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.


Embedding in Canvas

This is one of those posts I’m writing so I don’t forget how to do something.

After testing for annotations, and realizing that the Redirect Tool in canvas would force an ordinary webpage with annotations to only open in a new tab, I figured out something.

Canvas will only embed secure (SSL) pages (those with an address starting https://). All my web pages are just plain ole http. But it turns out that my host, Lunarpages, can create an SSL page by just using the URL of the server ( + rest of the URL). So any page I already have can become a secure page by using this URL instead.

So to make this happen automatically, here’s the workflow:

1. Create my own webpage with text and images.

2. Include the code in the HTML of the page

<script async defer src=""></script>

3. Use the Redirect Tool in Canvas, using the URL of the page, but with the Lunarpages server preface (in this case


4. Voila:


Floating discussion as a new fix for an old problem

Online discussion often sucks. The prompts are answered best by the first few go-getting students, and everyone else can only agree. Or the prompt is designed to elicit opinion in order to prevent repetition, and devolves into the sharing of personal beliefs without much connection to the class. I’ve avoided the whole thing by making my forums focused on posting primary sources.

Then there’s the issue of where to put the discussion. One giant discussion board with many topics and multiple clicking? A discussion each week, where ideas are abandoned as the class moves on?

Having eliminated weekly discussion as being useless, I have been putting one main forum at the top of each class (called the Coffee House, or Pub, or Tavern, depending on the class). I ask them to post their introductions there at the beginning of the class, but since I don’t require it for a grade, hardly any one participates after the first few weeks. That’s not surprising – all the rest of the work is listed in a weekly block. Why should anyone go back to do anything at the top of the page?

Right now, the last weeks of class are upon us. In my modern US History classes, I decided to add a discussion of current events,  to take place in the last week. Instead of creating a new forum, I just moved my Coffee House to the final week’s block.


Then it hit me – I could do that throughout the semester. Have one big board with topics, but add each topic when I move the forum to the weeks they belong. For example, the first week in US History is Reconstruction, but I don’t want a discussion in the first week, while they’re getting used to the class. But when we get to the next week, on The West, I have a question about victimization that makes for good discussion. I could add that at the beginning of that week, then keep pulling the forum down to the weeks where there’s really something do discuss. The forum would migrate according to the week’s topics.

Since I haven’t done this before, I might want to make it extra credit with an expectation to post, rather than a required element.

The advantage would be that all previous discussion would be available each time, and the tracking would be easy with only one forum.  Might be a good idea…

A really good start

Every semester I encourage students to start their online class by posting in the forum (variably called the Pub, or Coffee House, or Taverna, depending on the class). I usually ask them to do a couple of things, like update their Profile, take a distance ed readiness quiz, and introduce themselves. Although I encourage them to reply to each other and make connections, I always have classes where it’s all left-justified responses to my post – they don’t talk to each other.

This semester is totally different – they’re all talking about what it’s like to take an online class, and what their hopes are for this one, and how they’re getting organized to stay on track (not staying on track is, to my mind, the #1 reason for failure in online classes).

What made the difference? Well, I made a video about the class, but I’ve done that before. No, I’m convinced it was putting this video, usually just a link for the class, embedded right there in the forum.

I’m guessing that they “see themselves” in the video, students like themselves. They watch it because it’s right there at the start of the class, inside the discussion, right at the top.

The video is patched together from last year’s extra credit assignment, where I asked students to make a video clip with advice for new online MiraCosta students. I graded them higher if they filmed on campus and offered a really good tip. They had to give me permission to use their video publicly. Then I just edited and uploaded to YouTube.

It will be interesting to see how things go from here. Will they talk more in the posting forums, where discussion is not required? I don’t even have a grade for discussion or contribution this semester. Will they stay motivated? Will they stay enrolled? Let’s find out.

Whose discussion? (my 500th post)

For years, I didn’t have a “discussion” in my online classes. When I changed the discussion forum to a workspace, a place for students to post primary sources to support their writing, I didn’t miss the “I agree” posts or the obvious display of ignorance intended to pad a certain number of posts a week.

