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The Indiana Daily Student

administration education

How graduate workers are using Canvas, or not, to support their unionization efforts


Michael Johnson III is a graduate instructor teaching a basic algebra class and a union representative for the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition-United Electrical Workers.  

Johnson isn’t using Canvas as much this year. Instead, he’s storing grades in a private spreadsheet.  

Due to concerns about administrative surveillance and academic freedom, IU graduate instructors told the Indiana Daily Student the IGWC-UE has had discussions about using Canvas in a way that gives graduate workers more control over how they teach courses.  

They said they are trying to find a strategic way to use Canvas this semester to make their union efforts stronger. 

The conversation comes in the midst of a more than three-year movement protesting working conditions, fees and pay at IU, which culminated in a strike last string. The IGWC-UE voted no to another proposed strike Sept. 26, expressing hope that ongoing negotiations with IU would lead to partial union recognition this semester.  

Related: [Graduate workers vote against a new strike

Why move away from Canvas? 

Johnson said lessening the use of Canvas would make it harder for the university to mitigate the effects of a potential strike. If the university or departments were to replace the grad workers’ labor, Johnson said, they could pick up their Canvas page and move on without them. 

However, obscuring grades, quizzes, activities and feedback from the Canvas page accessible to administrators would be part of withholding the student academic appointees’ labor, Johnson said.   

The strategic use of Canvas is not a form of striking, Johnson said. He said minimizing Canvas use could take many forms depending on the individual instructor, but he’s primarily been using Canvas this semester to send announcements to students and to post the syllabus and assignment sheets.   

To allow students to access grades, Johnson said he has a private spreadsheet stored in SharePoint through IU. The university’s  data management guide lists SharePoint as an approved storage system for academic records related to students.  

Johnson said the students’ names are not listed in the spreadsheet, as there is a randomized 16-digit string corresponding to each of them. The order of students is randomized, and he also has “fake” students mixed in. Johnson said he keeps the correspondence of names and strings in a private spreadsheet. He said he emailed each student their individual code so they can compare it to the spreadsheet, and they must enter their IU credentials to view the spreadsheet. 

When his coordinator asked to see the grades, he showed them the spreadsheet to prove he was tracking grades, Johnson said. He said he also posted a singular overall grade after the first exam, as a sign of goodwill and faith, but he maintains the spreadsheet as the day-to-day grades while negotiations continue.

What is IU’s policy? 

IU policy states graduate instructors must be supervised by a qualified faculty member. According to a policy obtained by the IDS regarding support and supervision of graduate workers, all graduate instructors are required to use IU’s learning management system, Canvas, to maintain consistency in supervision.  

IU spokesperson Chuck Carney said in an email that Canvas is IU’s approved management system because it provides a one-stop-shop for students to access grades and class resources. It also provides consistency in the transition from high school to college and protects personal student information in line with IU’s data security policy.   

The IDS obtained a statement written by administrators in response to questions from the College SAA Council concerning the use of Canvas and how campus officials monitor it. The document said the council had asked why the use of Canvas was required if an instructor had reasons to use another platform.  

Related: [IU administration is opposed to IGWC-UE union’s recognition. Faculty, graduate workers speculate why.

In the document, campus officials stated requiring undergraduate students to navigate multiple learning management systems would be complicated. Officials also said IU’s cyber-risk mitigation policy directs all units to use approved services and software, and this is especially pertinent with respect to keeping student grades and information private.   

The document also stated IU deans have the ability to view aggregate information about SAA use of Canvas. Access to the information is limited to deans and their named designees, the document said, and information is used only to determine where SAA-led instruction may not be happening. No class content, grades or materials will be visible, the document said. Examples of information that would be visible included assignment submissions by students and the number of grades posted by SAAs.   

Information gathered from IU deans’ access to Canvas would be the basis of any action taken against an SAA, the document stated.   

IU’s data sharing and handling policies comply with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. Under IU’s data classification guide, student academic records are classified as restricted, meaning there are specific places approved for the storage of this data. These locations include Microsoft at IU, Slate, SharePoint Online and Canvas.  

FERPA states the public posting of grades by a student’s name, identification number or Social Security number without the student’s written permission is a violation. IU’s FERPA guide states faculty should “Consider using Canvas or university tools with built-in security mechanisms.” 

Jeff Johnston is IU’s University Registrar and Student Records Data Steward. Johnston said Canvas is the most strongly-recommend system to store grades because data on Canvas is always backed up. He said it is also more convenient for students because they don’t have to look in multiple different places for course information and grades.  

“We strongly encourage the use of Canvas for a number of reasons,” Johnston said. “Primarily it’s for the student experience and to safeguard that data.” 

Johnston said Microsoft Excel and SharePoint are approved for storing restricted data, including grades, because they can also be useful for storing other types of data, such as research. The platforms can also be useful for courses like independent study, where an instructor may not need a platform as large as Canvas to communicate with a student.  

Although Canvas is the preferred method of grade storage, Johnston said instructors are allowed to store grades elsewhere as long as it is in an approved system.  

What are graduate workers saying?  

Evan Arnet is a graduate instructor who will teach a course about ethical issues in biomedical sciences during the fall semester’s second eight weeks. Arnet said there are concerns about administrative meddling in how instructors want to teach their courses.  

“The idea of the guidance is so we can have control over our own work but also that students are not negatively affected — that we’re still in compliance with IU policy, and students can still make sure they see their grades in a timely manner,” Arnet said. “It’s a way to kind of prioritize education, while at the same time ensuring that we have ownership over our work.”   

Some graduate workers see the data surveillance policy with intent to undermine possible collective action, Arnet said, and they fear administrator interference with established course design.   

“Graduate instructors already have — if they’re working with a faculty member — they already have oversight over course design,” Arnet said. “We’re already getting input from experts in our field.”  

He said there is a “soft-requirement” for at least some Canvas use. A College Supervisory Plan launched over the summer by the College of Arts and Sciences said, at minimum, each SAA must use Canvas to post assignments, make announcements, provide a record of grades to date and maintain an up-to-date syllabus.   

IU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors released a resolution in July 2022 on strike contingency planning and SAA supervision. In the resolution, the AAUP called on the administration to “recognize that faculty and graduate students cannot be mandated by the administration to use any specific learning management system, including Canvas.”   

Zheng Zhou, graduate student and previous instructor, said that IU Slate, an approved site, was also used to store student grades during last year’s strike rather than posting them on Canvas.  

Zhou said he thinks moving grades to another platform makes accessing grades different in some ways, such as whether students get emails from Slate rather than Canvas, but doesn’t affect whether undergraduates receive training or grades.  

“The undergrads still get what they’re paying for, still get what their parents are paying for, to fulfill their purpose, so I wouldn’t necessarily say much has changed,” Zhou said.  

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated what a source was using as an alternative to Canvas.

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