Quick messaging with students in Canvas

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted so I remember something, but a faculty member asked how I did this:

It looks like it’s just a link in the menu that says “* Message Lisa”, but it’s so much more. You’ll notice to the left, in the system-wide blue menu, is the Inbox. This is what students are told to use to message their instructor. But when you go there, you have to search for the instructor, by course and by name, before you get a window where you can type your message. That’s stupid. It should be easy to contact your instructor.

But my “* Message Lisa” link doesn’t just go to the Inbox. It opens a window immediately where they can type their message, with all the fields (their course, their name) filled in already. No searching required.

For that link, it’s tricky. Each course in Canvas has its own link to the instructor’s inbox. The format is this:

https://YOURCANVASINSTALLATION.com/conversations?context_id=course_COURSEID&user_id=USERID&user_name=CANVASNAME

So for me in course #29474 that’s:

https://miracosta.instructure.com/conversations?context_id=course_29474&user_id=83&user_name=Lisa%20M%20Lane

To find the course number, you can go to any assignment inside your class and look at the URL, or you can mouse over the class tile in the Dashboard. To find your user number, mouse over anywhere your name is linked in the class (like at the top of an Announcement). To find your user name, see your Profile.

Then I use the Redirect App in the Settings – Apps, and create it as a link, just changing the course number for each course. It rolls over each term, so I just have to change the course number each time.

The centrality of the textbook

It is an axiom frequently ignored that any technology has to have a reason to exist in a class. The textbook is a technology. If one were to actually read it, that would be a huge investment of time in an era where attention is continually diverted. A chosen technology is either central to learning or it shouldn’t be there at all.

Students, understandably, won’t read the textbook without stakes (a quiz, a paper). Increasingly, many students cannot sustain the attention and access the vocabulary skills required to read one.

As a result, publishers and professors have developed ways to force students to read the textbook. Publisher’s courses read the book aloud to the student, provide embedded quizzes and pop-up vocabulary as they go, and assess performance before pushing the grades into the Learning Management System. Annotation systems like Perusall make it possible for students to annotate a textbook together. These approaches are far too much if we only want the textbook as background.

I confess that I’ve edited several textbooks of my own that I use in my classes. These are classes where I have substantial lecture material, so the book is context. For the first two years of the pandemic, I made reading them optional and eliminated book quizzes, but now that students are more accustomed to online learning, I’m bringing them back, with some regret.

             my new OER textbook

This regret is coloring my view as I design two “new” World History classes (I’ve only taught them in the classroom and that was many years ago). For the first, I’ve spend the last several months with the Cengage textbook I’ve chosen, and made it central to the short recorded lectures. In these lectures I explain the chapter, note its strengths and weaknesses, clarify points. The lecture itself is quizzed internally, using the quiz function in Canvas Studio. Class starts in a little over a week. I hope it works, but either way I’ve made the book central to the class.

Now I think about the other half of the course. For this one, world history to 1500, I have found an Open Educational Resource, a free textbook. Of course, it’s only free in its electronic form. So I’m thinking how to use it, since it must be central. I have no lectures prepared for the class, and am not sure I want them.

So, a new idea. Since it’s free and electronic, I could put it inside Perusall, the social annotation program. But instead of expecting students to annotate, or requiring that they do it (as I do with primary sources), perhaps I’ll put in the annotations little videos of me, glossing the text myself that way. Perhaps I’ll ask questions, invite participation, and grade it in Perusall.

In the old days we turned up our noses at “teaching from the textbook”, ridiculing those who tied their lectures to it. Perhaps we felt that we could leave students alone with the textbook, and they’d read and understand it. I doubt this was ever true, but in a world where we can chose to eschew the textbook entirely, create ungrading schemes, and have at our fingertips more resources to share than ever before, we should consider the textbook differently.

Why your LMS sucks

During the pandemic year many faculty have been forced to create fully online classes in a Learning Management System, such as Canvas or Blackboard. It has been surprisingly difficult. Even those fluent in technologies like email and social media have been flummoxed by the difficulties of using the LMS as an online classroom. There are three main reasons why.

Got folders?

Learning Management Systems appear to be innocent shells into which teachers load “content”, but in reality they each have their own built-in pedagogy. This pedagogy is often archaic and is based on outdated norms of information organization. In the 1990s, LMSs imitated the folder-style structure of Mac and PC (Windows) operating systems. They were really just places to upload content items (usually Word files) and perhaps run a single discussion board (by 2005 or so).