What started cropping up, though, were bits of discussion. A reply to a primary source, or to a writing assignment, because a student was particularly moved or related to the subject. And there didn’t seem to be enough opportunity to discuss issues in history, controversies and interesting perspectives that weren’t covered in the material. Plus, it was clear to me that the students had too many writing assignments. I was asking for them weekly, not very big assignments, but because they were scaffolded they required a lot of grading and feedback. That was hard to do with so many students, and they were getting bored with the work even if I wasn’t getting bored reading them.

So last summer, where the 16-week class is compressed to 8 weeks anyway, I had the students writing weekly, but there was also a discussion. I assigned students to groups randomly once the enrollment settled down. Then I made simple instructions, and modeled by leading the first discussions myself.



In the third week or so, I posted the student-led discussion forums, with instructions like this:

Grading was just rolled into the Contribution Assessment grade at mid-term and at the end of the class.

The result was excellent last summer, so I decided to keep it going this year. I model the first two discussions with questions and ongoing participation, then the groups are supposed to take over. This semester has been very different from last summer, however. A couple of groups had to be contacted to remind them to start discussion. One student wrote me complaining that another student had plagiarized his discussion question off of an educational website instead of creating his own. Now in Week 12, the discussion participants are fewer in every class.

So what’s different?

1. The instructions are a little more specific.
Last summer I was pretty vague, and didn’t insist that they connect topics to lecture or readings. While I added this to bring the focus onto the course materials, it may have stifled some freedom.

2. The discussions are every other week in the 16-week format.
This may have encouraged lost attention and boredom over time. A shorter, compressed format seems to keep focus better in general. This may be a good argument for 8-week classes.

3. The Contribution Assessment happened only once.
I was doing a mid-term and end-of-term assessment, but dropped the latter because the point of it was to help students recognize and improve their performance, and it’s too late to do that at the end of the class. But I may have gotten rid of a stick/carrot motivation for participating in discussion during the last half of the semester.

4. The students are different.
Last summer I had one Western Civ class full of university students, and one US History class full of typical community college students. At the start of the term, the university students were gung-ho, then they faded. The community college students’ behavior was reversed — they started slowly and gradually became more engaged. So I assumed that I would see similar patterns. But in all of this term’s five sections, there is just one pattern — about a dozen particular students are really into discussion, and the others are just posting to post. I can tell because they don’t reply to each others’ posts, just to my prompt.

So what to do for this summer? I think I should keep the format. But for next fall? Should I create my own discussions? Drop them again? Gotta think on this one.



That Community Thing

I’ve studied some about creating community in online classes, and we’re working on the topic this week in the POT Cert Class. And yet, I don’t do it. Create community, I mean, as an instructor.

Unlike in many online classes, my discussion forums are not set up for discussion. I do have a number of posts required, but each post has a purpose: one is for posting a primary source, the second one for responding to my guidance with a thesis and mini-essay, and a third to help someone else. I do not provide conversation prompts because my goal is not conversation.

However, in the very first forum, where I ask them to introduce themselves, either community forms or it doesn’t. And it stays that way the whole semester.

If, in the first forum, the first few students posting begin by responding to other students in a chatty and friendly way, instead of just introducing themselves and leaving, the others follow suit and the class takes off and community forms quickly. Participation and conversation levels remain high throughout the class, even in all the other forums where only posting their own work is required.

If, in that first forum, people only do as instructed and introduce themselves, and few comment on each other’s introductions, the community never takes off and the forum remains a posting board. This happens regardless of whether I, as the instructor, participate by welcoming people or not.

Interestingly, the level of student success in the forums doesn’t seem affected by which way it goes. They help each other at the same level regardless, because those trying to get an A are required to offer a helper reply to someone each week. Performance and learning seem unaffected by whether or not they form a community, but they clearly have more fun and make more social connections. Such support likely does have an effect I cannot see, perhaps engendering confidence and reducing fear.

But I wonder the extent to which it’s up to the students to form community anyway, even in classes where instructors are trying to force engagement and conversation?