Incipience and books

I am at the North American Conference on British Studies in Vancouver, Canada. The first day, at Capilano Suspension Bridge Park (a vastly overpriced way to breathe among the trees), I saw bald eagles in the wild. Apparently they’ve only been here a couple of weeks, for the salmon. Funny to first see ones national bird in the wild in another nation.

Among the other brilliant presentations I saw today was one on H. G. Wells as futurist, and Sarah Cole (author of a new book) talked about how Wells used terror and war. She focused on The War in the Air and The Invisible Man, and among other things talked about incipience. Wells built suspense through his pauses, as New York waited to be attacked by German airships. His invisible man also assumes that the only option for his invisibility is to do horrible things. It is the impending doom, the feeling sportscaster Charlie Steiner talks about when you start the 8th inning and the Dodgers are behind by one, that aspect of modernity that Cole referenced as a highlight of Paul K. Saint-Amour’s Tense Future, that “pre-traumatic stress disorder”. The great sin to Wells, she said, was lack of foresight.

Certainly it is popular to cast Wells as a prophet — it was even in his lifetime. But the period of his life I’m studying doesn’t have that. He has confidence, but it is focused on the present, on the importance of teaching science, not his later stories about man’s response to science.

Then this evening I went to UBC for a book launch for Sheldon Goldfarb’s book of musings on Sherlock Holmes. He had written a script for him to ask questions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, played by an actor. It was an interesting way to discuss, in dialogue form, some of the themes from the Holmes stories. He implied that Holmes was needed in a time of waning faith, and used Doyle to express the idea that where he (Goldfarb) saw meaning in so many characters being named Arthur, or so many women in the stories being strong and smart, Doyle himself was just writing stories to make money.

That tied the day together. Wells turned to fiction to try to make money, because a friend told him he was working too hard to become a great essayist, and should just write made-up stories. It was easier and more lucrative. In the Doyle character’s whining about how no one looks at his many other books. it became clear that the popular books are what make the money.

But I do understand incipience. It’s what happened as soon as I entered MacLeod’s bookstore this afternoon. Books piled high, on the ground, leaning on bursting shelves. A feeling of impending doom. There it was, an early edition of Wells’ Certain Personal Matters. And more. The proprieter noted my conference name tag, and asked what I studied. I told him, and he showed me more in the science section and then, checking to make sure the till was minded, led me through a Staff Only door into the basement. (Yes, I will follow a strange man into a locked basement if books are involved.) He waved at the back wall. “Elizabethan back in the corner,” he said. “so left of that earlier, to the right…Victorian should be about here” and left me there. Only hunger and the need to get to UBC for Holmes prevented total bankruptcy.

Sustained argument

The Economist‘s column Johnson recently wrote about the extent to which artificial intelligence can compose prose, and claimed we need not fear the “Writernator”.

The reason? Because during an experiment:

Each sentence was fine on its own; remarkably, three or four back to back could stay on topic, apparently cohering. But machines are aeons away from being able to recreate rhetorical and argumentative flow across paragraphs and pages.

Well, most of my students can’t do that either.

So while the article was trying to reassure writers that they need not fear losing their jobs to a computer, I saw quite another angle, a trail of thought that goes something like this:

Computers cannot create sustained arguments. Neither can most of my students. And only the best journalism seems to bother. Educated people can both follow and create sustained arguments. But to whom are they writing? We have many voters and public figures who are anti-intellectual, and only interested in the realms of fear, emotional expression, and personal identity. They have no interest in sustained argument. The media reflect this, with the emphasis on factoids. Articles have gotten shorter, even in journals like The Atlantic. Computers can’t do it, and computer programming is a reflection of ourselves. Perhaps the very idea of sustained argument needs to be defended. But how can one defend it except with sustained argument, and a reliance on the very intellectualism being increasingly rejected?

