Against Canvas (and other things)

If at any point the Powers That Be at Baylor order me to use Canvas, I ... might. Or I might quit. But barring such an order, I certainly won’t do it. There are two major reasons why.

The first and lesser reason is that Canvas is a vast, bloated code behemoth. The only way Canvas can work as a university-wide LMS (Learning Management System, a telling phrase) is to have enough features and plug-ins to be adaptable to pretty much any course environment. But in order for the ed-tech (education technology) company that owns Canvas to make money, they have to focus their attention on the really big classes, the 300-person lecture-based classes, usually for first-year students — because if Canvas doesn’t work smoothly for those, no university will spend the tens of thousands, over the long term hundreds of thousands of dollars, on the product. But then the features that might work better for seminars like ours get developed late and awkwardly bolted on, and never work properly. All humanities courses are second-class citizens in the ed-tech world.

Even with all the features and plugins, Canvas presumes certain ways of organizing classes that might not be universal, just typical. And if (like me) you’re an atypical user, you have to choose between constantly fighting with the system or gradually doing more and more things the way Canvas wants you to do them. This, by the way, is why it’s never true to say that technologies are neutral and what matters is how you use them: every technology without exception has affordances, certain actions that it makes easy, and other actions that it makes difficult or impossible. A technology whose affordances run contrary to your convictions can rob you of your independence — and any technology deployed on the scale of Canvas will inevitably do that. It will turn every teacher into an obedient Canvas-user. I don’t want to be an obedient Canvas-user.

The second and even more important reason I don’t use Canvas is because of my concerns about its harvesting of our data. I support, though not without reservations, the system of political economy that we call capitalism, but I strongly protest against what Shoshana Zuboff, in one of the most important books of recent years, calls “surveillance capitalism.” Canvas sucks up all our data and does with it more-or-less whatever it wants, and I don’t approve of that as an individual user and also because I think it is inconsistent with the character of real education. We’re here to learn together, not to provide data for a company to monetize. I don't think Baylor should use Canvas, or Turnitin for that matter — Turnitin is even more corrupt than Canvas — but that's an argument that falls on the deafest of ears.

As an alternative to surveillance-capitalist systems like Canvas, I try to use open-source software and, even when that’s not possible, software that works on the open web. I want to create an environment in which we, you and I together, are the ones who own and control what the ed-tech companies think of as our data but what I think of as our human conversation. This may be a quixotic quest on my part, given the power and extent of the ed-tech powerhouses, but I'm gonna keep pursuing it anyway.

These matters are very important to me, for reasons I tried to explain, a couple of years ago, in an essay called “Tending the Digital Commons: A Small Ethics toward the Future.” You can also learn from that essay why you should, and how you can, create an online presence that doesn’t require you to submit to the harvesting of your data by the surveillance capitalists.

If you would like to know more about the issues at stake here, you could try reading Zuboff’s book, but it’s really long. Another possibility would be to look at the work of Audrey Watters, who has for many years been the smartest and fiercest critic of the ed-tech industry. I would also recommend this lengthy report on schools and privacy by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

And if you’d like to know more about how surveillance capitalism harvests your data, please read this article.

ALSO: As you might expect, now that you know my attitude towards Canvas, I am not a fan of ChatGPT and other chatbots based on the secretive and possibly illegal harvesting of other people’s data. (Canvas actually uses your data, including your grades, to feed machine learning; they don’t openly admit it, but they probably sell your data to companies like the one that makes ChatGPT.) I don’t need to make a big deal out of this because, as far as I can tell, ChatGPT won’t help you cheat in my class any more effectively than any number of other alternatives, and because I give unusual assignments, the chatbots don’t yet know how to do them. When they figure it out I might have to get more belligerent, but for now I’ll just say this: Using chatbots to do your work for you, or write your song lyrics for you, or compose letters of condolence for you, or make a case to a judge for you — all things that people have tried to do, with often catastrophic results — is very much like choosing to addict yourself to opioids. Chatbots are fentanyl for the mind, and don’t you forget it.