How Do I Support Students Accessing My Course Who May Be in Circumstances Where Their Speech and Privacy Might Be Limited?

How Do I Support Students Accessing My Course Who May Be in Circumstances Where Their Speech and Privacy Might Be Limited?

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Online or flexible learning contexts may present particular challenges for students accessing their courses from off-campus locations with different privacy concerns; personal repercussions; and cultural, religious, and social norms. It is important that you have a plan for helping students minimize their own risk so they can have the best possible educational experience.


Survey your students. Many instructors have found it helpful to survey students about their learning context. In such a survey, you can ask what time zone students reside in and ask them if they anticipate having difficulties completing assignments on controversial topics based on their location.

Mention in your syllabus that students should reflect on their risk. To prevent students from unknowingly putting themselves at risk, consider including in your syllabus a description that explains fully the scope of the course, and asks them to reflect on any potential risks they might incur given their individual context and the course content and readings. Also encourage them to consider the risks of choosing particular topics for their assignments. Sample syllabus language might include:

In this class we will engage with topics and texts that may be considered controversial in some contexts. I understand that for some of you this may present a particular challenge because of lack of privacy in your current location or because you participate in our class from a location where certain types of speech may not be protected and your political affiliation, your political views, or your personal identity may not be accepted or legally protected.

I want you to have the best possible educational experience. While I cannot completely eliminate any risks that may arise from your engagement with controversial subject matter, I ask you to assess your risk carefully, and I will do my best to work with you to minimize your risk. To that end, please meet with me one-on-one as soon as possible so that we can figure out together ways for you to participate actively in our class without putting yourself at risk. You may know best how to protect yourself. Let’s talk!

Design for safety. One of the best ways to reduce risk for your students is to think about student safety long before any problems occur. Trauma-informed pedagogies offer concrete examples for how to make your class environment safe for people from a variety of backgrounds. For more information, see Karen Costa’s “Trauma-Aware Teaching Checklist.”

Communicate with individual students. If students present risky circumstances in a survey, email, or in class, you may want to review with the student if there are any particular topics or conversations that might constitute a potential risk to the student’s well-being. Conduct these conversations outside class time, individually.

Be flexible. Instructors should always feel free to make allowances for a student’s particular circumstance in a way that preserves the academic integrity of the course as well as equity of the student experience. Consider modifying topics of assignments. Your professional academic networks may have further resources on this issue.

Set ground rules for video recordings and discussion forum activity. Sharing course materials, including video recordings of class, presents potential risk for students. Communicate clearly and unequivocally that students are not allowed to share course session recordings or discussion forum postings with anyone outside the class. Consider adding a statement about this to your syllabus.

Encourage students to be familiar with VPN technology. Students may reduce their risk of digital surveillance when using UMass’ Virtual Private Network technology.

Please contact the CTL with any questions at



Costa, K. Trauma-Aware Teaching Checklist. Retrieved from