Privacy and surveillance in the classroom: Responding to new information literacy challenges

Dr Alison E Hicks

In our latest guest blog post, Alison Hicks, Assistant Professor at University College London and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Information Literacy, explores the challenges surrounding privacy and surveillance in the classroom, and whether teaching librarians need to examine their own practices. 


Teaching librarians have always been pretty good at warning others of the dangers of online engagement – from lesson plans designed to address cyber-bullying of young people (e.g. Agosto, Forte & Magee, 2012) to digital safety classes for open researchers (e.g. University of Washington, 2019); privacy even (very briefly) makes it into the 2018 Metaliteracy Framework (Goal 3, Number 3). And it is clear that as so much of everyday life and our education work continues online, these messages are not only more important than ever before, but they are also becoming more broadly recognised. A number of respondents, for example, mentioned their fears about online safety in the first set of interviews that Annemaree Lloyd and I (2020) carried out as part of our COVID-19 information literacy research. 

This growing awareness of what can happen to our data, our footprints and our online identities is gratifying. However, what I think is even more interesting here is that the immense shifts that we are all dealing with right now are also causing librarians to stop and examine their own practices as new challenges shed light on a number of problematic and unforeseen dilemmas. In a recent post for the ACRLog, for example, Nora Almeida writes very poignantly about how the blinking red “Record” feature on Zoom suddenly forced her to confront a number of questions related to consent and reuse of her own intellectual work alongside that of her learners. While many institutions have established guidelines for protecting learners with the current move to online education, Nora’s reflection on the ethics of being recorded and managing her own data draws attention to how it is not just students who need to be aware of privacy literacy. Nora also neatly outlines the changes she made to her teaching policy to accommodate her discomfort with what she was encountering in the online classroom, which she hopes will encourage the start of a much broader conversation. 

Erin Glass’s breezy post on resisting surveillance capitalism in the classroom provides another example of an area where librarians are starting to examine their own practices. While this blogpost was written pre-pandemic, Erin draws attention to how our teaching activities may actually (and inadvertently) be exposing learners to online risk, including the collection of personal data and other forms of privacy-infringing issues. Erin’s writing also extends the excellent work that has been emerging recently relating to learning analytics, and the ways in which librarians have been interrogating how their use confronts and undermines librarian commitments to patron confidentiality (See Hartman Caverly, 2019; Jones & Salo, 2018). It is educational technologist Audrey Watters (2020) who has done the most work in this area though – while she is a not a librarian, Audrey writes almost viscerally about the daily ways in which ed tech encroaches on hard-won learner rights; her exposé of technology’s inbuilt surveillance mechanisms, and the consequence for classrooms, should be required reading for anyone interested in the mammoth challenges that should be at the forefront of library teaching.    

Privacy, surveillance and consent may seem like additional headaches that we don’t need right now – but our engagement with these topics has long been overdue within information literacy. Happily, the inestimable Sarah Hartman-Caverly and colleagues are leading a fantastic-sounding event designed to encourage librarian reflection on the ways in which we think about these issues in our teaching on the 4th December – I shall definitely be attending, and hope to see you there!

Book your place – “Privacy Literacy Reboot: Grounding Practice in Theory”
Friday, December 4th, 2020. 2pm EST (7pm UK)


Agosto, D. E., Forte, A., & Magee, R. (2012). Cyberbullying and teens: what YA librarians can do to help. Young Adult Library Services, 10(2), 38-43. 

Almeida, N. (2020). Privacy, consent and the virtual one-shot. ACRLog. Retrieved from:

Glass, E. (2018). Ten weird tricks for resisting surveillance capitalism in and through the classroom. HASTAC. Retrieved from

Hartman-Caverly, S. (2019). Human nature is not a machine: On liberty, attention engineering, and learning analytics. Library Trends, 68(1), 24-53

Hicks, A. & Lloyd, A. (2020). Risk and resilience in radically redefined information environments. ILG Blog. Retrieved from

Jones K., & Salo D. (2018) Learning Analytics and the Academic Library: Professional Ethics Commitments at a Crossroads. College & Research Libraries 79(3), 304-323. Retrieved from 

Metaliteracy (2018). Metaliteracy. Retrieved from 

University of Washington (2019). Digital Safety for Open Researchers OER. Retrieved from: 

Watters, A. (2020) Building anti-surveillance ed tech. Hack Education. Retrieved from: 

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