The other time machine

On my travel iBook I have a sticker of a TARDIS, because my computer is a time machine (it’s also bigger on the inside than the outside).

I’ve been doing more reading in the book Culture and Education (1990), and found a paper that explored the topic of student tutors in the 19th century, and their similarity to student assistants in modern American graduate schools. I was delighted, since my own work is somewhat similar in methodology and theme.

It was written by a Myron Tuman. Since I don’t find many scholars to talk with about my work, I thought I’d look him up on the web. What happened was a time machine journey. took me to his work going back to at least 1988, although it didn’t list this article I’d been reading. I discovered he had published also about online and computer issues as we both entered the increasingly online world of education. I tried to find him at the University of Alabama website, but he isn’t listed now.

I found him at RateMyProfessors, where some students laid into him back in 2006. Last month the Tuscaloosa News published a retrospective that mentioned him earning an Outstanding Professor award 25 years ago (that would be about the same time I was awarded mine). I found him on Facebook, where he posted up to the end of last year, mostly family stuff. And finally, Constant Contact took me to his retirement party (looks like about two years ago), with photos of Myron enjoying the celebration.

In other words, I went through someone’s whole career in 15 minutes, a career that ran parallel to mine in several respects. Given the recent “radio silence”, I don’t know whether I would contact him now, but in some ways it feels like I already have. That’s disorienting, to say the least.

Getting a list of all my Google Books

Just like the old days, a blog post dedicated to helping me remember how to do something.

I have a lot of research material in Google Books, mostly free books from the 19th century, and some pretty obscure titles. Many I’ve been able to download as pdfs. But I wanted a list of all my books in one category (Google calls them bookshelves), and it would only show me 10 at a time.

Well I don’t want to Next, Next, Next. So I did the old-fashioned thing and looked closely at the URL. And there it was, the number of entries:


I changed this from 10 to 100 and got them all.



The nostalgia of moving . . . hosts

Yes, it’s finally time to move. No, not my real-world house, but my server. Yes, I know it’s a rental, but…

I’ve been at Lunarpages since 2004. That’s a long time. And in that time, Lunarpages has gone from a groovy startup where you could call and get a person, to a business-centered company where they give you grief about SSL. And yell at you when someone hacks your blog. It got so bad I had to move to, so that tells you something.

In the meantime, my online colleagues Jim Groom and Tim Owens (I think I met them online back in the early CCK08 and first-run ds106 days?) started Reclaim Hosting. Faculty and student focused, Reclaim has provided excellent service to many, but I couldn’t move until I knew for sure that my students wouldn’t need access during the changeover. My sabbatical starts Friday – the time is now.

What do I use rented space on a server for? Well, everything, judging by my account stats. I have 31 MySQL databases, 6 subdomains, 5 FTP accounts. I’ve downloaded dozens of scripts, and many versions of Moodle, and run them. Not to mention the 23 GB of files. But this is exactly what needs mentioning.

You know how people downsize their dwelling as they get older? Time to downsize. The web has matured, not always in ways I approve of. And my college had gone over to Canvas, which I don’t approve of either. As the world cares less about creative ways to do things, I find that most of my files are no longer used. Broadband speeds have increased so much that my zillions of .mov files, painstakingly compressed to make them work on dialup modems, then digitized, then ripped from digital, then compressed more mildly – this has left trails of media files. Do I use any of them? No – everything now streams from YouTube or Vimeo.

Here’s a sample of just one lecture file from just one class of my six classes:

This is a lecture on the High Middle Ages (a great era for technology – come take my class!). The top file is the online lecture. The second one is text for a page that opens with a mouseover image, the manor map .png. Then there are my original audio files of me reading this lecture, recorded long ago as aiff and compressed through some antique application that no longer exists to make them .mov. There’s a poster image for a media file (took hours to make in my old freeware gif program) that now plays on YouTube, and then the most nostalgic item of all: the file. It’s a button that when you press it, the lecture audio file plays. I have red ones for this class, blue ones for others, and I made them myself by stealing a graphic and using code I learned from a book called Quicktime for the Web. (You can also see .mp3 files I made later, but my old Mac was acting up and used the origin dates.)

Good times, man. The old days, when I was up half the night learning media compression and stealing bits of code from various places, including printed books. When my HTML for Dummies book got worn out from use. Before Google, before learning management systems. Back when on the internet no one could tell you were a woman, or a non-coder, or just a historian who never really liked computers but was determined to teach online and do it well, reducing the “distance”. A time when I’d install programs from Fantastico to try polls and self-grading quizzes, when I could learn just enough Javascript to make stuff happen, cobbled together my own web pages with cool embedded stuff, having no idea what the hell I was doing, and later when I hacked Dreamweaver and WordPress. When students said, “wow! this is a cool class! all my others are just text”.

