Sometimes you gotta make something silly

Made with Blabberize to upload the image and animate the mouth, Google Translate to translate the French, Natural Reader preview to make the French voice, Snapz Pro to screencast record the audio (and Quicktime to stitch the audio sections together), Audacity to convert to mp3 for upload to Blabberize (yeah, I know, but Quicktime is faster for me), YouTube to upload and add English captions, HTML cc_load_policy=1 in embed code to force English captions to show.

Too much trouble not to make two:

Early adventures with H5P

I can’t remember how I found H5P, but it was probably when I was looking around for a substitute for Zaption.

Zaption allowed you to create interative video, forcing the student to do a short quiz or answer a question before continuing viewing. Several of my colleagues spent long hours creating Zaption videos. Then Zaption went under.

People lost their work. I don’t like losing my work. That’s why all my lectures, and anything I don’t want to rewrite, is both on my own hard drive and on the web server I rent on Lunarpages.

H5P looks like a startup based on open source. It can create interactive elements like video, flashcards, etc. Right now it works as a plugin for Drupal, Moodle and WordPress. Moodle is being sunsetted at our school and we never used Drupal. I know WordPress.

I installed a new WordPress blog on my server, using their never-fails 5 Minute Installation.

[Side note: Starting a new WordPress blog is a cure for creative teaching block, and the blues. Just as a Cajun recipe starts with “first, make a roux”, I start with “first, create a database for WordPress”.]

I installed the H5P plugin, using their instructions.  Here I got stuck, as my WordPress kept telling me the file was too big to load. I kept messing around with php.ini files until I gave up and created a new one inside my public_html folder.

I created a basic interactive video from my introduction for my students. You can see it here.

You have to see it there because, as I discovered, I cannot embed this post into Canvas. [Nightmares start “first, know that this will not work in Canvas”.] So I stopped creating H5P stuff until I realized that Canvas does not deserve to host certain things within its iframe. Since I had already begun to link out my lectures so my Javascript mini-quizzes would work, I figured I can link out whatever. Students will get used to it, because it’s hard to embed things and most instructors won’t bother with SSL and all that crap.

Since I’ll be using WordPress in this way, I used the Atahualpa theme and deleted all widgets, adding my log in and admin to the footer. I will link to the post, of course, but don’t want students clicking around and getting confused.

The LMS and the End of Information Literacy

Having worked with the Canvas system deeply for several months, and then worked closely with an online student who needed help at various levels, I have concluded that the underlying philosophy of Canvas (and OEI in California) is to remove the information literacy requirement for online learning.

Canvas’ defaults encourage a simplistic, linear course with step-by-step navigation for all tasks. The features for instructors to customize extensively, have students collaborate, and make grading meaningful, are conspicuously missing. When requested in the community, such features meet with success mainly when they adhere to the basic philosophy of simplicity.

computerizedlearningThe implication is that any depth must exist within the instructional materials accessed through the system. At the top level, the environment in which the student must work, the danger of cognitive overload is mitigated by providing as few options as possible. It is a clear return to 4th grade “computerized learning”, the kind that takes place in a lab. Pupils sit at stations, and the software guides them step-by-step by pressing as few buttons as possible. With visual and touch-screen interfaces, this is now even easier. Complete a small task, get instant feedback, press ‘Next’.

The fact that such interfaces prevent branching, distributed, or complex learning is considered to be a feature, not a bug. All information is “chunked” for easy understanding and assessment.

Back in the early 1990s, we were all excited about the open web and its possibilities for the exploration of human information. We were able to look up things that had previously been inaccessible before, and we developed pedagogies designed to use that easy-to-access information. To do so meant designing our own pathways through the material, to help students turn their study into knowledge.

With the coming of the read-write web, it became possible for users to interact with the software in online spaces. IRC and other forms of synchronous chat had been available, but required some technical knowledge. Web-based interactions, which required little technical understanding, became simpler and easier to use. With the development of private web spaces like Facebook and Google, companies came to control the interfaces, simplifying even further what we needed to know to use the tools, and pruning the content we could access easily.

wikinoAlthough at first there had been plans to teach information literacy as a school requirement, this trend has tapered off because of such ease of use. In many places, information literacy is still articulated as a goal, but is not implemented in any meaningful way. The result has been students who have no idea what to type into Google when asked to find, for example, information about American imperialism in the late 19th century. We already are aware of the challenges of distinguishing between good and bad sources of information, and want students to distinguish between a scholarly source and a pop culture source. But instead of increasing skills, the fear of bad websites has led to banning certain things, through filters in grade schools and syllabus dictates in college. (When I encouraged my student to use Wikipedia to find primary sources, she was aghast, telling me it had been drilled into her head for years never to use Wikipedia for school.)

Increasing numbers of students have no conception of what constitutes a website, or a link, or a browser. With no understanding of how to navigate a complex web page or database, students have become unable to comfortably navigate a complex online course, regardless of the LMS. It is possible that only students with more sophisticated web skills are able to benefit from the learning pathways we design. As instructional designers remove more and more of our responsibility to construct these pathways ourselves, the “best practices” encourage computerized learning goals such as chunking, instant feedback, and tightly controlled pathways at the expense of discovery, integration and community.

While I would prefer, for the sake of our democratic society, a metacognitive awareness of the control exerted on us by our tools, I have to admit the temptation to follow the larger trend. We have successfully trained an entire generation not to think while using an electronic tool. We may no longer be able to expect them to do so for the sake of their education.

