Education 27 October 2020

Canvas could be watching you

Without the obligation to show up for face-to-face classes, has it become easier for students to fly under the radar and skive off? There are plenty of ways for teachers to monitor their students’ online activity. But to what extent is that desirable?
BY Emma Sprangers PICTURE Annelowe/Publicdomainpictures

The narrative of online studying has mostly been one of solitude, disconnection and anonymity. Students can turn off their cameras and mute their microphones, and it is often unclear to teachers which of their students are actually attending their lectures. So now that physical presence is no longer a reliable way of assessing engagement, teachers are resorting to other ways to keep an eye on their students’ activities.            

One of these is surprisingly simple and involves one of the platforms students use the most in their day-to-day studying: Canvas. Teachers can see how long their students are active in this online environment, and they can even keep track of how long specific documents have been opened.

Gaming the system

But students who are active on Canvas are not necessarily doing their homework. That’s where a different program comes in: FeedbackFruits. This tool allows teachers to see if a student has actually scrolled through an entire article they’ve been assigned. If they’ve scrolled down all the way to the bottom, a check mark appears. In some cases, teachers might set up control questions which have to be answered in order for the rest of the article to be accessed. Gone are the days of faking your way through your assigned reading list, you might think.

But FeedbackFruits is not exactly an airtight system. A second-year anthropology student confesses that she and one of her friends divide their assignments. “And if you scroll down to the bottom of an article, a check mark will appear – whether you’ve actually read it or not.” The system is easily fooled.


We’re living in times where familiar faces are reduced to tiny squares on a screen. And with no in-person social control, it can be tempting to use these programs to check up on students. But what implications does this have for students’ privacy? Rob van den Hoven van Genderen is a professor at VU Amsterdam’s Faculty of Law, and one of his areas of specialization is privacy law.

“I don’t think teachers are violating their students’ privacy by using these tools. Almost all of our higher education has now moved online, so it makes sense that we would check up on our students online as well. Having to show your surroundings on camera is a different story, but it’s not unreasonable for a teacher to ask their students that they do their assignments and the assigned reading, and that they meet their deadlines.”

'The fact that teachers have a certain option, doesn't mean they will actually use it'

He does think that a warning would be appropriate if more invasive tools are used. “But the fact that teachers have a certain option, doesn't mean they will actually use it.” According to the VU Network for Teaching and Learning (NTL), students are informed that monitoring software is being used through the VU Canvas Study Guide, which includes a special page about privacy. “Experience has taught us that critical students know where to find this information.” But as Van den Hoven van Genderen points out: “Nobody reads that. Just like we don’t go through the entire privacy statement when we download a new app.”

Keep online monitoring to a minimum

Assuming students don’t actively research how the different online study environments treat their privacy, is there a risk that they will be assessed on the basis of data that is being collected behind their backs? Not likely, according to the NTL. “VU Amsterdam only collects data that contributes to the study goals of its courses.” These goals include meeting deadlines, preventing plagiarism and making sure assignments are handed in. “Information about how long a certain article has been viewed, and at what time, is not used against students because it doesn’t serve any study goals.”

'If anything, it'll make students work harder' 

But what about courses that have ‘participation’ as one of the grading criteria? If you ask Professor Van den Hoven van Genderen, participation should not be something that students are graded on during this pandemic. “Having a document open on your computer for three hours doesn’t mean that you’ve read it thoroughly. Sometimes students who attend my Zoom lectures don’t leave the session after class. That shows they’re not really there. Having your computer open doesn’t mean anything.”

“And regardless, everyone reads at their own pace. So it doesn’t make sense to draw conclusions based on the time an article has been ‘viewed’. I do think online monitoring should be kept to a minimum. And if teachers do use these tools, they should inform their students. If anything, it’ll make students work harder. Isn’t that our goal?”

This article, among lots of other stories, appeared in the new Ad Valvas magazine. For those not yet able to grab one on campus, it's also available here


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