Research asks: do online educational platforms violate privacy expectations?

student on video chat

Yan Shvartzshnaider, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science at York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering, is part of a collaborative project that has received $291,971 in funding from the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to analyze the functionality and information handling of online educational platforms to determine if their practices align with user expectations and privacy regulations.

Yan Shvartzshnaider
Yan Shvartzshnaider

As online educational platforms quickly became the de facto standard alternative to in-person teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, the urgent transition left many unanswered questions about potential privacy concerns. Through features such as location-based tracking to confirm student attendance and video conferences that can reveal socio-economic indicators in users’ homes, online educational platforms have access to an abundance of highly sensitive information, raising the question: do online educational platforms violate our privacy expectations?

“Everyone has gotten used to this new normal, but no one is asking if these platforms respect established privacy norms,” says Shvartzshnaider. “We want to understand how these educational systems actually work and if they deviate from our privacy expectations.”

In collaboration with researchers from Colgate University, New York University, University of Chicago, University of Illinois and Cornell Tech, this project will involve extensive review of information governance practices put in place by schools to protect students, staff and parents. The research team will also explore the ways in which the pandemic has changed information handling practices, and if these practices contribute to educational values and purposes or violate them.  

Knowledge gained from this work will be used for informative guidance, providing relevant stakeholders with useful tools and methodologies so they can better design online educational platforms that prioritize user safety and privacy.

The SSHRC grant represents a unique achievement for a Lassonde professor, highlighting the diverse applications of engineering research, bringing Lassonde and Canada into the international conversation of online classroom privacy, and providing unique learning opportunities for Lassonde students, allowing them to become a part of interdisciplinary research that blends computer science and information technology with social sciences and humanities.

“I’m really excited for this project, which will bring together multiple disciplines,” Shvartzshnaider says. “This SSHRC funding will allow us to get lots of students involved in this important and timely project.”

In prospective work, he will explore the use of learning model systems and virtual reality, aiming to elevate the future of online classrooms, while prioritizing safety and privacy. He will also continue to work alongside Lassonde students and international partners, to collaboratively achieve a unified goal of creating safer, more informed spaces for online teaching.