Building a better syllabus in Canvas

While I haven’t written a post on Canvas in awhile, I’ve been invited to co-host a workshop on creating an equity-based syllabus that can be accessed from outside the learning management system. Doing this makes sense for all sorts of reasons:

  • Students who are curious but not yet enrolled can see what the class entails
  • If there’s a lag time between enrollment and being able to log in to the LMS (at our college it can be overnight), there’s something to point new students to
  • The syllabus can be shared with colleagues
  • The syllabus can be livened up and used for other purposes: introduction, sending a friendly greeting, etc.

The original idea for the workshop was to use Google Sites to create the external syllabus. It’s easy to use and lets you embed video, plus it creates a phone-friendly page. But I’ve been creating my syllabuses (yes, it’s Greek, not Latin) for years in Google Docs, which I can then embed on the Syllabus page in Canvas. That way, whenever I make a change on the Google Doc, it shows also in Canvas.

Unfortunately, Google doesn’t make doing these things easy. Google Sites cannot be embedded in Canvas. And Google Docs doesn’t let you embed video.

But the Syllabus page in Canvas itself is just a web page, and there is a way to make it visible without logging in to Canvas. It allows video to be recorded right on the toolbar, text to be formatted, links to be added, etc.

But the trick is in Canvas settings:

If you set the visibility to Course (or Institution), you can still use Customize to make the Syllabus page public. Then if you give students the Syllabus page URL, they can see the page even if they’re not logged in to Canvas.

The only caveat is that the class must be Published. But even if you set the class so that students can’t see the rest of the pages before the start date, this works: the Syllabus page is visible from outside.

A couple of hints:

  • On the Canvas Syllabus page, uncheck the “Show Course Summary” box. The course summary adds a huge list of every assignment in your class, when they already have that in the To Do list, and makes your syllabus huge, so get rid of it.
  • Use a shortening service, like tinyurl.com, to make your syllabus link smaller. Instead of https://miracosta.instructure.com/courses/28100/assignments/syllabus, you could share the link https://tinyurl.com/history100.

Copying and pasting syllabus text (don’t make it too long — no one will read it, and you can have a separate Information page or a FAQ instead inside the class), then adding a recorded friendly greeting, takes very little time. Making things better doesn’t have to be hard.

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.

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.

A free textbook experiment

For some time, I have been creating free textbooks for students. In my online classes, these take the form of a pdf file, containing edited selections from Wikipedia followed by my own edited selection of primary sources.

In online classes, students rarely print the book, although they are invited to if they wish. In on-site classes, printing is an issue. We reference the book frequently in class, and they read aloud from documents. The continual searching required by an e-book or online version wastes a lot of time compared to “see page 76”.

Few students want to print the textbook on their printer or use the library printer, because it’s about 170 sides of print. Since they do not understand the printer interface on computers, when they do obediently print the book themselves it comes out as 170 single-sided pages on 8.5 x 11 paper (that’s about A4 size). So over the past few years I’ve tried various things. The most successful has been having them bring the file to Staples or Office Depot with syllabus instructions of what to ask for.

When students asked why they must go to all this trouble, I explained. I could have the books printed by the on-campus bookstore. This is actually a corporate conglomerate, Follett, which in addition to enforcing copyright clearance that violates the TEACH Act, insists on marking the book up 26%. When I complained to Follett that I wrote it, they only printed it, and 26% was excessive, I was told that I can ask to receive my own percentage in royalties added into the price. They couldn’t see this made the problem worse, not better. Students nodded appreciatively when they understood I was trying to save them money. Then half got the book printed the first week, a quarter in the first few weeks after being reminded, and a quarter not at all.

Our college has promoted Open Educational Resources for some time. There is even a state-wide grant that faculty can get to adopt them. People like me should get these grants, but can’t for two reasons. First, the grants are for adopting OERs, not creating them. This is despite the fact that it takes over a hundred hours to create a resource, and about six to select one from the very few on offer. Second, the grants are only available to those who can demonstrate a savings over the previous semester, meaning those of us who have been offering free textbooks for years aren’t eligible.

So last term, given all these limitations and the execrable quality of open access textbooks in History, I asked the department for some printing funds. Since I teach so many classes online, I do not use much printing money each term. With this money I was able to have printed enough textbooks for the whole class (much easier in a time of declining enrollments). I did it half size and spiral bound, making a rather attractive if thick booklet.

(The “15th edition” gives you an idea of how long I’ve been creating these.)

I handed them out the second day of class, and told them to feel free to highlight or write in them. I told them what I had done and why, and that essentially these were paid for by taxpayer dollars. When I handed them out, they accepted them in an entirely different way than a handout or assignment. Each student took the booklet from me carefully, placing it on their desk. Some squared the corners with the desk. They turned the pages somewhat gingerly.

