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FERPA Guidelines for Merged Courses in Canvas

OVERVIEW (Purpose)

Click here for the PDF version of this manual

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects the privacy of a student’s education record, which includes access to student information of course sections they are not enrolled in. This means that students should not be able to identify students in other course sections, unless they physically meet in the same classroom at the same time. When different course sections are merged in Canvas, students may be able to see other students who are enrolled in a different section. Therefore, merging class sections in Canvas can violate students’ right to privacy by sharing protected information.

In order to continue to provide faculty the option of merging their courses, NIC has created guidelines on how to make a merged course FERPA compliant.

These instructions do not apply to truly cross-listed courses (such as AIST/ANTH courses or ENGL 101/101P) that are designated cross-listed in the course catalog

Global & Course Level Settings Modifications

For security reasons, several Settings have been modified at the administration and course levels of Canvas:

  • The Chat function has been disabled in all Canvas courses.
  • Students are prevented from creating Discussions in the Course Discussions Page
  • Student access to the People tab has been turned off.
  • The Conferences tool is hidden from the course navigation menu
  • Students have been restricted to be able to only view and interact with students in their own section.

When students are limited to be able to only view and interact with students in their own sections students cannot:

  • Invite Students from other Sections into Conferences using the Conference Tool
  • See the Canvas Profile of other users, including their instructor’s.
  • Send messages to students not in their section through the Canvas Inbox.

Canvas Inbox

Although students cannot directly message students in sections outside of their own, if an instructor sends a message to all students in the course, students are able to Reply-All and send messages to all students, even those outside their section. In order to prevent this, instructors are required to ensure that all messages sent to students using the Canvas Inbox do not allow students to view recipients not in their section. When composing a message to all students in the course at once you must check the box that says “Send an individual message to each recipient.” This will prevent students from seeing the names of other students who also received the message, and prevent them from being able to Reply-All.

Image of the Compose Message screen in canvas with the checkbox selected for send an individual message to each recipient

FERPA Guidelines for Optional Course Tools

These guidelines apply only for the following course tools: Discussions, Collaborations, Group Assignments, Peer Reviews, and Conferences.


Instructors can create separate Groups for each section in a merged course to prevent interactions between students. Once section Groups have been created, they can be utilized in Discussions, Collaborations, and Group Assignments.

1. Click on People in the Course Navigation Menu. The link may be disabled for students, but is still accessible.

Image of the canvas course navigation menu with the People item selected

2. Create a Group Set by clicking the + Group Set button on the right side of the People page.

Image of the people page in canvas with an arrow pointing to the +Group Set button

3.  In the Create Group Set box, create a Group Set Name. Since Students see all of their groups from all their courses in one Groups tab in Canvas it is important to include both a section and course name in the group title to prevent confusion or overlap (i.e. a student being in “Group 1” in two different courses and being unsure which Group 1 is for which course).

Image showing the create group set window in canvas with Group set name and group structure areas highlighted

4. Under Group Structure, enter the number of groups you will need to create. If you have two sections merged, you’ll split students into two groups, three sections, three groups, etc. Use the “Require group members to be in the same section” option to have Canvas automatically sort students to groups by section, then click Save to create your groups.

Students who are added to a course after the instructor has set up section groups will need to manually add those students to the correct section groups using the Groups page


 Despite limiting students to only be able to view and interact with students in their own section, when an instructor creates a Discussion in the main Discussion area in the course, students will be able to see the other students who  reply to that discussion, even if they are in other sections. Instructors have two options to create discussions that will be viewable to only students within one section. 

Option 1: The instructor may create separate discussions for each section, which will create a separate assignment and differentiated assignment columns in the gradebook.

Option 2: The instructor can create a discussion assigned to groups, which will create a single assignment, and a single assignment column in the gradebook.

Simply adding a separate due date for each section on the same discussion will not prevent students from seeing the replies from students not in their section.

Instructions for Option 1

To create a separate discussion for each section, you will create two separate Graded Discussions on the main Discussion page, use the Duplicate function to Duplicate the discussion, and then assign the duplicated discussion to a different section. This will create two separate assignments that are differentiated assignments in the gradebook. 

1.Use the + Discussion button on the Discussions page to create a new discussion post.

Image of the discussions page in Canvas

2.After you have created your Discussion prompt, check the “Graded” check box under Options to make it a graded assignment.

Image of the options menu after creating a discussion prompt with a checkbox selected next to the graded option

3.Assign the discussion to one Course Section, then select Save.

Image of a warning from Canvas that not all sections have been assigned this discussion message

4.  To create a duplicate discussion to assign to a different section, return to the Discussions page. Select the three-dot menu icon        next to the Discussion post, then Duplicate.

Image of the discussions page.  On the right hand side the three dot menu is open and the option for duplicate highlighted
The duplicated discussion will appear on the Discussions page with “copy” appended to the name of the duplicated discussion title. It will be unpublished, and not assigned to any section.

5.  Open the duplicated discussion, then select Edit to assign the discussion to a different course section.

6.  Select Save.

Repeat Steps 4-6 until you’ve created a separate discussion for each section in the merged course.

