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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jeff Konin

Virtual Classroom Safety

Updated: Nov 13, 2020

With the Covid-19 virus shifting many academic environments to a virtual world of teaching, new and unforeseen challenges from a legal perspective have arisen. Over 100 lawsuits have been filed by students seeking college refunds claiming their online education has not lived up to the same standards that are delivered in a live face-to-face classroom setting (Yale University, University of Michigan, Boston University, Brown University to name a few). Here is a link to read further about some of the examples for the claims made by students:

Certainly, the ability to deliver quality education and justify the same level of learning when shifting from face-to-face to on-line structure is a reasonable task for a student consumer to expect when no adjustments in tuition are made. However, with such a rapid shift of the delivery of education at all levels, and the societal concerns currently surrounding us, we are learning about additional situations that pose a risk to parties involved with on-line learning that were not previously brought to the forefront.

Take, for example, what is being reported in Baltimore, Maryland. A fifth-grade student on a zoom call was reported to the police for having a gun in the background of his camera view. In this case, the teacher and some “concerned parents” taking part in the zoom class video session reported the viewing to the school principal, who in turn called the police. Ultimately the police searched the home and found a BB gun on the wall of the boy’s bedroom.

Is this a case of whistle blowing? Are the teacher and participating parents within their ethical and legal rights to report this incident? According to reports, both the principal and the teacher cited a rule stating that students may not bring guns to school! They claimed that “school” is extended to include virtual classes as well. Or in this case, one’s bedroom! Furthermore, they noted that the school handbook does not address specific rules for virtual learning at all. Not surprisingly, most K-12 and/or University level handbooks for online learning do not address privacy type issues such as this.

While the outcome of this case never rose to the level of any punitive result, it raises questions that anyone teaching or learning in a virtual classroom setting should consider. Does your institution have a policy and procedure manual that speaks directly to on-line learning? Does such a manual address the guidelines for both students and faculty as well? Is the background of one’s setting an extension of the traditional classroom and thus similar rules apply? Do such guidelines need to address the fact that a teacher is being let into a student’s home on many occasions? If so, does that change the “extension” rule of a classroom setting?

Does the type of virtual background need to be screened for sensitivity and classroom rules? What about signage, posters, or other items found in one’s home on the walls? Will you as a student or teacher be subjected to future biases because of your personal tastes and beliefs of what you display in your own home? We have all seen images snapped of virtual classrooms posted on social media. What privacy rights exist when that happens?

In the absence of a contemporary and reasonable set of guidelines to assist all stakeholders taking part in virtual learning environment within one’s institution, common sense must prevail. Nobody wants to be the subject of wrongdoing while operating under the normal confines of their home or computer screen.

A few tips to consider in an effort to minimize the risk of unnecessary accusations during an online session:

· Always follow established virtual classroom institutional policies

· Assure the room background is neutral and absent of any potentially controversial objects, images, drinks, or other items that you would not have in a classroom

· Only use virtual backgrounds that are within policy guidelines

· Dress in an acceptable manner similar to what would be accepted at school

· Record sessions with audio and video when possible, with permission, to verify session interactions

· Keep microphone on mute when not speaking, and locate oneself in a private area away from background noise and distractions from others

As on-line learning continues to grow exponentially as a direct result of pivoting due to Covid-19, in addition to more schools now realizing that virtual classrooms are a viable method of instruction, the future of the types of complaints that we will experience via this mode of delivery remain to be seen. Like anything else, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

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