Canvas is an online learning platform created by the Utah-based education technology company Instructure. In the past year, the platform has also been turned into a disciplinary technology, as more and more schools have come to rely on Canvas to drive allegations of cheating—despite student protests and technical advice. So far the company has shied away from the controversy. But it’s time for Instructure to publicly and unequivocally tell schools: Canvas does not provide reliable evidence of academic misconduct.
Schools use Canvas in two ways, both of which result in digital logs being generated by the software. First, schools can use Canvas to administer tests, and the platform provides logs of the test-taking activity. Second, schools can use Canvas to host learning materials such as course lectures and notes, and the platform provides logs of when specific course material was accessed by a student’s device. Neither of these logs are accurate for disciplinary use, and Canvas knows this.
Since January, the Canvas instructor guide has explicitly stated: “Quiz logs should not be used to validate academic integrity or identify occurrences of cheating.” In February, an employee of Instructure commented in a community forum that “weirdness in Canvas Quiz Logs may appear because of various end-user [student] activities or because Canvas prioritizes saving student's quiz data ahead of logging events. Also, there is a known issue with logging of ‘multiple answer’ questions” (emphasis original). The employee concluded that “unfortunately, I can’t definitively predict what happened on the users’ end in that particular case.”
And as we have previously written, along with the New York Times, course material access logs also do not accurately reflect student activity—they could either indicate that a student was actively engaging with the course material, or that a student’s device was passively logged in to the website, but the student was not actively accessing the course material. Canvas’ API documentation states that access logs should not be used for “high-stakes analysis” of student behavior.
Despite the admitted and inherently unreliable nature of Canvas logs, and an outcry by accused students and digital rights organizations, schools continue to rely on Canvas logs to determine cheating—and Instructure continues to act as if nothing is wrong. Meanwhile, students’ educational careers are being harmed by these flimsy accusations.
Instructure Must Right This Wrong
Last year, the administration of James Madison University lowered the grades of students who had been flagged as “inactive” during an exam according to Canvas test-taking logs. Students there spoke out to criticize the validity of the logs. Earlier this year, over a dozen medical students at Dartmouth’s Geisel medical school were accused of cheating after a dragnet investigation of their Canvas course material access logs. Dartmouth’s administration eventually retracted the allegations, but not before students spent months fighting the allegations, while fearing what they could mean for their futures. And in the past few months, EFF has heard from other students around the country who have been accused of cheating by their schools, based solely or primarily on Canvas logs.
Cheating accusations can result in lowered grades, a black mark on student transcripts, suspension, and even expulsion. Despite the serious consequences students face, they often have very limited recourse. Disturbingly, Canvas provides logs to administrators and teachers, but accused students have been unable to see those same logs, either via the platform itself or from school officials.
Students deserve better. Schools should accept that Canvas logs cannot replace concrete, dispositive evidence of cheating. If you are a student who has been affected by the misuse of Canvas logs, we’ve written a guide for educating your administrators and teachers on their inaccuracy.
Instructure, for its part, must do better. Admitting to the unreliability of Canvas logs in obscure webpages is not enough. We reached out privately to Instructure, with no response. Now we are publicly calling on the company to issue a clear, public announcement that Canvas logs are unreliable and should not be used to fuel cheating accusations. The company should also allow students to access the same logs their schools are increasingly using to accuse them of academic misconduct—which is important because, when viewed in their entirety, Canvas logs often don’t rationally reveal activity consistent with cheating
Instructure has a responsibility to prevent schools from misusing their products. Taking action now would show the company’s commitment to the integrity of the academic process, and would give students a chance to face their accusers on the same footing, rather than resigning to an unjust and opaque process.