If I had read the article 20 years ago, I might have nodded along, not because computers weren’t writing then, but because I felt that sustained argument was a norm. It’s perfectly obvious to me why it needs to be preserved, as obvious as the preservation of free speech, democracy, respect for the opinions of others. These things aren’t obvious anymore.

Today on BBC4’s PM program, Evan Davis reported on Jacob Rees-Mogg’s insensitive statement that he would have got out of the Grenfell fire by ignoring the orders of the fire authority to stay in the burning building. He interviewed Andrew Bridgen, Conservative MP of North West Leicestershire:

Davis: Do you think he meant to say that he thought he would not have stayed put?

Bridgen: That’s what he meant to say…

Davis: And that in a way is exactly what people object to, which is he’s in effect saying, I wouldn’t have died, because I would be cleverer than the people who took the fire brigade’s advice?

Bridgen (Sigh.) But we want very clever people running the country, don’t we, Evan?

Well, I’m not sure people do. In fact, I’m pretty sure many people don’t see why having educated people run things is a good idea. They think that educated people run things to the detriment of uneducated people, and sometimes that is true.

People, Bridgen noted, tend to defer to authority, as they did in the case of the fire.

When people trust these authorities and the authorities fail, there is popular anger. At some point people will ask from whence does this authority derive? And one can say “from your votes”, but they feel that isn’t completely true. The response is to elect uneducated populists.

Intellectualism, and education itself, may have a much tougher advertising campaign to run than we suppose. The old norms are suspect, and assumed ideas need a cogent (or, better, non-intellectual) defense. I don’t think saving writers from computer-generated text is quite going to do that.





To remember when writing tests

H. G. Wells on examiners:

In many cases they live, as it were, in the border land of knowledge, and have forgotten the paths that led them there. They ask for conclusions that may be learnt by heart, and not for evidence of an intellectual process. Like worthy medieval householders, staff and scallop shell are evidence enough to them of a pilgrimage. In all these cases the examiners understand the subject of examination well enough, but the object not all.

“On the True Lever of Education”
The Journal of Education, vol XIV, no 279, pp 525-527, 1 October 1892

Use these words in a paragraph

I remember this exercise from grade school. We were given a list of terms, and told to use them in a paragraph. Not define them, but use them.

If I’d done the reading, this could go several ways. If I’d understood the overall point of what I had read, the first sentence of the paragraph was easy, and then I could assemble the terms, sort of, even if I didn’t know what they all meant. It was like a deductive method. If I knew what they all meant but not how they went together, I could still write something, and if the sentences followed each other logically, I was good. Let’s call this the inductive method.

If I hadn’t done the reading, of course, I was f***ed.

Necessity being the mother of invention, I had a hole in my syllabus when I dropped my History of England textbook. Well, textbook is a bit of a misnomer. It was a brilliant atlas, deeply loved (by me, anyway) but hard to obtain. With the book gone, what remains are only my lectures and the primary sources for readings. Of course, that’s quite a bit. My lectures are fairly complete. More importantly, the sources are items like Magna Carta and More’s Utopia. I want them understood, so I’ve put them in Perusall for annotation. But group annotations are a bit deceptive — it’s entirely possible for the individual student to have misunderstood an entire document.

So since I have no intention of writing multiple-choice quizzes (ick), I instead have created Document Paragraphs. The instructions say:

While I haven’t actually said “use these terms in a paragraph”, that’s what they do. And I can very quickly tell what they understood and what they didn’t. It also helps align the Persuall annotations (which I call Read and Discuss) with something they must produce. It scores an automatic 2 points, but for the first several weeks I’m very careful about giving them feedback to improve, if needed.

So just a note to thank all those teachers I had for “use these terms in a paragraph”.



Top Ten List for Online Pedagogy

Over the years, I’ve done quite a bit with online pedagogy, and now we’ve come to a time when people are getting degrees in it, but I still can’t point faculty to a single resource where they can learn about it quickly. So here I’m going to list what I (and possibly I alone) think are the top ten tips for online pedagogy:

1. Emphasize your strengths

In our Program for Online Teaching workshops, the first thing we did was ask participants to think about what they did well, and what they enjoyed, in their on-site classroom. We discovered a few things.