Nowadays, the databases don’t operate anymore because most of them were Moodle and Lunarpages gave me so much grief about Chinese hackers that I disabled them all. I no longer use all the cool apps I can run on the server, because Canvas won’t serve scripts that are inside of html pages. After two years trying to hack Canvas, I know what can be done, and none of it requires programs I run on my own.

So although Reclaim can migrate all my stuff over, for free, I’m saying no thanks. I’ve got only 10 GB on the Reclaim plan, but these days that should be plenty. So I’m spending a few days moving those old files out of the folders, and I’ll get it all under 10 GB (8 really) or bust. It’s an opportunity to pack up the stuff and put it in storage on a hard drive, upload everything and check it, decide whether I want to start up databases to run old stuff or just let my work (POT certificate classes, Moodle classes, old web pages) just fall off the Internet. It’s all backed up. I think I’ll let it stay that way.

The electronic frontier is closed

With the death of John Perry Barlow, it is time to start writing the history of the open web.

Usually, historians are poor analysts of current events, and poor predictors of the future. Just look at Woodrow Wilson, idealistically trying to build a world of peace after the Great War. One of the problems is that we cannot write the history until something ends*. It is too soon, for example, to write the history of school shootings in America, or of post-rational politics. We are in the middle of these things.

In 1893 at an American Historical Association conference, Frederick Jackson Turner announced the end of the frontier. In his view, the “wild west” was over. The western frontier had served as an escape valve throughout American history, providing a place for dreamers and those who just didn’t fit in to start a new life, take their chances. But gradually the frontier was contained, mapped by geographers, fenced by ranchers, crossed by railroads. And while imperialists might use Turner’s proclamation to support their own internationally expansionist goals, the point was that the wild west was done, and therefore it was time to write its history.

So now it is time to write the history of the open internet, the electronic frontier, as Barlow called it. As in the wild west, the freedom that marked the early web would be contained, civilized, and gradually controlled by commercial and government interests. As it closed, the shift in the nature of the space gave birth to new threats. Where on the open web bad disruptors were restrained by the community, commercial spaces made possible abuses never seen before, and controlled by no one. From trolls to cyberhacking to international meddling in elections, the enclosed spaces themselves gave rise to horrors.

In its obituary of Barlow, The Economist quoted from his 1996 “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” :

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather…I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us.

Sometimes historians get to experience historical change themselves. While never a computer expert, I learned in the 1980s the mysteries of ProDOS and the Apple IIe. To me, computers were only sophisticated word processors, each generation enabling me to correct errors and write faster. Using Netscape in the late 1990s, I began teaching history on the wild web, grading assignments by email and posting lectures in HTML that I learned from a book.

In education, the wild west began to diminish with the advent of the learning management system, and I spent the next dozen years or so fighting to keep online college classes free of the imposed pedagogy inherent in these systems, even as I learned to use them myself. I also dreamed that the artisan way of doing things would survive the growth of mechanized online teaching. Blackboard and now Canvas are the educational equivalents of Facebook and Google – entities that began with a worthy goal but now manage information in controlled commercial spaces. And, as with the web in general, this control paradoxically encourages the worst elements to emerge. College courses, for so many students the opportunity to think freely, now feature a level of standardization and accountability that Henry Ford would have envied.

I still believe, like Barlow, that the freer the space, the less opportunity there is for abusing our fellow human beings. But all that has passed. It is time now to write the history of the web that was open to all, when everything was possible, where the disembodied voice spoke to a world that wanted to listen and learn. Historians take dreams and wrap them up, explaining events in a way that gives meaning and context. So this is a wrap: the electronic frontier is closed.

*Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France may be the one exception to this rule.

Violating my Precepts

Straight from the “if you can’t change your mind, how do you know you have one?” department, I am writing an early American history course that violates many of the precepts I have been teaching to online instructors for the last 15 years.

Don’t rely on outside material

No, I have not gone over the the Dark Side and course cartridges. But in trying to avoid my same old thing (writing out and recording lectures with images), I am instead creating custom segments of Films on Demand videos. I even plan to use some as discussion prompts. If anything happens to Films on Demand, I’m sunk. I have consulted with our library specialist, who says it’s stable – that’s certainly more of a guarantee than, say, something on YouTube.

