FERPA, Privacy and Educational Technology

Brown University complies with the provisions of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) which protects the privacy of student educational records. Under FERPA Personally Identifiable Information (PII) such as student IDs (e.g. SSN,TIN), race/ethnicity information, photos, and student registration information is protected information and cannot be divulged without student consent.

When using online tools such as Canvas, Brown blogs, Piazza, or social media tools such as Facebook or Twitter in a course, faculty need to be mindful of FERPA implications. Keep these guiding principles in mind:

  • Be informed, keep students informed: Before asking students to upload profile photos and other personal information, make sure you know who has access to that data. Be mindful of the various privacy settings offered by the tools you use. Inform students about the people who have access to the data they share.
  • Use Brown-vetted online tools: When introducing teaching tools such as Canvas and Piazza, Brown signs agreements with the vendors that ensure privacy of student data and FERPA compliance. Use tools vetted and supported by Academic Technology/CIS.
  • Design Alternative activities: Some students might not want to use tools for security, privacy, or ethical reasons. Offer alternative ways for students to participate in course activities and consider the circumstances of student requests for accommodations on a case-by-case basis.

In addition to these guidelines, here are some specific tips about widely used teaching tools on Brown campus:

Adding people to your Canvas course

Enrolled students are added to your Canvas course automatically in the ‘Student’ role. You can add TAs and designers who are performing required teaching related tasks. Instructors, TAs and students officially enrolled for the course are the only people who should have access to the course roster.

If you need non-enrolled students or instructors not officially associated with the course to be added to your canvas course site, the people tab should be disabled to hide the course roster. The enrolled students should be informed that others will be participating in canvas activities (such as discussions and group activities) and may see enrollment information. If you do not receive objections, it implies consent to view roster information. If you know in advance that you will be including non-official participants in your Canvas course, add this information in the syllabus. In this case, students registering for the course is considered consent.

For other scenarios contact us at ITG@brown.edu. We will contact the registrar for case-by-case review.

Brown Blogs Privacy Settings

You can set up your course blog permission to “Visible only to registered users of this site” making it accessible only to the students in the course. If the objective of the blog is to provide more open readership to student work you can change the settings so that the blog is open to the Brown community or to the public. In either case, it is the instructor’s responsibility to inform students about who will be able to access the blog. You can also select a blog design theme that does not show the author’s name, and allow students to sign their posts manually if they would like to do so.

How Canvas can help you avoid grading bias

Despite our intention to be fair, unconscious mental processes affect our behavior, including how we assess student work. Banaji & Greenwald (2013) expand on the science of this phenomenon in Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. The best way to match intentions to behavior is to identify tools that help us circumvent these ingrained mental processes.

Here are some practical ways you can make sure you mitigate the effects of hidden bias when grading or providing formative feedback on writing assignments:

  • Set up a Canvas assignment where students upload a document or file rather than relying on an email attachment or paper based submission. This avoids the unconscious bias introduced by seeing the student’s name and the bias that is introduced by knowing the person behind the name. Avoiding email submissions also helps avoid getting affected by the tone of the email message.
  • Once the assignment is submitted you can review and annotate it in SpeedGrader in Canvas. Ask students to upload documents without name and then enable anonymous grading in SpeedGrader.  Here are the instructions to do so:
    1. Open the assignment in Speedgrader.
    2. Click Settings (Gear icon) in the top-left menu.  Anon_grading1
    3. in the pop-up window, select ‘Hide student names in the SpeedGrader
      Note: You will still be able to see student names in the Gradebook to review their overall performance.
  • Use rubrics to grade assignments. Rubrics help make our expectations about student work overt. You can add Rubric to an assignment in Canvas and use it in the Speedgrader to guide your grading. Read more about Canvas Rubrics.
  • Grade exams question by question. This helps avoid Halo bias where grades for later questions are affected by performance on the previous questions. When using Canvas quiz with open ended or essay type questions, you can use SpeedGrader to grade question by question rather than grading the entire quiz for one student.

If you have other ideas to avoid hidden bias in your teaching and grading, please share it in the comments section. Check the annotated bibliography below to read more about hidden bias and bias in grading. If you have other resources you would like us to add in the list below, please share it in comments.

Annotated Bibliography:

New Canvas Dashboard

Starting June 1, 2016, canvas.brown.edu will look different

The Canvas home page will have a better responsive design suited for smaller screens and smartphones. There will be very few functionality changes, however, the landing page and global navigation will look different. In the “New UI (user interface)”, look for the following changes:

  • Dashboard: canvas.brown.edu will display a grid of Course Cards [1]. Click on a Course Card to access a class site, or click on course activity icons to view recent course-specific Announcements, Grades, Discussions, or Files [2].
  • Canvas Navigation: Look to the left navigation menu for links to all Course sites [3], Canvas Account [4] information , and other global Canvas tools, like the Calendar and Inbox tool. Looking for Grades? It’s now on the right side of the Dashboard page.
  • Courses: Choose Course Cards by clicking on the Courses [3] icon, then “All Courses”. Click on the Star icon for a course to display as a course card on the Canvas dashboard.
  • Help: Report a problem, call, or chat with Canvas support using the Help [5] icon in the left navigation.


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