Gas station without pumps

2014 January 11

Student forum and FERPA

Filed under: freshman design seminar — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 12:43
Tags: , , ,
On Fri, Jan 10, 2014 at 11:28 PM, one of my students wrote:
Also, is it possible to set up some type of discussion forum for the class so that we could all discuss ideas etc.?
Here is my reply:

I was planning to set up a place for student discussion, though I’ve had difficulty getting students to use such forums in previous classes.

There are a few different ways I can do it, with differences in the ease of setting it up and how public the resulting forum is.  Some students may feel inhibited about posting comments in a public forum, but it would allow people from outside the class to contribute. 

One possibility is for students to comment on my blog posts on

That requires nothing new for me to set up, but is very public.  Students could also make semi-anonymous comments (I’m the only person who would see the e-mail addresses).

Another possibility is for tech staff to create a class forum, which is very private (not even other UCSC students or researchers would have access).  My experience with these is that no one ever looks at them or contributes, unless draconian methods are used to force them to.  (Other faculty have had different experiences with forums—I don’t know what the magic is to make them work.)

Yet another possibility is for me to create a “google group” e-mail list with all the class members on it.  This is private, but I can easily add group tutors or other mentors.  Getting direct e-mail is more likely to induce students to participate than having to go to a special place on the web, but people’s email addresses would become know when they sent stuff to the mailing list.

Since you are the first to ask about a forum—what do you think would work well?

Now I’ll ask my blog readers.  How do you set up on-line class discussion spaces?  How does your institution interpret Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA regulations) about the privacy of student work? How do you get all students to participate?

UCSC takes a particularly extreme view about privacy and FERPA (see FERPA for Faculty):

Avoid inadvertently disclosing information from student records. For example:

  • Do not place graded, identifiable student work in the hallway or an unmonitored area for students to pick up;
  • Do not post grades publicly if grades are linked to a student ID number, name, or other identifier except for an exam number or unique ID known only to the instructor and student;
  • Avoid requiring students to post identifiable homework assignments or projects in a publicly accessible on-line forum (e.g., Facebook, YouTube, and other social media spaces)
  • Instead of requiring students to participate in a publicly accessible on-line blog, allow students to opt out, create a private blog, or consider using eCommons;
  • If you use Doodle or a similar system to solicit or share calendar or schedule information, create a private poll so students’ information is not disclosed to other students;
  • Obtain consent from new students before sharing any of their personal information, biographical or academic, with students, faculty, or others;
  • Do not circulate or post a class roster that includes photograph or student ID number, and do not circulate or post a class roster of student names if the roster is available to persons outside the class;
  • The “cloud computing” environment offers many handy and inexpensive applications. However, placing any information about students at a Web site not under contract with the University may raise FERPA issues. Make the use of these sites optional, or allow students concerned about privacy to provide their information to you in a secure manner.

These rules put some strong restrictions on what I can do. Whatever it is has to be either closed or allow students to use pseudonyms. I think I prefer having a public forum, where non-class members can comment, but only if I can ensure that students are not identifiable by outsiders.



  1. The benefit of drawing 3rd party observations and suggestions seems large to me. You are not making participation in a public blog mandatory or part of their grade. Does FERPA cover students posting questions on a public forum? I post summaries of my science class at and get useful comments from those I have allowed into the group. My middle and high school students tend not to participate, perhaps because Facebook is an obstacle.

    Comment by miguelaznar — 2014 January 11 @ 13:36 | Reply

    • I don’t know what FERPA really says (and I doubt that any other faculty do either). What I have are the guidelines that the university provides me, which are their own interpretation of the rules. From what I’ve seen of University interpretations of other rules, they have picked an interpretation that limits the faculty and students the most, and provides the most cover-your-ass protection for the bureaucrats. The primary purpose of the university, after all, is to provide low-stress jobs for bureaucrats!