Good lecturers not only love to lecture, but they do it well. They tend to be organized and enthusiastic, even charismatic. At a time when lecture gets a bad rap because it isn’t considered “active learning”, a good lecturer inspires students to become interested in the subject, and provides a professional role model.

Those who love class discussion, or student-led activities, revel in the chaos that can ensue, and are experts at facilitating. Their classrooms tended to be dynamic.

Faculty who like variety tend to do several different things during a class session, and keep the energy going by transitioning to different tasks, connecting them all together.

Any of these approaches (and many more) can be effective online. The question should always be how the technology can be made to do what you do well as a teacher. So a lecturer might focus on creating narrated slides or video lectures. Someone who loves class discussion might work on creating dynamic forums and alternative programs for discussion (see #4 below). Those who mix it up might create many different tasks each week.

2. Work on your weaknesses

If your lecturing isn’t so good, try making short mini-lecture videos or narrated slides for particular issues or problems in your class. This can be particularly effective for areas where students have trouble, covering those things that never seem to be understood completely in class.

If discussion is your bugaboo, look at your motives for doing it. Do you want discussion to have students review content? Then create more of a posting board, and don’t worry too much if they don’t “talk” to each other. Do you want discussion to be a place where students interact? Then design for social interaction instead of deploying a typical “one post, two reply” format. Do you want to use discussion for students to create something together? Consider ditching the discussion board for something more collaborative, like Google Docs (keeping in mind #4 below), or use it for posting things that everyone will use.

If you’re not technologically savvy, but would love to add video clips and animated images to your class, set aside some professional development time for yourself, and start searching the web for how-to videos and free programs to try.

3. Organize effectively

Sometimes fancified as “course design”, course organization may be the most important factor in your online class. If students cannot find their way around, they may get frustrated, which prevents learning. On the other hand, if it’s too obvious where you click-click-click, students become task-focused, jumping through the hoops. This may be exactly what you want, but it may not.

Think about breadth versus depth. A “broad” organization has many course menu items, but fewer clicks to material as a result. A “deep” organization has very few main menu items, but lots of clicks to go deeper into activities and pages. Think which is more appropriate for your class.

Be aware that the Learning Management System can work against your best intentions. For example, I prefer a simple organization, with few main course items, one main page with the weeks listed, then the information and activity links on those pages. But Canvas keeps adding more and more to the “super” Canvas menu, just to the left of my class menu, making it cluttered.

Although newspapers may seem antiquated, print journalism has useful norms. For example, despite the flattening of much information on the internet, the size of headings may still be helpful. Also, think above and below the fold. Students understand they have to scroll to get all the information, but they still look at what’s at the top first. Remember that journalistic pyramid — the important information should be at the top (and the email corollary: people read their inbox, not their email).

All this goes double when creating instructions. If your instructions are lengthy, then the activity isn’t intuitive enough, and should be rethought.

4. Use only one cool tool

You just discovered VoiceThread, and are thrilled at the possibilities. Or Pinterest – wouldn’t that be a great learning tool? How about Flipgrid? Students could do discussion that way instead. Or Google Docs – they could collaborate.

Learning Management Systems, even when they integrate their tools (Canvas uses LTIs, some of which integrate with the Gradebook and Assignments), require a lot of back-end upkeep. They need codes and updates, and you need to learn how the tool works and be able to answer student questions. If the tool you like doesn’t integrate with the LMS, then it will require students to have their own username and password. It may be difficult for you to track their progress.

So my rule if you are using an LMS is: One Cool Tool.

This may seem like a practical or technological consideration, but it is also pedagogical. There’s a reason you like a particular tool — it does something for your students that no other tool can do. So the question is how important that something is to the class itself. Does this tool enable students to do something significant to your discipline, in a way that is somehow easier or better? Then it deserves to take center stage, even to have the course built around it.