Create all your own stuff

Nope, I’m not. I’m relying on a textbook and sources I put together, a few lectures from me, and my own connecting text on we pages. But a lot of the “meat” is created by other historians instead, those with actual studios and lighting and funding and doctorates.

Don’t create long video lectures

Done it, 30 minutes on the Salem Witch Trials using Screenflow. And it’s not actually that good.

Don’t create discussions where the main goal is to discuss

Doing it, creating two-level discussions where they respond emotionally to a video prompt falsely encouraging two sides, then leading them deeper, as I used to do in my old old method from 2007 (an eternity in internet years).

Don’t forget it’s college, not high school

I’m creating an extra credit assignment that has them use a colonial cookbook to make something from their family and share video/photos. And we’re gonna discuss things like whether slavery was wrong and whether the South had a right to secede (they’ll be chewing on the edge of their playpens).

Have them create something meaningful that’s important to you

I planned to do this – I really did. I even told Laurel Thatcher Ulrich I was going to do it, stealing her idea from Tangible Things. But after hours of gathering bookmarks with specific search terms to make sure that students really use primary sources from the colonial era, I have had second thoughts. This is probably from seeing the inevitable 19th century romantic paintings being posted as “primary sources” for the Salem Witch Trials, the Boston Tea Party, GW crossing the Delaware, and other 17th and 18th century events.

This last I’ll think about some more.

But thus I go forth, violating my precepts with equanimity if not actual common sense.

Brexit, education, the election, and technology

There are a lot of threads coming together in the blogosphere that are helpful as we look for connections between what we do as teachers and what we’ve elected to the White House. I confess this has occupied my mind since the election, even though I was not surprised by the result.

Brexiteers marching in York 5 days before the vote
Brexiteers marching in York
5 days before the vote

Why wasn’t I suprised? Because I was in England during the Brexit vote. I was at the University of Durham talking to students who were afraid of losing their fellowships and their continental relationships. I had dinner with historians who were nervous about the vote, but reassured by the continual press coverage saying Brexit couldn’t win. When they asked me about Donald Trump (this was in June, remember) they wanted the same assurance he couldn’t win. When I said he certainly could, for the same reasons I was seeing Brexit marchers in the streets of York, I depressed a lot of people (even a Scotsman, which I thought was impossible).

At the B&B where I was staying, the middle-class owner said her heart said Brexit, but her knowledge that young people were the future made her vote RemaIN. The woman in the kitchen wanted out. The night before the vote, the London Times confidently announced a RemaIN victory, with lots of cool graphs showing which demographic would vote which way. Then Sunderland results came in, and everyone discounted it because it was Sunderland (depressed, northern). Then the rest of the results came in.

The cab driver, the morning after the vote, told me he was “over the moon” with happiness – he was convinced millions would return from the EU to bail out the NHS. I knew that wasn’t true. It had also become very clear to me that, as the B&B owner had said, the RemaINers were voting with their heads, and the Brexiteers were voting with their hearts, here in a country I had long considered a bastion of rationalism. America is not a bastion of rationalism. We are the nation of independent pioneer types, where freedom is new and still to a great extent untried. We assume, we take for granted — only 50% of us vote.

I’m sure those historians at the University are wondering what they did wrong, in the classroom and with their students. Of course their students, like ours, the ones who voted, didn’t vote for this. But I’ve been teaching for 26 years, not just the past 10 or so. And to a certain extent I’ve bought into the democratic ideals of the Twitter revolution, even as I’ve acknowledged echo chambers and the potential of the new mass media to be less mass, and more media, and to connect crazy people and give repressive ideologies a bullhorn.

So it’s fascinating to read the work of Audrey Watters this week, and to follow her trails. One particularly scary article, for the way it’s written as well as its subject, is Willie Osterwell’s What Was the Nerd?, which notes that white outcast coders and basement nerds may be at the heart of the new rise of fascism (it was certainly refreshing to see someone use this word other than me). Helen Beachem responded to Martin Weller, whom I followed on Twitter throughout the Brexit election. Weller posted brilliantly in September on the “unenlightenment” in open education. His work noted an issue I’ve been following for awhile: the deliberate turn away from rationalism and factual information, something I saw way back in 2008 as Glorifying the Doofus.

What Helen Beachem writes is that educational technology needs to be re-evaluated for its role in what’s happened. She points out that those who are learning successfully online were already successful in education, but that the promise was to do more, to develop everyone as independent learners, to work for a kind of establishment educational plan to counter the new market in e-learning. Taking students outside our institutions, we must be careful:

Suffice to say that when we help students into those unregulated spaces where their learning is unfettered by institutional management systems, assessment deadlines and fair use rules, we are not sending them into the country of the free. We are sending them to the data warehouses of Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Weiner.

