A Canvas program allowing University of Wisconsin Athletics advisors to monitor the educational progress of student athletes is raising concerns about surveillance and privacy in UW-Madison classrooms.
Dorothea Salo, a UW-Madison School of Information professor, recently got an email from UW-Madison Vice Provost John Zumbrunnen about a “Canvas Observer Role” in one of her courses. She said the role allows learning specialists from UW Athletics to directly monitor student athletes’ progress in Canvas.
Observers are able to access class assignments, calendars and more. Other students in the course aren’t notified there’s an observer in it.
Salo said it’s not the first time she has received this email. This, alongside her past Canvas-related research, has her worried about the student athlete observer role and Canvas’ lack of data transparency as a whole.
“I don’t love the way that we’re substituting data surveillance for instructors and advisors and students actually communicating,” she said.
The email Salo received said the Canvas observer role is designed to support the academic success of student athletes by giving information to UW Athletics learning specialists. Athletics staff can use the data to conduct “early interventions” for students facing academic difficulties.
UW Athletics communications director Patrick Herb said one of the organization’s core priorities is helping student athletes in academic success. Canvas Observer, which launched in 2020, is used by 10% of student athletes to help bolster learning outcomes, Herb said.
Other academic assistance options provided by UW Athletics include learning specialists and tutoring and mentoring services.
UW-Athletics emphasized the importance of student athletes’ privacy, especially while using Canvas Observer.
“The privacy of our student-athletes is paramount,” Herb said. He said it is important that both instructors and student athletes are comfortable with Canvas Observer, leading to the inclusion of an opt-out option — which Salo chose to use.
If an advisor is concerned about a student, Salo would love to meet with them. But she dislikes advisors for a particular student being able to see discussion posts from every student in the class.
Although Salo said she likes supporting student athletes’ academic success, she thinks there are other methods to do so. Canvas in particular has a “squirrely” history with data privacy, she said.
UW-Madison has Canvas through Unizin, a data platform that enables universities to capitalize on learning data from Canvas to serve “advising, institutional research, business intelligence, research and more.”
While the current database only includes data such as learning modules, module completion and, concerningly for Salo, Canvas conversations, the platform had much “grander ambitions” at the beginning, she said.
Originally, the Unizin database would have included personal information like health and disability information, family and home information, disciplinary actions, and financial need as well as other statistics, Salo said.
“A lot of people were going to have access to this. Were we going to tell students about this? No. And that’s really bothersome,” Salo said.
Although the database was scaled back, Salo worried students would never have found out about its data-monitoring potential. Even in its scaled-back state, many students don’t know about the database, which can access personal information, including Canvas conversations.
“It’s so important that students be aware of what’s going on with their data trails on campus, and it’s so hard to find out,” she said.
UW-Madison junior April Krumpos was concerned that Canvas direct messages and conversations are going into Unizin.
“I had no idea and I think most students had no idea,” Krumpos said. “It just feels like an invasion of privacy.”
The Observer program and the Unizin database collect data through Canvas that can be used for student surveillance. Though both are designed to help with academic success, Salo still has data privacy concerns.
“There is obviously some intentional obfuscation going on here...I think the fear is, that if students knew, they would object,” Salo said.
Editor's note: This article was updated at 8:55 p.m. Friday, February 9, 2024, to reflect that UW-Madison's implementation of Canvas Observer doesn't allow observers to see classroom discussion posts.