For example, my cool tool at the moment is Perusall, a group annotation program for documents. Although I use discussion boards for students to post things, the social interaction and collaborative learning take place in Perusall. It’s also where the reading comprehension happens, where students get help from each other understanding the reading. Deep reading is an important goal for me. Adding some other cool tool might dilute this one.

5. Assess responsibly

Depending on external pressures, it may be necessary to assess vast quantities of student work. But quite a lot can probably be done as “formative” assessment, quizzes or tests that are low-stakes (or even no points) but help build knowledge for larger projects. Assessment, even if it takes place separately, can be integrated into learning.

Again, it’s important to design assessments around your own pedagogical goals. If you want fact retention, repeated quizzes (or quizzes with retakes) may be desirable. If you want application of content, essays or visual projects with rubrics might work better. If you want everything to build up to one big project, there are ways to organize that with signpost assessments along the way.

Prompt feedback is more important, I think, in an online class than in the classroom. Students do not like the feeling they’ve just thrown their hard work into the void. If there are assessments that test facts, they should show the score immediately, and the answers revealed as soon after the deadline as feasible. The more individualized the assignment is, the more you need to provide feedback beyond the score. This can be done with rubrics, if you’re good at writing rubrics (see #2 above if you’re not). Individual feedback can be sped up with templates (where you have a text file of common responses you can copy and paste). The template approach used to be in vogue, but is now discouraged, because it seems to not be individualized. But my sense is that if the student work has patterns, there is no reason why the feedback shouldn’t also.

6. Encourage exploration

There are few subjects that cannot benefit from having the student pursue their own interests, even if in only a small way.

One way online teachers do this is to offer choices, either between or within assignments. Students can gather their own sources, visuals, or information, either with guidance or from an instructor-prepared list. They can choose topics for projects.

For my classes, students contribute cited visual sources to a discussion board, then use them to write their papers. This gives those who want to pursue their own interests that opportunity, and those who don’t can write based on all the sources available.

7. Act strict but be lenient

The syllabus may be strict on deadlines, not because one is dictatorial, but because we are professionals. Medical appointments, court dates, church weddings — one cannot miss these deadlines. If you do, you must pay, because the professionals involved have other things they could be doing . Despite over a century of arguing over whether teaching is a profession or a semi-profession, I think that indicating strict deadlines implies your time is important. I am always strict in front of the group.

However, students’ time is often beyond their control. At community college, they usually have family and job commitments. And at every college, unexpected things arise: illness, family emergencies, accidents. Being flexible with the individual is appropriate, to whatever extent you think reasonable. Accepting late work should be accompanied with an understanding that it is a favor of your professional time. This does not mean adjudicating excuses. I pretty much accept any request as coming from a responsible adult, and grant what I think is appropriate time, usually with a “just this once” caveat.

So I’m a dictator on the syllabus, and a marshmallow when an individual asks me a favor.

8. Use visuals

Pictures in online courses should not be decoration, but rather integral to either the navigation of the class or to understanding the information the class contains. They can also be an alternative to text, particularly in testing or collaborative work. Proximity is good: an image next to text describing it, a diagram inside the quiz question.

Not everyone is great with visuals (see #2), but screens and screens of text are mind-deadening. It’s death by scrolling. And I promise no one will read it (see #3).

9. Don’t get all professional

Resources posted for students need not look like they were printed at Cengage or filmed in Hollywood. Instructor presence is best expressed by, if I may exaggerate, you in your pajamas in ugly blue lighting with your dog barking in the background. Immediacy and humanity are more important than production values. If you have a great idea because you just read the students’ posts and it led you in some bizarre direction in your ideas, fire up the webcam and let them know.

Similarly, one of the most effective text documents I’ve seen is an instructor’s uploaded article with her own notes scribbled in the margins. Learning is active, so if our resources are too, that’s OK.

