'with Canvas being an educational software, it does have to be tracked'

Sometime in March, I started to get a popup whenever I logged into Canvas that responded to the massive and sudden shift to online learning by acknowledging the situation and offering to give me a tour of the LMS so that I could make the shift as quickly and painlessly as possible. As I wrote in a tweet at the time, I’m glad that Instructure was reaching out with this kind of offer, but:

  1. I’d been using Canvas since the beginning of the semester and didn’t need any help, which wouldn’t be a big deal if I were only seeing the pop-up once, but…
  2. rather than show up once and then disappear, the pop-up came up EVERY TIME I OPENED A NEW INSTANCE OF THE WEBSITE—not just every time I logged in, but EVERY SINGLE TIME I OPENED A PAGE IN A NEW TAB OR WINDOW

After about a month of dealing with this, and as I was beginning my final grading for the semester, I finally contacted Instructure support to explain what was going on and see if there was any way that I could avoid having this pop up a dozen times a day for the rest of the semester.

I got a quick reply that confirmed my pet theory: My default Web browser is a locked-down Firefox that blocks most cookies and is in permanent private mode. Instructure support told me that the pop-up would keep showing up so long as I had cookies blocked and that the way to get around it would be to stop blocking cookies (or use a browser with cookies enabled for all of my Canvas needs).

My response:

Unfortunately, as annoying as this continued pop-up is, my online privacy is pretty important to me, so no-cookes Firefox is going to be my continued browser of choice. Should I expect to see this notification for the rest of my teaching career? Or does it have a hard “expiration date” that I can start to look forward to? Or is there a way to do this without cookies?

This time, my friend at Instructure Support took over a week to respond with the following:

I totally get that, and I use it on my personal computer as well. However, with Canvas being an educational software, it does have to be tracked. If you continue to use that mode, you can unfortunately expect that to pop up.

There’s a lot to unpack here, including the implication that I may be dismissing this pop up for the next 30+ years (which I don’t believe will actually be the case, but I certainly haven’t heard anything to the contrary). What stands out to me most, though, is the casual justification of (admittedly low-level) surveillance because education: “with Canvas being an educational software, it does have to be tracked.”

Obviously, an LMS that doesn’t track anything at all is of no use to its users. While a multiple choice quiz is far, far, far from my go-to assessment of choice, it’s tremendously helpful to have Canvas automatically grade it for me, and that requires some tracking. While I’m instinctively skeptical of learning analytics (for privacy reasons), I acknowledge that in the hands of the right people with the right ethical perspectives, LMS trace data could lead to genuinely helpful advancements in educational research.

All of that said—and acknowledging that I can’t treat a single statement from a member of Instructure’s surely-beleagured support staff as company policy—if “because education, tracking” is the justification for an annoying pop-up that may follow me the rest of my career, I shudder to think what else is being done according to that philosophy. Even if we acknowledge that some tracking is needed with educational software, we need much better ways of thinking through it than this one.