FERPA needs an update

The educational privacy act needs to be modified for 21st century communications.

Trent M. Kays

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, more commonly known as FERPA, guarantees rights and privileges to students regarding their educational records. FERPA ensures that the privacy of students is a priority at universities, and it provides students with avenues to view, appeal and change their educational records.

Students may want to see if information is correct, to see what the university has recorded regarding their time there and to understand how administrators and teachers see their records. As a student, I want to know if my time at a university is being properly recorded, and I want to be sure my educational records are private and protected from unauthorized use. For example, I want to be confident that my educational records will not be available to third-party corporations without my knowledge, and I want to be sure the information released is correct.

As a teacher, itâÄôs important to know the university I work for upholds my studentsâÄô privacy. ItâÄôs important because students place a measure of trust in me to guide them through my class and protect their privacy and records. I have access to my studentsâÄô educational records, including in-class work, grades and homework. I work to ensure these types of records remain private, unless otherwise directed by my students.

Educational records are any records the university or a representative of the university holds, which directly pertains to someoneâÄôs time as a student. There are a few minor variations, of course, but thatâÄôs the global view of FERPA. These records include any communication, which directly relates to a student: handwritten notes, digital communication, video, emails, etc.

Students have the right to see the record of any communication they have with any representative of the university where their private information is referenced or addressed, as long as that communication does not include private information related to another student. These records often become crucial in university appeals processes, like student code of conduct or academic dishonesty appeals, because students may need to defend a decision they made, which was included in their educational records. ItâÄôs important to be aware these records exist, and that students have a right to view them and appeal any information which they feel is incorrect.

There are some challenges to FERPA, especially in the 21st century. The act was written and implemented during a time when email, instant messaging and other types of digital media did not exist. FERPAâÄôs language is rather concrete. It applies to any student records in any format, so it is possible for a conversation a professor has with a student via instant messaging to become an âÄúeducational record,âÄù which means a student could have the right to view the messages related to our conversation.

FERPA should be updated with more specific language addressing the ever-changing digital learning environment. For example, FERPA doesnâÄôt directly address email communication, or whether a teacher can send an email to a student in which the teacher discusses the studentâÄôs grade. This could be considered private student information, and it shouldnâÄôt be sent over email because one never truly knows where the email has gone once it is sent. However, unless thereâÄôs a university policy indicating what to do, teachers are left to make their best judgment about the implementation of FERPA in digital communication practices.

StudentsâÄô privacy and educational records deserve to be protected, and teachers should be the first line of defense in protecting these records. This can prove difficult, though, because 21st century communication poses new challenges to what entails educational records. Without proper revision, teachers are left to interpret FERPA the best they can in order to protect their students.