Capstone Diaries: Student Surveillance and Privacy

Capstone Diaries is a feature where CGS sophomores share their Capstone experience week by week, from choosing an idea to completing their oral defense. This installment is by Mehreen Kamal (CGS ’21, CGS ‘23), a student on Team T whose project focused on student surveillance and privacy in online learning.

Mehreen Kamal (top row center) participates in her team’s Capstone oral defense.

Week 1: Choosing a topic

The first week was spent going over the basics and formalities of the project: finalizing groups and the research topic, and kicking off Capstone. Although CGS professors gave us liberty in terms of choosing our groups and research topics, I remembered a key piece of advice from them regarding how work ethic can falter when working with friends: “Over the six week-long journey, you are bound to have conflicts and those might be uncomfortable to address if you only choose your friends. Choose your groups wisely.” As a result, my group consisted of six members: three friends, three assigned by professors.

We had an introductory Zoom meeting where we exchanged backgrounds and interests, which was a great way of gauging everyone’s strengths and playing to them moving forward. Ideally, this first meeting would take place over food, as professors have recommended, but due to COVID and some members being remote, Zoom was the medium of all meetings for us. In this meeting, we assigned one member to be the group coordinator, who would handle all communication with the professors; they would also be responsible for emails, creating meeting rooms, and all secretarial duties.

We also voted on our top three choices for our Capstone topic out of a list provided to us by the Team T professors. We then forwarded our top three choices to the professors, who assigned us our final topic. My group was assigned “Student Surveillance and Privacy,” a pressing issue in this time of remote learning. With the official selection of groups and topics, Capstone Kickoff was held on March 26th to commemorate the official start of the six-week Capstone experience with fellow Team T professors and students.

Week 2: Researching and outlining

The next week was concerned with beginning preliminary research and organizing it into a rough outline to share with the professors in the first of three check-in meetings with them. Additionally, we collected our sources into a bibliography. This first meeting with the professors helped us streamline our thoughts and narrow our research focus to BU-specific student electronic data privacy concerns. This change of direction was exciting as it allowed us to laser in on an issue that exists within the BU community. I think this level of specificity can be the secret to success in your Capstone topic.

Afterwards, all group members met over Zoom to discuss the new topic and to divide up sections of research and organize them into a formal outline. For our topic, we had two people look at Zoom security, another tackle E-Portfolio, another take on Blackboard, and two more devise potential solutions. This division of labor ensured that every person was contributing equally and no one person had to bear too much. Additionally, these areas of research were assigned based on every members’ abilities. For example, the issue of Zoom security would require interviews with faculty, so the person placed in charge for it was someone with strong interpersonal skills. Similarly, we had our tech-savvy people and computer science majors research E-Portfolio and Blackboard solutions.

We also came up with our group persona, “The Student Privacy Union at Boston University,” to establish a unified identity on campus as an organization for students, by students. This step was important because moving forward, we had to conduct many interviews with BU personnel, email different departments, such as IT and Tech, and conduct surveys from the student body. We needed to adopt an official persona in order to approach them and convince them of the importance of our subject matter.

Week 3: Restructuring and interviewing

Week 3 saw us take on the challenge of restructuring our research paper based on the feedback we received from professors. We formally outlined our new plan and presented it to the professors in our second check-in meeting with them. Their guidance helped us solidify our goals and redirect us to the right resources on campus to find more information on our topic.

We reached out to the IT and Tech department via emails and telephone calls, interviewed faculty, and sent out our survey to the student body. At this mid-point, the priority was reaching out to the right people and collecting data for our research. The group continued to meet twice a week to correspond with each other about what they had heard back, and how much progress they had made. It was important to have open communication with all members and keep them involved in every step of the process to ensure if any member needed assistance completing a task, someone else could jump in. As more material came in, each member began writing individual sections of the paper. Meanwhile, another team member and I also prepared our Capstone Abstract, a short summary of our research paper that briefly introduced the purpose, the findings, and the solutions of our paper.

Week 4: Compiling the research

In the third and final meeting with the professors, we presented our Capstone Abstract. By now, I realized just how valuable these get-togethers with the professors had been to keep us on track. Every time I left a meeting having discussed our topic with them, I took away new inspiration for the paper. It was vital to stay open to their suggestions because not only were they the ones who would be reading our final paper, but they had knowledge that would help our efforts.

After that last meeting, my group was able to finalize the research, composition and sourcing of the paper. The only thing left to do was write. We compiled all our written materialindividual sections, outline, bibliography, abstract, etc.into a Google Drive folder. This next part felt a lot like a jigsaw puzzle; having to put together six different writing styles was not an easy feat. The best way to tackle it came in the form of assigning two editors. Once again, we considered each member’s strong suit, and made our two best writers work away their magic at the seemingly impossible task. All the while, the whole group stayed available online, in case the editors had questions about how to structure relevant sections written by different people. We expected some overlap between each others’ written sections, but realized there was a lot more than we anticipated. We knew this would be one of the biggest pitfalls of our paper that needed resolving in the coming weeks.

Week 5: Writing, writing, writing

Week 5 was all about writing, and more writing. The group met up more than usual during this week, and set a goal to have the rough draft prepared by Friday. This self-imposed deadline pushed us to get the written material completed ahead of time and gave us exactly one week to edit, review, and finalize details before the final submission the Friday after. Each person enhanced their section of the paper, adding in more research that they had collected. I monitored incoming survey responses and analyzed the results in a report that was worked into the paper. With this, and the interviews with BU staff, we had covered all bases necessary for making our research impactful: including the BU community in the discussion surrounding an issue pertinent to BU.

At this point in time, it was unreal to imagine how close we were to the finish line. We had reached the part that CGS students shake in fear over when they first hear the words at Admitted Students Day: “Fifty-page research paper at the end of your two years.” And while composing the 50 pages inarguably had to be the most taxing part of the Capstone project, it was also the most rewarding. But we couldn’t let that feeling consume us just yet, as we still had a week to go that would test us in the best and worst of ways.

Week 6: Editing and preparing for the oral defense

Finally, this was the week. It started off with a weekly check-in meeting with the group. We addressed our goals, our timeline, portions to be done, and set to work immediately after. The first of the last steps was to have a mentor review our final draft. The CGS Writing Center is one of the many great resources that students have available for feedback regarding their drafts. Peer researchers who have gone through and excelled at the Capstone experience are another great resource to utilize. Based on the review, we reworked our draft and achieved more clarity in our writing. We had a final read aloud, which was crucial as we detected many errors we would have otherwise missed. Editors checked for spelling and grammar, the graphics coordinator created logos, graphs, and visuals, formatters compiled the Table of Contents and the Appendix, and just like that, we had 63 pages of work to show for six weeks of hard work and team effort.

As we submitted our paper, the sigh of relief that escaped me was overcome by a bittersweet feeling as this long-awaited project had finally seen its end. Although it was done virtually, presenting my group’s findings at the Capstone Turn-In Ceremony with fellow Team T members and professors in attendance was the highlight of my CGS experience.

To my incoming CGS sophomores, do not be intimidated by the Capstone experience. If you persevere, you will come out a better, more informed student, one who knows the value of making a real world impact. Capstone is an opportunity to nurture the skills you already possess, and make life-long connections with your CGS peers and mentors. Use it right, use it responsibly, and trust yourself, and your group members. You’ve got this!

— By Mehreen Kamal