The oncoming train

I was almost finished with the roughed out versions of three courses in Canvas, looking toward summer, waiting for the campus installation to open so I can upload them and tinker.

It’s taken me months.

So today I pick up my phone, which I do not use in the profligate way experienced by most Americans, to see how they look on the Canvas app.

None of my images were there.

Now, we’re not just talking a few images. We’re talking 16 images on the Home page, one for each week, in a grid. The same week’s image on the week’s intro page, images to demonstrate many pages in learning units, about 12-15 images in each weekly lecture. They were all broken.

When I switched to my mobile browser, they were all there. I contacted support. He guessed that it could be because my images are all linked from my outside server, all http (not https). I know the difference because I can only embed things from my server if I use the https format. But I had no idea there was a problem displaying images, because they all display just fine in any browser.

But not in the Canvas app. The helper explained that all the browsers are going SSL anyway, so really everything needed to be https. We’re talking hundreds of hours of work, changing every link in hundreds of pages, quizzes, discussions, learning units, all of which have my images. I asked about global search and replace? in a site? No. In a course? No. On a page, for goshsakes? No.

The light at the end of my tunnel had become an oncoming train of work. If I didn’t do it, every course that rolled over in future semesters would similarly not be https, and students won’t see the images in the app.

I began. Several hours copying home pages, search and replace, pasting back in. But single images on single pages were much harder, and mind-deadening. I’m not actually sure I can do this. I considered ways to do it, by week or by item type. I considered making a chart. I considered paying someone else to do it.  I considered early retirement.

I’m still considering. Reasons for doing it include
a. students can use the app on their phones to take the class
b. some day we’re all going over to the encrypted web, which is really what all this is about

Trouble is, I’ve never, ever thought taking a class on your phone was a good idea. Of course, there is the tablet problem. They’re big phones. But although I saw a lot of tablets in the classroom when they first came out, now there are fewer. Laptops seem to be coming back. Gosh knows what they use at home.

Gosh knows what they’ll do when their browsers won’t show them non-secure pages. And how will they post images in my class? This finally explains why students complained they couldn’t see other students’ images in posts on their phones. My whole pedagogy down the drain.

Do I take all this time? I was about to start a research project I really want to do. Do I do link changes slowly over the next several semesters, a constant task hanging over my head? Do I avoid it and hope the encrypted web goes the way of all those programs I built things in, the many that died off after I did so much work? After all, the folks saying we’re all going SSL are the ones who’ll make money off this closing of the open web.

My professional activity survey results came in today, the one where colleagues say what they think of me. One wrote that I am “not afraid of hard work”.

I’m not. But this is ridiculous.

Lisa’s Top 10 Tips for Canvas

Now that I’ve experienced conversion (including full immersion if not a blinding experience of insight), I offer my tips:

1) Use the calendar, even if just for you

The calendar is drag and drop. You can leave everything without a due date, then set them in the Calendar by opening up the “undated” items menu on the right, and drag them in. Default due time is 11:59 pm, but you can change it.

Also, adding events to the Calendar makes it possible to put ungraded things on the schedule. The most important of these for me is “Begin Week x” so that students know each week starts on Monday after Sunday deadlines.

Notice that everything with a deadline is listed on the syllabus page – this makes a good check once you’ve done the calendar.

You can also export the calendar to Google Calendar and other programs.

2) Use the modules, even if just for you

Modules can organize content, but they also make every item look like it’s of equal weight, so I make it invisible in the menu. But I use it to:

a. lock each week until I want it to open
b. make sure that students complete every item for the week
c. import from a “base course” I set up on the free Canvas – the assignments I have that every class does are created there as modules, which I then import and adjust to the class using the Modules page

3) Don’t embed much

Canvas allows embedding if your page is https, but it doesn’t like to do it and it may look awful. Although I love embedding, it’s actually better to link out even though that grey button is so ugly.p

The exception would be web pages you’ve made yourself, that reside on a secure server, and that don’t have width or height settings. My Help page is one of these, so I embed it.