10. Be true to your discipline and transparent in your teaching

The biggest objection to teaching online is that the faculty member feels they cannot do justice to their discipline in the online environment. So this really ties back to #1 — no professor who feels this way should ever be forced to teach online, because it’s likely they are right: that professor cannot be true to their discipline in an online class.

But we don’t always have a choice, and some of us must teach online to have employment. So know that it is possible to be true to your discipline online, by focusing on the aspects that are essential to you as a practitioner and scholar.

So again, deciding what’s important to you must determine the design. You’re a facts person, you want drill and drill and test, because that’s how you teach best. Go for it. Spend the time to make fantastic test banks, with images or diagrams too if appropriate. Set timers for everything if your method demands it. But let the students know why that’s the method, why it’s successful, why you want them to be successful. At the other extreme, you may want exploration, for students to do things themselves, to lead the way. Create collaborative spaces, get them blogging, whatever it is that fulfills your goal. And let them know why you’re doing that, your philosophy of constructivism or whatever it is that drives your pedagogy.

So that’s it. Twenty years of teaching online distilled into a top ten list. 🙂


Facts are discovered.

Knowledge is created.

Honor in defeat

In all my years of online teaching (and it’s over 20, mind) I have never had a worse start to the semester. My inbox is receiving student messages at the rate of about 3 per hour, and has done the entire first week. These messages are, as I’ve mentioned before, mostly related to not being able to find things. Many indicate that they haven’t read my announcements, so all have required individual responses.

This is heart-breaking for me, and not because of the time suck. My navigation in my courses has always been my pride. Students frequently mention on evaluations the ease of getting around the course, the knowledge of knowing what is due and when, the way the class hangs together. One Canvas feature, the To-Do list on the app, has put an end to all of that.

When the LMS undermines the integrity of my courses, it puts me in a bind. The disaggregation of content creates larger problems, as I’ve noted. I am being defeated by Canvas. The question is whether I can snatch honor from defeat.

The solutions I articulated last time, the new rules, are proving to be difficult to implement in Canvas.

For example, it is clear that proximity of content to task is crucial when students engage class material through disparate tasks. Reading must be together with a quiz or writing on that reading. Self-reported items must have the self-reported task alongside the submission. So what’s the problem?

The To-Do Lists

Canvas makes this much more difficult than it has to be, because the To-Do list itself is a fickle beast. Over the last 48 hours, I have learned a lot about it. There are, it turns out, several To-Do lists. One appears when you open the Home page of the course itself (let’s call this List A):

It includes Calendar events, so it would tell students everything they need. Unfortunately, it is useless, since the problem is that students no longer go to the course Home page in the first place.

Another To-Do list is on the new, improved Student Dashboard (List B). For some reason, it prefaces everything with the words, “Turn in”:

This is on the right side of what is basically a home page for the entire Canvas system for the college, and the Canvas folks don’t seem to understand that students don’t go there either. One reason is that it’s utterly cluttered with college announcements. It also does not include Calendar events.

Here is what students see in the tool they’ve suddenly started to use now that all their MiraCosta classes are in Canvas, the aggregated To-Do list on their phone in the app (List C). It also uses “Turn in”:

No Calendar events, no ungraded assignments. Here are the other things they can see on their phone:

The Inbox (Messages) Notifications (the default is Announcements and Message) Events (which shows only those manually added to the calendar) Dashboard with tiles

My student account is set as a student in five of my classes, so imagine all these from different classes, in different colors.

As far as I can tell, almost all of the students now only use the To-Do list in the app, List C. The questions I’ve received indicate that few use the Notifications, which is where all my Announcements would appear. These don’t appear on the To-Do list, implying that reading them is not something one needs To Do.

The Attempt to Solve This

Since they cannot see either the week’s readings or my lectures in the To-Do list, surely the trick was to get these to appear.

Option 1: Add everything to the Calendar as an event on a date

This would be easiest, but it didn’t work, because the app To-Do list does not show Calendar events.

