(This post is the second in a series on UBC’s Learning Management System, Blackboard Connect. The first is viewable here.)
I’ve received a response from the Office of University Counsel about my Freedom of Information (FOI) request. They’ve informed me that my request has been processed and will be returned by August 19th—thirty working days from the day I delivered it—although they “are allowed to extend this time under some circumstances.” However, I have reason to expect that my FOI request will be returned within the initial thirty working day period.
On Monday, I met with two UBC managers who oversee Connect and deal with any intrusive requests that students might have about its services. They said that they had never before received a request of this nature, or heard from a student expressing any amount of concern or interest in the data being recorded by Connect. It is their opinion, and mine, that students don’t really care about privacy. (I find evidence of this fact in that more UBC staff members will read this blog post than students.) The managers also stated that there’s a general understanding that if you’re using an online resource, then your information is susceptible to being recorded. After our meeting, I’ve identified two major concerns that I have with the Connect system, and I will outline the first in the following paragraphs.
I’m beginning to get the impression that UBC’s staff cares more about the privacy of its students than the students themselves. The managers informed me that my request is being taken quite seriously. Several people have been working on retrieving my information from UBC’s onsite servers, and have written custom scripts in order to access some of my data. According to one of the UBC managers that I spoke with, all of my personal information has been returned to the Office of Counsel as of July 25th.
During the meeting, we discussed how Connect works, what kind of information it’s capable of recording, and how useful this information is to instructors. My initial blog post made broad suggestions about the capabilities of Learning Management Systems (LMS) like Connect, which they were quick to refute. Currently, Connect does not have the capability to perform complicated tasks like discourse analysis, a process where computer algorithms make inferences about the quality of your work and assess it a grade. According to the UBC managers, the technology is simply not there and these capabilities are years away.
We also discussed the length of time that personal information is being stored. According to BC’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA): “When public bodies have used personal information to make decisions that directly affect people, they must keep that personal information for one year.” Meaning, if an analytical report generated by Connect is used to assess a student, then that report must be kept for at least one year.
However, the UBC managers stated that click and login information are stored in activity logs, which are deleted every thirty days. Yet, if an instructor were to view one of these reports, either directly using the information to assess a grading component like participation, or is even indirectly influenced by the report in the formation of an opinion about a student—which could then be reflected in a grade—then UBC would be in violation of FIPPA policy; the information must be retained for at least one year, and not the thirty days that UBC currently keeps the information, if it affects students. This is my first issue with how Connect operates.
The managers gave me a tour of Connect from an instructor’s perspective and demonstrated some of the analytical reports that can be created within Connect. We all noticed how the system operates quite slowly when generating reports and I noticed that error messages appeared, which indicated that the information was faulty. Perhaps for this reason, one of the managers maintained the position that no instructor, to their knowledge, assesses any grades, participation or otherwise, based on the analytical reports that are generated by Connect.
It is difficult for me to believe this. However, having not yet seen the personal information that I’ve requested, or spoken with any instructors about how they use Connect, I can’t conclusively determine the validity of the statement. Maybe all of the data that Connect collects is trivial for instructors. But then I’d have to ask: what exactly are the reasons for recording and storing it? Is it being used for experimental research? If so, shouldn’t students be able to opt-out?
Check out my next blog post where I outline my second major concern with Connect, and hopefully I’ll be able to provide an update about my FOI request.
The Blog Series
The Connect Exposed blog series documents my inquest into data collection on Blackboard Connect, the difficult process of obtaining my data from UBC, and privacy concerns around the collection of student information.