Letter to Instructure
With the pending sale of Instructure to Thoma Bravo, many questions remain about what will be done with the vast amount of student data Instructure possesses. In a unified effort to protect students and their privacy, this letter and corresponding petition were created to demand answers from Instructure. To co-sign this letter, visit the petition at Change.org
To: Instructure Leadership
CC: Dan Goldsmith (CEO, Instructure), Matt Kaminer (Chief Legal Officer, Instructure)
From: The Canvas Community, Institutional Stakeholders, Concerned Individuals
Date: December 26, 2019
As we’ve recently become aware, Instructure has begun the process to be sold to Thoma Bravo for $2 billion (Aishwarya, 2019). While debate continues regarding fair market price for the company (Hill, 2019b), there is much speculation within the Community and amongst stakeholders about the role being played in the sale by the student data Instructure has spent years collecting and harvesting to inform the company’s innovations. At an investors’ conference in March, Instructure’s CEO Dan Goldsmith lauded the sheer amount of student data the company possesses: “We have the most comprehensive database on the educational experience in the globe. So given that information that we have, no one else has those data assets at their fingertips to be able to develop those algorithms and predictive models” (as recounted by Hill, 2019a).
Many calls for clarity have ensued, yet both Instructure and Thoma Bravo have side-stepped addressing specifically how the student data will be handled. In the past, Goldsmith stated: “One of our first and primary tenets is that the student, the individual and the institution own the data—that’s their asset. We’re not looking to sell data assets” (Wan, 2019, para. 38). Yet our student- and faculty-produced data are now part of a sale and we cannot assume that Instructure’s previously stated ethical position will be respected during the sale. As Crosslin (2019) put it in his unpacking of concerns, “data has the potential to be used in ways that users may not want, which could include monetization, and both Instructure and their potential buyer are not saying enough about what their plans are” (para. 11).
Monetization of student data is a valid fear, and one that should actively concern every institutional stakeholder and their students. Laws protecting students from their information being sold in the commercial marketplace are insufficient and do not protect the personally identifiable or sensitive data from being shared, even outside of the educational context (Russell, Reidenberg, Martin, & Norton, 2018). As pointed out by Lane (2019) in his shocking recounting of the sheer amount of data points Canvas holds on each of our students, “[t]his isn't about shaming Instructure and its shareholders. This is about pointing out that we do not have any policies in place to prevent the exploitation of our schools and the students they serve. There is no approach to business or technology that will prevent the exploitation of student data. There is only a need to establish and strengthen federal and state policies that protect the privacy of students and their data, and minimizing the damage any platform can cause--no matter who owns it” (para. 10).
Jones (2019; Project Information Literacy, 2019) reminds us that the collection of student data is a form of power and control, exercised over students powerless in this situation. With Canvas, students do not have a choice in having their data collected within the platform, as Canvas is an inseparable piece of almost every classroom experience at institutions (Johnson, 2019; Vercera, 2019). Students do, indeed, care about how their data is being used, but they often feel powerless to do anything about it (Ifenthaler & Schumacher, 2016; Schumacher & Ifenthaler, 2018, Slade & Prinsloo, 2014). As Jones (2019) recounts, student autonomy and offering of informed consent with learning analytics data is crucial, but is often quashed to fulfil institutional and commercial objectives (pp. 7-8).
It cannot go without notice that our students’ data, collected without the ability for them to refuse, will soon be sold as part of Instructure for a hefty price tag. While there is much good that can come from learning analytics data (Jones, Rubel, & LeClere, forthcoming; Kurzweil & Stevens, 2018; Reinoso Castillo, 2019), we also know that there is a very harmful side, most negatively and frequently affecting our students from marginalized groups (Barshay & Aslanian, 2019; Johnson, 2017; MacMillan & Anderson, 2019; Vasquez, 2017). It is well known that algorithms have a dark history of discrimination against marginalized groups, a history that continues today (Noble, 2018). This data can be used to harm students in myriad ways, especially ways we can’t even think of yet.
It is with all this in mind that we request Instructure make clear statements be made as to how they intend to legally and ethically protect current student data, future student data, and access to both under the new ownership. While the Chief Legal Officer Matt Kaminer has expressed Instructure’s commitment to, and taken major steps towards ensuring ethical handling of student data (Kaminer, 2019), there are no guarantees that prevent the private equity firm from using student data in ways we didn’t intend.
As Jones, Rubel, and LeClere (forthcoming) explain, higher education institutions have the responsibility to act as information fiduciaries. It is our duty to ensure data is only collected and analyzed to benefit students, advance institutions’ missions, complement and catalyze intellectual freedom, and further the trust relationship between the student and the institution. Paramount to these principles is the setting of limits on data collection in the interest of student privacy and success. The collection of student data should only be used with full and uncoerced student consent, centering on the ethical onus we all have to protect students at all costs (ZEMOS98, 2019).
Before the finalization of the sale set for January 8th, 2020, we, your Community and Institutional Stakeholders, need the following from you:
- A clear and legally-binding statement from Instructure about what will be done with the student data in their possession. We have received reassurances about Instructure’s ethics, but to date, nothing specific or legally-binding.
- A clear and legally-binding statement from Instructure about how they intend to protect current student data, future student data, and access to both under new ownership.
- A feasible option for students to opt out of data collection and retention. It is imperative that students have the autonomy and information necessary to make informed decisions when it comes to sharing their data, especially when the potential for monetization and/or exploitation is at stake.