Option 2: Make a page for each reading and lecture and check the box “Add to student to-do list”

I thought I could make a page for each reading and each lecture, then click the “Add to student to-do list” box, and they would be visible!

But it turns out this is not the case. Things added using the “Add to student to-do list” box only appear on the Course home page list (List A) or the Student Dashboard (List B), not the app To-Do list.

Option 3: Make readings into 0-point assignments or ungraded quizzes or surveys

No dice. It turns out nothing will appear on the To-Do list in the app unless it is a graded discussion, assignment, or quiz.

So that leaves me with only one option: make everything graded.

Grading and ungrading

No way am I grading every time they do a reading or view a lecture. Out of the question.

So the other possibility: ungrading.

I have never been a true believer in ungrading, or in the honor system. I allow it for some items, but not for others, and for those self-reported items I not infrequently discover plagiarism, dishonesty, or inferior work. The point of the system is to give feedback on this work, which I can do only up to a point.

The way to force ungraded tasks to appear on the app To-Do list is to adapt Laura Gibbs’ brilliant self-reporting quizzes and embed the material or link it in the instructions to that quiz.

So each lecture link would go to something like this:

For readings, I could adapt the trick I’ve been using to bring proximity to readings and homework assignments: use iframes to embed the reading in the instructions of the quiz. Then each reading link will go to something like this:

For six classes, needless to say, this will take a huge amount of time.

Now some people may say, “But Lisa, what happens when Canvas changes everything? It worries me that you might have to do all this work again!” As the Scottish policeman said in Casino Royale (1967), when it worried James Bond that he was a French police officer but had a Scots accent, “Aye, it worras me too.”

The Justification

As Jeff Goldblum’s character noted in The Big Chill (1983), it is impossible to go through the day without a juicy justification — it’s more important than sex.

So here I will defend a system in which I don’t believe: the honor system. Clearly, if everything that is assigned becomes a self-graded or auto-graded quiz, we’re on the honor system automatically.

I return to Stephen Downes’ idea of education: that it is the role of professors to model and demonstrate, and the role of students to practice and reflect. I think, frankly, that reflection is dead when the content and tasks are disaggregated. So what’s left is practice. The doing of history is what’s important, and I will grade it when they do it: writing assignments will always be graded by me. The rest will be (ungraded) practice, for points.

This will create an environment of trust (um….ok) and responsibility for learning (yes indeedy). [Suppressing cynicism will become my new watchword. Whiskey may become important.]

But wait, there’s more!

Possible further changes, then, after the zillions of hours making quizzes for the unquizzable, would include:

1) changing from weighted categories to points accumulation, because there’s no point in weighting anything

2) returning to Modules (which I just happily jettisoned) to force task completion

3) using Modules as the ugly home page to eliminate beautifying a Home page no one uses

4) eliminating the weekly pages I decided to keep instead of using Modules, which would entail losing all my introductory videos because it’s stupid to put a 2-minute Voki on a quiz

5) eliminating all multiple-choice quizzes because (a) I get too many student questions about them, (b) it isn’t really practicing to do them, and (c) Canvas can’t properly handle test banks anyway and I’m always having to fix them

6) vigorous use of James Jones’ brilliant due dates spreadsheet to make sure everything is dated properly

7) sorting out the remaining problems: getting students to the Information page (which is a FAQ they need), and forcing them to return to a Discussion that they think is completed after only one post

Thomas Jones Barker, Death of Captain Nolan (1855)

Disaggregated knowledge and the LMS

The advantage of teaching so many classes online is that I see patterns in student messages that lead me into larger issues. This one is HUGE. It’s not just about Canvas. It’s about the decline of Western education as we know it.

I stopped using Modules last term, because they “flattened” the elements of my class, making it appear as though each were of equal worth. Modules also forced students along a linear path of that week’s work.

I instead chose to keep my weekly pages, which list the things we do each week and when they’re due. I use bold for the higher-stakes assignments. Canvas automatically puts my due dates on the Calendar, and thus populates the students’ To-Do and Upcoming lists, which appear on the main (Home) page.