4) Use small nicknames for graded items

The gradebook is not good yet (they’re working on it). You may only view graded items in order of due date, or type of assignment. If you have a lot of assignments, the gradebook scrolls out of sight pretty quickly. If you use short names at the beginning for each assignment (“WAI Writing Assignment I”), then you can drag the columns smaller and see the big picture much better.

5) Use an “end page” for each module

If you are using Modules (whether or not the student can see them), the last item in a module with always have a “Next” button going to the next page, the first page of the next Module. Students won’t realize they’re done with the module unless you put a page that says something like, “Congratulations for finishing Week 2! If you click Next, you’ll go to Week 3.”

6) Put Announcements at the top

Yes, they get emailed to students and can be accessed through the “Announcements” link on the menu. I get rid of this link, and use the new Setting for the course to have the Announcements show at the top of the Home page.

7) Use rubrics

Although Speed Grader isn’t speedy, it handles rubrics well, and can speed up grading. The trick is to make sure to edit your rubric after you’ve made it, so that you can set each assignment to be graded using the rubric.

8) Let students know how to see comments and rubrics

This is not intuitive. They get assignment submission comments sent to them, but can easily miss them. Similarly, the rubric is available when they do an assignment, but they can miss that too. They are usually interested only when they’ve got a grade, so show them how to access comments and the rubric from their Grades.

9) Think a bit about mobile

I don’t always follow this myself – I do tell them they should only use mobile to check grades and assignments, but not to submit things. However, when creating Pages, consider using percentages instead of absolute width and height to make sure the content will shrink to be seen on a phone.

10) Understand the Syllabus page

It has on it a place at the top to add your syllabus (I embed mine as pdf), but the other two elements you can’t remove are the list of all assignments, and the list of weights for each assignment category. This means that you don’t need to add these yourself to your own syllabus.

Special thanks to Robert Kelley and Sean Davis – I learned about the calendar and end page idea from them!

Violating my Precepts

Straight from the “if you can’t change your mind, how do you know you have one?” department, I am writing an early American history course that violates many of the precepts I have been teaching to online instructors for the last 15 years.

Don’t rely on outside material

No, I have not gone over the the Dark Side and course cartridges. But in trying to avoid my same old thing (writing out and recording lectures with images), I am instead creating custom segments of Films on Demand videos. I even plan to use some as discussion prompts. If anything happens to Films on Demand, I’m sunk. I have consulted with our library specialist, who says it’s stable – that’s certainly more of a guarantee than, say, something on YouTube.

Create all your own stuff

Nope, I’m not. I’m relying on a textbook and sources I put together, a few lectures from me, and my own connecting text on we pages. But a lot of the “meat” is created by other historians instead, those with actual studios and lighting and funding and doctorates.

Don’t create long video lectures

Done it, 30 minutes on the Salem Witch Trials using Screenflow. And it’s not actually that good.

Don’t create discussions where the main goal is to discuss

Doing it, creating two-level discussions where they respond emotionally to a video prompt falsely encouraging two sides, then leading them deeper, as I used to do in my old old method from 2007 (an eternity in internet years).

Don’t forget it’s college, not high school

I’m creating an extra credit assignment that has them use a colonial cookbook to make something from their family and share video/photos. And we’re gonna discuss things like whether slavery was wrong and whether the South had a right to secede (they’ll be chewing on the edge of their playpens).

Have them create something meaningful that’s important to you

I planned to do this – I really did. I even told Laurel Thatcher Ulrich I was going to do it, stealing her idea from Tangible Things. But after hours of gathering bookmarks with specific search terms to make sure that students really use primary sources from the colonial era, I have had second thoughts. This is probably from seeing the inevitable 19th century romantic paintings being posted as “primary sources” for the Salem Witch Trials, the Boston Tea Party, GW crossing the Delaware, and other 17th and 18th century events.

This last I’ll think about some more.

But thus I go forth, violating my precepts with equanimity if not actual common sense.

An American historian in England: Blenheim

Blenheim Palace was where I learned to hate Capability Brown, and the aristocracy generally.

