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.

Workflow control, guidance, or punishment?

Yes, I’m practicing using the Oxford comma. But I’m also practicing guided pathways for student work.

In the LMS, you can restrict access to one assignment until another assignment has been done.


Having completed well-designed Learning Units to prepare students for their writing assignments, I added them to all my classes. Then I made the writing assignment unavailable until they took the Learning Unit. I was nice, demanding only a score of 1% before they could submit it and access the writing assignment — I just wanted to be sure they opened it and went through it, practicing the skills they’d need with instant

Having done that, I waited for next semester. But it kept eating at me. Why was I insisting they do this task before another, forcing them to do it, forcing them into what I was sure would be the last-minute opening of a writing assignment due that night, and the angst when they realized they couldn’t just write it and get it over with?

It seemed to violate my willingness to let them fail.

Fact is, when I started developing these units this semester, I posted a few as extra credit, just to see if they helped the writing. Why wouldn’t a student do the unit for extra credit, especially if it was designed to help them get a better score on the assignment. Yet 2/3 didn’t do it.

So I should force them? To what end? Better assignments? Doesn’t seem likely. Because not all of them care about feedback, or about their grade, or about doing well. Those who do will do the unit anyway. Those who don’t will be mad, or frustrated, or annoyed. Not good for getting work done. It feels…punitive. Rush your work in my class, will you? Well here — splat — take that!

So I went back and removed all restrictions, and replaced them with a request. The writing assignmets now say “please do the Learning Unit first!” That’s it. Asking nicely. Feels more respectful of all their needs, not just the need to do good work. We’ll see what happens.

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.


The Pedagogy of Canvas

Having worked in Canvas for just a little while, its insidious pedagogy is beginning to reveal itself.

Above all, Canvas’ appearance is designed to evoke simplicity, like Google’s Search page. The fonts are large, friendly, sans serif. There is plenty of white space, implying rest, with no need for cognitive agitation or disturbance.


The language for instructions and content regions uses short words at the second-grade level, which is more reassuring than complex instructions. This implies that this will be easy, no need to fear the system.

The default left-hand menu, which cannot be moved or removed, makes it clear that certain elements are expected and that they are meant to be organized by type:


This type-centered pedagogy is enforced by design that does not permit any of the menu items to be changed, only disabled. Once on the DL, they never disappear. But neither can they be edited to prevent a long list of disabled mistakes.PCdisabledpages

You can create new pages or even external URLs as menu items, using the Redirect App, but it takes multiple clicks and multiple saves and is quite tricky (thus my long DL). The implication of so many steps is that doing this should not be standard operating procedure.

Notice that some pages cannot be disabled, only hidden (Discussions, People). This implies it is wrong not to want those items, that you should reconsider.

Getting back to the navigation: if you don’t like the content organized by type, and would prefer an interactive syllabus (like Moodle’s weekly design), you’d use Modules. The Modules page lets you organize all the class items within subheadings. These headings and all the links are bold text, with no provision for adding images (though you can apparently substitute icons if you know what you’re doing). The list of links is in forest green text and is spectacularly ugly, suggesting one wouldn’t want it to be a landing page – wouldn’t it be better to go back and do everything by type instead?


The Quizzes use test banks for creating variety (i.e. 50 questions in the test bank, using 10 randomly on each quiz), but items changed in the banks don’t change in any quizzes that have already been created. Created quizzes are thus intended to be static.

Each question in a quiz must be worth at least one point, and increase in whole numbers only. You cannot take a batch of questions and combine them into a single quiz of, say, 10 points, which might make each question worth .35 points, for example. This implies that quiz questions should be simple, each worth numbers that are easy to add up.

There are few areas where students can take control, and most of these are outside the actual LMS (like in Google Docs). Crocodoc is available for the instructor to annotate student work, but not for students to annotate together. This implies that the instructor is supposed to control all class elements that are inside the system.