This pattern, of treating the book as a gift rather than a task continued through the semester. It was rather as if I’d given them their own chemistry set. After 12 weeks, I noticed that many of the booklets were still in mint condition.

Now we know that students don’t tend to highlight and take notes in their books anymore, unless it’s part of a specific assignment or one makes a point of insisting on it. At the end of the term, only two or three had been marked in. The rest looked perfect. None were grubby or torn. So I asked if anyone might be willing to turn in their book to pass on to the next group of students. Over half did so.

Although it may have been just a very considerate class of students, I’d like to think there’s something else at work here. I had been concerned about doing this because I thought the book would be devalued, since they hadn’t paid for it. But the opposite happened. Giving them the book seemed to tap into the affective domain. They cared that I gave it to them. They seemed to see it as a sign of me caring about them. And they cared for the object. The attitude was such that if there was no department money, I might well pay for doing it myself. I’m certainly going to do it again this term.

 

 

1 comment to A free textbook experiment

  • Jmm

    Everyone loves getting presents. 🙂
    I used to hand out glass ‘pearls’ to illustrate concepts of trade and currency and symbolic value etc, and many of my students kept them for months after the course was over.

Honors Contracts in Canvas

Yes, it’s another how-to-so-I-don’t-forget post! (Sorry, I would much rather being doing England travelogues.)

Background

So… I have a stand-alone Honors section this semester, with 25 students of varied abilities, some Honors students and others not, some just desperate to grab a seat in an online US History because we never offer enough. This stand-alone section is online and in Canvas. I have created weekly research tasks for this class, each in a forum so all can share their work as their project progresses. You can see these tasks together here on this Google Doc.

Honors Contracts, however, are the mechanism by which individual students in non-Honors (regular) classes can take the class officially for Honors. This is typically done by working on research individually with the instructor.

I have strived to create community among my Honors Contract students, but with little success. One of the issues is numbers: I am only allowed to teach 5 contracts per term. Since Honors Contracts are fairly new, I usually only get 4-5 requests anyway, but they are from different classes. Excluding 8-week classes for European History and U.S., this leaves my History of England and History of Technology classes for Honors Contracts.

I have struggled with student self-direction with the Contracts, and many of my Contract students don’t complete, for various reasons (mostly personal rather than academic). The problem is that when they get into trouble, the system does not allow them back into the “regular” course – they do the Honors work or they fail.

So last year I had this great idea to combine the Honors Contracts students from these two classes, and have them work on this blog, with set readings and curriculum. The two students that finished did great. But there were problems with the technology (or rather, problems with me and the technology – if I hadn’t insisted the college connect WordPress to the enrollment system, they would not have happened).

The Plan

Since community is not working (for me or for the students),  I will be returning to the original intention of Contracts: individual research projects.

This does not mean I think my set course in “Victorian Science and Science Fiction” wasn’t wonderful (it was effing brilliant) or that everyone shouldn’t study Frankenstein, watch The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or read Arabella of Mars (they should). It just isn’t sustainable at this time.

Since I have already created weekly research forums for my stand-alone US History class, I will simply import these into my History of England and History of Technology Canvas shells. But they will only be assigned to one group, which I’ll name Honors Contracts (I supposed I could amuse myself by calling it Unicorns or something, but I might get confused.)*

The way it works at my college, Contract students are “in class” with the regular section, but just do some different, more advanced work. In order to provide time for their research, I have my Contract students stop taking quizzes and stop uploading lecture notes after the first two weeks of class, so long as their grades are OK. But I don’t want to keep a separate grade tally (you know, on a piece of paper, God forbid). I just found out that it’s easy to Excuse students from taking particular assignments, right in the gradebook, as shown here:

I got this from this Canvas help page. So I’ll do that for all their quizzes and lecture notes.

Since the research forums are forums, if I have more than one Contract student in a class, they can work together, but I’ll change the instructions to remove required interaction. I’ll be their buddy in the forum, just like an individual tutor (I would like to furnish my online office like an Oxford don, but that might be too much — oh, wait, I could Voki!**).  If I want to get Contract students together, we can use social media (Facebook group) and/or real-life meetings at Peet’s Coffee.

Ideally, it would be nice to have a separate Canvas course that would integrate all the Contract students from my various classes, but Canvas cannot do that and keep it connected to the regular class site. (I’ll be lucky if it does this properly.***)

And yes, it will take awhile to set up, particularly since Canvas will want to do stupid things, like put all forums on the Calendar so all students can see, or include it in the Syllabus Assignments list even when they aren’t assigned to everyone.

But I think it’s more likely that students will stick with their Contract if it’s easier, and if their Honors work is integrated with their regular coursework, at the same online site as their regular work.

Or at least, that’s what I’m telling myself as I continue down this road, paved with good intentions, of bowing to our Canvas overlords.

