University pilots ‘observer-only’ access on Canvas for athletic academic coordinators

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Photo Credit: Mel Westfall | Daily Texan Staff

The University and athletics department launched a pilot program this semester that monitors student athletes on Canvas to provide them with better academic support.

Select instructors were automatically opted–in to give certain privileges to athletics academic coordinators — meaning they can check student athletes’ classroom progress. 

Before the semester began, provost Maurie McInnis sent an email about the program to instructors who had basketball athletes in their spring courses. Athletics academic coordinators will be allowed “observer-only” status on Canvas to monitor student athletes. The University said it is piloting this effort with only basketball athletes because focusing on a small number of students allows for necessary attention during the piloting process.

“The information that Athletics Academic Coordinators will be accessing on Canvas is not new and meets FERPA guidelines,” McInnis said in the email. “The goal is to modernize the current paper-based system to provide more timely feedback, when needed.”

These instructors have the ability to opt-out of the program, but the University highly encourages them not to.

According to the email, observer privileges include viewing announcements, assignments, the calendar, dashboard, discussions, grades of the student they are observing, modules, due dates, the course syllabus and unlocked files. Observers will have the ability to join conferences and collaborations if invited as well as send messages to students they are observing.

Observers cannot comment on announcements or discussions, submit assignments or quizzes, view the course roster or send messages to other students in the course.

“The purpose of the pilot is to assess and evaluate the utility of the feature, and any recommendations on next steps will come from this pilot,” said Joe Williams, director of communications for the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost. “Student privacy is a critical component of this process, and the pilot will help us understand what issues students and faculty are concerned about.”

Williams said all student athlete participants were notified beforehand and had to sign an acknowledgment granting access. They also have the ability to opt-out.  

Philip Doty, associate dean for the School of Information, said he was not informed by the University about this program until one of his instructors received the email from McInnis informing him.

“It’s unwanted and unsolicited surveillance of the students who will be observed,” Doty said. “These students are stigmatized — simply by being athletes. There’s a presumption that they cannot succeed academically and that the University has a right to intrude in their academic performance.”

Doty said by monitoring a student athlete through Canvas, it will also monitor their instructor.

“This is a solution in search of a problem,” Doty said. “If the concern is about timeliness, (the athletics department) can ask the question in a timely manner and they’ll be answered in a timely manner. This is unnecessary and extraordinarily intrusive.”

Kolina Koltai, an assistant instructor in the School of Information, was automatically opted–in because she has a basketball athlete in her class. She decided to opt-out due to concern for the privacy of her students.

“There are (a) lot of private things within a classroom and between students and the teacher,” Koltai said. “I think it’s an unnecessary oversight and it seems like a violation of privacy that some students expect to have in a classroom environment. It wasn’t something that I thought would be beneficial for everyone.”