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posted: 10.31.12 by Barclay Barrios

 I never cease to be amazed by the number of my colleagues who exhibit little to no awareness of FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), which is the educational equivalent of HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). Both pieces of federal legislation mandate absolute privacy when it comes to information, whether pertaining to health (HIPAA) or, more relevantly, student grades (FERPA). It wasn’t all that long ago that I could walk through the halls of our department and see boxes of graded student papers outside the doors of my colleagues’ offices (yikes!).

I understand FERPA, and I celebrate it. I also detest it. The problem is that I grade student work electronically using my word processor’s Track Changes and Comment features—good for the environment (well, good for trees anyway) and good for my sanity and health (for me, typing doesn’t produce the kind of repetitive stress that writing does). Actually, electronic grading isn’t the problem. Returning electronically graded student work is.

“FERPA-ly” speaking, e-mail is not a secure medium; someone could intercept the e-mail or a roommate could see it on the student’s computer, revealing the grade and breaking the law. So, returning graded student work by -email is technically illegal (well…let me say “non-FERPA compliant,” instead).

Blackboard and other course management systems are okay (or FERPA-compliant, if you will) since they are considered “secure” environments. But Blackboard is a royal pain in the ass and always seems to be, technologically speaking, about five years behind the curve. To return one student paper through Blackboard can take me as many as five mouse clicks. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but add in Blackboard’s slow response time and suddenly returning student work takes almost as long as grading it (not really, but that’s how it feels).

I’ve tried using Dropbox, but that involves getting each student to download and install Dropbox and then create and share folders. Besides, when I did try it I discovered it’s eerily pan-panoptic. I get a little pop-up whenever the student puts anything in the folder; they get one when I do the same. It’s like we’re always watching each other or, what’s worse, always acting as though we’re being watched.

Of course, I could print the papers but that defeats much of the purpose of electronic grading.

What to do?

Dream. In my dream, there is what I call the “FERPA-fied student locker.” The interface is simple: Dropbox simple. Each student signs up for an account in the locker with a code to add them to my class. When I sign in I see this:


To return work, I just drag and drop the graded file into the appropriate folder, where it is encrypted and stored in the student’s online locker. That’s what Web 2.0 is, folks—not just leveraging the “wisdom of crowds” through crowdsourcing but also Web applications that feel like a desktop environment. Drag and drop, drag and drop.  Let me say it one more time because I love and want it and need it—drag and drop.

That’s all I want. No discussion boards. No online peer revision. No electronic grading. No assessment tools. And no, not that other thing either. Just this.

Does the FERPA-fied student locker exist? No. Can it? Yes. “We have the technology. We can make [it] better than [it] was. Better…stronger…faster” (and I’m fairly certain it won’t cost six million dollars).

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5 Responses to “FERPA-fy Me”

  1. Laura Gibbs, Univ. of Oklahoma Says:

    Hi Barclay, I teach fully online classes and, like you, I am not prepared to let the cms be the main way I communicate with students – stultifying for me and for them. (We have Desire2Learn at my school, and while not as bad as Blackboard, it is not very good either – it was good 10 years ago… and seems frozen in time.) Anyway, the way I solve this problem is by returning student writing via email without a grade, just my abundant comments. I put the grade in the Gradebook. I actually like keeping them separate for pedagogical reasons, but it’s also a way that keeps the “grade” out of the email. FERPA doesn’t say I can’t communicate with a student via university email (D2L delivers notifications to students via our university email system), and I’m glad to leave the grades just in the D2L gradebook. As I understand it, comments are comments (communication) and grades are grades. Perhaps it is interpreted differently at your school but it works for me.

  2. Barclay Barrios Says:

    I’ve been using the same system myself this semester–emailed comments and grades in the grade center on Bb. I understand the pedagogical impulse there. Or at least I have one of my own. By separating comments and grades, students will hopefully READ the comments and not fixate on the grade. The problem is that I also fear it’s working the other way around–they’re just looking at the grade on Bb and not reading the comments. Argh! It’s also still twice the work for me. I have to email each paper back and then also record the grades. It’s just frustrating because all the tech is there and I use it on a gazillion other sites. Argh argh!

  3. Laura Gibbs Says:

    Ah, for comments it’s all revision-driven in my class – I comment because students will revise. It’s an online class and they work on their project all semester long, so it’s an endless revision-fest… they do read the comments, but I know they check their grades religiously too of course. I also like using the email since I do searches of the email text for little error codes, just to see how bad things were looking for the poor apostrophe in a given semester, or the number of times I send people to the comma splice help page. So, at least for me it works… what I desperately need is for Desire2Learn to come up with a discussion board that does not feel like it comes from the Internet Dark Ages. That would be a the top of my wish list. Until that happens I have to keep paying for a Ning out of my pocket just to keep my students from not going bonkers as a result of using the mind-numbing D2L discussion board. 🙂

  4. Barclay Barrios Says:

    So the problem remains that content management systems seem to lag behind what tech can do. I wonder if this is a matter of resources or will…

  5. Laura Gibbs, Univ. of Oklahoma Says:

    I tend to think it is because cms are marketed to IT staff primarily, and not really to an academic audience. Have you looked at Instructure? Of the cms options available right now, it is my favorite – but at my school there’s no sign of us switching from D2L in my lifetime, ha ha.