Surprisingly, even when LMSs added more and more features to enable greater interaction and activity, they retained the old structure. It is designed to present material by type: Pages, Lectures, Discussion, Grades, etc. You can see this in the way the menu is constructed.

Presentation by type undermines the organizational integrity of the course. Most scholars think in terms of their field, and how best to present its habits of mind. As teachers, we think next in terms of wrapping elements together to encourage understanding. We do not think in terms of all the articles, all the lectures, all the exams, all the discussions.

Instead, we think in terms of weeks, or units, or modules. We section the learning, combining various elements to cover a particular subject. Separating those resources by type makes no sense when one is creating a pattern of learning.

One solution is to break this framework. If the LMS allows us to add, delete, or hide menu items,we can make new pages which link to the whole pattern of information. It may be possible, for example, to have the menu say Module 1, Module 2, etc., instead of Announcements, Syllabus, Pages, Discussion, Quizzes.

Even so, the system may force its own design. We may have a Module 1 page with all the links to activities, but when the student clicks on that activities, the breadcrumbs may show the folder name (“Quizzes”). Students can get lost following these.

Student-led what?

None of the major LMSs make it easy to implement constructivist or connectivist learning theory. Unlike twenty years ago, instructors may have studied and be trained in active learning teachniques, and have been using them in the classroom. When faced with the LMS, they find themselves stymied.

Created student-led or student-designed work is difficult. LMSs require teacher permissions to set up an assignment, quiz, content area, or discussion. Although some discussion forums allow students to begin topics, this feature must also be set by the instructor.

Some systems seems to be more adaptable, or at least expandable. In LMSs like Canvas, LTI’s (tools using the Learning Tools Interoperability standard) can be added to the system with varying levels of success. An example might be an improved discussion board, or Google Docs, or a group annotation app. Some integrate fairly well into the LMS, making them easy to access from inside the shell and pushing grades back into the system. But all require a bit of technical expertise to set up, and the integration is rarely seamless. Some, like Google Docs, may require students to have a separate Google account, while others need their own structural folder inside the LMS for all activity related to that app. This is particularly true of textbook publishers’ material, which often tries to integrate the publisher’s own textbook site with the LMS.

The solutions here take one of three directions: the internal approach, the LTI approach, or the textbook publisher approach.

Since students can be given control of discussion boards, the internal approach would include using them for different kinds of activity other than discussion: posting lists of websites, sharing resources, posting quotations from reading. The other folder areas (quizzes, pages, etc) can simply not be used.

The LTI approach would involve using more collaborative tools, like Google Docs or group annotation apps or pinboards as the main outside tool, with the instructor learning it well and monitoring it thoroughly.

The textbook publisher approach would be to ignore or hide everything possible in the LMS navigation and use the publisher’s folder as the main work area.

Fifteen papers due today!

Gone are the days when your class was the only online class students were taking. They are now enrolled in many classes within the same LMS at the same institution. In an effort to help them remember the deadlines for everything, the LMS aggregates all the information from all the courses into task lists, using a Calendar or To Do feature.

For example, a conditional release feature makes it possible to prevent a student performing Task B (a test) before they have done Task A (an assignment). Task A is designed to prepare the student for Task B, and ideally would be done within a short period of concentration. But on the student’s Calendar they see Task A, then Task 1 from another class, then Task iii from yet another class, before Task B. By the time they get to Task B, they have no idea what was learned in Task A. An example from three of may classes, running at the same time:

Same day, three different classes

Perhaps you have designed a module to lead students through an introduction, then a short lecture, then a video, then a discussion, then a test. All of these will be disaggregated by due date and will appear in a jumble on the students’ Calendar. Wrapping elements for your class together to encourage deeper understanding becomes impossible.

In addition, by listing all the tasks from all the classes together, the Calendar or List “flattens” all the assignments. It becomes impossible to tell which tasks are more or less important to the student, to learning, or to the grade. They all look equivalent in the same font and size, even if one is a two-minute video and the other is a paper that would take several days.

Unfortunately, this problem may not be solvable. Few LMSs allow control over whether or not to show calendars and lists to students. Because permissions for such features run above the individual course level, instructors usually have no access to any methods that would change the LMS behavior.

The bottom line

Creative pedagogy can work within the limitations of the LMS, but it is not easy to implement. Systems are designed to systematize, and the LMS is designed to create cookie-cutter classes based on outmoded structures rather than to promote innovative approaches. Thus for many of us, understanding its design is essential to adapting, subverting, or acquiescing to its suckiness.

