As Instructure Changes Ownership, Academics Worry Whether Student Data...

Higher Education

As Instructure Changes Ownership, Academics Worry Whether Student Data Will Be Protected

By Jeffrey R. Young     Jan 17, 2020

As Instructure Changes Ownership, Academics Worry Whether Student Data Will Be Protected

The pending $2 billion sale of one of the largest learning management systems to a private equity firm has raised questions about what happens to the trove of student data held in the company’s courses.

More than 50 people working at colleges have signed a public letter calling for the company, Instructure, which makes the popular Canvas LMS, to make a “legally-binding” public pledge that it will protect the student data in its systems under the new ownership.

“We need to make sure that in this sale, student data is not going to be sold—that it’s not going to be monetized,” said Cristina Colquhoun, an instructional developer at Oklahoma State University’s libraries, who coordinated the letter-writing effort, which was jointly edited by many in the edtech community using a shared Google Doc.

Instructure, which is currently a public company, is in the process of being sold to Thoma Bravo, a private company.

The letter-writers expressed particular concern with a statement made by Instructure’s CEO, Dan Goldsmith, during the company’s investor conference in March 2019, when he reportedly boasted that the company has “the most comprehensive database on the educational experience in the globe. So given that information that we have, no one else has those data assets at their fingertips to be able to develop those algorithms and predictive models.“

Instructure officials stressed that they have no plans to change their data practices, and that they are legally bound by the contracts they’ve signed with colleges to live up to the arrangements the colleges currently have. They add that federal student privacy laws guard against abuse of student records.

“We’re committed, through a sale to [Thoma Bravo] or anyone else, that we will not sell student data,” said Melissa Loble, senior vice president of customer success for Instructure, in an interview with EdSurge. “We will not sell student data, and we will continue to come out and very publicly state that.”

Holden Spaht, managing partner of Thoma Bravo, issued a statement this week saying: “We commit to being transparent in our data usage, protecting user privacy, and leading by example. We do not—and we will not—share or sell student data. And we will never share user data with other companies in the Thoma Bravo portfolio."

Ongoing Dialogue

Soon after the letter by educators was posted last month, Instructure’s chief spokesperson, Cory Edwards, reached out to Colquhoun to hear her concerns and answer her questions and those relayed to her by colleagues. She said the two now have a scheduled phone call every week “for him to provide some updates about what they’re doing and kind of answer” concerns.

“They have said all the right things thus far of what they wish to do and that there are more updates coming soon,” she added. “But until actual actions are taken, we won’t stop fighting for what we need to protect our students. Nice words are good but we need those actions to follow up.”

Company officials said they are now in the process of forming an advisory committee on student data privacy, to be made up of customers and privacy experts. “We want to make sure that we’re doing the right thing for our customers,” said Loble, of Instructure. “We’re absolutely investigating this.”

The concerns by Colquhoun and her colleagues go beyond worry about what might happen to student data in the future. Their letter also calls on Instructure to give students a way to opt out of having their data harvested in the first place. “It is imperative that students have the autonomy and information necessary to make informed decisions when it comes to sharing their data, especially when the potential for monetization and/or exploitation is at stake,” they wrote.

In an interview this week, Colquhoun acknowledged that designing an opt-out mechanism while maintaining the core functions of the learning management system is challenging. “This is not a simple solution by any means. It is systemic,” she said. “I’d be hard-pressed to point to a company that does it perfectly.”

She said she looks forward to further discussions with company leaders and others at colleges. “I do feel very positive about the dialogue. I’m hopeful that they’re going to take these steps and make legally binding pathways forward to protect students.”

Meanwhile, some investors have raised questions about the sale of Instructure to Thomas Bravo, but for very different reasons. Their complaint is that the price is not high enough for them to reap sufficient windfalls.

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