New Technology Raises a Question of Ownership

Most of the time, new technologies don’t raise too many new questions – often they are simply a change in format or something that doesn’t require too much philosophical discussion. But every now and then something interesting comes up. As I was talking with my friend and colleague Barb Ellich at Briercrest College & Seminary, the topic of electronic records raised some questions for us that we’d like you to help with. Consider this a discussion paper that we’d like you to post a comment on.

Both of our schools (Briercrest and Trinity) scan all documents that go into student files, and we turn them into electronic records and store them electronically. We do this for numerous reasons, such as to reduce physical space needs, to increase speed of retrieval, to make it easier to share the documents with other departments as appropriate, etc. The question that this brings up is what to do with the paper documents once we’ve scanned them. Should we give or return them to the student? Should we destroy them? Should we store them? And this raised other questions: who is the owner of the document; and, who is the owner of the student file?

Let me start with these last two questions because I think the answer to them will help us with the others. Who owns the document and the student file?  

At TWU, we have a policy on student records that says that once a document is submitted to us, it become the property of the University. That’s an important policy and we use it to claim ownership of the documents. We need to claim ownership because we need to retain the documents for our use at various times throughout students’ academic careers. However, most provinces have privacy legislation which says that students have a right to the contents of their file and can request access to those records. This indicates that the student has some claim to ownership of the documents in the file – or at least enough to give the right to access.

How does your institution see this question? How would you answer? Who is the owner of the documents and file? Post a comment and let’s get the discussion going!

The othe questions I raised above will be in a follow-up blog post, and will take into account your comments.


3 thoughts on “New Technology Raises a Question of Ownership

  1. A friend just said to me, “Tell that to Jacques Ellul.” Well, sorry, but I have very little use for Ellul’s view of technology, or what some have labeled technological determinism. In my opinion, he abdicates human responsibility too quickly. We have to take responsibility for our creation, in this case the technology of electronic documents and records. That’s why I’m raising this question.


  2. Good questions, Grant. At King’s we have the same policy as TWU — documents submitted to King’s become our property but the student retains the right of access. We have also moved to a fully electronic student file and shred the original documents.

    We have distinguished for some time between the right of access and the right to originals or copies. Access we happily provide – a student may *view* his/her file in full. But we will not provide copies to anyone nor original documents to the student.

    There are exceptions, of course. We have had, for instance, a recent spate of requests from law firms on behalf of their clients (our former students) who are litigating accidents. And we have had a couple of instances where the source institution no longer exists and has no trustee for their records.

    The documents that students frequently want returned or copied for them are transcripts from other institutions. In our view transcripts that have passed through our hands are “tainted”and our provision of them would imply that we certify them as authentic or accurate to some degree. Tainting happens when any change to the document occurs — we mark these documents up as we process them. While we generally are convinced that the documents we have received are authentic and accurate (we do apply many tests to detect fraud), we cannot document that from source data, so we would rather not be in the chain of trust.

    At one point I would have said that this was a standard view amongst universities, but I have been surprised recently to encounter a provincial university outside of Alberta that would accept as official transcripts copies from our files.

    As it turns out, the move to electronic files along with shredding the originals solved some of the demand for the return of documents; we don’t have them so we can’t provide them. So at the very least there is never a circumstance under which we can provide an original document.

    Sorry, that is pretty long for a comment.


    1. Glenn, what a great comment! I like your idea of how the transcripts that pass through your hands are “tainted”. I too have been surprised at what other universities will accept as official documents – that’s partly why I raise this as a blog topic.


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