I find most curious about all this is that I have no personal policies on these matters myself. True, I don’t send grades through email (because it’s not a fully secure medium) and, true, I try to be aware of whether or not a piece of paper has SSNs on it (like a class roster), but I don’t have a reflexive understanding of my relationship to archiving student work and securing sensitive information. What I do I do because it’s what I’ve done.

Then again maybe that’s enough. Could just be that server breach got me thinking along an unproductive track. That is, maybe security and archiving are not all the important, at least not to the degree that individual teachers need articulated policies. Hrm. But perhaps I could/should spell something out for the writing program here. Something that encompasses the state requirements and goes a bit further.

Hey, that’s something I should think about….

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Categories: Classroom Challenges and Solutions, Teaching Advice, Teaching with Technology
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10 Responses to “Security!”

  1. dr. b. Says:

    I remember the good old days of posting grades on doors. We stopped leaving student papers in the hall when they became easy pickings for students who wanted to pick and choose their final papers for the next semester. I don’t know that I have ever sent grades via email. Here we are lucky enough that the students can access their grades online almost as soon as we turn them in. That keeps us from being hounded about grades.

  2. JP Says:

    I remember when I was an undergraduate, to transition out of the use of SSNs to identify grades posted on doors, we were asked to create for each course an identifier composed of three numbers or letters that would be known only to the student and the instructor. Through some mix of adolescent arrogance and coolier-than-youism, I regularly used “God” as my identifier.

    Although Barclay is correct to point out that e-mail is not exactly a “secure” medium, in the past few years I’ve used it exclusively for not only the transmission of grades but the transaction of graded and ungraded student papers. I do this, on the one hand, out of convenience, to eliminate the large amount of paper shuffling required for a writing course (and also, I guess, in some half-assed effort at ecological responsibilty, even though I know that somewhere coal is being burnt to produce the electricity for the computer I’m using to send the e-mails). On the other, though, I do it for the “security” of another type it provides. Although not technically “secure,” someone would have to expend a reasonable effort to crack my e-mail for the relatively low-value return of finding out a student’s grades. More importantly, though, it allows for the easy electronic archiving of student work and thus eliminates the possiblity of losing a student’s paper (or copying papers that are to be returned to them) that can become a problem when a student challenges their final grade or you realize you may have recorded a grade incorrectly. Neither a hard-drive crash or a fire in “the Crypt” or whatever departmental space is used to store paper copies, is a worry as the information is stored in the e-mail servers of both myself and the student who wrote the paper.

  3. Derek Says:

    This spring I taught an online second-semester (sophomore year) writing course at Syracuse, and I used Google Docs for most of the turn-in and response work. It’s not perfect (what is?), but I found that it has a fairly suitable archiving system that, along with tags (by first-name, by assignment, by read/responded status), made it quite manageable to keep copies of the various pieces being circulated. I also set up course overview documents for each student, where all of the final grades and end comments went, and I periodically sent out reminders that students could keep up on the record of their work there.

    During the summer I teach online for another institution, and they allow (even encourage) the communication of grades via email as long as we send such correspondence to the institutionally-sponsored email account. Students can set up forwarding, but the use of email to communicate grades when all interchanges manifest online is, at least by some institutions, allowed.

  4. Barclay Barrios Says:

    Well, dr. b, final grades are available online here, too, but final paper grades need to come from us. Interesting that y’all are OK with email for grades. I’ve always been less concerned with someone hacking the email system and more concerned with a roommate logging into the student’s account or something like that. I just read that some universities are outsourcing their email to Google (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/6741797.stm) — perhaps that would be an interesting solution given all its apps and tools…

  5. dr. b. Says:

    Barclay, we are NOT allowed to send grades via email now. This is something that has come out as a specific rule since I was a GTA, but being a bit computer savvy and knowing how easy email was to hack even back in the day, sending private info like grades just seemed terribly wrong to me.

  6. RWL Says:

    JP, I’m interested in the paper-less assignment submission you’re talking about–for many of the same reasons you mention. And, like you, I’ve been relatively unconcerned with sending student papers and such over email, though I do try to keep track of the SSNs and keep them off email.

    I’m considering accepting and returning papers via email exclusively next time I teach FYC. I’m a bit concerned, though, about the technicalities of commenting on student papers solely via computer–I think I’ll miss the easy visual communication of arrows and circles and such. I’d be interested to know how you get around that, or whether grading electronic papers is ever frustrating for you (or your students)…

  7. Derek Says:

    One of the more significant recent adjustments I’ve made in my own commenting practices, RWL, is to make better use of highlighting (a practice I picked up from Becky Howard). When I read the draft the first time, I highlight in gray any words, phrases, or sentences I want to return to. I might also use other hues to designate areas of concern (where I had to work harder) or areas of delight (where I thought the prose was stylistically or conceptually rich or otherwise intriguing) or areas of assertion (where the premise of the project comes clear). In the end note I explain the highlighting scheme and comment on a few of the large-scale issues–patterns, coherence, and suggestions for the future of the project. Along with this, I’ve incorporated more audio commenting, too, so I might use Audacity to record the end note as I basically narrate the highlights and any written comments I’ve inserted in the body of the draft. It’s not the same as arrows and circles, but the highlighting schemes do fairly well to express regional issues (the way a circle might) or trajectories and rearrangement (the way arrows might). Still, it takes some getting used to, and I’m still trying to improve at it with each passing term.

  8. Selber Says:

    We post grades online, too, via a Web-based system. Students get notified immediately once a grade is posted. Then (not surprisingly) teachers get notified immediately by students who are unhappy with their grades. I certainly don’t mind talking with students about their grades. In fact, I can often be convinced to change their grades to higher grades. But lost in all this automation is the natural breathing room that used to accompany breaks between semesters. That breathing room provided students with time to reflect on their grades and written comments. I now spend time dealing with negative knee-jerk reactions that would have been pacified by patience and temporal space.

  9. JP Says:

    Switching to electronic commenting was a bit of an initial adjustment for me, RWL, but the students took to it quite naturally and often mention that they wish their other instructors would also use e-comments as well as electronic submission/return. You do lose some of the old standbys such as arrows and circles (though I appreciated Derek’s comment about the use of shading, etc. as replacements), however, at least in my experience, that’s been something of a productive loss, as it’s forced me to be a bit more descriptive/expressive about how I’m responding to a particular chunk of text and what changes I’m recommending. Students have also told me that using text for commenting, as opposed to shorthand marks, also reinforces the feeling that their work is being read carefully and thoughtfully, rather than just for its errors. Another advantage of electronic comments is that it allows me to copy-and-paste both student writing and my comments on it from a student paper and collect them in a document that I can use in class to show common mistakes or “areas of concern,” etc. In other words, you do use some of flexibility of “hands-on” commenting, but, for me at least, the benefits have outweighted the drawbacks.

  10. dr. b. Says:

    We moved from SSNs to student ID numbers a couple of years ago (and then a little later for the faculty) after the university server with all of that information on it kept getting hacked. At this point I swear I have more credit alerts and flags on my credit report than actual entries because they tell us to contact the credit bureau. Between them and the credit union I am thinking about totally going off the grid, heh!