Confidentiality in Learning Development

Another of the big decisions to be made when running a Learning Development service – will your provision be confidential or not?

The notion of confidentiality in Learning Development comes from its more student services origins, as it evolved out of counselling and Specific Learning Difficulties provision to support widening participation students and others perceived to need ‘extra help’. Those of us who’ve delivered LD provision from a central student services context, alongside counselling, disability support, dyslexia tutoring and possibly even visa and finance advice, may well have been covered by the confidentiality policy which is common in such departments. If that’s the context you’re used to working in, a confidentiality policy in Learning Development seems quite natural. But Learning Development also has roots in other contexts – in subject teaching, information literacy provision in libraries and the English Language teaching of EAP departments – in which a confidentiality policy is not the norm and would seem quite bizarre.

I don’t know what the overall picture is regarding confidentiality policies in Learning Development, but I’d bet there is a strong correlation with the institutional location of the service, and the professional background of the team! Confidentiality is an issue of professional ethics though, and as such, I think it’s not good enough to leave it to the incidents and accidents of whatever local context we find ourselves in. It might be better to return to our professional values and work the question through from there. Confidentiality here might mean a formal policy with consent forms to sign, but it might also mean a looser sense of privacy, reflected in the spaces we use to work with the student as more or less publically visible and accessible. It also of course takes into account the overarching legal framework around data protection.

Learning development is keenly aware of the situated nature of writing and other study practices in social contexts which are strongly hierarchical and privilege certain forms of cultural capital. As a profession therefore, we are committed to values which are emancipatory, aspirational and non-remedial, refusing to pathologise the student but problematising the dynamics of the social context in which learning takes place. Against this background, a confidentiality policy might seem counterproductive – if we are looking to normalise learning development as aspirational and for all, rather than only for the ‘weaker students’, why withdraw it behind a veil of secrecy? Are we implying that by seeking our help, students have something to hide, to be ashamed of? That it’s abnormal, a crisis, showing a deficit? Certainly, if we have private offices and formal policies to read as part of our terms and conditions, that might be the message received by students and indeed academic colleagues, reinforcing a very unhelpful perception. A confidentiality policy also makes it harder for certain conversations to happen around the student which might promote a more holistic network of support – between the learning developer, their subject lecturer, personal tutor and other support services. Not impossible, but certainly more cumbersome to facilitate.

Learning Development is also, however, student-centred. Those same emancipatory values make us ask in whose interests we are acting – those of the student or the institution we work for. Ideally, and in the normal course of things, those would be aligned. We know, however, that this doesn’t always happen. A confidentiality policy helps us to create a safe space around the student, in which anything that happens is in their interest first and foremost, and under their control. Should a lecturer ask me to feed back on whether a student has attended, as a condition of their progression or other concession, I am able to say that this will only happen with the student’s informed and considered consent. In the strongly hierarchical context of a university, a confidentiality policy helps me restore an equality within that power dynamic where the student can choose the terms on which they discuss their learning. Moreover, there are some universities whose culture is more than usually marked by rampant impostor syndrome, where students might find the lack of guarantees around confidentiality a barrier to accessing learning development, “in case it gets back to the lecturer”. Whether this fear is reasonable or not, it may be very real to the student, and that’s where we start from. We learning developers deal with education as it is, as much as education as it should be – we’re realists. Certainly my experience in Oxbridge and Russell Group universities would suggest that a confidentiality policy and a measure of privacy can be reassuring for students in such a competitive academic culture. Finally, a private space acknowledges that learning is an affective thing as well as purely intellectual. Yes, working with a learning development should be as normal and neutral an activity in HE as taking out a book from the library or getting careers advice but that’s never brought me to tears – whereas I’ve certainly wept when discussing my writing as it’s much more enmeshed with my identity and self-worth.

I don’t think there is necessarily one answer to this question which is right for the whole of Learning Development. My own personal response was to bring in a confidentiality policy when I took up my current post, which rather jarred with the culture of the library context I’m working in. This decision was in part as I started life as a learning developer in a student services context and have carried those values with me, but also as I work in a Russell Group university where the explicit reassurance of a safe space has been very helpful for many of the students I work with. I continue to examine my practice on this matter though, to weigh up the pros and cons, and to explore how to overcome the downsides where they exist.

So if you don’t have a confidentiality policy, or a sense of privacy in the working spaces you use, you might wish to consider:

  • How to reassure those students for whom a lack of a confidentiality guarantee might be a barrier to accessing the service
  • How to ensure that learning development remains a safe, equalising space that operates in the primary best interests of the student, where there are any clashes with the interests of the institution
  • How to offer a measure of privacy where appropriate, enabling students to explore the affective as well as intellectual dimensions of their learning in an uninhibited way

And if you do have a confidentiality policy and private working space, you might also want to think about:

  • How to articulate the values of your provision in a way that normalises learning development, countering any implication that it’s something to be ashamed of, to hide away
  • How to facilitate conversations with colleagues, where these would be helpful and with the consent of the student, as a confidentiality policy makes these a little cumbersome
  • How to explore a range of working spaces, some private where appropriate, but others more open and accessible, to draw in those who might find a more ‘secret’ space offputtingly clinical

One thought on “Confidentiality in Learning Development

  1. A couple of thoughts that have occurred to me since writing this post, out of a couple of conversations I’ve had:

    Firstly, a protected space in which there is a guarantee of confidentiality may be a place of last resort for some students who have committed an academic offence such as deliberate plagiarism or cheating, but realise they’re in a mess and want some help in bringing the situation back around to ethical working with integrity. If there is nowhere they can go, ‘confess’ the worst and instead of being reported, get some help to get back on the straight and narrow, we lose an opportunity to help set things right. This has happened a couple of times in my career.

    Secondly – privacy is often enough for most students. Privacy, however, can be eroded – it’s a subjective concept, and may be vulnerable to issues such as resourcing or other institutional priorities, and nibbled away bit by bit. Confidentiality, though, is a line in the sand – it’s breached very clearly, and that is an ethical issue. Confidentiality is easier to protect than privacy.

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