How to safely implement non-vetted tools in your course

Thinking about using a non-vetted, third-party tool in your course? Give this post a read to ensure you are implementing these tools according to U of T's guidelines for third party tools and using our practical safety suggestions. 

What is the difference between vetted (U of T's Academic Toolbox) vs non-vetted (other Third-Party Tools)?

Vetted Tools: The Academic Toolbox comprises of tools that have been vetted for usability, pedagogical alignment, enterprise scalability, security, best practices and interoperability. Generally, the university has a formal agreement with these service providers. This typically manifests in an integration that passes information between the two systems (e.g. course rosters) and technical support for the tool. Several tools have already been implemented (see the list of EdTech tools in the toolbox) and several are on the list to be implemented (view submitted ideas). You can also submit your own idea!
Non-Vetted Tools: Third-party tools are unvetted systems that are not supported by the institution. They are not part of the Academic Toolbox, they are not supported by university staff, and their terms of service have not been reviewed via a risk assessment process. There are a lot of really new and cool ideas out there and some of them align really well with teaching goals. However, implementing them in classrooms should be done thoughtfully. It does not mean that you cannot implement these tools in your course, but that you are responsible to do these safely and for the right (pedagogical) reasons. 
Examples of vetted vs non-vetted tools:


What are some threats and challenges associated with non-vetted third-party tools?

A risk assessment (which not infallible) can help identify major flags in terms of service. We've seen companies that resell student data for profit, for example. It can also help to ensure a specific service agreement to ensure timely support and help to identify the robustness of a company (is it a one-person show or is it run by a team?). Areas of concern are:

  • Loss or mis-use of confidential and personal data - Some companies, especially companies that do not charge for their service, resell user data and information to third parties. This could be as simple as mailing lists or more insidiious like behaviour analysis or information shared on the site.
  • Unauthorized access to data from third-party apps - There is a chance that the tool you are using has agreements with other companies. For example, Facebook might purchase data from the smaller company or have analytic tools installed within that tool's website.
  • Public disclosure or loss of intellectual property, copyrights, etc. - Depending on how the user agreement is written, the company might "own" any content uploaded via the site. They could than re-sell or re-share this work without any repercussions.
  • Cancellation of service - Smaller companies are more volatile than larger ones. There's a chance that the service could be cancelled due to a company shut down, with little notice. Often smaller companies are driven by one person. This single point of failure could lead to big issues.
  • Lack of support - When you select a non-vetted tool, you are shouldering the support for that tool. Unlike the tools in the Academic Toolkbox, which are supported through office like the EdTech Office and ACT, non-vetted tools are supported by the vendor and there is no service level agreement with this companies for this support. Some are great; some are not.
  • Technological overload for faculty, TAs, and students - The more tools to learn and use, the most stress and confusion. More tools means more questions and an increased feeling of, "am I doing what I'm supposed to be doing right now?" It can lead to tool mis-use (posting questions in the wrong spot, not understanding how to participate and where, missing sessions, etc.). If each course uses two different tools, across a full course load, that's a lot of tools for students (and the rest of your teaching team) to learn.
  • Not integrated into Quercus - All use of the tool is manual, from linking it to your course, to updating student enrollment and use, to any data analysis or review you are doing with the tool.

When should I consider using a tool that is not part of the Academic Toolbox?

Although third-party teaching tools are not recommended for use in course (and discouraged as the primary learning environment), faculty members may still have a very good reason for considering using them. For example, what if they have a specific outcome in their course that requires a specific tool to achieve it? This might be the time where you'd invest in the extra work to implement a third-party or non-U of T vetted tool. 
Let's discuss the following scenarios and strategies to use when considering third-party tools, and how to reduce risk and ensure confidence while using third party tools:

Scenario 1: I am thinking about using a third-party tool.

Is there a tool already in the academic toolbox or elsewhere at U of T which supports your goals, that has been vetted for best practices?

Check the Academic and Collaborative Technology Office's current catalogue of educational technology tools and services supported at the University of Toronto. While the tool might not an exact match, if it is vetted, and if students are already familiar with using it, it might be more successfully implemented in your course. You could also talk to your Education Technology Office - we're be happy to help brainstorm how to accmplish your desired outcome and we're good at getting creative!

