Working against Canvas: three tips

So many instructors, some of whom have used Canvas as their LMS for their on-site classes, are now encountering the system’s complexities and limitations. Teaching fully online is different from posting ones class resources online, or at least it should be.

My advice has changed from three years ago, because Canvas itself has changed.  My reasoning, however, has not changed from eleven years ago. My article on Insidious Pedagogy: How course management systems affect teaching (2009) explained how the designs of learning management system tend to control pedagogy, especially among novice users. We need to spend some time working against the system.

So I’ve reduced my top ten tips to three. And they may well be suitable for LMSs and VLEs other than Canvas.

1) Create full navigation using Pages

As with LMSs of old, Canvas continues to default to grouping content and assignments by type. This is a holdover from Blackboard, which relied on the early computer analogies of “files and folders” to imitate paper filing systems. So “Lectures” can be a folder, “Discussions”, “Quizzes”, etc.

But for most of us, learning is time-oriented, or theme-oriented, not type-oriented. We tend to have units with multiple types of content and activities. Many of these are organized by unit or week. There is no way to express this to students without making a page of links.

Canvas, of course, has a Modules page with a list of links. On the Modules page, you can load in everything, and have students do things in sequence, or with prerequisites, or both. The Modules page is, and has always been, ugly. The most you can do is add emojis to the headings, if you know how. And every item listed on the Modules page is the same size and color, creating the impression that everything listed has the same worth. All you can do is indent, or use caps.

The best Canvas classes I’ve seen have a schedule or grid on the main page:

Each of the links goes to a Canvas page, which has links of the activities and content:

One can of course put all these in the Modules page also, which will enable the “Back” and “Next” buttons for those into sequences and control. Then it’s up to you whether to show that Modules page, because you also ought to. . .

2) Hide menu items

This has not changed from earlier advice: features we are not using, or that we don’t want students accessing from the menu, should not appear on the menu.

For Canvas, this involves going to Settings – Navigation and dragging the items you don’t want visible down to the inactive area. It used to be that when you did this and saved, neither you nor the students saw these items on the menu, and the look was clean. Recently, Canvas changed this so that the instructor sees them all, but with the hidden items indicated by a crossed-out eye.

Well, at least students don’t see them.

3) Do low-stakes stuff anyway

Here working against Canvas means working with it. Students need reasons to work on your class, and to get immediate feedback. This is difficult in Canvas. Doing extra credit, creating short quizzes, using test question banks, all are ridiculously complicated. And there is still no easy way to just copy a quiz.

Canvas will also passively prevent what you want to do. Want to create a discussion forum where everyone who posts twice gets 3 points? Can’t do it. Want to have 20 questions on a 10-point quiz, so each question is worth half a point? No can do. Want to rename an assignment and have all the internal links still work? Good luck. Want to change all 28 due dates to a week later? It’s a one-at-a-time job. (At least there’s a hack for this one.)

It pays to spend some time seeing what can be done with zero-point assignments, and complete/incomplete grades, and the default grade feature in the Gradebook. Students learn from short, formative assessments.

Working against the LMS has always been required for us to teach the way we want to. More and more, I see LMS trainings covering these problems, and teaching the workarounds, which is great. Particularly when your LMS is owned by an equity firm, after going public and answering to shareholders, we can be sure that improvement is unlikely (most Canvas problems have been around since its inception). We must be willing to work against the system.

 

 

Armchair historian does London Bridge

Historians sometimes reinvent themselves. Or maybe it’s better to say that historians who are very famous, or not famous at all, sometimes reinvent themselves. If you’re very famous (like Simon Schama) you can do whatever you like. If  you’re basically unknown (like me) you can also do whatever you like. But if you’re an acknowledged expert about One Big Thing, I suspect you can’t do anything else.

I’ve been working for a few years on making Victorian England my new specialty, and I’m also writing a novel that takes place in 1862. To find good resources and just enjoy the era, I’ve joined some Victorian-focused Facebook groups. People post old photos:

These are London Bridge in 1890, the top one facing north, the other facing south. And oh, the traffic! I’ve read that the bridges were often jammed in the 1860s, and it looks like by 1890 they weren’t any better. Can’t you just imagine yourself trying to cross the street?

Then someone on Facebook asked whether the stairway was still there:

 

Let’s go look! (And get a load of all the “temporarily closed” on Google. Might want to take some screenshots — this will all be history too, remember).

 

 

So I “drop down” my little G droid* and go look.

 

 

Hmmm… looks like maybe the top of a stairway? I’d better drop down by the river bank for closer inspection.

 

A ramp! Much nicer than stairs for lots of people. Plus you don’t have to go out past the church and turn left to get onto the bridge.

The ease of doing this sort of thing amazes me. An armchair traveler in the 19th century could sit at home and read books to go to wonderful places all over the world. I can drop down my G droid anywhere and walk around (well, click around).