 

Also published on Medium

2 comments to Why your LMS sucks

  • Great point. Over the past decade, in both Blackboard and Canvas, I set up my own format for classes. I use a module approach for each week, and each module is set up in a format called P.I.A. – Preparation / Interactions / Assessment:

    • Preparation – Preparation is used to help you organize your thoughts before beginning the lesson or module. There are three sections in Preparation: Perspective, Objectives, and a specific task list for the week.

    • Interaction – Interaction is where you encounter new information and work with it (and each other) to develop knowledge. Based on Moore and Kearsley’s (1996) types of interaction needed for distance learning, Interaction for learning occurs in four ways: (1) Student with Content, (2) Student to Student, (3) Student to Instructor, and (4) Student with Self.

    • Assessment – Finally, Assessment is an opportunity for you to demonstrate that you have achieved the objectives you were challenged to master. The evaluation at the end of each module may be informal (discussion comments) or formal (assignments resulting in a grade with feedback).

    Feedback from my students is that they appreciate the consistency week to week and feel my course is more transparent as to assignments … even given that Canvas tries to couple my assignments with those from other classes.

    • Lisa M Lane

      I love this pattern! It builds in the pedagogical reason as well as setting a consistent pathway.

Canvas is not your friend

Instructure’s Canvas continues to gain market share as the Learning Management System in colleges and universities, despite limitations which have become more apparent as more faculty teach online. Want to assign extra credit? That’s really hard. Want students to maintain individual graded journals? Super difficult. Want to use the shell to create student-led learning? Forget about it.

And yet schools have been overjoyed to adopt Canvas as the new friend who will help with everything while not having too many needs. It’s so easy to use, everyone says. It looks so simple and clean and Google-y. Students like how all their classes look the same, reducing their cognitive load.

But for the more creative teacher or professor, those interacting with it intensely rather than casually, associating with Canvas exposes its shortcomings and begins to cause frustration. Faculty who have had more useful relationships with other systems know exactly what’s missing, but even those new to the playground are stymied when trying to get a simple friendly response.

The fact is, Canvas is not our friend. That’s because its design forces us to engage with its emotional problems.

Navigating like it’s 2005

Canvas is stuck in old patterns of thinking, even when those patterns cause problems again and again.

Learning Management Systems appear to be innocent shells into which teachers load “content”, but in reality they each have their own built-in pedagogy. Canvas’s pedagogy (like its other market leader, Blackboard) is based on outdated norms of information organization. In the 1990s, LMSs imitated the folder-style structure of Mac and PC (Windows) operating systems. They were really just places to upload content items (usually Word files) and perhaps run a single discussion board (by 2005 or so).

Surprisingly, even when LMSs added more and more features to enable greater interaction and activity, they retained the old structure. It is designed to present material by type: Pages, Lectures, Discussion, Grades, etc. You can see this in the way the Canvas menu is constructed.

Menu on left, and text saying “friends don’t let friends have eighteen menu items”

Most teachers do not think in terms of “type”. We think in terms of weeks, or units, or modules. We section the learning, combining various elements to cover a particular subject, assigning a reading, practice test, discussion, and exam all on the same topic. Separating those resources by type makes no sense when one is creating a learning pathway for students to follow, and can undermine the organizational integrity of the course.

Trying to help

But Canvas promises an alternative navigation for the students: Modules. You can put all your tasks in the correct order under headings. The “Back” and “Next” buttons, which automatically follow your sequence, will ensure that students stay within their lane.

                                    Exciting Modules page for Chapter 4

Unfortunately, this doesn’t solve the problem. Canvas’s Modules page is a list of links, with every item listed in the same size and color. But the menu items, ever visible even on the Modules page, will still say Pages, Assignments, Discussion, etc.

One can try to break this framework. Since we can add, delete, or hide menu items, it is possible to make new pages which link to the whole pattern of information. It may be possible, for example, to have the menu say Module 1, Module 2, etc., instead of Announcements, Syllabus, Pages, Discussion, Quizzes.

You could use the Modules pages as a home page, even though it’s ugly. Or you could make all the menu items for types invisible, and build a Home page with a schedule or grid, and each unit could be a list of links. Students can then see how everything fits together for that week.

