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.

Actually teaching tolerance

There are currently discussions (a recent one at Hybrid Pedagogy comes to mind ) about being open with our students about ourselves in order to encourage tolerance, particularly of sexuality. To me, this is part of a much larger issue about values and responsibilities, and it is broadening the list of trends with which I, respectfully, disagree.

The sexuality issue connects with similar lines of “equity” that I’ve been struggling with in recent years. According to contemporary cultural norms, I have to be X to understand what it’s like to experience discrimination about being X. I receive social messages implying that whatever labels I apply to myself, or that society applies to me, should be made public to encourage tolerance (except that tolerance is now a bad word because it implies denigrating the ideas we’re supposed to be tolerant of). My own ideas are dismissed because I am what the culture now calls “privileged” — I am told I don’t understand, because my understanding is not the same as someone else’s.

Lately, people I admire try to tell me what to do and think. I am told that All Lives Matter means that Black Lives Don’t, that I can’t understand anything because I’m white, or female, or middle class, or whatever sexual orientation, or religion, or culture, that other people think I am. I was told by Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright that I couldn’t support Bernie Sanders because I am female and he isn’t, and that I’m betraying my sex to not like Hillary Clinton.

A year ago, I saw a sticker on an office window at my college. It was triangular and featured a rainbow design with  “Safe Space” written on it. Thinking I understood (this is a safe space to be who you are), I asked how to get one, and was told to attend a training. So I did. And during that training, I was told that as a teacher it is my job to shut down intolerance in the classroom. That if anyone says anything anti-X (gay, trans, etc) I am to indicate that is inappropriate, and that people in the room might be X and be offended. I was further told that I should say that such views won’t be allowed in my class.

I raised my hand and pointed out that I want the bigot to speak, that I want him or her in my office speaking their mind. How else could I talk to them and convince them of tolerance? I was laughed at. People thought I was joking. Instructors whom I respect and like chuckled at my comment. At the end of the session, I thanked them and refused the sticker, saying I don’t stand for these values the way they are being told to me. I bought a rainbow flag and put it on my office window.

I have always been a proponent of teaching tolerance. The question is, how do we do it? Does revealing our sexuality, or religion, or culture, to our class teach tolerance and appreciation of difference? Does shutting down diverse views, especially those we find abhorrent, correct a problem? Or does it just use our authority, and our supposed role model status, to enforce a particular view of what constitutes tolerance?

My preference is for modeling tolerance rather than “teaching” it. I refuse to shut down conversation in my classroom, because my goal is critical thinking as well as an open mind and freedom of speech. My own speech tends to be egalitarian, and I always point out that what I say is my interpretation of the historical and scholarly sources. When I speak about anyone whom mainstream culture might consider unusual, I talk about them as if they aren’t unusual at all. And as a historian, I’m interested in understanding diverse points of view, because conflicts among them create not only our history, but our perception of our history.

I didn’t realize until recently that the trends I oppose are connected (call me naïve). I have long been against trigger warnings, except for blanket ones (i.e. you will encounter disturbing ideas because college is supposed to do that). I oppose adding my “pronoun” to my professional signature, because I believe such things divide us all even more, into smaller and smaller stultifying categories. I think that safe spaces, trigger warnings, shutting down the opposition, and latter-day political correctness are all manifestations of limitations on speech and academic freedom. These ideas about equity and safety were intended to do right and be inclusive, but in practice have become exclusionary.

Until recently I’ve felt quite alone in this position, as formal manifestations of the popular viewpoint emerge, fill up my college email, and are financed by my tax dollars. This week, however, The Atlantic published this article on How Trigger Warnings Silence Religious Students. Don’t be fooled by the title – it isn’t so much about religious students as about the appreciation of all points of view, not just the current set of what is accepted. And now I read that the University of Chicago agrees, and is telling its entering freshmen there will be no trigger warnings, that they will be exposed to, and expected to engage, diverse ideas.

And for those who think I’m a nihilist, I’m not. This is not cultural relativism. I don’t believe that all points of view have equal value, or that ethics are arbitrary. Rather, refusing to disallow objectionable speech is putting ethics into the context of civil discourse, rather than promoting a set of norms that can be used to exclude people. I agree with those who say that the extremities of our current national discourse are caused, in some part, by dismissing other people’s points of view as stupid, and by liberals (myself included) being smug.  It is entirely possible that the refusal to discuss objectionable ideas has led to the increase in the frequency and volume of those ideas. If we do not value civil discourse and actual inclusivity, we undermine the most precious values of our civilization.

I can only hope that my views will be…tolerated.

Grade work, not students

It seems like a technology thing, but it isn’t. Of Moodle, Blackboard, and Canvas, only Moodle lets you grade posts, not students.

Bb and Canvas both let you use rubrics/ratings to grade discussions, but both want to grade by student rather than post. Canvas even forces you into one grade per student, regardless of how often they posted.

This is a perfect example of bad pedagogy embedded in the technology. It’s based on the idea of grading students, because students get the grades.

But I don’t grade students — I grade work. In forums for posting primary sources, I rate each source, using qualitative scales — primary source fulfilled, live link needed, full citation needed, etc. These correspond to number grades that go to the Gradebook, but what the student sees is the comment, indicating which corrections they need to make.

And in Moodle I can grade them all with drop downs, because a single, simple forum is all on one page. Super quick.

Bb and Canvas’ insistence on grading per student means several clicks per student, per class, every week, for every source posted. Bad pedagogy, bad workflow.

