Leaked Blackboard Data Reveals Extent of Information Available to Staff

The cross-section between the expanding reach of the Internet and the erosion of personal privacy has been well documented as more and more of our lives are being lived out on the proxy of our online self. The amount of data and information we part with as a consequence of accepting the necessary “terms and conditions” has played a role in allowing the online sphere to grow and to do more for us. But recently leaked information to the College Tribune on the extent to which UCD’s application Blackboard Learn monitors each student’s activity and then provides this information to lecturers will come as a surprise to most students.

Leaked documentation about the level of information Blackboard makes available to lecturers included a detailed analysis of each individual student’s activity. It is possible for lecturers to view each student’s activity in isolation, what content they have downloaded or accessed and at what date and time. The overall class data can be useful for a lecturer to track what percentage of students have accessed the course outline for example; but the ability to view each individual students’ actions and activity will bring a sense of unease to many students. Lecturers are also provided with a photo, the student’s name, mobile phone number, and email address in tandem with this information.

The ever-expanding nexus of information and data requested from students has also recently come to include students’ personal email accounts. Changes in UCD’s email protocol in June 2015 mean that alongside the ucdconnect email accounts of students the University also uses the personal email addresses of students as a point of contact. This change, University officials argued, was to ensure students who did not regularly check their ucdconnect email accounts were still kept up to date with key information from UCD. The change was enacted under the Targeted Communications System, which operates as a mailing system to inform specific students classes or faculties about relevant information or events.

Mark Lande, Chief Applications Officer of IT Services outlined the policy change.

“The change in Registry policy last year related to a system called the Targeted Communication System, which is used to send all student emails or emails to particular class cohorts [for example, information on postgraduate open days or university relations emails].  Students have the option of having their emails sent to either their UCD Connect email or both their UCD Connect and personal emails.  However, the system manages this and lecturers would not be aware of either the student’s personal email address nor their preference as regards communication.”

“The “old” student email policy was that the university would only send emails to UCD Connect email accounts.  The reason this was changed was that some students were missing out in important communications as they didn’t regularly check their UCD email account (if ever) and requested that emails be sent to a personal email address.  The new policy gives students the ability to choose the option which suits them best.  This choice is made at registration each year and can be amended in SISWeb at any time.”

Lande continued, “The change in policy didn’t make any change to what was visible to lecturers in Blackboard or InfoHub”.

However, further documentation leaked to the College Tribune of a section of a class list displays both the ucdconnect and the personal email address of the student (the authors own information was provided so no breach of Data Protection occurred). It was originally unclear how the personal email addresses of students would be available on the class lists accessible to lecturers, as the UCD Registration process did not require such information before 2015. But another University official, Andrew Meyler, stated that students themselves could have previously provided this information prior to the 2015 change in Communications policy.

Meyler, Director of Administrative Services in UCD Registry, maintained that “Personal email addresses have been viewable on class lists where provided by students themselves prior to the [2015] policy change. This would have been important for students such as part-time students, for example, who would have less of a day-to-day contact. The provision of a personal email address is a student’s own decision.”

Meyler mirrored Lande’s justification for the Communications policy change in June.

“The policy changes made in relation to student email preferences were made in response to student requests that information be sent to both their UCD and personal addresses (they can also opt out of information being sent to a personal address).”

“4510 (18% approx.) of students have opted out of contacting their personal email address.  This for us shows a very healthy level of active engagement from students in how they would prefer to be contacted with information about their studies in UCD with over 80% preferring to be contacted at their personal email address as well as their UCD address.”

Meyler also speculated that the section of the leaked class list was from the application InfoHub. “InfoHub provides each lecturer with a list of information about students in their class.  The mobile and personal email address appear on the ‘Extended Class List’.  This has been the case for some time and is unrelated to the new Student Email Policy which relates to sending of emails though the Targeted Communications System.”

While the June 2015 change in Communications policy may be entirely distinct from the increased availability and usage of students’ personal email addresses as a point of contact for lecturers, it is clear many students may be unaware of the extent Blackboard and other applications can be used to track and log their activity. The example of the increased ability to inspect and monitor student’s online activity by lecturers is a further step into the privacy of one’s online presence. The unease and perturbing affect the availability of this information may evoke in students is it seems an expense of the expanding web of data collected and utilised by organisations and institutions like UCD in the modern day.


  • Jack Power, Politics & Innovation Editor
    This Article originally appeared in Volume 29, Issue 9. Published February 29th 2016.

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