But no…

Both solutions will be undermined by Canvas’s internal navigation. Even if you set up Page-based or Modules navigation, the “breadcrumbs” will show everything by type anyway. Any student going from your Week 2 page of links to Quiz 2 will see a breadcrumb in the upper left saying “Quizzes”. It they click it, the full list of all the quizzes in the class appear. Ditto with Discussion 2 — the full list of discussions will be there, and students will start jumping around and get lost.

Canvas provides the way to make things right, then undermines its own good intentions.

Working in five classes at once

Canvas wants everything combined for convenience, ignoring all your plans.

Let’s say you create a learning pathway through the content, considering the holistic nature of your course, using Modules or Pages. The Calendar and the To Do list will immediately come along and destroy your careful course structure, by disaggregating all the tasks in all your students’ various classes and lumping them together into a giant list.

For students, as a convenience, the Calendar lists everything from all their classes in order of due date. When they look at the month’s or week’s tasks, everything from all their classes is listed, making it difficult to see the order of anything for one particular class. Your “Discussion 2” which you carefully designed to follow Reading 2 has another class’s “Discussion 4″ in between.

The To Do list does the same thing in an even simpler list that appears on the Dashboard and every course home page.

In addition, both the Calendar and the To Do list don’t include anything that isn’t graded. That might include the week’s main page, the discussion students are supposed to return to on two different dates, or a required reading. Students will miss ungraded assignments entirely as they innocently follow these helpful lists.

What to do?

Because the Calendar and To Do features are controlled above the course level, there is no way to make them invisible or change them, except by adding more items from your class. There is limited space in the title, especially when the Calendar or To-Do List is seen on a phone, so we cannot put “Eng101” as the first word to help. But we can add additional Calendar items for things that aren’t connected to a graded item: “Week 2 starts today”, or “Return to discussion”, or “essay corrections due”. When we make an ungraded assignments, we can check the “Add to To Do list” box. Adding more things to do may be, strangely, the best way to help students.

Relying on others for basic functions

Canvas has no inner reserves of strength, and relies on outsiders.

It is a truth generally acknowledged that Canvas’s discussion boards are the most troublesome element of the LMS. Conversation is not its strong suit. Canvas requires an administrative setting to do things like make the barely nested posts obvious in a threaded discussion. There is so much white space that one scrolls until one forgets the topic — it isn’t practical to engage in extended, much less semester-long, discussions. There is no distinction between instructor posts and student posts. The toolbar cannot be customized, so it has become bloated and even more difficult to use than when it had fewer features. There is no @ feature or notification sent to students to let them know someone has responded to their post, unless they subscribe to all posts on all boards in the class.

Canvas is very instructor-focused, making student-led learning difficult to design. There are no collaborative or whiteboard spaces built in. Extending Canvas means using LTI (Learning Tools Interoperability) apps, or what used to be called “plug-ins”. These are made by external providers, and vary widely in cost and ease of use. Some integrate better than others, passing grades back into the Canvas Gradebook with ease. Others force students to create external accounts.

Given these difficulties, it is often easiest for faculty to succumb to the temptation of using a big stick: the textbook publisher package. The big companies offer full packages that can plug in to a Canvas course, essentially connecting their own learning management system to Canvas. This adds another layer and another (sometimes more than one) menu item as a “type”. Then it becomes necessary to spend much time learning the publisher’s complicated system as well as Canvas.

Less may be more

The only solution here is to limit oneself to one LTI. If it’s the publisher package, all the time will be spent learning and dealing with that. If it’s Google Docs, that will have a learning curve too, and possibly external accounts. If group annotation is desired, that can be the only extension.

Being honest with each other

These three big flaws don’t even include the many inconsistencies and gaps that Canvas has had since the beginning. There is no way to change things in bulk, like assignment due dates or quiz instructions. There is no pop-up to alert students that a message awaits from their teacher. There is no font customization on the Modules page, which flattens everything and makes it look like a two-minute video is equivalent to a twenty-page chapter. The drag-and-drop Calendar won’t let you drag-and-drop items from one month to another.*

One should not expect a friend, especially a troublesome friend, to change. Until 2015 there was a chance the relationship would improve. Indeed, things had been improving with help from the Canvas Community, a rich resource of teachers and expert users. But once Instructure went public, they became answerable to shareholders, just like Blackboard. Their “open source” street cred died, as did their need to respond to users.

It may be be best to consider Canvas as a flawed, if necessary, companion. It has its own desires and needs, which will often be counter to yours. But its unreliability means it’s best not to get too dependent.


*Update: Kona Jones has pointed out to me a couple of revisions. One can drag-and-drop to a different month if you start with an undated item from the list, and a recent update now means that Canvas includes bulk editing of Assignment dates only.