Over the years, more and more classes have switched to Canvas, so the average full-time student at MiraCosta would have four classes in a term. What the Canvas Calendar does is acts like any other calendar — it lists the tasks for each day or each week or each month. On the student Canvas app, it shows the To-Do list for each week from all their classes.

Sound convenient? It is convenient in the same way that bottled water is convenient, and that credit cards are convenient. It undermines traditional relationships globally, and creates a sea change.

Yes, I probably sound crazy saying that the Canvas Calendar represents the decline of Western education as we know it. But bear with me.

This week, the first week of class, I have had an unusual number of students message me saying they missed the assignment because they didn’t “see” it. By probing this, I’ve discovered that they mean it isn’t appearing in the To-Do list. This is regardless of the fact that I did check to the box to add these items to the To-Do list (I”ll check that technical issue later). I quickly responded with the yellow highlighted note on the Home page you see below, but I still was getting apology messages for missing work they couldn’t tell they needed to do.

This morrning a student wrote me saying she was sorry she missed it, but the primary source assignment wasn’t on the To-Do list. I sent a student my screenshot in Student View, showing that the assignment was indeed appearing on the list.


She replied with two screenshots where it wasn’t there. Here’s the one she sent from her phone:

And it suddenly hit me. The process she’s accessing, the To-Do List, lists all the tasks for all the classes a student takes. It thus disaggregates the courses entirely. She’s no longer taking my History class, or a Sociology class. She’s just doing work, clicking links, crossing things off a list.

By showing the student the tasks for the day, for all three of her classes, Canvas has not only reasserted its contention that all learning tasks are equivalent, but that they are tasks unrelated to anything else. They are just stuff the student needs to complete.

Most scholars think in terms of their field, then teachers think in terms of wrapping elements together to encourage understanding. On my weekly page, you can see that the tasks for the week relate to each other. They are all part of that week’s topic. They follow sequentially: first post the primary source (forum), then check it for points (quiz). My design has instantly become irrelevant.

My practical response today has been to go through all my classes, adding the weekly page to the To-Do list, as the first thing that week. It will be tricker to do this for my lectures and other non-graded or linked items, since Canvas doesn’t “see” those at all. I will have to link each on a Page and put the Page on the To-Do list, forcing students to click twice to get to it. This will take all weekend.

But my holistic response is much more important. The units we teach are no longer units — they contain no flow or contiguity when seen as disparate tasks. If students access all academic work as a flat list of tasks, there is no connection between assignments. There is no connection, for example, between Reading 3 and Quiz 3. Assign the Reading for Monday. Assign the Reading Quiz for Wednesday, and it isn’t clear they relate to each other.

This explains the other messages I’m receiving. “I see we have a Lecture quiz due, but what is that on?” At first I smirked and thought, “The Lecture, of course!” But now I realize they don’t see the Lecture unless they’re on the weekly page. “The Calendar says the second post is due – where do I post?” You can’t put two due dates for the same discussion forum. They don’t know where to return to in order to post.

In an age when we worry that students don’t read whole books, we have something here that is much worse. How can they do sequential and scaffolded learning when the system won’t let you scaffold?

It changes the rules utterly. Here are the “new” rules (some have been good practice for awhile):

1. Assessment and responses must appear with the content.

Quiz 3, in other words, must contain Reading 3 within it. You can’t have a link for Reading 3 on Monday and Quiz 3 on Wednesday.

Note here that group text annotation, of the kind I’m using in Perusall, is ideal. The content and the activity are inextricably linked.

2. Double-level discussion may not work.

In Canvas, to have students return to a discussion, it will be necessary to link to that same discussion in the Calendar later in the week.

One alternative will be to have the entire class inside a discussion forum. This won’t work in Canvas because it doesn’t allow real threads, but might work in other systems.

3. Navigation schemes are useless.

Obviously, my own weekly page navigation, even if it’s on the To-Do list, is worked against forcefully by Canvas.