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 January 11 @ 13:45 | Reply

  2. Interesting, I was re-thinking about the same problem recently (about how to set up a forum for these kind of questions).
    About the quoted rules in this post: I think they all make a lot of sense. It all depends on how they are really applied or what bureaucrats are behind it. We all need to be careful about what goes public and what not.
    At our university we have an internal online system which has a lot of possibilites, including a forum. But nobody to my knowledge is using it because it is hard to use and maintain. Very few or none contributes, and as such nobody looks at it (especially you have to log in and ‘poll’ the content). I think this applies to many ‘internal’ systems, even if they are commerical system bought from the outside. A share the same experience about only few are willing to contribute. Kind of chicken and egg problem.
    So I was thinking as well using my blog for discussions/forums. But that seemed not ideal to me as I might want to post something or a piece of information which really is not interesting for the public at all, or truely internal and not supposed to be seen by the public.
    What I have seen is that students organize themselves and ask the teacher questions (either directly or by email), and they build up a Wiki based on that, and share it among their peers. I think this is a very good approach, and it is ‘intrinsicly’ motivated, and thus very successful in my view.
    Thinking about that Wiki thing, I was considering about building up on that idea. In my course (as an important topic), they learn to use a VCS (Version Control System), and Git is used as example. So far we used a very minimalistic Git server within the university network, with its own problems. On the other end I’m using GitHub a lot for my work, and it features a Wiki. My GitHub repository is ‘public’, so truely everyone can see (and contribute if he wants). I don’t want to have that student work (or their code repositories) public, for privacy or legal reasons. In my course, the students have to develop an embedded application in small groups (see, and I share my code as example code so they can learn from different solutions.
    GitHub offers a paid plan ($7 per month) to have private repositories. So my thinking was to use a private repository for that code sharing and such a private repository could host the wiki(s) too:
    – information is easily accessible for the students through GitHub (they are using Git anyway), and I can control who gets access
    – no ‘web site loggin and polling’: with Git operations (sync, pull), students get all the information easily on their machines
    – they can collaborate in the Wiki (the wiki is under git control too)
    – Yes, it is a cloud service, and technically NSA/etc could read it. But there will be no confidential information on it.
    – Low cost (our internal university git costs more than the fee to GitHub)
    – Information can be easily transferred/shapped into a new repository from one semester to another (that’s something not easy with a blog)
    I know, this approach does not apply for classes where they are not used to use a version control system. But maybe that’s a good side effect to introduce one as I think every engineer needs one (but does not have to be Git or GitHub).
    So my current thinking is that I will go with that GitHub way and see how it goes.

    PS: Another (even more ‘geeky’ way) would be to combine Git with LaTeX ( I’m building a lot of lecture material with LaTeX, and there are many nice features and extensions. One of it is to write exams or to create Questions&Answers. That would be very cool, could be in a version control system. But it would require that students use TeX too. And that’s not ideal, at least for my use case.

    Comment by Erich Styger — 2014 January 11 @ 23:55 | Reply

    • If this were a computer science or computer engineering class, I’d probably agree with you that learning to use a version control system was a worthwhile investment. But bioengineers are unlikely to see a source-code control system in their professional lives, and only one or two of the students in class have ever written a computer program, so the intricacies of a source-code control system are not likely to be comfortable for them. (Last year, I found that half the seniors in my applied circuits course had never used a command-line program and didn’t even know how to get a terminal window on their computers. So your solution is not likely to be very successful with these students.

      I have set up wikis for classes before:, but that was for graduate class in bioinformatics, with students who were highly computer literate.

      Currently, I’m leaning towards an e-mail mailing list (using Google groups unfortunately, since they slammed us from listman to Google groups a couple of years ago, with an enormous increase in the effort to maintain mailing lists). Most of the students still read their e-mail.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 January 12 @ 00:14 | Reply

      • Yeah, I was following the links after posting my comments and found out that this is about bioengineering (interesting stuff!), and realized that this might not work out of the box for them. And I agree with you: email seems the best ‘common ground’ for these kind of things. And that’s why I try to use systems which have some sort of email notification too.

        Comment by Erich Styger — 2014 January 12 @ 00:20 | Reply

  3. I use It is free, and you can make your course private so students can see each others posts but no one else can. You can also set up polls to run in class if you are into Peer Instruction.

    Comment by Bonnie — 2014 January 13 @ 06:53 | Reply

    • After discussion with the class, it was decided that we would use an e-mail list (set up with Google Groups). This allows us to maintain privacy, but invite others to join the e-mail list, should we want their participation. (When I hire “group tutors”, they will be added, for example.)