Of interactive elements, only Discussions are actually inside the system. The posts are somewhat nested. This implies there should be replies to posts, but the large font size and huge amounts of white space, and the fact that the Discussions page itself is a long list of links, imply that there should be multiple discussions, on different topics or for different times, rather than one large discussion area.

Going outside the system to collaborate and meet synchronously implies these are unusual things to do. They require additional log-ins to places people might not be comfortable with, like Google. There are many “Apps” that can be linked into the class in such a way. Many require not only additional log-ins but additional payments. This implies that such places are special, unusual, perhaps dangerous.

Adding media to a post offers few options. To add media to a post, you may either record a video or audio file right then, or upload a media file. This implies that you should be using some talking head video, or have your video in computer-based files, rather than on the open web.

Confused? Assistance is available. On the top of the first page when you go into your new course is an offer of help setting up. This leads you to a list of steps:


The list implies that you should import content if you can, then add assignments, students, and files. Then decide which items on the menu you want to use. Customize your home page, set up a calendar, add TAs (how lucky are you to have these?), then publish. There is no discussion of  your objectives or your pedagogy on these helpful steps. Really, you aren’t meant to think about all that, just put all your stuff in the right place so students can find it.

In the 2013 article The Predatory Pedagogy of On-Line Education , anthropologist Brian McKenna uses an investor conference for Instructure (makers of Canvas) to highlight problems with LMSs and online education. This caught my eye:

The stakes are incredibly high. But most faculties across the country seem in the dark. “Pedagogy as an intellectual, moral and political practice is now based on measurements of value derived from market Competition,” argues educational theorist Henry Giroux, “Mathematical utility has now replaced critical dialogue, debate, risk-taking, the power of imaginative leaps and learning for the sake of learning. A crude instrumental rationality now governs the form and content of curricula, and where content has the potential to open up the possibility of critical thinking, it is quickly shut down. This is a pedagogy that has led to the abandonment of democratic impulses, analytic thinking, and social responsibility.

It is not the case the one cannot create constructivist or connectivist pedagogies, or design explorations or learning adventures, in Canvas. I intend to spend much of the next year doing exactly that. But the design of the system does not encourage it. The system strips code entered into its pages, won’t display elements it doesn’t like from outside URLs, and makes embedding tricky and difficult. In the Canvas Community, there are hundreds of requests from faculty and instructional designers to add features that have long existed in other systems. While many of these features are managerial, at least as many concern aspects of opening up the system to greater customization, faculty control, and student leadership.

As I noted years ago in Insidious Pedagogy, LMSs each have their own internal pedagogy, based on the principles of their designers. The teachers who are most likely to be led by the default designs of these systems are instructors who are new to online teaching, or teaching with a pre-made course, or using few online technologies in their own lives outside their classes. More online teachers than ever fall into these categories. Like their students, they will prefer things simple and standardized so they can work more quickly rather than learn more. Thus will the critical pedagogy of faculty, which is so necessary for creating critical thinking in our students, be suppressed.

From the Drive-Thru Window: Non-features in Canvas

Many of us being forced to switch over to Canvas are coming up with metaphors, such as my idea of your old LMS being like your old house, and your new LMS like moving to a new house where nothing’s in the right place.

drive-thruBut you can eventually set up your new home the way you like it, so this analogy doesn’t fully work for an LMS. For me, Moodle was like running my own restaurant, with table service. Canvas has reduced me to a drive-thru window. It is difficult to present your meal attractively or in an appetizing way through that window, though I can package it for you conveniently so you can take it with you in a box.

I can now get a little more specific about what I would need in Canvas that isn’t there, just by looking in the Canvas Community for what people want to add. Ideas are submitted, evaluated, and then some are voted on and moved forward.

I have marked the ones I’ve been accustomed to having in Moodle, or very much need in Canvas, with a *.