I never meant to have a bias against the aristocracy. I am a firm supporter of King Charles I, and have little tolerance for Roundheads. I have friends who are republicans, but I’ve never overcome my fascination with royalty. Those times when the royalty and aristocrats join forces with the lowest social groups are some of the most interesting in history. We’re seeing it again now in the U.S….but I digress.

A day out from Oxford to somewhere with gardens – that was my goal. And I’m a fan of Winston Churchill and his American mother, so I thought it would be nice to see his house. And of course everyone said it was so beautiful, you must go. So I got on a bus heading north and I went.

They were setting up for some huge event when I got there. The path from the bus stop was hugely long, and obviously intended for vehicles. I had to insert myself bodily in front of a car to purchase a ticket at the booth. Then more walking across crunchy gravel, but there was no entry on that side, so pedestrians had to walk around. The gardens were open first (I’d tried to get there first thing in the morning – I despise crowds), so I went for a walk.

It all seemed more than ridiculously grand. The palace from the courtyard looked like a classical temple, built to the Gods of Marlborough. It wasn’t just fancy or large or ostentatious or bold. It was religious. The columns, the pediments, the statuary – all seemed to portray worship rather than just grandeur and wealth. And they’d built it themselves, of course. The land and its ruined manor may have been a gift for services rendered by the 1st Duke, but the money Queen Anne gave him went to Sir John Vanbrugh to build this monstrosity, presumably approved by the Duke himself.

I stood in the short line to enter the gardens, then tried to enjoy the lovely boathouse by the lake, the gentle creaking of the boats. “George Charles and Lily Warren Duke and Duchess of Marlborough” was actually carved onto the building, as if they didn’t already own the whole lake and everything you could see. Did they think someone would stumble upon it and wonder who built it?

The long walk from the bus stop The Temple of the Marlboroughs

I continued through the grounds, which were huge. I came upon The Cascade, with an explanatory sign saying that Capability Brown had been commissioned to build it in 1764 by the 4th Duke. He had dammed the river to created the lake, and wanted an audible water feature to conceal the dam and give pleasure to the family, because they could hear it before they got there to see it. It was unsafe enough that in 2009 it had to be restored to meet the requirement of the Reservoirs Act.

The Duck of Marlborough The Cascade

Capability Brown is known throughout England for his landscapes, which were supposedly designed to look “natural”. Naturalism was a trend in which Brown was a bit ahead of his time – the Romantics would pick it up in the 19th century. I understand that an extraordinary amount of artificiality is necessary to make something look natural, but miles of rolling green landscape punctuated by a Cascade that would obviously not occur in the landscape by itself didn’t seem natural. Nor did the circular rose garden I walked even longer to find, placed to be discovered among the trees. The sheer amount of work to mow the lawns must be amazing. I was impressed by the amount of funding required to both do this and keep it like this, but I was unimpressed by the design. In its sheer immensity it was as classical and formal as many places with which the landscaper hoped to avoid comparison. Or perhaps I’ve been reading too much Ruskin…

I went into the house, but was not about to buy a ticket to see certain rooms, and many of the ground floor exhibit rooms were mobbed with people. The indoor statuary, the large collection of Chinese knick-knacks, the furnishings, seemed inelegant and overblown, but by then my attitude may have affected what I was seeing. I stopped by the gift shop on my way out and was surprised, oddly, that it was full of overpriced garden goods and pillows and things to make your home look like Blenheim.

The Foyer The Gift Shop

I have, romantically, always appreciated the faded grandeur of the aristocracy, and felt sorry for them, saddled with grand houses that can not make money in an age without landed wealth. Blenheim wasn’t like that, or was frantically trying to avoid it by hiring itself out for events (not only was the entire courtyard filled with chairs by the time I left, but there was a film crew interviewing someone on the terrace). But as I wandered the grounds I kept thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if this were available to the people? For everyone (especially those who actually like Capability Brown) to enjoy as part of the community? Shouldn’t this much ostentation be critiqued rather than celebrated? Perhaps I’m turning into a republican after all.