I can’t go to England this year, but I can do this. The Google Map images are relatively recent. I can walk down streets. I can look up old maps and then go see what’s different (I do that all the time for research). I can even go to webcams like this one and see places in real time. I can start up Google Earth and see buildings in three dimensions.

All of which beats relying on H. Rider Haggard for my view of the world. But I would like a wingback chair, please.

 

___
*I know the droid is called “Pegman”, but why should it be a man? I’m a lot of things, but I’m not a man.

Perusing pictures

I almost forgot, in all the madness, that I am trying an experiment in my History of Technology class. I detailed the idea in my post from July. But I hadn’t implemented it till this semester.

First a review: in every class I teach online, instead of a traditional discussion board, I assign a set of primary source documents. I put these in Perusall (using the LTI in Canvas), uploaded as a pdf. Students then can select parts of the text, and annotate it. They can respond to each others annotations, and add images or video to help each other read the material.

This semester I’ve tried it with images. I put together two sets of images in Microsoft Word, one for images from the Book of Hours of the Duc de Berry (for the Middle Ages), and one for a collection of postcards from the early 20th century imagining the world in 2000 (for the turn of the 20th century). I then saved each collection as a pdf, and uploading them into Perusall.

I’ve just been reviewing the latter. The History of Technology class is always difficult to get talking. The class attracts a wonderful assortment of students, particularly those in computer science or who already work in information technology. They don’t tend to be much for chit-chat, and some of the written articles on technological history don’t interest them. The pictures, however, have created much more participation.

You can see here that not only did they comment on the images, but that they also replied a lot to each other (the bubble with the number is replies to the comment showing).

So I’m calling this one a success, and plan to do more!

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”.

 

 

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)

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.

Ending the reading/quiz cycle

I certainly didn’t mean for the relationship to end suddenly. It has been tenuous for awhile, various arguments and complaints, but I always thought it was a communication problem. But finally I had to walk away.

In my History of England class, the textbook has been an issue for a long time. The most suitable and available academic text, by the Messrs Roberts, is two volumes, so that won’t work. The class is, unfortunately, only one semester (we have two for the history of the U.S., with a much shorter history). And realistically, even one volume is asking for trouble.

All the books I’ve used, including works by Roy Strong, Asa Briggs, and F.E. Halliday are outdated, out of print, or both. These have been replaced by volumes that sell well in the U.K., but require a previous knowledge lacking in American students: works by Jeremy Black, Simon Schama, and Simon Jenkins. I’ve been using the Penguin Illustrated History, which I love. It’s visual, I’ve written a bunch of quizzes for it, and it’s beautifully written. But students have become less enthusiastic, and it’s outdated now anyway.

Besides, it costs money. All my other classes require only my own pdf textbook, freely downloadable and printable. We are now required to indicate in the class registration system if we have a low-cost or no-cost class, so that automatically creates competition among classes as students realize they can take a class for less money. This was my last class with a textbook that had to be purchased, and it wasn’t easy for the bookstore, or students online, to find an inexpensive copy. So I unceremoniously dumped the textbook, and spend a couple of weeks this summer downloading, editing, and reformatting appropriate pages from the web. Then I wrote matching quizzes.

Canvas is not user friendly when it comes to importing, editing, and reusing quizzes, in any format. It’s test banks are obscure and hard to use. The result of my machinations was a set of single-question, matching quizzes for the new readings, and my old (now five-question) multiple-choice quizzes for my lecture. So I put one due Wednesday and the other Sunday.

Well, now the weekly course page was becoming really cluttered:

I don’t want to go all Copernican on this, but if I were a student it’s starting to look like hoops to jump through, instead of ways to explore material.

So I thought, what do I want them to get out of the reading anyway? My lectures already have a good outline of the main events of English political, social, and cultural history. And the depth is already provided by the documents we “read and discuss” (i.e. annotate in Perusall) each week. These readings are pretty intense for today’s community college students (Magna Carta, Archbishop Cranmer). So instead of adding new readings, it may be better to have them deal with these documents more.

I spent yesterday deleting all the quizzes, both lecture and reading. Instead, I’m having each student submit a “Document analysis paragraph” which uses all the names of the documents to support any single idea they have about the era we’re studying. I made a silly sample paragraph to model what I want them to do:

It’s in the form of a single-question graded survey, which will automatically apply points if they turn it in, so I can read them at my leisure and communicate individually with students who are struggling. And now students are doing, not reading and quizzing.

And thus I’ve broken the entire reading/quiz cycle in one swoop. I didn’t set out to do this — it just happened. But I’m pretty sure I’ll have no regrets.

 

Easy (for students) messaging in Canvas

Canvas’ messaging system sucks. Always has. Its new and improved version isn’t much better.

If you’re a student, and you want to email your instructor, there’s no easy way. You have to know that among the ever-proliferating global items in the far left menu, “Inbox” means the internal messaging system. You must also know already that it is for both “in” and “out” messages.

