On a campus where the majority of classes are held online, Canvas and its embedded video-sharing platforms Zoom and BBCollaborate Ultra have become the primary form of communication between students and professors. While these platforms are the leading way to create an online learning community, they share with professors data that violates student privacy and mental freedom.

Canvas provides professors with a series of data points and graphs that rate student performance. These include showing how often students click on each page within a Canvas course, actions taken once there and the number of overall minutes spent on the class website.

Professors and TAs have even more control when it comes to quizzes and assignments. They can see a Student Access Report that details when and how often a student views, interacts with and accesses an assignment. According to the Canvas Instructor Guide, a student generates a complex action log when taking a quiz that marks if they switch tabs from the Canvas site.

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These analytics are often hidden from class participants, meaning that a student is unaware of what activity is being monitored at any time. But, an academic institution like the University of Wisconsin can decide whether to give students access to Canvas Student analytics. The Canvas Student Guide states, “If you cannot view Analytics, your institution has restricted this feature.”

While it is imperative to monitor students when taking quizzes or other graded activities, these functions need to be as translucent as they are with in-person classes. A student taking a quiz in a lecture hall knows and consents to being monitored simply by being there.

This relationship is nonexistent on Canvas where a professor can secretly monitor a student and may have new definitions of academic dishonesty like switching tabs, taking too little time on a question or remaining idle.

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Relying on data points to gauge student participation is especially controversial when a significant part of a student’s grade is participation-based. Professors input this grade without having to provide much evidence for their choice and it’s safe to assume that hidden Canvas Student Analytics play a role. Students are thus expected to do well on a grade determined by hidden factors.

Students have a variety of study habits — from downloading files offline to using print materials that make website engagement only a partial representation of an individual’s actions. Temple University student Rachel Higgins said in a Temple News article that Canvas provides a skewed picture of student activity.

“Some students can produce the same quality of work doing only some of the reading or being very last minute,” Higgins said. “It doesn’t evaluate the student on a personal level.”

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By inflating the value of page clicks on a Canvas page, students are solely number values to professors. A dishonest student can easily maneuver these analytics to appear as if they are engaging with the course while a hardworking one might be too busy to leave Canvas tabs open for long periods of time.

Still, hidden surveillance power is not just reserved to Canvas’ front page. Embedded platforms like Zoom and BBCollaborate Ultra used for synchronous classes also provide the session administrator with data on participants.

Zoom’s Dashboard statistics rank the “Top 10” users based on factors like number of meeting minutes or instant messages sent. The report also alerts the administrator if a user enabled their audio, video or screen sharing functions during the meeting time.

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BBCollaborate Ultra creates similar session reports that detail how often users joined and left the session during the allotted time. Highlighting this information disadvantages students that have limited access to reliable internet service, like those in rural or underdeveloped areas. With little context, professors can interpret a student losing connectivity as simply choosing to leave the class.

The constant fear of being watched can create mental health problems and impair normal academic performance for students. Brock Chisholm, a clinical psychologist who studies the effects of surveillance on mood and behavior said in a Vice News article that hidden surveillance can create background anxiety in the human brain. 

For those people, the kind of lower-level but building up background anxiety — they’re going to have more relationship difficulties, more arguments, they’re going to be more hyper-vigilant, scanning for threats,” Chisholm said.

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UW should not only allow these Student Analytics to be viewed by students, but also provide a detailed summary of professor monitoring capabilities at the start of each semester. Also, professors should be required to outline which of the data points they use to judge or grade a student, specifically in breaking down participation grades.

The first step in active student learning is having trust in a professor, and Canvas complicates this relationship by shifting surveillance power to professors. In the meantime, students should pull up their class Canvas page and start clicking around — your GPA might depend on it.

Will Romano ([email protected]) is a freshman studying economics and journalism.