The increasingly possible: online labs

Ever since I discovered the back pages in H. G. Wells’s Text-book of Biology, (1893),  I’ve known a bit about scientific work being done at home. Doing “practical work” at home was important for correspondence education at the end of the 19th century, so that students could study for examinations even if they didn’t have access to a laboratory.

When online teaching started at our college, back in 1998, and began to grow, a number of science instructors were concerned. You could do a lecture online, fine, but you couldn’t do a lab. Simulations weren’t enough, they said. You need real materials. Wells’s students, of course, had real materials. They ordered them by mail or, in the case of frogs, went and caught them.

So here we are in 2020, with online labs foisted onto unsuspecting faculty, and they’ve done brilliantly. I attended this session, where four professors, from auto shop to biotechnology, showed how they do labs online. For inspiration alone it’s worth the 50+ minutes.

MiraCosta College: Hands-On Labs in an Online World on Vimeo.

It’s an odd feeling for me, a promoter and practitioner of online education since the 1990s, to see that the materials (lab kits, go-pro cameras, etc) have come so far. But it’s even more thrilling to see the new attitudes, confidence, and willingness to serve students this way. It feels (finally!) like the new world we were hoping for.

As I watched, I thought like a student. In-person education isn’t always the best way to learn. When I was 19, if I’d had a way to learn about cars without having  to show my ignorance to the guys in auto shop, I might know how to fix my car today. I was shy, and had already been subject to sexism in art class — I certainly wouldn’t walk into a guy-dominated shop. I was also clumsy, but if I’d been able to make mistakes with those test tubes at home, I might have given it a try in high school or college. (I actually had a chemistry set as a child, and created something so horrid the chemistry prof at the local university had to be called so we knew how to dispose of it.)

At any rate, I think H. G. Wells would be proud. I’m delighted.

Lecture: recorded, zoomed, or what?

The word “lecture” conjures an idealized image of students listening attentively as a professor relays knowledge. Almost all of the lectures I enjoyed at university were in this format, and when I began teaching I lectured this way too.

With this year’s quick and unexpected transition to online teaching, many professors assumed that online lecture meant reproducing what they do in class. Zoom.com was grateful for this assumption, even as they struggled to accommodate the massive numbers holding live lectures. Almost immediately, however, there were complaints and problems.

Professors whined that students weren’t paying attention, or didn’t want to turn on their cameras. They couldn’t see the facial expressions and body language indicating comprehension (or lack thereof). Students complained about boring, wandering lectures, and they felt exposed. You can’t sit at the back in an online classroom, and they didn’t want thirty strangers to see the trailer they lived in. Many decided they would watch the recording instead.

The problem? Zoom provided the platform, but the pedagogy was still based in the classroom. This worked better for some professors than others. At our college, they let us choose before this fall whether we wanted our classes scheduled and in Zoom, or “online only” (meaning asynchronous, with no live meetings), or a mix. Many professors regretted their choice.  Those in Zoom wished they hadn’t, and those who chose asynchronous were sorry they’d done that.

For two decades, I’ve been pushing the idea that the technology should follow the pedagogy. Your preferred teaching method should dominate. In the rush, there had been no connection between a professor’s pedagogy and their choice of format.

So, assuming you lecture, what kind of lecturer are you?

Interactive lecturers count on student participation. They ask questions during lecture, or survey the mood, or set tasks for students during the lecture.

Interactive lecturers should consider live (synchronous) lecturing in Zoom or another webconferencing program. The live approach online, however, works best for the simple lecture, on one topic. Shortening lecture time by about 2/3 is also a good idea for live session lectures, but they can be immediately followed by breakout room activity.

Traditional lecturers are those who lecture to an audience, and don’t expect, need, or want the lecture to be interactive. They relay a lot of information, framed by their own interpretation from their professional experience.

Traditional lecturers should record these lectures, and students can view them in an asynchronous way. Students particularly appreciate recorded lectures when the topic is complex, so they can go back and review without being on the spot.

Online lecturers, long ago, were all using dial-up modems and there wasn’t much bandwidth. A lecture quickly became a typed out version of ones lecture notes. As bandwidth expanded, these written lectures could be enhanced with images, then audio, then video. Written lectures can be more like reading, or they can be multi-media experiences, but they’re based on the web page or blog. They may include recorded mini-lectures. Like traditional lectures, they tend to be asynchronous.

