Grade work, not students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Canvassed on my own petard

So, the California Community College’s Chancellor’s office, through its Online Education Initiative, is offering the Canvas LMS free to all colleges. There is a catch – if you adopt Canvas this way, your college is not allowed to use any other LMS. It’s a Canvas contract. A Mafia-style, old-fashioned, arm-twisting contract.

Faculty and other “stake holders” have made the decision to recommend Canvas, which surprises me exactly not at all. I spent useless hours on the survey offering my input, very shortly before the report came out justifying the changeover. I had chosen not to be on the committee that decided this (not that I was asked, you understand) because my forehead is already flat from banging it against walls.

alanlmsSo it’s time to learn to use Canvas. Yes, the instructor who wrote about the Insidious Pedagogy of the LMS will now be forced to change to an LMS with fewer features, options and control than the one I’m using. I can hear Alan Levine in the back of my head saying, “But Lisa, you only use the LMS solum pro procuratio“! Yes, I know. However, when you live in the same house a long time, your stuff builds up. You customize things for you. You move the hinge to the other side of the fridge, and cover up that gap in the floorboards with a pretty rug. After awhile you can move through the rooms at night with the lights off.

So I already know one thing – my pedagogy for my primary sources, the one I’ve published about, the main constructivist part of my class, won’t work in Canvas the way it has in Moodle. Like Blackboard (our other wonderful option), Canvas has “rubrics”, but neither lets you rate or grade a full screen of posts at once, as I do with Moodle’s dropdown ratings. Instead, it’s multiple clicks to grade each post.

I have tried every feature in Canvas (and Blackboard) to make sure I can’t do this in a similar way. I am using Moodle ratings rather than grades or rubrics – that’s what makes it simple. They translate automatically into percentage grades. And you can’t use ratings in Canvas or Blackboard like that – neither system allows instructor-only ratings

So up to now, I’ve been grading, with relative ease, about 35 moodleratingsposts per week x 7 classes. I will simply not be able to grade 245 posts one at a time every Thursday in Canvas. They’ll have to put me away.

Similarly, all the writing assignments have been graded on an open forum with drop-down ratings. ->

No can do.

So, the list of Canvas shortcomings compared to Moodle continues (please, if you know different, correct me!):

  • The course menu is very difficult to change, with strict limitations.
  • QTI format is required to import quizzes (Moodle had multiple formats – my zillions of quizzes are in Aiken).
  • Quiz questions are worth a minimum of one point each, and all quiz questions must be worth the same points. You cannot have a quiz with 20 questions worth 10 points.
  • Opening another tab for an open book exam is not possible.
  • Video is limited to YouTube unless you upload the whole file.
  • Viewing external pages within the LMS frame is only possible with SSL pages (and sometimes that doesn’t work).
  • Most tools are outside the LMS with vendors who may or may not be there later.
  • There is no capability to make a popup message for students when they log in.
  • There is no shoutbox (I use this as a quick forum on the front page with students).
  • There are no branched lessons, just forced pathways.
  • The only rating is “like”.
  • No Javascript is allowed (for security – theirs, not mine).
  • No iframes are allowed (more security – please remove your shoes before boarding the plane).

The pedagogy will have to shift to accommodate the limitations of the technology. I hate that. And I’ll need a screwdriver for the door on the fridge…

Student communication tracking trick

moodledunceOne of the big problems with Moodle is that the student profiles are connected to the central installation, not the course in which the student is enrolled.

This means that if I use the central Messages system to talk to students, I cannot tell which of my six (!) Moodle classes they’re in. They assume I can, since they Message from within the class. I spend too much time looking up which class they’re talking about.

So I tried a cgi form I adapted from somewhere, in text input boxes on the main page. I put the ?subject= code in each so I could tell which class they were coming from (the email would arrive with the course name in the subject line). But many students didn’t use it, and would just email me.

Some students need me a lot, so they email a lot, but I could never remember which class they were in and they could never remember to put the class name and section number in their email. In fact, many did not know what their section number was or what it meant, so I’d have three sections of History 111 and have to look them up even if they put History 111 in their email.

I could use a link with mailto:, but that opens a student’s email program on their hard drive. I don’t use my Apple mail, I use Gmail. They mostly use Gmail too, or at least web-based mail, like Yahoo. Hardly anyone uses a desktop program for Gmail anymore.