List of features open for voting in Canvas include:

*Create a student-accessible rubric for self-assessments
Allow two-part quiz questions
*Add subject lines to discussion posts (I have them edit them by putting their thesis there for easy searching)
Tables in Canvas (request for actual WYSIWYG in Rich Text Editor)
Batch question editing in a quiz
Assign peer reviews by student group
*Custom canned comments in SpeedGrader
Context help
*Add, Create or Modify a Calculated or the Total Colum in the Gradebook
Time between quiz attempts

And under consideration: (not likely in six months)

*Allow students to upload an image directly to discussion (crucial for my Primary Source posts)
*Make attendance visible to students
*Compile all essay reponses to a quiz questions on one screen for grading (crucial for my writing assignment and primary source grading)
*Create a more simple, intuitive way to offer extra credit
Warn before leaving unsaved item
*Show quiz as percent score in Gradebook
*Warning when submitting quiz
*Assessments – add more than just quizzes
*Override final grade (critical for getting attention and adjusting grade upward)
*Treat zeros as ungraded for both teacher and student views
*Make polls available in the desktop version of Canvas, not just as an app

This is the start of the list of things I’ll have to find workarounds for!

Would you like fries with that?

From inside out to outside in

sushi-928894_960_720My adventure moving from Moodle to Canvas begins. And I’m thinking about sushi.

Yes, I often think about sushi (not as much as I think of chocolate, of course). But here there is a connection – inside out vs. outside in.

In Moodle I use the Weekly format, which essentially creates an interactive syllabus on the main page. Each week has links to that week’s work, and the weekly label can be customized with images and embeds (I use Voki). Here’s a sample Moodle week:


So it seemed logical to start in Canvas by using the Modules page. Let’s take a look at the same thing in Canvas Modules:


Oh, that’s lovely. And you can’t add any images. And it’s all the same color, sort of a sickly green.

canvasmenuNow, modules aren’t the only option; it’s just the option that organizes the material like an interactive syllabus, which fits my pedagogy. The other option is to group everything by type: all the discussions, pages, quizzes, etc., which is the default menu, just like Blackboard’s defaults. Yuck.

Want to change the titles of these? You can’t. You can only hide them. And, if you go into one of them (say, a quiz), the breadcrumbs will show even if you’ve hidden the category:



Ohhhh…kay. Well, I did try. I created a whole bunch of modules, and put them in order. But it was so ugly I couldn’t stand it. And all the lectures, since they’re on my own server, had to have the URL changed so they’d be SSL, otherwise they would not open inside the Canvas frame. And if I wanted an overlay for annotation, like, that had to be scripted outside Canvas too. After about 7 hours of this, I realized I was doing way too much work.

smoked-salmon-sushi-rollWhat I was doing I call working the LMS “from the inside out”. This is what I’ve done with Moodle. I’ve been using the LMS’s navigation system as the core (in this case, Moodle’s weekly format, the interactive syllabus). When working from the inside out, you put as much as you can inside the system and then link out for whatever you must. This is how most faculty seem to work. It’s the standard sushi roll, wrapped in nori.

However, I have partly fought this, if only to retain control over my own creations. I’ve always written my lectures on my own HTML pages, so I’ve always linked out to those. And I’ve always had this ideal that I should only use the LMS for the things I can’t do outside it (quizzes, gradebook, forum). I said to a faculty member just yesterday, “don’t build in the system!”. But in actual practice, I’ve designed a great many things inside Moodle. But with Canvas, many of these are lost anyway (my images, Vokis, textual instructions), and the Modules page is so ugly, I’ve decided to change the entire workflow to work “outside in” for Canvas.

Philly_rollOutside-in means that the front door of my class, the main page, what used to be the big first page in Moodle, will be outside Canvas (though I will go all SSL and try to embed it). Then from that HTML page, I will link in to each item I can’t do outside Canvas (quiz, discussion forum, gradebook).

I supposed you could also call this a shift from linking out to linking in. But I’m kind of liking a sushi analogy. An “inside out” roll has the rice on the outside instead of the inside. It’s messier but it tastes better.