Do you have the time and skills to manually support this tool?

A major benefit of tools in the academic toolbox is that they have been integrated into Quercus. This usually manifests with single sign on (students do not have to create an account on the new tool) and some information passing via the grade centre. If the tool is not integrated, you will have to do all the application manangement (including enrollment management) on your own. This can add a lot of work to your workload if you are analyzing the data or need to upload it to Quercus for marking and/or sharing back to your students. For non-vetted tools, an opt out process should always be shared to your students and an alternate participation option should be provided for those who do not wish to use the non-authorized tool. These tools should not be used for any essential course information nor used for formal assessments.

How many other tools are you currently using in your course?

Application overload may bring confusion and added stress to students who have to navigate through Quercus applications and other virtual platforms. Minimizing the amount of technologies while still maximizing your learning goals is the key to decision making about tool use. Bear in mind also that for each course, students might be asked to learn other tools, contributing to tool overload and stress.

Scenario 2: I have decided to use a non-vetted tool.

If you have decided to use a non-vetted tool, please consider implementing the below strategies to ensure that your students are protected while using the tool and that you are confident that the tool is robust enough to use in a course environment.

Before the term begins 

  1. Contact the EdTech Office. We are not technology gatekeepers and will help you strategize to implement the tool in your course.
  2. Identify risks to implementing the tool. Is this a new company? Has it been used in other course environments? 
  3. Develop an alternate way to participate, other than the tool. These tools cannot be required and should not be part of your formal assessment plan. Does this alternate method provide an equal learning experience?
  4. Test the tool by building the activity or assessment in a test environment. You can request guest QQ accounts that you can use to fully simulate the student experience. Engage your teaching team, and seek their feedback about things that could use some instructions or support.
  5. Ensure that it is available for students that are geographically distributed. U of T is providing network access via the Alibaba Network Service for students in China. You can review their frequently asked questions (FAQ) page to see which domains are available via this network service. (Note: YouTube is not available via this service.)

Set up tool use in your course

  1. Don't share information that is deemed as highly sensitive (UTORids, student numbers, etc.) into the tool without entering a formal agreement with the provider (either yourself nor by asking your students to enter this information). Typically, this type of information is never logged directly with the tool; it is accessed via secure integration. Do not provide student information on behalf of your students; allow them to choose which information they provide to the tool.
  2. Monitor student activity. Set up a system to continuosly monitor and report concerns and issues. For example, are they being contacted by the tool? Many tools have invasive promotional campaigns that can make students (and others) uncomfortable in their aggressiveness.
  3. Instruct students to create new emails/account names for their accounts. You can ask them to use their given names, if important, or they can use aliases and submit these to you so that you know who each person is, behind the scenes. Accounts are usually compromised when an account/password combination is used on a less secure site, is cracked and saved, and then is reused on more secure sites.
  4. Remind students to use a unique password on for every login they create. Tell them not to use their Utoronto email/password; nor should they be directed to use their @mail.utoronto.ca email. If the tool is compromised, this is the most common way for passwords to be stolen. The last thing we want is to have an unsecure tool hacked and then to have all their UTORid accounts exposed.

Things to keep in mind

  1. An alternate participation option should be provided to students who do not wish to use the non-authorized tool.
  2. Inform students about use of the third-party tool in the course syllabus.  Communicate why you are using the tool and how you've mitigated any security issues.
  3. It is recommend that instructors do not assign grades, or assign only a nominal grade amount for participation if using a third-party system. A method to obtain marks via an alternate submission option should also be provided.
  4. Do not ask students to share their personal information and identities (e.g. through social media profiles) with the entire class. Not everyone is comfortable with blurring personal and professional personas.

You can also read further on the University of Toronto Guidelines regarding use of Cloud/Third-Party technologies

How can I get my third-party application integrated to UofT's Academic Toolbox?


Implementing non-vetted tools into your course can be done effectively and safely, but it requires a bit more thought and decision making than using the tools provided in the Academic Toolbox. If you have success with a tool, we'd love to hear about it and are available to help you with the official submission of your tool to the Toolbox. 


Article Category: Best Practices