Most University of Toronto students will at some point in their undergraduate careers find themselves frustrated with the Blackboard Learning System. Those disillusioned with the online course management platform usually cite Blackboard’s seemingly unintuitive user interface as its greatest downfall.

blackboard-EDWhat is interesting is that the question of Blackboard’s invasiveness does not seem to have yet garnered much attention. Perhaps this will change once students are made aware of both what, and how much, information Blackboard grants professors access to.

As students, we have access to information our instructors have deemed to be, in some way, relevant. Blackboard is intended to function as an online extension of the classroom — instructors make available whatever materials or tools they feel will help students participate and excel in their course. The justification for using an online learning platform is that it is there for the benefit of the students – so that we may access useful information that will aid in our success.

This should all sound familiar; however, what might come as a surprise is the revelation that course instructors are in turn supplied with data regarding their students’ study habits. Instructors are made aware of which students are opening course documents and how often. In other words, even if you’ve managed to strategically avoid being called on in class, your professor might still be aware that you have not done the reading.

Instructors have access to the Control Panel, which features a tool called the Performance Dashboard that displays information such as when a student last viewed the course’s online homepage, the number of days since they have viewed the course homepage and how many times they have posted on the course’s discussion board. To take it a step further, instructors may pull up a detailed report showing how many course items a student has viewed, and if the instructor so chooses, they may investigate exactly which particular items a student has viewed.

When students first learn of Blackboard, they are not made aware of the fact that their personal use is monitored.  A basic outline of what type of data an instructor can gather using Blackboard is made available on the University of Toronto website. However, this information appears in a section pertaining only to instructors. The portion of the University of Toronto website designated to explaining Blackboard to students contains no information regarding how students’ use of the site is monitored. In other words, though the University of Toronto’s website informs students of their instructors’ monitoring capacities, students would already have to be suspicious of the system in order to ever find this information in the first place.  Though information regarding how instructors can use Blackboard has not been hidden from students, it may just as well have been.

There are some very difficult questions surrounding whether or not the transmission of this type of data is justified — that is to say, whether or not instructors ought to have access to when their students use Blackboard and what they do with it. As mentioned, Blackboard is presented as something to help students grow academically, its slogan being  “Enrich the conversation, Engage your students, Enhance learning & teaching.” Does transmission of my study habits really allow learning and teaching to be enhanced? It’s hard to see how that might be the case. And it’s even harder when we are kept in the dark.  No, I guess we were not deceived, but then why does it feel like we have been?

Just as it’s hard to see if this transmission of data helps students, it’s also hard to identify, definitively, if it’s something that is hurting them. I have no way of knowing if this data has any influence at all, positive or negative. The purpose of this piece is not fearmongering, but simply providing the information that students were never given about how Blackboard works.

Students are given incomplete information regarding something that they do not have the option of refusing to use, and this is a problem. Students are required to use Blackboard, and yet, are not informed of everything they tell their instructors when they use it. If using a particular platform is made to be compulsory, it seems fair to claim that we should be informed of the information we implicitly consent to providing each time we use it.


Phyllis Pearson is a philosophy student at Victoria College. 

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