Canvas and Other Online Learning Platforms Aren’t Perfect, Just Ask Students

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School digital environments are increasingly locked down, increasingly intrusive and increasingly used for disciplinary action. This has never been more troubling than during the pandemic, with schools adopting remote monitoring and surveillance tools at an alarming rate and penetrating students’ homes through school and personal devices. While students have tried to educate their teachers and administrators about the dangers of surveillance and the need for student privacy, they have often fought a losing battle.

At Dartmouth College in 2021, for example, administrators falsely accused students of cheating based on a misinterpretation of data from Canvas, a “learning management software” (LMS) platform that offers online access to courses for courses. Unfortunately, Canvas, Blackboard, and other LMSs like them are often mistakenly used as arbiters of truth in exams. Suspicious of cheating, Dartmouth administrators Geisel School of Medicine conducted a flawed analysis of an entire year of student newspaper data from Canvas. When a student advocate contacted us about the situation, EFF determined that the logs could easily have been generated by the automated synchronization of course materials with devices connected to Canvas but not in use during an exam. In many student cases, the journal entries were not even relevant to the tests in progress.

We’re calling on Canvas and Blackboard to put clearer warnings on their log data and publicly defend any student accused of abusing these platforms.

EFF, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), students, teachers and even alumni have contacted the school. In our letter, we explained that it was simply impossible to tell from the logs alone if a student intentionally accessed any of the files, and that even log entries recognized by Canvas are not reliable records of user activity. After the New York Times media coverage, who also found that student devices could automatically generate Canvas activity data even when no one was using it, Dartmouth withdrew the disciplinary charges and apologized to the students. To help students in similar situations, we’ve written a guide for anyone accused of cheating based on inaccurate data like this.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped school officials from considering their interpretation of the LMS data to be flawless. Although Canvas and Blackboard have publicly stated that their diaries should not be used for disciplinary decisions regarding high-stakes tests, we have heard other stories of students who have been accused of misconduct – even long before the pandemic. – on the basis of inadequate interpretations of the data of these platforms.

An example: a Brown University undergraduate who contacted us was penalized in 2018 based on Canvas access logs. The student had tried to access the Canvas database just before an exam, then left several browser windows open to the Canvas web address on her mobile phone. The phone sat unused in his backpack during the examination, during which time the (inaccurate) log records appeared to indicate that a user was actively accessing the site.

After being accused of cheating based on this Canvas log data, the student contacted Canvas. Several Canvas technical support representatives responded, explaining that the log data was not a reliable record of user access. The student shared his statements with Brown. Notably, the student, who had a 4.0 record, had little reason to cheat on the exam in question, which made the charge of cheating – based almost entirely on diary data – all the more brittle.

A Brown disciplinary committee nonetheless ruled against the student and placed a permanent mark on her academic record, basing its decision on the accuracy of the Canvas log data.

Last year, following Dartmouth’s apology to its wrongly accused students and Canvas’s more public acknowledgment that its diaries should not be used as the basis for disciplinary decisions, the former student asked Brown to bleach his university. Brown, however, refused to even consider reversing his disciplinary decision on the grounds that the student no longer had the right to appeal. It’s a common thread we’ve seen in these situations: Dartmouth students also couldn’t afford reasonable due process– they weren’t given full data records for the exams, were given less than 48 hours to respond to the charges (and only two minutes to make their case in online hearings) and were reportedly ordered to admit their guilt.

In an implied acknowledgment of her mistake, Brown now says she will provide her former student with a letter of support if she applies for graduate school. An implied admission of injustice, however, is not a sufficient remedy. Like Dartmouth, Brown should remove the record of the discipline he wrongfully imposed on this student, as well as any others who were also found responsible for cheating based on these unreliable records.

We call on Canvas and Blackboard to put clearer warnings on their log data and to publicly defend any student who has been accused of abusing these platforms based on similar misinterpretations. Schools should also remove any markings on student records that were based on this information and establish a clear policy not to use it in the future. At Dartmouth, it took significant activism by a group of students to clear the record. As the example of Brown’s student shows, when students are accused, it is much harder for them to find support and much easier for schools to sweep their mistakes under the rug. Please contact EFF if you have been wrongfully accused of misconduct based on log data from these platforms – we want to hear from you.

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