So, planning to offer a 90-minute lecture on the historiography of the fall of ancient Rome? Go ahead, but considering recording it with images or video clips rather than doing it live. Want to lecture on solving a quadratic equation, using a whiteboard and asking students to help as you go? Consider a live lecture. Already wrote a great article that covers everything that would be in this week’s lecture? Record your voice reading it, and add some pictures or video clips.

But we don’t all have a choice. Have you been told you have to fill 75 minutes of scheduled class time? Consider creating interactive lectures and activities that require working together. Or have students view a recorded lecture, then come to the synchronous class to work out problems or just do their homework together. I would consider this a flipped online classroom, a model that understands that absorbing information may be best done on ones own but applying it should be done together.

So as we approach spring, let’s consider.

Behind the scenes?

We’re nearing the end of summer term, so I get two different kinds of emails: one asking for an extension on the final essay, and the other thanking me for the class.

I’m happy to deal with both (yes, you may have an extension — we’re in a plague, dammit). But the emails thanking me are so nice. One of my top students wrote me that even though they unfortunately could not see or meet me, she always knew I was behind the scenes, helping them through it.

Gratifying, certainly. I love that they know I’m there for them. On my student survey, I have a question on the Lickert scale: “I felt that Lisa was really present and visible during this class.” I get extremely high marks on this, which makes me proud. But last spring, they were a little lower. And now, a student feels I was “behind the scenes”.

                                  CC Flickr Osman Kalkavan

I used to work in theatre. A lot. I was a lighting designer, sound board operator, props person, stage manager, and I even directed once. I know “behind the scenes”.

But my online class? I have all of these roles, plus I am the actor on the stage. My lectures are written out, and they are original. They can click a button and hear me reading them. I have video recordings of me talking to them for each unit. The whole production is mine. I’ve even put together the textbook. I am the show. I’m not just behind the scenes.

So why do they think so? Because I’m not doing synchronous. I’m not using Zoom.

Thank you, pandemic, for making people think that the only way to teach, the only way to get to know your professor, is live on camera. It isn’t. Asynchronous education is brilliant. It allows people to learn when they can, from anywhere. For the past 20 years of asynchronous teaching, I’ve developed solid relationships and firm friendships, students who write from wherever they are to keep in touch years later. None of them have ever said it was unfortunate we never “met”, because we meet all the time.

But within the span of a few short months, even students who don’t want to be on camera think that’s how it’s supposed to be. Administrators have cleverly figured out that this is the way to make sure faculty are doing the work. They have always suspected that, even though studies show that teaching online takes more hours than classroom teaching, we’re all here shirking in our summer shorts. Now they can track camera time.

As videoconferencing company shares go through the roof, I’m here to tell you: it’s only one method. It can be used effectively, for getting a group or class together to do something meaningful that requires being together. It can be used badly, for watching students take an exam or for enforcing attendance.

And you’d think the plague would have demonstrated the limitations of synchronous learning. I don’t just mean the frozen frames students have on Zoom so they can do something else. I mean the students who are first responders, whose parents are dying in hospitals while they sit and cry in their car in the parking lot, the ones doing double shifts at the food bank. They want to go to school, and they can’t be online every Tuesday and Thursday from 10-11:50 am. That was the whole idea of online education in the first place: to accommodate those who couldn’t do the butts-in-seats thing.

So I’m thrilled the student knew I was there. I really am. I have spent many hours this summer conversing with individual students through messages and emails, often responding minutes after they write me. It’s real. It is the scene, not just behind the scenes.

 

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.

 

 

2 comments to Working against Canvas: three tips

  • Dakin

    All this is fine, except for the grid navigation. That uses tables, which are hard for screen readers to read. So for ADA considerations, grids and tables should not be used, even though Instructure offers those in their exemplars.

    • Lisa M Lane

      Thanks, Dakin. Yes, Canvas’ refusal to use CSS properly may mean that some screen readers might have issues. And for people doing it on their own, the workaround could be troublesome. The Accessibility Checker in Canvas’s RCE can catch everything, but it takes some time. Very unfortunate.

      An alternative white-linked list could be provided at the top for those with vision issues, of course, if one still didn’t want to use the Modules page.

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!

3 comments to Perusing pictures

  • Eric Kuniholm

    I know there are privacy issues, but seeing an entire thread would have been interesting, too. Maybe you could make an open discussion thread for your friends with some of your more productive pictures?

  • I didn’t know about Perusall so this is both interesting and useful. Thanks for the link to try it out.