Perhaps if these LMSs considered that we were grading work rather than students, it wouldn’t be designed like this. When a student asks “did you grade me down?” or “when you grade me, remember I have four classes”, I always point out that I never grade them, only their work.

How did we get to a place where the default is to grade students? Is it our educational culture, associating a person’s work with who they are? Surely that’s a bad idea. When we conflate a person with their work, we imply that their work is not only a product of themselves, it is their self. Every critique become a critique of the self.

We mustn’t embed bad ideas into immutable systems. Really.


First road test of

It’s all about annotation, and I’ve been comparing Kami and Last semester, I used Kami  ($50 for no ads) for students to annotate text with my History of Technology class. I had some success, but I was not happy with its limitations, so this summer I tried instead.

The students were offered a video tutorial on how to use it. I made a group just for them. The assignment was extra credit — for each of the three classes I uploaded an article for them to read and annotate, replying to each other. Sample instructions:

Extra credit for up to 3% of the grade:
1) Get your own account at at Please use your name as enrolled for the username.
2) Join the test group at
3) Go to
4) Annotate the article with your own responses and answer those of others. Annotations are graded on academic quality, connections to coursework, acknowledgement’s of others’ ideas, and evidence of understanding of the article.

I had been concerned that they would automatically post in Public instead of in the Test Group, because I could find no way to limit that or point them directly to the group page – the choice is made only via a drop-down menu in the upper right corner. Sure enough, several students posted in Public and missed the discussion going on in the group. I will have to add this to the instructions as well as in the tutorial.

I had thought that analysis and counting their contributions would be made easier by the brilliantly conceived Hypothesis Collector, created by John Stewart. It worked great last night. Unfortunately, when I tried it this morning, it only gave me the posts that had been made as of last night. I simply couldn’t get it to work and had to manually count annotations to assign points. I have been contacted by Jeremy Dean of for ways to integrate with Canvas – this might be a huge help next year.

I am considering providing my next class textbook, The American Yawp, with my own annotations. The book, an open textbook, has a number of faults and omissions that would make for great learning opportunities for students. My own annotations would be like mini-lecture commentary, glossing on the text. But for some of the summer articles (one out of three of mine) in, the section one highlights is quoted in the annotation without spaces, which is ugly. Also, there is little color or design in the annotation box to alert the student to the presence or unique character of an annotation.


I think Kami looks better for this, and then I will export my pages as PDF for the students.


I had originally thought I could use The American Yawp’s own affordances as an updated online text, but just got an announcement that, ironically, their current update will be integrating Each page served by them will then come up with an invitation to annotate publicly. While this might or might not help students with the text, it provides an additional way for students to go wrong beside the Public or Group problem, so I don’t think I’ll be working off the Yawp html pages regardless.

Don’t get me wrong – the business model of is wonderful. They make a real effort to reach out, adapt and update. In fact, that’s one of the reasons for this post – to provide input that I hope will continue its improvement as an open source product made by people who really understand the value of text annotation.

The last role shift for faculty

I wrote last year about my concerns that instructional design (with all its newly-minted PhDs) is taking over teaching, even to the extent that teachers doubt themselves. In 2013, I worried that market forces were undermining the independence of faculty to choose tools for their pedagogies. Way back in 2008, I said I would look into how faculty are becoming content experts and having design taken away from them. In the current iterations of large schemes to standardize online education through “best practices” and “instructional quality improvement”, I am watching it all come home to roost as our roles are forcibly shifted.

Roles shifts for teachers, of course, are not new. For some time, research has indicated that instructors should consider shifting roles from “sages” to “guides”, using the affordances of the web. I have various concerns about this, and tend to prefer an approach which balances instructivism with constructivism. So far I’ve had that freedom. But this current role shift is more insidious, because it assumes that we do not have the knowledge to teach at all. rubrica1As our courses are assessed for “quality” by outside teams of instructional designers and instructional administrators, the rubrics they apply enforce self-referential norms developed by those fields. If their research indicates that collaboration among students is good, then collaboration should be part of every class. If the presentation of course objectives are seen as being important, they must be clearly articulated and appear, preferably with specific “outcomes”, at the beginning of the class. If it is determined that “content” should be “chunked” in manageable segments, then all classes must do that.

What if an instructor decides, however, based on his own experience, that these rules are not right for his pedagogy? I know an instructor who has designed her skills-based courses in such a way that collaboration is useful only to share basic ideas or final products, but not for working together on projects. I know another who reveals course objectives in a “just-in-time” way, as the students are working on particular tasks, not at the beginning in a list. I know a wonderful lecturer who puts his long, written, narrative lectures online, with no chunking involved. All of these instructors have students who do well, and some who do badly, but whether they do well or badly they tend to learn a lot.

But the “best practices”, applied as mandates, will not allow any of them to teach in these ways, ways that reflect the strengths of their own practice and their own pedagogy. They will not be respected as professionals, but rather treated as cogs of a larger machine, as mere “content experts”.

QualityControlIn other words, the role of teachers as instructional designers, as developers of the students’ learning experience, is being taken away. That crucial aspect of our role, the reason many of us became teachers in the first place, is being outsourced to others. And we are told that is in the interest of quality, not standardization. We are told that it is to help us become better teachers. We are told that what they want is “student success”.

We are not told that the goal is to create easy-to-administer McClasses, or to support the rise of a plutocracy, or to micromanage “course delivery“. We are not told that “student success” means passing students through the system as quickly and easily as possible, and that faculty who teach creatively are basically just in the way of the goals of administrators and students alike.

The separation of “course design” from teaching is false. Will we be fooled as this lack of respect for our profession is couched as trying to “help” us do better?