The Privacy Concerns of Course Recordings at UCLA

If you knew someone was recording you, would you change what you say? How would it affect your participation in a discussion? Is it even ethical to record your conversation with other people?

These are tough questions, and yet, we record students in college classrooms all the time, often without thinking through the implications and ethics of what we’re doing.

Dr. John Villasenor, Co-Director at the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law and Policy, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss the pros and cons of course recordings and the different factors an institution should consider when developing their policies around them.

At the beginning of the semester last year, John received an email from his AV coordinator asking if he wanted to opt out of his Digital Technologies and the Constitution course being recorded. Here’s what happened:

Student Benefits of Course Recordings

Course recording can prove helpful because if a student is unable to attend class or has to travel out of town for an interview, then they can simply watch the recording. Perhaps it’s not quite the same as being in the classroom, but it’s better than having no access to the information at all. From the student’s standpoint, these recordings have some clear advantages, and yet…

What Are the Privacy Concerns Around Recording Students?

Classrooms aren’t private in the way your living room is. If one student wants to talk about what a classmate said outside of class, there’s no legal barrier to that conversation. But there is an implicit assumption that when you’re in these classroom discussions, no one is broadcasting them to the world. To be fair, universities that record classes don’t tend to broadcast them to the world, but a recorded conversation is one most people would approach more carefully than one that isn’t recorded.

There’s more risk of things getting taken out of context and used in detrimental ways. Somebody might have said something relatively innocuous in context, but their words might not sound so innocent when heard or read out of that context.

Then there are other issues such as freedom of expression, students’ futures in public life, and the feeling of safety in the classroom. It chills the conversation in a classroom if students and teachers know every word they say is going to be recorded. 

Or let’s say a student one day runs for political office. If recordings exist of every one of their classroom discussions, people would mine them trying to come up with things that person might’ve said in college that they could be taken to task for years later.

Finally, we live in a digital panopticon where everything we say and everywhere we go gets tracked. The classroom has traditionally been one of the relatively few spaces outside the home where there isn’t that kind of oversight. Do we want to change that?

What Are the Options for Recording Courses?

In a large lecture-based course, the professor has no illusions of privacy. It wouldn’t be detrimental to the instructor or the class to make a recording. In fact, it would probably be helpful since many students in a large class wouldn’t be able to make every session. But what about a small, interactive class? That changes the privacy equation. 

And then, there are the professors. To prevent a professor from getting accused of something, hate speech for example, should a college record everything to make sure that they can protect students and discipline faculty if necessary?

Anybody in the classroom could say something controversial and lead to downstream consequences where it becomes of interest to know what was actually said. But does that sort of forensic record-keeping outweigh the value of having spontaneous, unrecorded classroom discussions? 

For John, the answer is still a qualified no.

The Pandemic’s Effect on Recording Classrooms

John opted out of recording his class pre-COVID. How does the pandemic change things?

“If we’re mostly online in fall 2020 but back in the classroom after that,” John said, “that’s very different than if we’re mostly online for the next two and a half years.” 

For now, all we know is that nearly all instruction is going to be online. And that’s a different question from the recording question. But there’s another really interesting and important question to raise: should college administrators require recording, and if so, should they do so as a function of class size? Should they leave it in some cases or all cases up to the discretion of the faculty member? These are really, really hard questions.

Spoiler Alert: John didn’t record the course.


This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. John Villasenor, Co-Director at the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law and Policy. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.