Some would say return to Modules. But Canvas’ own Modules are irrelevant, except for adaptive release, or to force task order. Students won’t use the Modules page either, even if it’s the main page. They may never see it.

This also applies to the Home page itself, especially a nice one. It is now obsolete. All we’ve learned about making the Home page welcoming is irrelevant.

Again, the new rules (and I’m sure there will be more as we all think about it) are the result of the disaggregation of content and tasks. This is both an effect of the technology, and a cause of the disaggregation of knowledge. We’d better plan accordingly.

The internet’s not for learning?

I confess to being depressed by a summer article in The Economist, “The second half of humanity is joining the internet” (June 6). In the spirit of Thorstein Veblen’s critique, poorer parts of the world are getting on the internet*, mostly though mobile phones. And even fewer people there than in the developed world are using this online time to learn things.

The Economist article did not specifically count online courses, only “education information/services”, but the use is pretty low. And it likely includes looking up something on Wikipedia so you can win a game, or checking the weather.

People everywhere do the same thing: use the internet mostly for “timepass” – passing the time by communicating with friends and family, playing games, and watching videos. I’m not saying these things don’t cause learning. They do. But the purpose is entertainment and emotional satisfaction, not becoming an educated citizen.

It just serves to remind me how truly wide the gulf is between those who value education for its long-term benefits, and those who just want to pass the time. Are the people who get satisfaction from intellectual challenges rare? If so, will the smartphones make them even more rare?

Because that’s the crux of the issue. When all this internet-y, web-by stuff began, we educators were all excited. Vast libraries of information! Massive open online classes! Anyone can learn anything from anywhere!

I’m not anti-entertainment. I’m a huge classic movie fan, and I watch a lot of TV programs where one character calls another “Inspector”. I read modern novels just for fun, or to get to sleep. I’m not always working, always teaching, or always learning.

But I am again reminded of the old Zits cartoon:

The internet relies on huge servers, and uses tons of resources. It only seems “clean”. The mobile phones contain rare earths, the servers are so hot they need to be in the Arctic, the power plants chug away so we can have long power strips full of our charging device plugs. It’s odd to make that sacrifice just so that people can play Fortnite from anywhere.

Perhaps our goals were too utopian. The article points out that our vision of the subsistence farmer checking weather on his phone to save his crop doesn’t really happen. But why shouldn’t everyone use the internet for whatever they like? And can’t we learn wonderful things on our own? Some little boy somewhere is watching a Zeffirelli clip on YouTube and is inspired to become a great set designer. Some little girl is watching the US women’s soccer team and will be a great player. Is formal education a more important use of technology?

After two decades online, however, I am saddened that there hasn’t been a little more educational uptake and a little less “Whasup?”.


* I used to be very careful to distinguish the web from the internet — the internet is the entire online structure, while the web is the world wide web accessed through a browser. The recent dominance of the “app” and sites requiring log-in is closing the web, and has become the most-used aspect of the internet other than email.

Wells and the moon shot

On the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, I picked up my copy of H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon (1901), and found these paragraphs:

. . . Then with a click the window flew open. I fell clumsily upon hands and face, and saw for a moment between my black extended fingers our mother earth—a planet in a downward sky.
   We were still very near—Cavor told me the distance was perhaps eight hundred miles and the huge terrestrial disc filled all heaven. But already it was plain to see that the world was a globe. The land below us was in twilight and vague, but westward the fast gray stretches of the Atlantic shone like molten silver under the receding day. I think I recognised the cloud-dimmed coast-lines of France and Spain and the south of England, and then, with a click, the shutter closed again, and I found myself in a state of extraordinary confusion sliding slowly over the smooth glass.
   When at last things settled themselves in my mind again, it seemed quite beyond question that the moon was “down” and under my feet, and that the earth was somewhere away on the level of the horizon—the earth that had been “down” to me and my kindred since the beginning of things.