      None of the students used RSS feeds, so a blog format was considered unworkable. Some were not on Facebook (I’m not either), and those not on Facebook did not want to join. A senior who was going to act as a tour guide for a lab tour reported that eCommons (the campus-imposed learning-management system) has a terrible user interface, and that no one uses forums set up there.

      E-mail seemed to be the only medium that everyone used and checked regularly. Since participation in the discussion is the primary goal, an e-mail list was deemed the most likely to work.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 January 13 @ 21:10 | Reply

      • I used to use Google Groups, but when I used it in my software engineering course, which involves a lot of message traffic surrounding a project, the students complained that it was too hard to find specific messages in the very lengthy email chains. It was actually one of my students who discovered Piazza – she saw it demo’ed at a CS education conference. It is easier to search, though still not perfect.
        My students are very reluctant to read email, for reasons which escape me. Many of them still rely on the telephone (no, not texting, actual voice telephone). Many of my students are immigrants, which might explain it.

        Comment by Bonnie — 2014 January 14 @ 05:05 | Reply

        • My students claimed (convincingly) that they checked their e-mail frequently, but that there were no other media that everyone in the room used. If you read your e-mail with Google and use labels for filing old messages instead of deleting them, the search function is adequate (though not great). The Google group also has an archive of old messages, which students can also search.

          Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 January 14 @ 11:21 | Reply

  4. I’ve been investigating a new company in this space, so while looking around came across this post. I note that Piazza at least has a FERPA policy (, which this new company does not publish (yet).

    It’s interesting to note that some institutions explicitly tell their instructors to not go signing up for random Web services: e.g., Penn State ( says, “Services such as WebAssign (an online homework and testing tool) and Piazza (a discussion tool) provide benefits to faculty and to students, often at no fee. Usually in order to use these services, the instructor must provide a class list to the vendor. Since class enrollment is not directory information, we must comply with FERPA before releasing this information to the vendor. FERPA either requires us to have the consent of every student to release his/her non-directory information, or to have a contract in place with the vendor containing four specific clauses. If an instructor is considering using any vendor product that requires student information, then the instructor must first check with to see if an appropriate contract is in place between Penn State and the vendor.”

    I’m worried about the proliferation of these new services: they direct-market to faculty, who are usually both unaware of their legal obligations _and_ eager to find expedient solutions. These services often have a cavalier attitude to these matters, because they’re hip Silicon Valley Web companies, not stodgy old government things, ya know? Also, being “free” services, they clearly _have_ to make money off student data somehow.

    Incidentally, the FERPA FAQ ( states:
    Q: I want to use online tool or application as part of my course. However, I am worried that it is a violation of FERPA. What should I do?

    A: A teacher should check with their school administration to see what has been defined as directory information. As long as using the application would not require disclosing more than directory information and none of the students have opted out of directory information, it would not be a violation of FERPA.

    But as the Penn State page above says, class enrollment is not “directory information”, which is a term of art (
    FERPA defines “directory information” as information contained in the education records of a student that would not generally be considered harmful or an invasion of privacy if disclosed. Typically, “directory information” includes information such as name, address, telephone listing, date and place of birth, participation in officially recognized activities and sports, and dates of attendance. A school may disclose “directory information” to third parties without consent if it has given public notice of the types of information which it has designated as “directory information,” the parent’s or eligible student’s right to restrict the disclosure of such information, and the period of time within which a parent or eligible student has to notify the school in writing that he or she does not want any or all of those types of information designated as “directory information.” The means of notification could include publication in various sources, including a newsletter, in a local newspaper, or in the student handbook. The school could also include the “directory information” notification as part of the general notification of rights under FERPA. The school does not have to notify a parent or eligible student individually. (34 CFR § 99.37.)

    There is also this odd remark that I found on a blog at Princeton ( «Piazza is FERPA compliant (since student information is being stored on a server not on your campus).» There’s also this note at NC State that seems to be more ominous than helpful to faculty (how do I make sure Piazza won’t screw up something?):

    Comment by shriramkrishnamurthi — 2015 July 27 @ 06:58 | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: