Workflow control, guidance, or punishment?

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

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


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

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

It seemed to violate my willingness to let them fail.

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

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

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

Perils of the OEI Rubric

As you may know, our campus is going over to Canvas from a two-LMS system (Blackboard in house, Moodle outsourced). I have, of course, deep concerns about Canvas as an LMS. But it isn’t just Canvas. It is Canvas sponsored by the state of California through their Online Education Initiative. Back in April, I commented on that arrangement. While I have discussed at my college how it’s being implemented, I haven’t posted on it yet.

Although not required at this time for the colleges adopting the free state-sponsored Canvas, there is a rubric and a review team for any course that will be offered on the “exchange”. The ultimate goal is to have any California community college online class count for credit at any other, a goal I have supported since, oh, 1998.

The 2015 rubric is hereoeichunked, and has been implemented fiercely. I have already spoken with faculty who have been told that the materials they set up for sound pedagogical reasons will not do — they must be changed to provide students simpler, clearer pathways and simple downloadable materials. The intent is clearly to reduce the complexity of all online classes in order for them to be seen as “excellent” by OEI.

Complexity, of course, may be a pedagogical goal in itself. Pathways to learning are not always in straight lines, either in education or in the working world. Exploration may need to be encouraged. Perhaps the instructor doesn’t want to provide too much guidance, in order to force discovery.

In some cases cognitive dissonance is being confused with cognitive overload. If a student has to click around to find something, this may cause some frustration but it may also created learning. Learning is not clean – it is messy.

Having gotten some pushback, OEI is now revising that rubric. But it isn’t really any better. Here is my annotation of that rubric (my comments are in the right-hand column). At this point, they seem to be only taking internal feedback, so all I can really do is post it here.

Some faculty are going ahead and doing whatever they want, and their dedication to offering their course on the exchange is admirable. Enforced pedagogy, however, is not my style.

Bad tech – no donut

I normally offer students the chance to do revisions of assignments, but I won’t be able to do it anymore because Canvas makes it too difficult to grade individual items in a forum.

And really, the reason I have to grade so many revisions is that students don’t read the instructions carefully.

So I figure, hey, we spend so much time on how to display content online. How about concentrating on teaching them how to do process, how to demonstrate the skills in our student learning outcomes?

I do this some. I have several videos and tutorials on how to create historical themes. But that’s for the last few weeks of the class, as they head toward the final essay. I don’t have tutorials for how to create the writing assignments or post a source. Instead, I have instructions. And checklists. Lots of writing. They don’t read them. They just do the work they think they’re supposed to do, post it, get it graded by me, then re-do it.

So I’m thinking, interactive trails through the skills. Like a Moodle branched lessons, only for Canvas. Canvas’ advantage (there is one! this may be the only one!) is that you can block something (like an assignment) until they’ve done something else first (like a tutorial). Adaptive release. So let’s use that. I’ll make tutorials they have to do first, before they post.

I started with hp5, because I want something that’s on my server, not someone else’s. (Those who got burned painstakingly making interactive videos on Zaption know what I’m taking about.) I also didn’t want to make a bunch of Canvas-dependent page-quiz-page modules that won’t move from semester to semester. But hp5 only works in Drupal, Moodle (sniff), or WordPress.

I create a new WordPress blog, with the five minute setup. Set up my database and frantically search around for my db username. Install the hp5 plugin. Try to install the libraries for all the cool things h5p can do, but it told me I exceeded the max upload size. Oh, gosh, php.ini. Where did I put that thing? Doesn’t it go in wp-content? No…wp-admin. How many php.ini’s does it take to screw in a lightbulb? OK, got it. Uploaded libraries.

I open Interactive Video. I find the YouTube video I made for the start of class, and put that in. I create some little interactive things. OK so far.

So now it’s in a WordPress post. How to get it into Canvas? Try embed code on a page. Nope, it strips the Javascript, of course (according to h5p, I’d need to put it in the global javascript, but of course I don’t have that kind of access to the Canvas install).

Try as a link inside a module. It opens the thing really huge and you can’t resize it (that Javascript was for resizing, of course) or find the button because it’s below the screen space. Embed it in my own webpage with a set iframe size, then link to the page inside Canvas. Ugly. Makes you go all external.

Try making my own webpage SSL to make it stay inside the Canvas shell. No go. Shows a blank page no matter what. Even without the Javascript.

So after five hours, I’m at a dead end, because hp5, WordPress, SSL and Canvas won’t play nicely together.

Fun with YouTube: the pure embed

I like using YouTube clips for my classes, but I don’t like the clutter: links to other videos when it’s done playing, the title showing at the top, low quality. So I play with the embed code:

<iframe src=”//;vq=hd720&amp;showinfo=0″ width=”450″ height=”253″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen=”allowfullscreen”></iframe>

See what I’ve added after the video code, ending with the ?
rel=0 > YouTube adds this when you deselect the “show related videos” on the embed code

vq=hd720 > means to show it in maximum resolution or HQ if it has it

showinfo=0 > to get rid of the title showing at the top of the clip

That’s better.

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.


First road test of

It’s all about annotation, and I’ve been comparing Kami and Last semester, I used Kami  ($50 for no ads) for students to annotate text with my History of Technology class. I had some success, but I was not happy with its limitations, so this summer I tried instead.

The students were offered a video tutorial on how to use it. I made a group just for them. The assignment was extra credit — for each of the three classes I uploaded an article for them to read and annotate, replying to each other. Sample instructions:

Extra credit for up to 3% of the grade:
1) Get your own account at at Please use your name as enrolled for the username.
2) Join the test group at
3) Go to
4) Annotate the article with your own responses and answer those of others. Annotations are graded on academic quality, connections to coursework, acknowledgement’s of others’ ideas, and evidence of understanding of the article.

I had been concerned that they would automatically post in Public instead of in the Test Group, because I could find no way to limit that or point them directly to the group page – the choice is made only via a drop-down menu in the upper right corner. Sure enough, several students posted in Public and missed the discussion going on in the group. I will have to add this to the instructions as well as in the tutorial.

I had thought that analysis and counting their contributions would be made easier by the brilliantly conceived Hypothesis Collector, created by John Stewart. It worked great last night. Unfortunately, when I tried it this morning, it only gave me the posts that had been made as of last night. I simply couldn’t get it to work and had to manually count annotations to assign points. I have been contacted by Jeremy Dean of for ways to integrate with Canvas – this might be a huge help next year.

I am considering providing my next class textbook, The American Yawp, with my own annotations. The book, an open textbook, has a number of faults and omissions that would make for great learning opportunities for students. My own annotations would be like mini-lecture commentary, glossing on the text. But for some of the summer articles (one out of three of mine) in, the section one highlights is quoted in the annotation without spaces, which is ugly. Also, there is little color or design in the annotation box to alert the student to the presence or unique character of an annotation.


I think Kami looks better for this, and then I will export my pages as PDF for the students.


I had originally thought I could use The American Yawp’s own affordances as an updated online text, but just got an announcement that, ironically, their current update will be integrating Each page served by them will then come up with an invitation to annotate publicly. While this might or might not help students with the text, it provides an additional way for students to go wrong beside the Public or Group problem, so I don’t think I’ll be working off the Yawp html pages regardless.

Don’t get me wrong – the business model of is wonderful. They make a real effort to reach out, adapt and update. In fact, that’s one of the reasons for this post – to provide input that I hope will continue its improvement as an open source product made by people who really understand the value of text annotation.