Georgia Tech Wipes Class Wikis From Web

The Georgia Institute of Technology has stripped, at least for now, more than 10 years of class work from its collaborative-learning Web sites, known as Swikis.

Following a student’s complaint to the university that his name was listed on the Web site of a public course, Georgia Tech officials decided on Monday to remove all Swikis other than ones from the current semester, said Mark Guzdial, a professor in the School of Interactive Computing, who is a co-creator of the Swikis.

He reported the development on his Computing Education blog this week. (The tech journalist Audrey Watters picked it up on her blog.)

In his post, Mr. Guzdial recounts how he and two Ph.D. students created the Swiki, or CoWeb, in 2000, so that students would have a place to “construct public entities on the Web.” The Swikis served intentionally undefined purposes, such as providing a forum for cross-semester discussions and a home for public galleries of student work. “All of that ended yesterday,” he wrote, because of Georgia Tech’s concerns about Ferpa, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

In a letter to faculty, posted on the university’s Web site, Zvi Galil, dean of the College of Computing, says Ferpa “prohibits the release of student names in connection with any particular classes in which they have been enrolled.” Under the university’s interpretation, that includes the Swikis, because students’ names are listed on the Web sites. The step was taken to make sure that students’ information was protected, a university spokeswoman said in an e-mail to The Chronicle.

Steven J. McDonald, general counsel at the Rhode Island School of Design, said that because students themselves are not subject to the provisions of Ferpa, if they are the ones posting the material, and not faculty members, then they are acting outside the confines of the privacy act. It would be as if a student were to post something from class to YouTube, he said.

Jochen Rick, one of the Ph.D. students who helped create the Swikis, acknowledged via e-mail the potential privacy concerns. But “to me, Georgia Tech’s interpretation of Ferpa implies that their students are not capable of reasonably and actively managing their privacy,” he said. “That’s a pretty low assessment for a group of tech-savvy adults.”

Other people upset by the university’s decision have taken the conversation to Twitter by creating a hashtag, #FERPANUTS, to discuss the issue.

Brendan Streich, a spokesman for the College of Computing, said in a phone call that the Swiki content, while not visible to the public, is not lost forever. The university, he said, would repopulate any Web page at the request of a professor, but only after removing any Ferpa-sensitive information. Since that includes names, it remains unclear how the university would go about this under its interpretation of the law.

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