So I’m trying two tricks.

1) Gmail me
I surfed around until I figured out the code to get a link to open their Gmail so they can use my Gmail with my subject line. For History 111 #1337:

<a href=";fs=1&amp;;su=Hist111#1337" target="_blank">Gmail Lisa</a>

2) Google Circles
I turned on People Widget in Settings ->General. When a student emails me the first time, I look them up and put them in a circle corresponding to the class section they’re in (I made a circle for each class section). Then with the People Widget on, I can see which class they’re in right next to their email.


It’s better already.

Weird-Ass Workaround

Moodle has always done something horribly wrong – each student’s information is not attached to the class they are in.

I teach at least five different classes in Moodle each semester.

So let’s say a student sends me a Message. I cannot tell which of the five of my classes they’re in. I don’t know which class to open to answer their question. And a few versions ago, Moodle made this worse in their programming by having student profiles be completely separate from the class anyway.

And yes, I’ve asked them to please put their course and section number in the e-mail. That’s running about 50% despite reminders. And it’s so 1998.

contactlisaFor several years, I’ve used my own cgi form, embedded in an HTML block on the main page. I used the form to automatically put in which course they were sending the form from. Thanks to the vagaries of browsers, I’ve had recent complaints that it sometimes doesn’t work.

I tried Quickmail, a plug-in for Moodle, but it doesn’t let me know which class the email is coming from, since its address for the student is the one in the main system.

How about Gmail? Here’s where the weird-ass workaround is.

I figure I should use Gmail to somehow create Groups from the rosters in the enrollment system. But Gmail doesn’t want you to do that – it wants you to add the names to a Group one at a time. Minimum 200 emails per semester. As if.

However, I can use the “Old Contacts” (rather hard to get to at to add a list I’ve made in Excel as a CSV file, using the info from the enrollment system. So I can get them in a Group using Import.

But then, it doesn’t show me in the in-box which group they’re in. Or in their contact info inside the email.

However, if I turn on the setting to “Show the People Widget”, it will show me some info. Not the Group they’re in. But it shows the Circle they’re in. So long as they’re only in one Circle, that is.


So I’ve created a Circle for each class with the name and section number.


You can’t add a bunch of emails to a Circle – they’d all have to be individually selected from my Contacts. I can go down the list in Old Contacts and add them – one at a time. Might have to.

But at least now when a student emails me, I can look them up once and add them to a Circle. Then when they contact me again, I can see which class they’re in.

That’s something.

I know where you’re coming from

Starting a new year means starting a new semester, and this time it will start a week early.

The issue today was IM. My classes are in Moodle, but I’ve always used a status button so students can communicate with me instantly if I’m online.

Moodle has something called Messages. Back in version 1.x, I couldn’t tell which class a student was in when they Messaged me. Instead of fixing this in 2.x, they made it worse by removing all user information outside the courses completely, making it not only impossible to tell which class a student was in, but impossible to get back to where you were working in your course site.

I used to use Google Talk Chatback Badge instead.  It didn’t tell me which class a student was in, but at least it was easy to let them know I was available, and they didn’t have to have a Google account or log in. That’s gone. The option now is Hangouts and other stuff where they have to join Googleland. I can’t be responsible for making someone violate their own privacy that way.

Then it was Plupper, which I routed through iChat. It’s been down all week. I don’t know if it’s coming back, but all week isn’t OK, so I went hunting again.

I was getting miffed that I couldn’t find what I wanted. I was running all over the web trying to find a free service. I began to realize I didn’t really need “chat”, but some sort of help-desky thing. I was at first delighted to find Zoho LiveDesk (link removed at request of Zoho) which I could adapt. i could even create different badges for different classes. Then I discovered that this multi-button feature was only available on paid accounts – it turned out I had somehow entered a 30 trial that would expire. So much for that.

Then it occurred to me. I rent my own server space – I wondered what open source stuff was hanging out there? I found Mibew, and installed it. It even built its own database (though I had to go in and tweak a bit).

Their button was not exactly what I needed (I won’t be turning blonde and I’ve never looked that happy):



So I got into GIMP and made my own:

Then I made one for offline:



After installing Mibew, I was able to set up each class as a “group”, then create button code for each group, so I can see which class they’re coming from! A unique button went onto each class site – I tested them and they work.

I used the Localization feature (which was highly customizable) to change “Live Support” to “For My History Students”, my designation as “operator” to “teacher”, and the language of client and user to student.

It may not be perfect. It may fail. It may crash. Keep in mind, I don’t code. I just know enough to change other people’s code.

But as I was doing this today, I suddenly realized I was Reclaiming the Web, a goal of many smart people for 2014. Happy New Year!

Openness in a surveillance society

I have been so critical of Learning Management Systems for the past ten years that people write to me asking what I use instead of an LMS, even though I usually use Moodle and blog about it. I have written articles on how the LMS determines pedagogy, and spent much time helping faculty put their pedagogy before the demands of such systems. I have been a huge promoter of using Web 2.0 tools for teaching. I just want to set up my credentials here to preface my concerns about using what used to be these more “open” methods.

In May of last year, I indicated reservations about the way things have gone in terms of openness. In this post, I was wary of closed/open spaces like Google and Facebook, where students could be exploited.  In June I indicated I wouldn’t switch from the anonymous Google Talkback to something my students had to sign up with Google for. That was before the recent public understanding of our surveillance society, brought home by the revelations of Edward Snowden. His work seemed to mark an endpoint that originated with Sun Microsystem’s Scott McNealy’s famous quotation from 1999: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

My concerns mean I have agonized over terms of service, along similar lines of Royan Lee, whose excellent blog post inspired this one. . Lee writes, in noting the mainstream acceptance of Google for education despite its Terms of Service.

“Suddenly, the amazing qualities of something like Google Apps for Education seems a little more about efficiency and logistics and less about transformation to me as an educator.”

Whenever I ask students to get a free account to do a Glogster or Slideshare, or open a group for them in Facebook, I think about these things.

There is a Google Community called Using Google Apps as a Free LMS, so I posted a link to Lee’s post there and got an excellent question in response:


My response indicates how this is coming together for me.

I would never be one to defend a commercial LMS as a better system. But it is closed in the sense that under normal conditions only the institution has access to the student input. And thinking about it more broadly, student input in the LMS is usually very focused on the course (this depends on pedagogy, of course – some students may indeed post highly personal information in the LMS). Using Google or any open-to-the-web service for classes connects the students’ personal use of that system to their coursework, widening the surveillance opportunities. Same thing with using Facebook. I’ve leaned toward my own hosted WordPress as a more balanced option, but certainly the functionality is not up to the ease of use as Google. My concern is just that the ease comes at a price.

This presents some confusion about open and closed, and what they mean in a surveillance society.

“Open” can mean available to anyone on the web without a password. But it can also mean accessible to ISPs, government surveillance, and commercial data collection. I don’t think we can ignore that anymore, even as we promote open education (I do!) and sharing (yes again!).

It means that a system like Google or Facebook can be “open” in the sense of available to surveillance, and “closed” in the sense of having to sign in and participate in places within the system that are supposedly “closed off” to other areas of the same system (like Google Communities, Google Circles, Google Apps for Education, Facebook Groups). Such areas are deceptive – they imply privacy that does not exist, even as Google and Facebook change their policies to expose more and more of these closed places to the public (for example, Facebook group posts showing up on your timeline) and to their own commercial data collection.

Very few people understand this. They think signing in and turning off Facebook settings and keeping our Circles of people separate implies some privacy. The purpose of signing in is not to protect your privacy. It’s to enable tracking and consolidation and data collection. And while I admire Royan Lee’s goal in spending a lot of time teaching his students about Terms of Service, I need to teach them History. I cannot save my students from the insatiable hunger of Big Data.

Lee is right in corresponding a society that accepts ongoing surveillance by the government with our acceptance of the terms required by web services. They are very similar. It is said that we accept surveillance because we believe if people aren’t doing anything wrong, what’s the harm? We extend this simplistic thinking to our web participation, if we think about it at all.

The solutions seem to be narrowing, to self-hosted LMS options like WordPress or Moodle or one of the newer open-source options. Even then, if you are logged in to Google and use Chrome, for example, your work in other systems can be tracked and (I assume in paranoid moments) recorded.

The closed LMS unfortunately is likely to be safer in a world that doesn’t understand what’s happening. It’s just that wasn’t the world in which I wanted to work.