She also notes that the Brexiteers used social media as advertising, with no one taking responsibility for the emotional response that led to the spread of irrational ideas. She refers to those who live online as “adrenalised and hooked”. The online space itself needs to be interrogated, the culture where we all click and send and message and retweet and like posts — all this has “the illusion of elective power but none of the responsibilities of citizenship.”

Michael Feldstein considers that there are issues of literacy. He notes the political polls that were wrong, and that learning analytics has the same weakness. Data is narrative, he says, and we need to be “literate” (by which I think he means liberally educated, experienced, critically thinking) teachers to be able to make that data useful, and to question it as needed. In this view I see the possibility to reclaim teaching as the experienced construction of narrative that is informed by, but is not dictated by, information, because it acknowledges that information itself may contain inherent interpretations.

I am processing all this, trying to determine where I stand as a community college instructor of History, the one telling my students that nothing is unprecedented. While I have been happy to explore and live in online spaces, I have only rarely asked it of my students. While I have raged against the LMS and other “closed silos” for over a decade, 90% of the online courses I offer have remained in a protected space. Aware of my students’ lack of web savvy, I have asked that online resources be mined, and used, I hope critically. But clearly there is much more work to do.

Sometimes you gotta make something silly

Made with Blabberize to upload the image and animate the mouth, Google Translate to translate the French, Natural Reader preview to make the French voice, Snapz Pro to screencast record the audio (and Quicktime to stitch the audio sections together), Audacity to convert to mp3 for upload to Blabberize (yeah, I know, but Quicktime is faster for me), YouTube to upload and add English captions, HTML cc_load_policy=1 in embed code to force English captions to show.

Too much trouble not to make two:

Early adventures with H5P

I can’t remember how I found H5P, but it was probably when I was looking around for a substitute for Zaption.

Zaption allowed you to create interative video, forcing the student to do a short quiz or answer a question before continuing viewing. Several of my colleagues spent long hours creating Zaption videos. Then Zaption went under.

People lost their work. I don’t like losing my work. That’s why all my lectures, and anything I don’t want to rewrite, is both on my own hard drive and on the web server I rent on Lunarpages.

H5P looks like a startup based on open source. It can create interactive elements like video, flashcards, etc. Right now it works as a plugin for Drupal, Moodle and WordPress. Moodle is being sunsetted at our school and we never used Drupal. I know WordPress.

I installed a new WordPress blog on my server, using their never-fails 5 Minute Installation.

[Side note: Starting a new WordPress blog is a cure for creative teaching block, and the blues. Just as a Cajun recipe starts with “first, make a roux”, I start with “first, create a database for WordPress”.]

I installed the H5P plugin, using their instructions.  Here I got stuck, as my WordPress kept telling me the file was too big to load. I kept messing around with php.ini files until I gave up and created a new one inside my public_html folder.

I created a basic interactive video from my introduction for my students. You can see it here.

You have to see it there because, as I discovered, I cannot embed this post into Canvas. [Nightmares start “first, know that this will not work in Canvas”.] So I stopped creating H5P stuff until I realized that Canvas does not deserve to host certain things within its iframe. Since I had already begun to link out my lectures so my Javascript mini-quizzes would work, I figured I can link out whatever. Students will get used to it, because it’s hard to embed things and most instructors won’t bother with SSL and all that crap.

Since I’ll be using WordPress in this way, I used the Atahualpa theme and deleted all widgets, adding my log in and admin to the footer. I will link to the post, of course, but don’t want students clicking around and getting confused.

The LMS and the End of Information Literacy

Having worked with the Canvas system deeply for several months, and then worked closely with an online student who needed help at various levels, I have concluded that the underlying philosophy of Canvas (and OEI in California) is to remove the information literacy requirement for online learning.

Canvas’ defaults encourage a simplistic, linear course with step-by-step navigation for all tasks. The features for instructors to customize extensively, have students collaborate, and make grading meaningful, are conspicuously missing. When requested in the community, such features meet with success mainly when they adhere to the basic philosophy of simplicity.

computerizedlearningThe implication is that any depth must exist within the instructional materials accessed through the system. At the top level, the environment in which the student must work, the danger of cognitive overload is mitigated by providing as few options as possible. It is a clear return to 4th grade “computerized learning”, the kind that takes place in a lab. Pupils sit at stations, and the software guides them step-by-step by pressing as few buttons as possible. With visual and touch-screen interfaces, this is now even easier. Complete a small task, get instant feedback, press ‘Next’.