Instructions for Option 2

For students, Group Discussions appear only in the Groups section of the course and not in the main Discussion area. However, you still create Group Discussions on the main Discussions page. To create a Group Discussion, you will first need to create your Groups as detailed earlier in this document, and then create a Graded Group Discussion.

1.Click on the Discussions link in the Course Navigation Menu.

Image of the Course Navigation Menu with the Discussions option highlighted

2.Click the + Discussion button.

Image of the Canvas Discussion page with the +Discussion button highlighted

3.Check the “This is a Group Discussion” check box, then select your previously created Group Set.

Group discussion options box with this is a group discussion checkbox selected and the dropdown menu set to Section Groups

Canvas will then create a separate Discussion for each group within the selected Group Set that students will be able to access by navigating to their Group Home Page in your course. 


Conferences in Canvas use a web conferencing platform called BigBlueButton, which contains a chat space for students to interact that cannot be disabled or restricted by section. Instructors who want to use Conferences in Merged Courses using BigBlueButton must invite each section to separate conferences by checking each individual student’s name within that course section during the conference creation. Additionally, due to the limitations of the software, more than one conference cannot be held concurrently (e.g. you cannot be in two conference rooms at the same time). 


Collaborations use Google Docs or Office 365 to create collaborative documents editable by any student who has access to the course. Instructors who want to use Collaborations in Merged Courses must create separate collaborative documents for each section by using the Groups selection option. Collaborations require that Groups are set up prior to the creation of the collaborative document.

Group Assignments

When instructors create Group Assignments they can use previously created groups, create new Groups just for one assignment using the Group Assignment option when creating new Assignments.

1.Click on the Assignments link in the Course Navigation Menu to open the Assignments page.


2.Select the + Assignment button to add a new Assignment.

Image of the Canvas assignments window with the +Assignment button highlighted

Turn Any Existing Assignment Into a Group Assignment Already have assignments in your course from before it was merged? Any assignment already in Canvas can be edited to become a Group Assignment.

3.Check the “This is a Group Assignment” box, select New Group Category.

Canvas group assignment window options with this is a group assignment checkbox selected and new group category highlighted

In the pop up window, name the Group Set, set the number of groups, and then check “Require group members to be in the same section.”

An image of the Canvas create group set with group set name highlighted.  Under group structure the number of groups is highlighted and an arrow points to the checkbox for require group members to be in the same section.

Peer Reviews

There is no way to assign Peer Reviews by groups or section. Therefore, instructors must check the “Peer Reviews Appear Anonymously” box, or use the “Manually Assign Peer Reviews,” making sure to not assign peer reviews to students not in the same section. Before deciding which option to use, Instructors should know that the Anonymous Peer Review option does not allow students to use the DocViewer to leave annotations on the document itself.
For more information, visit North Idaho College’s FERPA policy.

Zoom Settings for Merged Courses

FERPA law protects student privacy including information that may be given over Zoom such as the student’s name which normally would fall under “directory information” that is fine to share but in a merged course this also would elude to or reveal which section the student is in which DOES NOT fall under “directory information”. Therefore, it is necessary to follow the following recommendations when using Zoom in a merged course.

Hold a separate Zoom meeting for each section. Luckily, there is a relatively simple way to do this in Canvas. This process will start the same as mentioned earlier in this document by creating one Zoom meeting then, there will be some additional steps as outline below.

1.  Follow the instructions for scheduling a Zoom meeting on pages 3-6 of the Zoom Integration Guide, IN ADDITION follow these steps:

2.  Click the Course Calendar (or the Global Calendar) link located on the course Home page.

Canvas image for accessing the course calendar with an arrow pointing at the left calendar menu in the course navigation and an arrow pointing to view calendar on the left navigation

3.  On the Calendar, locate the meeting you just created and click on it.

An image of the canvas calendar and an arrow pointing to an appointment created in the previous step of the document

4.  A pop-up will appear, click Edit.

An image showing the pop up information for a selected item in the Canvas Calendar showing general meeting information

5.  A pop-up will appear, click More Options.

Canvas view of editing an event with an arrow pointing to more options at the bottom.

6.  A new screen will appear. Check the box to “Use a different date for each section” and enter either a different date and/or time for each section in your course. (The meetings can be on the same day at a different time.)

An image showing the editor page for an event.  An arrow points to the checkbox to be selected for Use a different date for each section and arrows indicating that you should use different days and times for each section

7.Click Update Event.

This process will create 2 (or more depending on how many sections are in the course) separate sessions with individual links for each section. It will also automatically place the students in the appropriate session. Students from Section 1 will NOT be able to join the session for Section 2 and vice versa. Students will only see their sections link on their calendar and to-do lists and will not see the other sections link. Make sure that these links are NOT shared in an all course announcement or email to all students in order to keep them secure.

Cloud Recordings for Separate Sections If the process above was used to create separate sessions for each section AND each session was recorded to the Cloud, a separate recording will be available for each session. Instructors should take precaution to share the correct password associated with the session to the appropriate course section.  In other words, Do not share the password for the Course

Please refer to the IT Help Desk, Zoom Manual for instructions on how to set up a meeting with these tools. Please also refer to the IT Help Desk article, Zoom – Security Tips for how to ensure safety and security in a Zoom meeting.

Revised 6/8/2020