Calendrically speaking

I have always been a big fan of paper calendars. But when it comes to teaching, there are many things I need to put on a calendar that are the same from semester to semester. My solution recently has been creating a spreadsheet calendar, putting in these recurring items (grade primary sources, grade Writing Assignment III, etc), then printing it out and writing in the dates.

After almost three decades working with Microsoft products, I could not figure out how to get the pages to print correctly.

Why do I need such a calendar, when the LMS has its own calendar? For the first time since Blackboard days, I will be teaching in three different systems: MiraCosta’s Canvas (two classes), MiraCosta’s Moodle (four classes), and free Canvas (one class). This is how I will transition from Moodle to Canvas over the next 18 months.

The Canvas and Moodle calendars, plus my own grading calendar, would need to be in the same place to do this electronically. So today I used the URL from the Canvas and Moodle calendars, and put them into Google’s calendar, then added my grading tasks.

Both LMSs, unfortunately, export the full calendar (all classes), not each class – this is a problem because Google imports them all as one calendar, with all tasks in the same color regardless of which class it is. I wanted a separate Google calendar for each class. Luckily, I was able to solve this for Canvas by exporting each course’s calendar from Student View, as recommended by Chris Long in the Canvas Community. There is no way to do this for Moodle, but it didn’t matter, because both sections are of the same class and on the same calendar.

Now I have all tasks in one place, accessible on my phone or on computer.

I’ve never not used a paper calendar of some kind (yes, I know, call me steampunky), so we’ll see how it goes.

Canvas But Cool: Embedding Announcements

I hope to start a series of posts here on things I’m doing in Canvas, but that are cool anyway. Some will be workarounds, some ideas for making things look better, some techniques born out of utter frustration.

None will be as brilliant as what Laura Gibbs is doing at the University of Oklahoma  – she’s got LOL Cats rotating through her Canvas pages using a cool javascript. But her work inspires me and encourages me to find things that are Canvas…But Cool.

My first concerns Announcements. In Moodle (many of my posts will start “In Moodle”, an approach dreaded by many in the Canvas Community) I could just paste Announcements in at the top of the main page, and copy or adapt them into Latest News for instant emailing to all. In Canvas, the Announcements page is decidedly a separate thing. If I don’t want announcements to be the main Home page, they won’t be obvious except by email or other notifications.

But I don’t want to post twice, once in Announcements and once by editing the Home Page. I want the Announcements to dynamically appear on the Home page, where I want them to. So I followed the wonderful instructions posted halfway down this page at the Canvas Community (I’d love to link directly to the post, but you can’t do that there), posted by Sharmaine Regisford with thanks to others.

Instructions:

1. First, post an Announcement in your class (I just did a welcome message).

2. Grab the feed URL for the announcements by going to the Announcements page and right-clicking on the RSS symbol (it won’t be there if you didn’t post a first Announcement).

The URL should end with .atom.

3. Go to FeedWind at http://feed.mikle.com.

4. In the spot, paste in the feed URL.

5. Choose your settings. I like 1 feed height, scrollbar on, autoscroll off, text-only, max length 132 characters.

6. Grab the regular code from the right side, not the iframe code.

7. Start a new text document on your computer and paste the code.

8. Save the file as .html.  

9. Go to Canvas and open Files. Upload the .html file you just created to your Canvas course files. Once it’s there, mouse over the name of it to find the document number – write it down somewhere.

10. Go to the page where you want the Announcements to appear. Switch to HTML editor.

11. Paste this in:

<iframe title=”Course Announcements” src=”/courses/#######/files/#########/download” width=”100%” height=”112″></iframe>

In this example the first ####### is your course number and the second ######### is the file number.

The course number is in the URL of your Canvas course:

So for this example, that would be:

<iframe title=”Course Announcements” src=”/courses/6660/files/57294/download” width=”100%” height=”112″></iframe>

The result is an iframe on your page that will always show the most recent announcement (so long as you chose that on the settings at FeedWind).

Update: As of this week, Canvas provides the option to add announcements to the top of your home page. Not as pretty, but it works: