School digital environments are increasingly locked down, increasingly invasive, and increasingly used for disciplinary action. This has never been more troubling than during the pandemic, with schools adopting remote proctoring and surveillance tools at alarming rates and entering students’ homes via school-issued and personal devices. As 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 inaccurately accused students of cheating based on a misinterpretation of data from Canvas, a “Learning Management Software” (LMS) platform that offers online access to coursework for classes. Unfortunately, Canvas, Blackboard, and other LMS systems like them are often used, incorrectly, as arbiters of truth during examinations. Suspicious of cheating, administrators at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine conducted a flawed dragnet review of an entire year’s worth of student log data from Canvas. When a student advocate reached out to us about the situation, EFF determined that the logs easily could have been generated by the automated syncing of course material to devices logged into Canvas but not being used during an exam. In many of the students’ cases, the log entries were not even relevant to the tests being taken.
We call on both Canvas and Blackboard to put clearer disclaimers on their log data and publicly defend any student who has been accused of misusing these platforms.
EFF, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), students, professors, and even alumni reached out to the school. In our letter, we explained it was simply impossible to know from the logs alone if a student intentionally accessed any of the files, and that even Canvas acknowledged log entries are not reliable records of user activity. After press coverage from the New York Times, which also found that students’ devices could automatically generate Canvas activity data even when no one was using them, 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, this has not stopped school officials from considering their interpretation of LMS data to be above reproach. Though Canvas and Blackboard have publicly stated that their logs should not be used for disciplinary decisions regarding high-stakes testing, we’ve heard other stories from students who were accused of misconduct—even well before the pandemic—based on inadequate interpretations of data from these platforms.
One example: an undergraduate student at Brown University who contacted us was penalized in 2018 based on Canvas access logs. The student had attempted to access the Canvas database immediately before an exam, and had then left multiple browser windows open to the Canvas web address on her mobile phone. The phone remained unused in her backpack during the exam, during which time the log records (inaccurately) appeared to indicate that the site was being actively accessed by a user.
After being accused of cheating based on this Canvas log data, the student reached out to Canvas. Multiple Canvas technical support representatives responded by explaining that the log data was not a reliable record of user access. The student shared their statements with Brown. Notably, the student, who had a 4.0 record, had little motive to cheat on the exam at issue, rendering the cheating accusation—based as it was virtually entirely on the log data—all the more flimsy.
A Brown disciplinary panel nonetheless ruled against the student, and placed a permanent mark on her academic record, grounding its decision on the accuracy of the Canvas log data.
Last year, in the wake of Dartmouth’s apology to its wrongfully accused students, and Canvas’ more public acknowledgment that its logs should not be used as the basis for disciplinary decisions, the former student asked Brown to clear her academic. Brown, however, refused even to consider voiding its disciplinary decision on the ground that the student had no remaining right to appeal. This is a common thread we’ve seen in these situations: the students at Dartmouth were also not afforded reasonable due process—they were not provided complete data logs for the exams, were given less than 48 hours to respond to the charges (and only two minutes to make their cases in online hearings), and were purportedly told to admit guilt.
In an implicit acknowledgment of its error, Brown now says that it will provide its former student with a letter of support if she applies to graduate school. An implicit admission of injustice, however, is not a sufficient remedy. Like Dartmouth, Brown should withdraw the record of the discipline it wrongfully imposed on this student, as well as any others who may have likewise been found responsible for cheating based on such unreliable log records.
We call on both Canvas and Blackboard to put clearer disclaimers on their log data and publicly defend any student who has been accused of misusing these platforms based on similar misinterpretations. Schools, too, should remove any marks on any student records that were based on this information, and make 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 the Brown student demonstrates, when individual students are accused, it’s much harder for them to find support—and much easier for schools to brush their mistakes under the rug. Please reach out to EFF if you’ve been inaccurately accused of misconduct based on log data in these platforms—we want to hear from you.