On the first day of school this Fall, there was a noticeable sense of unease as students filed into their classrooms. Professors watched students walk through lecture hall doors, eyes darting nervously around the classroom, desperately searching for a familiar face. The lucky ones would breathe a sigh of relief as they recognized their usual faculty crew sitting across the room. The not-so-lucky ones would shuffle to a seat near the fringes and strategically consider how to make friends for notes. Gone were the days when a mass email to the class would suffice. The classlist is now gone, and the room has been reduced to a contest of survival of the fittest.
In the life of every student, whether in U0 to U4, undergraduate or graduate, there comes a time in which the myCourses classlist feature has been a lifesaver. The infamous classlist used to provide McGill students with the names, emails, and—for those particularly keen users—the icon images of their classmates, professors, and teaching assistants. Whether students sought notes in a class where they had no friends, partners for a project, or were just logging in before the first day of school to creep their future classmates—the classlist function had their back. Until suddenly, it didn’t.
At the beginning of the Fall 2016 term, this tab was noticeably absent on the myCourses home page. In its wake lies a simple instant message button, devoid of any contacts. Although the new instant message function is still in its developing stages, students left without their classmates’ information have asked themselves who will answer their message into the abyss—God? The ether? Suzanne Fortier?
“The basic reason for the removal of class lists is that there are in Quebec strong laws concerning confidentiality of student information,” Anna Walsh, associate registrar at Enrolment Services, said. “[This] would cover the information available on class lists. Unfortunately, there were also cases in which there were concerns that class lists, including email addresses, were at risk of being forwarded to commercial parties for inappropriate use.”
The Act respecting Access to documents held by public bodies and the Protection of personal information, implemented in 1982, holds all Quebec universities responsible for keeping student information confidential. When word reached the Enrolment Services that students emails were being distributed for profit, they were forced to consider the lawfulness of the classlist function.
“I think there was an awareness that someone was making these lists available to off-campus users, but as with a lot of things at McGill, the reporting came to us from a lot of different people, and students have an absolute right to confidentiality about their academic records,” Walsh said. “The laws in Quebec state that no one should be aware of what [students] are registered in, unless it’s necessary—for example their advisors—and, in the case of the class lists, the responsibility came on to the university to prove why someone would need to know a student’s registration.”
Some students feel the lack of class lists not only prevents them from accessing notes and academic collaboration, but creates an unwelcoming classroom environment in that it discourages students from getting to know their peers.
“Part of the whole university learning experience is that the classroom is a community, and you can’t foster that if everyone is anonymous,” Kimberly Richter, U3 Psychology, said. “We learn as much from each other as we do from the professors, especially in the Arts undergraduate community where so many of our classes are discussion-based.”
Richter believes that the class lists were essential for students trying to connect with each other, particularly at McGill, where large classes often leave students feeling isolated from their peers.
“In my case, all of my psychology classes are, like, 400 people, so methodologically you can’t really know everyone,” Richter said. “You need the class lists to set yourself up with study buddies or forge a support system.”
Both university administration and enrolment services are very aware of the effect that confidentiality laws have on the classroom environment. However, when it becomes a matter of Quebec legislation, McGill administration’s hands are tied.
“I understand the frustration that some students must be facing in losing the convenience of having access to the class lists and email addresses in myCourses,” Walsh said. “[However,] it is McGill’s responsibility to ensure that student information is confidential. Not only are we governed by this law, but we recognize how important it is to protect the privacy and security of all students.”
The onus of connecting with classmates thus falls back on students. Gone are the days of mass emails sent the night before an exam, begging for notes due to a suspiciously ill-timed computer failure, and never again will an entire introductory class receive a message from a first-year student asking if anyone has seen the coffee mug they left in Leacock 132. Rather, students will be forced to meet their classmates, learn their names, and connect with them in real life before they do so virtually. Is this inconvenient? Yes, but if the case of the disappearing classlist function can be said to have a silver-lining, it is that students will be forced to interact face-to-face in order to get those coveted Friday morning lecture notes. Although this may seem like a daunting task to those students who have enjoyed the comfortable safety net of the class lists, maybe losing a little bit of our virtual connectedness is not an entirely bad thing.