Learning Management Systems and Faculty Privacy Expectations


Dear Colleagues, 

Many of us use a learning management system (LMS) to manage our courses, either Connect (which will be discontinued in the next year), or Canvas (which started its rollout this term, and will be fully in place for September 2018.)

I’m relatively new to a LMS, having found Connect and its predecessor, WebCT Vista (this company was started by Murray Goldberg from UBC CompSci in the late ‘90’s), to be so non-intuitive that it didn’t seem worth the effort to learn. However, for Fall 2016 I was assigned to a required undergraduate course, and given the opportunity (and the help) to redesign the course, using a variety of technologies, including Connect. The result was that I was heavily involved in the LMS ecosystem.

Throughout this past year I have become increasingly aware of the privacy issues involved in learning management systems. Students apparently sign over their privacy rights as a function of using the LMS. The consequence of this is that they can be tracked for every single thing they do within a course (how long they spent on the course website during the term, what assignments they did or did not complete, how they responded to various questions, discussions, etc.) It would be normal for the instructor to have access to these data, and also the TA, if a course has a TA. It would not be expected that University administrators have access to these same data, and both students and faculty members might not know that others also have access to these data.

Instructors can see the names of everyone who is enrolled in any of their courses’ LMS. Obviously, students are enrolled, but other members of the UBC community can also be enrolled in the LMS without actually taking the course. The requirement of non-students to be enrolled in the LMS provides some clarity, as it enables the instructor to see who else has access to online course data, and to insist that administrators and staff who have been enrolled without the instructor’s knowledge be removed from the course, if that is the desire of the instructor. There are many reasons that staff might need to be enrolled in a course, with the most important reason being that they are providing welcomed help to the instructor. I was fortunate in the Fall 2016 term to receive an abundance of help, which I very much appreciated. It was a positive learning experience for me, and I think there was also a positive learning experience for staff who were enrolled in my course.

However, it was brought to my attention more recently that there are roles within the LMS for both a Help Desk Administrator and an ISS System Administrator (ISSSA). These roles are not visible to instructors, but the individuals in these roles are able to access your course information and activities. Thus, you would not know who else is observing your online course content and activity. These individuals are signed off by the Head of Department or the Dean. They do have to sign a Learning Management System Confidentiality Statement. I have been told that each Faculty has at least one person filling the role of ISSSA, and many faculties have more than one (I was also told of a Faculty that had more than 10 such people designated to that role.) The ISSSA role is a form of secret surveillance, which cannot be tolerated. To understand what this means, first let’s consider what access to information (known as permissions) is available to various roles within a LMS.

Canvas provides a variety of roles that can be assigned to students and staff enrolled in the course. The permissions for each role can be found here.

The permissions of the two undisclosed roles are described here. The Help Desk Admin has a fairly limited role. However, ISSSAs have access to most of the same data available to the instructor. I’ll list the ISSSA roles that I find most problematic:

  • View discussions
  • Moderate discussions
  • View all students’ submissions and make comments on them
  • Send messages to the entire class
  • View messages sent by the instructor
  • View announcements
  • View analytics pages

(Note, the only instructor messages that can be viewed are those sent through the LMS.) While we can debate the use of learning analytics for some of the information available through LMS, it is my view that no one other than the instructor and the TA should have access to the particular information listed above (and this is just a sample of the information available to ISSSAs). Before LMS were in use, no one but the instructor and the TA would have access to this information (and some of it would not even exist), because it would happen within the confines of the classroom. Just because technology exists to monitor the online parts of courses, does not mean that administrators should have unrestricted access to data that students and instructors would expect to be private.

The presence of ISSSAs (and who they are) needs to be made known to instructors, not hidden from them. ISSSAs should also be required to ask for written permission from the instructor to be able to have access to course data. Currently the system uses the default that all instructors opt in for this surveillance (even though many may not be aware that roles such as ISSSAs exist), and there seems to be no way for instructors to opt out.

I welcome your thoughts on this matter, as well as your help in identifying additional concerns about LMS systems. Please feel free to contact me



Nancy Langton

President, UBCFA