The fact that such interfaces prevent branching, distributed, or complex learning is considered to be a feature, not a bug. All information is “chunked” for easy understanding and assessment.

Back in the early 1990s, we were all excited about the open web and its possibilities for the exploration of human information. We were able to look up things that had previously been inaccessible before, and we developed pedagogies designed to use that easy-to-access information. To do so meant designing our own pathways through the material, to help students turn their study into knowledge.

With the coming of the read-write web, it became possible for users to interact with the software in online spaces. IRC and other forms of synchronous chat had been available, but required some technical knowledge. Web-based interactions, which required little technical understanding, became simpler and easier to use. With the development of private web spaces like Facebook and Google, companies came to control the interfaces, simplifying even further what we needed to know to use the tools, and pruning the content we could access easily.

wikinoAlthough at first there had been plans to teach information literacy as a school requirement, this trend has tapered off because of such ease of use. In many places, information literacy is still articulated as a goal, but is not implemented in any meaningful way. The result has been students who have no idea what to type into Google when asked to find, for example, information about American imperialism in the late 19th century. We already are aware of the challenges of distinguishing between good and bad sources of information, and want students to distinguish between a scholarly source and a pop culture source. But instead of increasing skills, the fear of bad websites has led to banning certain things, through filters in grade schools and syllabus dictates in college. (When I encouraged my student to use Wikipedia to find primary sources, she was aghast, telling me it had been drilled into her head for years never to use Wikipedia for school.)

Increasing numbers of students have no conception of what constitutes a website, or a link, or a browser. With no understanding of how to navigate a complex web page or database, students have become unable to comfortably navigate a complex online course, regardless of the LMS. It is possible that only students with more sophisticated web skills are able to benefit from the learning pathways we design. As instructional designers remove more and more of our responsibility to construct these pathways ourselves, the “best practices” encourage computerized learning goals such as chunking, instant feedback, and tightly controlled pathways at the expense of discovery, integration and community.

While I would prefer, for the sake of our democratic society, a metacognitive awareness of the control exerted on us by our tools, I have to admit the temptation to follow the larger trend. We have successfully trained an entire generation not to think while using an electronic tool. We may no longer be able to expect them to do so for the sake of their education.

Related posts:

The Monsters of Canvas

Goya, The Sleep of Reason Begents Monsters (1798)

Francisco Goya, The Sleep of Reason Begets Monsters (1798)


We all know that in any system, there are things that go wrong or are difficult to use. We all know people who love their previous LMS, and will hate whatever they’re forced to change to. We all know that learning curves are something we need to ride, trying not to fall off. We journey on…

But occasionally a system begets monsters.

Here are some of the early monsters of Canvas, and the brutality committed to your hard work:

Code Stripping Beast – If Canvas doesn’t like your code, your Javascript or your HTML commenting, it strips it. Other LMSs do that too. But Canvas is monstrous in that it eats everything within your naive HTML commenting, deleting the content between the tags. There is no warning that it will do this.

Quiz Question Ogre  – If you change a question in a Question Bank, it does not change the questions in any quizzes you’ve created. You might not know this, and go blithely along thinking it has.

Disappearance Dragon – Things other than code mysteriously disappear. If you’ve created a page and linked it on other pages, and you change the page’s name, Canvas can no longer find the file. After a few minutes, neither can you.

Structural Cyclops – Canvas is myopic about its own structure. If you page through a Module using “Next”, which is clearly intended as the default navigation, Canvas does not understand when the Module is done. It just continues into the next Module with no warning, necessitating that you design some form of “Start of Week x” and “End of Week x” pages to alert students so they know they’re done.

Transport Troll – You cannot move select items from one Canvas course into another, like the rubric you just spent three hours developing, or those “End of Week x” pages you made for each week. You have to remake rubrics for each course until you have it set to be saved for just that course. (Update: if both courses are within the same Canvas install, you can import particular content from another course – just don’t every use Export unless you want the whole course, and beware of the Set-Up Siren!)

Set-up Siren – Canvas seduces you with the idea that it can import. But it cannot import individual items you need, like that quiz set you backed up from another LMS.  Without any warning (something like “if you import, everything you’ve done will be erased”), it wipes out everything except its own content when you import, despite the deceptive list of imports implying you can do it more than once.

I’m sure I will find more of these in my Odyssey, a journey in a ship with sails made of Canvas.