The impending $2 billion sale of one of the world’s largest learning management systems to a private equity firm has raised questions about what happens to the wealth of student data held in company course.
More than 50 people working in colleges have signed a public letter calling on Instructure, which makes the popular Canvas LMS, to make a publicly “legally binding” commitment to protect student data in its systems under new ownership.
“We need to make sure that in this sale, student data isn’t going to be sold, that it’s not going to be monetized,” said Cristina Colquhoun, instructional developer at Oklahoma State University Libraries, who coordinated the effort. letter writing, which was co-edited by many members of the edtech community using a shared Google doc.
Instructure, which is currently a public company, is being sold to Thoma Bravo, a private company.
The letter’s authors expressed particular concern about a statement made by Instructure CEO Dan Goldsmith at the company’s March 2019 investor conference when he allegedly boasted that the company has “the most comprehensive database of educational experience in the world”. So given this information that we have, no one else has these data assets at their fingertips to be able to develop these predictive algorithms and models. “
Instructure officials stressed that they are not planning to change their data practices and that they are legally bound by the contracts they have signed with the colleges to adhere to the provisions that the colleges currently have. They add that federal student privacy laws protect against abuse of student records.
“We are committed, by a sale to [Thoma Bravo] or anyone else, that we will not sell student data,” Melissa Loble, senior vice president of customer success for Instructure, said in an interview with EdSurge. “We will not sell student data, and we will continue to say so very publicly.”
Holden Spaht, managing partner of Thoma Bravo, released a statement this week saying, “We are committed to being transparent in our use of data, protecting user privacy and leading by example. We do not share or sell student data. And we will never share user data with other Thoma Bravo portfolio companies.”
Shortly after the educators’ letter was published last month, Instructure’s chief spokesperson, Cory Edwards, contacted Colquhoun to hear his concerns and answer his questions and those directed to him by colleagues. She said the two now have a phone call scheduled every week “to provide updates on what they’re doing and what kind of response” to concerns.
“They’ve said all the right things so far about what they want to do and that there will be more updates coming soon,” she added. “But until concrete action is taken, we will not stop fighting for what we need to protect our students. Fine words are good, but we need these actions to follow through.
Company officials said they are forming a student data privacy advisory board made up of customers and privacy experts. “We want to make sure we’re doing the right thing for our customers,” said Loble of Instructure. “We are absolutely investigating this.”
The concerns of Colquhoun and his colleagues go beyond worrying about what might happen to student data in the future. Their letter also asks Instructure to give students a way to opt out of having their data collected in the first place. “It is imperative that students have the autonomy and information to make informed decisions when it comes to sharing their data, especially when the potential for monetization and/or exploitation is at stake,” said they wrote.
In an interview this week, Colquhoun acknowledged that it is difficult to design an opt-out mechanism while maintaining the basic functions of the learning management system. “It’s by no means a simple fix. It’s systemic,” she said. “I would be hard pressed to single out a company that does this perfectly.”
She said she looks forward to further discussions with business leaders and others in colleges. “I feel very positive about the dialogue. I hope they will take these steps and create legally binding avenues 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 enough bargains.