December 30, 2015

FERPA doesn't mean we can't have a social LMS

Update: Be sure to see Jared Stein's comments on the post that started this convo, and KUDOS to Instructure for being the kind of company that participates in public discussions. That is something I do think is awesome!

* * *

Okay, I'm going to set a 15-minute timer on this one because writing up ideas on how to improve an LMS is not my favorite thing to do, but I feel obliged to respond to Matt's invocation of FERPA as a reason why the Canvas notifications have to be so terrible.

Ironically, just this week Jim Groom wrote something about The Schizophrenia of Outsourcing EdTech (and "all the energy expended conjuring the evil spirits of FERPA to prevent anything interesting from happening on campus when it comes to edtech and the web"), and he's written about it before, years ago in fact: You can't spell FERPA without FEAR.  I did a stint working for my campus IT, so I know something about FERPA, and I also know that compliance with FERPA is not the reason why we can't have nice things in online learning.

Keeping in mind institutional constraints (FERPA being one, and there are others of course), plus instructor agency and student agency, it seems to me quite possible to design a flexible system for social notifications that would be customizable to fit any situation, while trying to maximize the usefulness within those parameters. Here are some quick thoughts (and yes, the clock is ticking...):

1. The institution needs to be able to constrain whether students can or cannot use multiple email addresses. Within that constraint, the instructor might have a preference about that also. If there are not institutional or instructor constraints, students should be able to choose from different email options (school address only, school address plus another address, multiple other addresses, etc.). [Strangely enough at my school, students can use an alternate address in the SIS but not in the LMS... go figure!]

2. Again, within institutional and instructor constraints, students should be able to choose additional notification channels, such as SMS and Twitter, etc. They should be able to turn channels on and off, and configure the channels for different granularity (i.e. notification if new post to discussion board, notification if new reply to me at discussion board, etc. etc.).

3. Again, within institutional and instructor constraints, students should be able to choose a display name within the system (which might be their real name, or a nickname, or it might be a pseudonym) and, if there are communications going outside the system which will contain their name, they should be able to choose a display name for external communications (which, again, might be a nickname, or pseudonym). If they want; my guess is most students will opt for same internal and external. And most students will opt for real name (or real nickname). But that should definitely be their choice.

4. Again, within institutional and instructor constraints, students should be able to choose a display avatar for within the system (which might be a personal photo or some other graphic image) and, if there are communications going outside the system which will display the avatar, they should be able to choose a different avatar for external communcations. If they want; my guess is most students will opt for same internal and external. As for using a personal photo or not, with my students most seem to prefer a personal photo but lots choose some other image (as I do, just to make sure they realize that not using a personal photo is a perfectly fine option at least in my classes).

5. Insofar as there are going to be external communications, they should be as useful as possible, containing designated name and designated avatar of the contributor, as much of the content as is practical, with a link that goes directly to that item in the system (not just to the top of that discussion board). The option to reply via the channel used would be a big plus!

6. Notifications should be mirrored internally when there are external communications (go to a page with all notifications, much like at Twitter, G+ etc.), and when there are (for institutional or instructor constraints) no external communications, that internal notifications page is even more essential.

Okay, time's up. That is my 15-minute contribution to the world of Canvas today. For other thoughts (esp. about the static profile pages), see the post that started this discussion: Thoughts about Choosing, Change, and the 800-Pound LMS Gorilla.

We need to learn to look at things from different angles. Otherwise, we are going to continue to have LMSes that everybody uses ... but which are far less useful than they could be.

Learn to look at things from different angles.


  1. Some excellent thoughts.
    One of the things I have liked about Canvas is that students can choose the method and timeframe for receiving communications. That freaks out some instructors who want to "control" how students receive communication. However in my classes it has been a win. I as the instructor do not have to worry about how students are getting messages from me through the LMS, only that they are somehow and it is their choice.

    Now one thing I might not be up for as an instructor, is students using different names. As long as they are consistent in my interactions with them, then that is ok, but if they change or are different in the LMS vs the SIS, vs email they send me, I will be all confused and not have the proper context of past/current dealings with to formulate and appropriate response.

    1. Hi Kevin! One thing I've found by asking students what name they want me to use is the large number of students who do not use their first name AT ALL. And I don't just mean that they use a nickname (like Bob for Robert and so on), but people who go by their middle name or some other name entirely for whatever reason and really do not want to use their first name (like my student Guadalupe this semester who always just goes by the name Pita, or Phoi who used her name Michelle instead), but there it is: FirstName.Initial.LastName in D2L, and nothing you can do about that. So, if you are trying to use the Discussion Boards in D2L, you are making people use a name that they don't ever use, a name which they have chosen NOT to use on purpose for some reason (which might make them feel uncomfortable). That's not good.

      I haven't had any trouble with using whatever names students prefer, and occasionally they will just use their initials at their blogs. It just takes a week or so to get used to the mismatch between a student's dotted name email and the name they really use. I think the display name option in Canvas is great for that reason; I wish D2L had that too!

  2. We spend a lot of time working on compliance for the fences that institutions build around FERPA to keep themselves safe. I completely understand why institutions would want an everything-locked-by-default mentality, but it definitely has made it harder to incorporate social aspects into learning, which I'd argue is one of the biggest beefs people have with the LMS.

    I'd love a much broader permeability spectrum. I've played with ideas in the past like enabling a course-level Twitter account that could be posted to by course participants, maybe curating or with moderated participation. We've had lots of tugging on how public to the web course content can actually be, but I'd love for discussions to be optionally open for response with just a social login, with share links for each post/sub-thread. We worked really hard back in the day to make replying to email notifications work in Canvas, and it's still a bit tricky knowing where to send email replies.

    I guess my point is that it I agree, connectivism and social isn't at odds with FERPA, but it does take quite a bit of work to skirt around the specters from a technology perspective. And since the social tools aren't built with learner protections in mind, sometimes the workflows get pretty wonky. Also to echo Michael Feldstein's point about the LMS, these are all outside the list of institution-requested features, which means not only are they farther down on the food chain, they usually don't even register unless an insider forces them through, to the detriment of the end-users.

    1. Ha ha, Brian, I am ALL about wonky workflows. And as a result, I've always been able to find a solution that works, even if it is admittedly sometimes weird. And yes, things like a collective class Twitter or Known or whatever can work wonders. I'm also a true believer in pseudonyms (my students rarely take me up on that offer, but pseudonyms are totally fine by me).
      And listen, are you guys watching Known? They are doing some powerful LMS integration work and of course I love that they have RSS and they have a great hashtag-mention system.
      Also, do you know about Inoreader? Eegad, it has changed my life: it is an RSS feed reader but it will also harvest Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ content, and send it back out as recombined RSS (transforming even the non-RSS of Twitter et al. into very respectable RSS). That's how I run my combo feed at It is kind of wonky too but WOW, so powerful and flexible. It is that kind of ingenuity (those guys really are geniuses) that convinces me we can outsmart any obstacles put in our way.
      Anyway, thanks again for your comments! I left a reply at the comment you left on the other post too.
      Happy 2016 to you!


If the comment form misbehaves, you can also find me at Twitter: @OnlineCrsLady. (Sometimes convos are faster and easier there in fact.)