Then you need to know that this symbol is to write a message:

So you click there and it’s blank. If you have more than one class in Canvas, you must use the dropdown to select your class (which means you must have memorized what the official numbering system of your class is).

Then you must use Search to find your instructor’s name (so you must know not only who that is but how to spell it), or know to select “Teachers” to find your professors.

It’s always amazed me that students ever figure it out.

So I use the “Apps” to create my own menu item that sends students directly into a Message to me.

How to:

Go to Settings – Apps. The “Filter by name” and type in Redirect. Click on that app’s logo, then Add App.

This opens the Redirect App, so fill in the blanks.

The Name is what you want it to say in the course menu. The URL is your version of this:

https://miracosta.instructure.com/conversations?context_id=course_15859&user_id=83&user_name=Lisa%20M%20Lane

Change the server to your college’s canvas server, the course id to that particular course (it’s in its URL), and the user id and Canvas name to yours. Be sure to uncheck “Force open in new tab” and instead check “Show in Course Navigation”. Add the app, go back to Home, and you should see it in the course menu. Test it!

If you make a mistake or want to revise, use Settings – Apps – View App Configurations.

Now when a student clicks on that item in the menu, a Message opens, with your name as recipient and the course name already chosen. Not easy for us (you have to change the course id number every term) but definitely easier for them.

 

 

 

Class annotation of images

This is another post where I share how I did something, solely so I don’t forget how to do it.

Perusall is a wonderful program for annotating documents with a whole class, and I’m currently using it for all my online classes, which are located in the horror of an LMS they call Canvas. I upload a PDF, and students and I can highlight the document, with a panel popping up for discussion. When anyone clicks on the question mark, it indicates a request for responses. When anyone uses @Someone, it notifies them someone has responded. I have used it to solve the “what if they don’t do the reading?” problem, since we all kind of do the reading together.

All this is great. The system “auto-grades” (though I have to set it then check it very carefully), and pushes the grades to Canvas gradebook on my command, so I can focus on the discussion itself instead of evaluating it.

But you can’t do this with images — just upload and everyone talk about it.

Except…you can. Perusall won’t upload images natively, nor link to images directly on the web. So I downloaded an image, and saved it as a pdf in Preview, then uploaded it. Then I clicked on a section of the picture. Instead of highlighting text, Perusall put a pin. I can then ask a question or make a comment about just that portion of the image. Click the pin, and the conversation panel opens.

But the interface itself takes up a lot of the screen, which we don’t want for images. So I’m going to show students what to do about that:

If they do it, then it will look like this:

More room for the image, less clutter. I’m thinking it would be possible to put several images on a page to be discussed for that week.

What it’s doing is similar to ThingLink, which I learned about from our wonderful art historians over a decade ago. But ThingLink and similar programs, although they can be embedded into Canvas with iframes, cannot track a student’s comments, nor auto-grade them. Perusall can, which shortens my workflow so I can focus on the discussion, just as I do with annotated text.

So, annotations for images when I teach a European history course that focuses on the Humanities, and a History of Technology class that can get bogged down in text? I’m in!

 

The hour before the deadline

We all have stories, usually told while shaking ones head, of how students do things at the last minute.

Long ago, the deadlines for my online classes were set at 5 pm on the day something was due. But “everyone else” (the dozen or so others teaching online) set theirs at Sunday midnight. I would receive panicked emails between 5 pm and midnight, or after an assignment was graded late. So my nicely planned evenings of sitting and marking papers didn’t work. I changed my deadlines to Sunday midnight.

So when I began using Perusall for annotations, I asked, repeatedly, for students to participate beginning on Tuesday and ending Sunday midnight. Some do so. But many try to read five documents and cram in all the annotations on Sunday. This prevents the close reading I had intended by assigning annotations in the first place, an issue for another post. But it also provides a bizarre opportunity.

Perusall emails me when a student answers a question I’ve posted.  It also emails when a student tags me with an @. Throughout each Sunday, these emails increase, with a flood of them in the last hour: 11 pm to midnight.

If I go into Perusall on Sunday night between 11 pm and midnight, I can participate in the discussion, adding questions and using @ to reply to individual students, and I’ll get a response. It becomes almost synchronous.

I’m not saying I do this every week and every class, but if I’ve assigned a particularly difficult document (last week’s Henry Miller: Tropic of Cancer comes to mind), I can engage a great deal of the class at that hour.

No, I’m not recommending this. But it does seem to open potential for the last hour before the deadline. I have a colleague who uses Google Docs and notices that same activity shortly before the deadline — he sees the number of participant bubbles at the top increase as he watches.

So I wonder two things. First, is it safe now that we have many online classes to change deadlines to a more reasonable hour? And is the last hour before the deadline an opportunity to teach that we should be using?