Related posts:

The Monsters of Canvas

Goya, The Sleep of Reason Begents Monsters (1798)

Francisco Goya, The Sleep of Reason Begets Monsters (1798)


We all know that in any system, there are things that go wrong or are difficult to use. We all know people who love their previous LMS, and will hate whatever they’re forced to change to. We all know that learning curves are something we need to ride, trying not to fall off. We journey on…

But occasionally a system begets monsters.

Here are some of the early monsters of Canvas, and the brutality committed to your hard work:

Code Stripping Beast – If Canvas doesn’t like your code, your Javascript or your HTML commenting, it strips it. Other LMSs do that too. But Canvas is monstrous in that it eats everything within your naive HTML commenting, deleting the content between the tags. There is no warning that it will do this.

Quiz Question Ogre  – If you change a question in a Question Bank, it does not change the questions in any quizzes you’ve created. You might not know this, and go blithely along thinking it has.

Disappearance Dragon – Things other than code mysteriously disappear. If you’ve created a page and linked it on other pages, and you change the page’s name, Canvas can no longer find the file. After a few minutes, neither can you.

Structural Cyclops – Canvas is myopic about its own structure. If you page through a Module using “Next”, which is clearly intended as the default navigation, Canvas does not understand when the Module is done. It just continues into the next Module with no warning, necessitating that you design some form of “Start of Week x” and “End of Week x” pages to alert students so they know they’re done.

Transport Troll – You cannot move select items from one Canvas course into another, like the rubric you just spent three hours developing, or those “End of Week x” pages you made for each week. You have to remake rubrics for each course until you have it set to be saved for just that course. (Update: if both courses are within the same Canvas install, you can import particular content from another course – just don’t every use Export unless you want the whole course, and beware of the Set-Up Siren!)

Set-up Siren – Canvas seduces you with the idea that it can import. But it cannot import individual items you need, like that quiz set you backed up from another LMS.  Without any warning (something like “if you import, everything you’ve done will be erased”), it wipes out everything except its own content when you import, despite the deceptive list of imports implying you can do it more than once.

I’m sure I will find more of these in my Odyssey, a journey in a ship with sails made of Canvas.

Bad tech – no donut

I normally offer students the chance to do revisions of assignments, but I won’t be able to do it anymore because Canvas makes it too difficult to grade individual items in a forum.

And really, the reason I have to grade so many revisions is that students don’t read the instructions carefully.

So I figure, hey, we spend so much time on how to display content online. How about concentrating on teaching them how to do process, how to demonstrate the skills in our student learning outcomes?

I do this some. I have several videos and tutorials on how to create historical themes. But that’s for the last few weeks of the class, as they head toward the final essay. I don’t have tutorials for how to create the writing assignments or post a source. Instead, I have instructions. And checklists. Lots of writing. They don’t read them. They just do the work they think they’re supposed to do, post it, get it graded by me, then re-do it.

So I’m thinking, interactive trails through the skills. Like a Moodle branched lessons, only for Canvas. Canvas’ advantage (there is one! this may be the only one!) is that you can block something (like an assignment) until they’ve done something else first (like a tutorial). Adaptive release. So let’s use that. I’ll make tutorials they have to do first, before they post.

I started with hp5, because I want something that’s on my server, not someone else’s. (Those who got burned painstakingly making interactive videos on Zaption know what I’m taking about.) I also didn’t want to make a bunch of Canvas-dependent page-quiz-page modules that won’t move from semester to semester. But hp5 only works in Drupal, Moodle (sniff), or WordPress.

I create a new WordPress blog, with the five minute setup. Set up my database and frantically search around for my db username. Install the hp5 plugin. Try to install the libraries for all the cool things h5p can do, but it told me I exceeded the max upload size. Oh, gosh, php.ini. Where did I put that thing? Doesn’t it go in wp-content? No…wp-admin. How many php.ini’s does it take to screw in a lightbulb? OK, got it. Uploaded libraries.

I open Interactive Video. I find the YouTube video I made for the start of class, and put that in. I create some little interactive things. OK so far.

So now it’s in a WordPress post. How to get it into Canvas? Try embed code on a page. Nope, it strips the Javascript, of course (according to h5p, I’d need to put it in the global javascript, but of course I don’t have that kind of access to the Canvas install).

Try as a link inside a module. It opens the thing really huge and you can’t resize it (that Javascript was for resizing, of course) or find the button because it’s below the screen space. Embed it in my own webpage with a set iframe size, then link to the page inside Canvas. Ugly. Makes you go all external.

Try making my own webpage SSL to make it stay inside the Canvas shell. No go. Shows a blank page no matter what. Even without the Javascript.

So after five hours, I’m at a dead end, because hp5, WordPress, SSL and Canvas won’t play nicely together.

Fun with YouTube: the pure embed

I like using YouTube clips for my classes, but I don’t like the clutter: links to other videos when it’s done playing, the title showing at the top, low quality. So I play with the embed code:

<iframe src=”//;vq=hd720&amp;showinfo=0″ width=”450″ height=”253″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen=”allowfullscreen”></iframe>

See what I’ve added after the video code, ending with the ?
rel=0 > YouTube adds this when you deselect the “show related videos” on the embed code

vq=hd720 > means to show it in maximum resolution or HQ if it has it

showinfo=0 > to get rid of the title showing at the top of the clip

That’s better.