Thank you for your time and consideration in this urgent and important matter.
To co-sign this letter, visit the petition at Change.org
Aishwarya, A. (2019, December 4). PE firm Thoma Bravo to buy Instructure in $2 billion all-cash deal. Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-instructure-m-a-thoma-bravo-idUSKBN1Y81UL
Barshay, J., & Aslanian, S. (2019, August 6). Predictive analytics are boosting college graduation rates, but do they also invade privacy and reinforce racial inequities? Retrieved December 13, 2019, from The Hechinger Report website: https://hechingerreport.org/predictive-analytics-boosting-college-graduation-rates-also-invade-privacy-and-reinforce-racial-inequities/
Crosslin, M. (2019, December 9). Instructure Wars, Private Equity Concerns, and The Anatomy of Monetization of Data. Retrieved December 13, 2019, from EduGeek Journal website: https://www.edugeekjournal.com/2019/12/09/instructure-wars-private-equity-concerns-and-the-anatomy-of-monetization-of-data/
Hill, P. (2019a, March 11). Instructure: Plans to expand beyond Canvas LMS into machine learning and AI. Retrieved December 13, 2019, from E-Literate website: https://eliterate.us/instructure-plans-to-expand-beyond-canvas-lms-into-machine-learning-and-ai/
Hill, P. (2019b, December 13). Instructure sale: Two large investors against deal and claiming conflicts of interest. Retrieved from PhilOnEdTech website: https://philonedtech.com/instructure-sale-two-large-shareholders-against-deal/
Ifenthaler, D., & Schumacher, C. (2016). Student perceptions of privacy principles for learning analytics. Educational Technology Research and Development, 64(5), 923–938. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11423-016-9477-y
Johnson, J. A. (2017, February). Structural Justice in Student Analytics, or, the Silence of the Bunnies. Presented at the 2017 Digital Sociology Mini-Conference Eastern Sociological Society Annual Meeting, Philadelphia, PA. Retrieved from https://the-other-jeff.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Structural-Justice-in-Learning-Analytics-ESS.pdf
Johnson, S. (2019, May 28). Inside a student’s hunt for his own learning data. In EdSurge Podcast. Retrieved from https://www.edsurge.com/news/2019-05-28-inside-a-student-s-hunt-for-his-own-learning-data
Jones, K. M. L. (2019). Learning analytics and higher education: A proposed model for establishing informed consent mechanisms to promote student privacy and autonomy. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 16(1), 24. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41239-019-0155-0
Jones, K. M. L., Rubel, A., & LeClere, E. (forthcoming). A matter of trust: Higher education institutions as information fiduciaries in an age of educational data mining and learning analytics. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology. Retrieved from https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=3494694
Kurzweil, M., & Stevens, M. (2018). Setting the Table: Responsible Use of Student Data in Higher Education. Educause Review, May/June 2018, 17–24. Retrieved from https://er.educause.edu/articles/2018/5/setting-the-table-responsible-use-of-student-data-in-higher-education
Lane, K. (2019, December 9). The Instructure LMS Data Points [Blog]. Retrieved from API Evangelist website: http://apievangelist.com/2019/12/09/the-instructure-lms-data-points/
MacMillan, D., & Anderson, N. (2019, October 14). Student tracking, secret scores: How college admissions offices rank prospects before they apply. Retrieved December 13, 2019, from Washington Post website: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/10/14/colleges-quietly-rank-prospective-students-based-their-personal-data/
Noble, S. (2018). Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: NYU Press.
Project Information Literacy. (2019, October 14). The Datafied Student and the Ethics of Learning Analytics [Smart Talks blog series]. Retrieved from https://www.projectinfolit.org/kyle-jones-smart-talk.html
Reinoso Castillo, J. (2019, December 9). Predictive analytics for student dropout reduction at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana Cali. Retrieved from https://er.educause.edu/articles/2019/12/predictive-analytics-for-student-dropout-reduction-at-pontificia-universidad-javeriana-cali
Russell, N. C., Reidenberg, J. R., Martin, E., & Norton, T. (2018). Transparency and the Marketplace for Student Data. SSRN Electronic Journal. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3191436
Schumacher, C., & Ifenthaler, D. (2018). Features students really expect from learning analytics. Computers in Human Behavior, 78, 397–407. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2017.06.030
Slade, S., & Prinsloo, P. (2014). Student perspectives on the use of their data: Between intrusion, surveillance and care. Challenges for Research into Open & Distance Learning: Doing Things Better – Doing Better Things, 291–300. Retrieved from http://oro.open.ac.uk/41229/
Vasquez, T. (2017, March 29). Trump Is Paving the Way for Erosion of Immigrants’ Privacy Rights. Retrieved from Rewire.News website: https://rewire.news/article/2017/03/29/trump-paving-way-erosion-immigrants-privacy-rights/
Vercera, Z. (2019, March 27). Canvas is tracking your data. What is UBC doing with it? Retrieved from The Ubyssey website: https://www.ubyssey.ca/features/double-edged-sword/
Wan, T. (2019, July 10). Instructure’s Age of Adolescence: A Conversation With CEO Dan Goldsmith. Retrieved from EdSurge website: https://www.edsurge.com/news/2019-07-10-instructure-s-age-of-adolescence-a-conversation-with-ceo-dan-goldsmith
ZEMOS98. (2019). Pedagogy of Care. Open Paper. Retrieved from ZEMOS98 website: http://zemos98.org/en/portfolio_page/pedagogy-of-care/