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Shift to online learning platforms draw questions about privacy, accessibility

Professor François Pitt: academic integrity should be balanced with student concerns
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Online learning platforms raise a variety of privacy concerns.. SARAH CUMMINGS/THE VARSITY
Online learning platforms raise a variety of privacy concerns.. SARAH CUMMINGS/THE VARSITY

As U of T moves hybrid classes online, more and more students are relying on online platforms for their coursework. As students transition to such a learning environment, these platforms raise new concerns about data privacy and accessibility.

The university provides some online software for students to use, like Quercus and Acorn; others are vetted by the university before licensing for class and student use. However, according to François Pitt, a teaching stream associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at U of T, there are few regulations on what software should be used and how.

Students also require new kinds of accessibility accommodations in these online spaces, as many who are disabled request to turn off cameras during online lectures. International students in different time zones also face unique barriers.

Concerns about privacy

A major point of concern when it comes to privacy in online school is the use of online proctoring software, such as ProctorU. Some courses — including those at U of T — use these programs to find and prevent academic misconduct during online exams. Often these programs require access to the student’s webcam, microphone, screen, and browser to monitor behaviour during tests.

ProctorU in particular recently came under fire for a data breach that compromised the personal information of thousands of users. In an email to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson noted that the breach included a “limited amount of student data from 2015” and affected 152 U of T students, 146 of whom are now alumni. 

The spokesperson wrote that while the university does not plan to introduce new restrictions on the usage of the software, U of T is offering guidance for instructors to consider methods of online assessment other than online proctoring.

In an interview with The Varsity, Pitt provided an instructor’s perspective on the platforms used in online courses and discussed the kinds of information that is visible about students. Pitt said that he believes academic integrity shouldn’t come at the cost of student privacy, noting that a balance must be struck when dealing with online assessments. 

While he thinks that most students are honest and understand the value of the courses they’re taking, he added, “We know that line gets crossed. We know we don’t catch everybody who crosses that line. It’s not possible.” He noted that the goal is to set up enough of a deterrent to cheating so that it’s much easier to be honest. 

Pitt added that trying to create completely cheating-proof assignments creates the impression that “[professors] know you’re going to do bad things and [they’re] waiting for you to do bad things so [they] can catch you. And I think that’s bad.”

Data governance

The university is subject to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which governs the collection and use of data for most public entities in Ontario. A statement on the website of the Office of the Governing Council of U of T reads, “The University of Toronto collects, creates, uses, maintains, discloses and disposes of information” for operating the university’s programs and business. 

Quercus and Acorn do collect some data about students, including the internet protocol address of the device used, device event information such as “crashes, system activity, hardware settings, browser type, browser language,” and also information on usage of the services such as logins, viewing pages, uploading files, posting on forums, and submitting quizzes on Quercus.

The U of T spokesperson wrote, “Software licensed by the University is carefully assessed, and complies with privacy and security requirements and policies governing student data.”

Pitt noted that the university provides professors with guidelines and recommendations, but does not enforce the usage of any particular software or technology. “The university is basically taking the stance that ‘profs will do what profs will do. We’re here to provide advice and guidance, but they make their own decisions,’ ” he said.

Accessibility on online platforms

On the topic of accessibility — especially for international students who may be in different time zones or who have restricted internet access — the U of T spokesperson wrote, “We are developing solutions to address overall access for students, including possible access to a U of T [virtual private network].”

According to the U of T spokesperson, students who have accessibility accommodations have also been increasingly requesting to turn off cameras and not appear on video due to a disability, which may affect their ability to look at screens for prolonged periods of time.

The Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation has made a guide for instructors to make courses more accessible, including tips on captioning. 

U of T Student Life has also published a resource for students that includes guides and recommendations on using screen readers, screen magnification, and speech recognition, as well as navigating accessibility on different platforms.