Posted in Blog, HigherEd, Privacy, Resources

Balancing Public and Private as an Online Instructor

This is the blog version of a talk I gave at the Digital Ticket Online Learning Technologies Conference held at Lamar University. My hope is to get online instructors thinking about how they can practice good digital safety while engaging with students outside of the learning management system. I also hope online instructors can gain a better understanding of what information is available online so they can take back some control over what information is shared. Finally, I hope that this can lead to some trickle down where online instructors can briefly talk about these things with their students. It may be very superficial, but I think reminding everyone about information security regularly is important.


Teaching online has some really cool aspects. I started teaching online occasionally, but have taught exclusively online for several years. There are certainly challenges as well, such as cheating, but I want to focus on the aspect of connecting with students. You can interact within the class quite a bit, but there can also be a need to have an online presence where students can interact with you outside of the comforts and constraints of the learning management system.


Within the learning management system, we’ve got our typical tools – Virtual Office, other discussion boards, videos, grading feedback, etc. And there’s always email. All of that tends to be more structured and focused on course-specific material. It’s functional, but basically starts and ends with the semester/quarter/whatever. We’ve got other options that are longer term (social media, websites, blogs, etc.), but those tend to be a lot more public. And in that public space, you have to start thinking about privacy and information security. Do you want all of the conversations you would have in a typical classroom broadcast to the world?


For the online educator, I think it’s helpful to being by determining what’s out there and how to make sure it’s what you want it to be – at least as much as you can. The ‘finding out what’s out there’ part deals with open source intelligence (OSINT), and the ‘is it what you want it to be’ relates to information security. Thinking about these things for yourself also helps you work them into your teaching to help students think about their digital safety.


So what’s out there? This is where you go do some digging to find out what you look like online. What are your search results (go beyond just Google)? Are your privacy settings appropriate? Do you want to have separate personal/professional social media? How to you want to engage with students? With the public? With people you actually know? These are also great questions to pose to students. Many of them really would prefer you not be on their Instagram, Facebook, whatever, but don’t realize that the information is accessible to anyone searching the internet. Meaning potential employers may see it, and yes, it can mean not getting hired.


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Photo by Pixabay on


To see what’s out there, do some basic searches. This would also include including phone number or address to see what sites may have posted public info. Michael Bazzell posted a free workbook to help with removal of online personal data ( This is a great way to help you protect your privacy online. It’s also a good idea to at take a look at the OSINT Framework ( This breaks down all of the different places you can find information about yourself online. You don’t have to go on a deep dive, but just looking at the list can help you get an idea of what’s out there and what you might want to get removed.


Then we have to make sure we’re keeping our data secure, well, as much as we can. The first thing that comes to mind with this in education is usually cheating in some form or the other. That’s important, but not our focus here. Though keeping your data secure can help prevent cheating, we want to think bigger picture. It’s important to keep passwords and account info secure to help protect against identity theft and intellectual property theft. If you aren’t using strong passwords, now is the time to start. You can also consider using a password manager if you are having trouble remembering your strong passwords. Want to check out password strength? In the presentation, we went to to look at some typical passwords. Looking at how often different potential passwords had been pwned (like password at 3,303,003 versus something like a1b2c3 at 115,648) was interesting, and I think a little eye-opening to participants as we increased the complexity of passwords until we found some that hadn’t been pwned. But the real point was that even if that number was 1, that password is probably on someone’s wordlist being used in brute force attacks.


There is also an open-source project focused on digital safety – Digital Safety for Open Researchers This project looks like it’s going to develop into a solid resource for academics who are working online in one capacity or another. I encourage online instructors at all levels, but especially those engaging in research, to check this out and check back in as it develops.


All of that was hopefully informative in terms of practicing digital safety as an online instructor. It’s been a lot to take in and think about in a short time. This wasn’t meant to be a complete tutorial on digital safety, but I do hope you are now thinking about it. Looking at all of the data breeches and cyber bullying and what not can make it seem like it’s just not worth it to be out in the open online. That’s certainly an understandable conclusion. My goal here wasn’t to induce paranoia (I think I may have with some of the participants) or make you able to lock down you data (hopefully you can get started though) – I just want online instructors to be more informed about the world they are teaching in and have a starting point to digital safety if venturing outside the confines of the learning management system.


Lifelong paradox - cyber sec enthusiast - loves to learn

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