Working with FERPA following the demise of Blackboard’s ‘digital dropbox’

Many faculty in English departments are excited about the possibilities of online grading and commenting on papers but are justly concerned about the privacy issues that they may encounter.  From my experience, I have been able to offer better comments and suggestions in less time by using Microsoft Word’s commenting features.  It is important to note that FERPA rules forbid emailing these comments and grades directly to students because:

1. There is no guarantee that students’ email is completely private, and all grades should be sent solely to the student without written permission otherwise

2. There is no guarantee that the email system is totally private and the faculty member may be held liable if the email system is compromised for any reason.  This is because the password-protected course software (Blackboard) is the preferred  method of distributing online grades.

One possible solution is asking students to submit their papers through the ‘Assignments’ module in Blackboard (Bb9) and returning their papers as attachments through this module.

The major downside of this solution, however, is that by asking the students to submit their assignments through the Blackboard ‘Assignments’ page, we are no longer passing them through the SafeAssign filters that would help us to both assess revisions and check for plagiarized material.

A second, more alarming possibility, however, is the possibility of a faculty member accidentally returning the wrong paper to a student.  For this reason, I am seeking to implement a password system in which students produce unique passwords for their papers.  In order to allow for a timed release of papers, I then add my own code word to the end of the password when all of the grades have been uploaded.

This means that the student’s password (let’s say it’s “waffle”) will not open the file until they receive the password to release all of the papers at once (let’s say my password is “syrup”).  Until the student puts in the password (now “wafflesyrup”), he or she cannot access the paper, its grades, or its comments.  This also means that the wrong paper cannot be opened by a student because the unique password “wafflesyrup” would not open another student’s comments/paper.  This should be a relatively elegant solution to the problem of returning papers through Blackboard while avoiding email (because of FERPA rules) and allowing for the possibility of human error.

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