From his dorm room at Gettysburg College, in Gettysburg, Pa., sophomore Michael Frohlich can tap into the Internet and find out just about anything about the campus he attends. With the help of a database called CNAV, Frohlich can locate information on classes, fellow students, campus events -- even his transcript and financial standing at the university. He can also check his phone bill, see how much he owes at the university bookstore or assess the status of a parking ticket he received on campus.
Yet the time-saving and informational benefits of Gettysburg's unique online database are not what's attracting the attention of college campuses around the country. It's that Gettysburg, a small, private liberal arts school, is also allowing parents to log on to the database and become privy to private information about their child's college life. In allowing such access, Gettysburg is challenging traditional standards of controlling access to student information on college campuses.
CNAV was originally created solely for faculty, students, administrators and staff. The goal was to pull all types of campus information together.
"One of the challenges that students or anybody on campus has is that there is so much going on -- classes, events, activities, etc. -- that it's easy not to know about something until it's too late," said Don Redman, CNAV's Web programmer and analyst.
Redman and other CNAV programmers wanted to develop a way to connect information. Using an Oracle database and their own PERL CGI codes, Redman and his staff were able to do just that. Today, a student at Gettysburg can attend an event one night, decide that they really like the topic, and use the database to find related classes or contact other people who share that interest. When other events, classes or lectures are planned around that topic in the future, students are automatically informed about them when they log on to CNAV.
"The machine actually works for the students," Redman said.
CNAV has strong security features. Students using the system can choose which information about themselves they want other students, faculty or staff to be able to access. With such private financial documents as tuition, telephone and bookstore bills on the system, these security features are important. Ironically, CNAV's security features are exactly what led to Gettysburg's decision to allow parents into the system.
"During the first semester we offered CNAV, we would see a student log on from campus and then half an hour later we'd see them log on from New Jersey -- which was logistically impossible," Redman said. "We started researching what was going on and found that students were going home on the weekends, showing their parents CNAV and giving them their account information."
If parents were looking at the information using the student's account, students were sharing information with parents that they may not want to share.
"It sort of broke our whole security model," Redman said.
With high demand from parents for access to information on courses, campus events and social organizations, Gettysburg staff decided to allow parental access to CNAV last year. However, the campus leaves it to students to determine what parents can see.
Federal law prevents colleges from divulging transcript information to anyone other than the student. The law does, however, permit students to share their transcripts with anyone they choose. Therefore, Gettysburg requires a student to grant or deny parents' requests for access to CNAV, and if a student does allow access to the database, he or she still controls how much Mom and Dad can see.
"If the students give the school permission to share certain information with their parents, and the school is therefore continuing to follow federal guidelines to protect the confidentiality of the students, I don't see a problem," said Betty Bainbridge, executive director of the Postsecondary Electronic Standards Council in Washington, D.C. "This is simply a case where technology is helping the school do what the students want them to do."
Just because it's legal doesn't necessarily mean students are happy about their parents tapping into CNAV. Yet Redman said overall student reaction has been mostly positive.
"For a lot of students, it's information they were sharing with their parents anyway," he noted. "CNAV just makes it easier. They don't have to keep reporting back to their parents, because the parents can just access the information they need when they need it."
Frohlich is one student who likes the system.
"My parents use it to look up course content on the schedule, look up my grades and look at how much I owe in bills," he said. "But I share all of that with them anyway, so it's not like any of it is a surprise. CNAV just makes it easier for them to find out."
Sophomore Christyann Ferraro agreed. "I can choose what others can see as far as financial information or transcripts. But as far as I'm concerned, there's nothing my parents can see that I'm not going to tell them about already," she said. "CNAV gives them another way to sort of stay connected with me and keep up to date with what's going on on campus."
David Frohlich, Michael's father, said it was very insightful of the college to open CNAV to parents. "It gives us the ability to access the information the students use to manage their college careers. Though there are a lot of aspects of it that are probably superfluous to what we might find of value, it gives us the ability to do some fairly high-level coaching when it comes to our son."
Nearly all of the 2,200 students at Gettysburg College have set up accounts on CNAV, according to Redman. At last count, only about 140 of those students had given their parents permission to access the database.
"That number will increase as students and parents realize how valuable the system is," said Redman. "Soon we may find other campuses opening up to this idea. Even if we don't, we've still provided a system that gives students and their parents an incredible amount of information to help them manage their busy college lives."
Justine Kavanaugh-Brown is editor in chief of Government Technology's sister publication, California Computer News. Email