 

*Update: importing the research forums into the regular courses brought to light another problem — how will I know when an Honors Contract student posts in a research forum? I want to be able to respond to these immediately. But Canvas notifications are “all or nothing”: you either get notifications for all discussion forums in all classes or for none. For everything, you choose how to be notified of “Discussion” (every post) or “Discussion post”.  That would be a nightmare of email notifications. I’m going to try to solve this by adding myself as lisa-student (my test student account) to the course and to the Honors Contract group, and then subscribe to all 13 research forums. 

**After writing this, I renewed my Voki account. First week in the research forums will start something like this:

*** It didn’t. I have also discovered that checking it as a “Group Discussion” is not helpful, because Canvas assumes you want the same discussion assigned to all students, just in different groups. It’s better to assign each Honors forum or quiz to individual students and avoid Groups.

 

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.

google-chromescreensnapz003

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 feedback.google-chromescreensnapz002

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.

What might they recall?

This semester I instituted “roll calls” in my online classes, one during each week before a drop deadline. My idea was to check on my students quickly, see who was paying attention, before looking more closely at who might need help or need to drop the class.

I did this in the form of a “Choice”, a tiny Moodle survey. Once they answer, they can see everyone’s answer.

The first one is just a check to make sure they’re receiving the announcements (called Latest News in Moodle) by email. The options are:

• Yes, I am!
• No, so I’ll check my spam filter and profile settings.
• No, but I don’t need them because I check Latest News every day.

For next semester, I will be adding: “No, but then I found them in my Promotions folder in Gmail, so I’ll change my settings.”

The second choice asks what their favorite part of the class is so far (see results here).

My third one, about 75% into the semester, said, “What might you recall when this class is over?” and I only gave four options, and they could only choose one. Here’s what happened, across four class sections:

  • factual details from history 36
  • the primary sources I found and posted 48
  • how to write a historical thesis 30
  • how to manage time while taking an online class 29
  • not answered 5

I was surprised by how evenly these were spaced, but gratified that the searches they did themselves were likely to stick.

I have yet to find a way to do this in Canvas. They don’t seem to have open surveys…

2 comments to What might they recall?

  • Hi Lisa! Have you thought about using a Google form for the survey…? I had no love for the D2L Survey tool so I always just used Google Forms; for my purposes it worked. I’m guessing you could embed a Google Form in Canvas…? I haven’t tried that yet, but you can see my Canvas embedding adventures here:
    Canvas.MythFolklore.net
    As a summer project I’m having fun with it, but man, what a head-banging experience. I can’t imagine what it would be like to teach with that as the main classroom space. Everything just looks the same in there, although I’m trying to find ways to let the Internet breathe some life into it.
    Very cool about time management being a take-away for so many of your students. True for my classes also. 🙂

    • Hi Laura! Yes, I could use a Google form indeed, but I think they would need a Google account to see who had made what choice on the survey, and that’s part of the fun. They’d see only an aggregate if they didn’t log in. And yes, one can use all the Google stuff inside Canvas, but again, they then have to have an account. Of course, many of them do, but still…I think I’m trying to see how much I can do within the system.

      I notice on yours the same problem I have – any website that isn’t https (or that you can make that way) forces a link out of the system anyway. It’s like a straight-jacket that rejects you when you try to wrap it around yourself…

A 50/50 Proposition

The saying goes that there are two types of people: those who divide people into two types of people, and those who don’t.

Our current Program for Online Teaching Chat has turned toward the issue of learner-centered versus teacher-centered instruction. This week’s discussion focused on what has become the so-trendy-we-must-question-it shift from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side”. This is the belief, promoted in numerous papers and presentations over the last decade, that instructor-led, lecture-based, textbook-based, LMS-dependent, top-down models of pedagogy are antiquated and useless, leaving underprepared or economically disadvantaged or socio-economically challenged students out in the cold.

The answer is to shift to student-led, interest-guided, open resource, open format, participant-centered pedagogies, exemplified by but not limited to Massive Open Online Classes (MOOCs). Even apart from the fact that corporate interests have taken the side of this more-customer model, we still have two types of people: those who support a 100% shift to student-centered learning, and those who don’t.

z_creamsicleBut, as many of our experienced faculty have pointed out in our Chat, it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. And certainly, every time I change something in my classes, I end up with a combination pedagogy, a 50-50 type of deal.

I hesitate to stay this, but there are few faculty who can actually pull off fully student-centered classes. I do know some who have, and I admire them enormously. But the difficulty is that the risk is too high for those of us who teach large, publicly-funded classes. For these instructors, if we cut off the instructor-directed elements (textbooks, continual reminders, poured-in information) our students could drop or fail. Since many of us can’t afford to let that happen, we have to be careful.

So yes, I support a shift from fully prof-directed pedagogies. But to a 50-50 model:

  • 50% prepared materials / 50% student-created materials
  • 50% open stuff / 50% closed safety
  • 50% instructivism / 50% constructivism or connectivism

Not quite a popular point of view in our increasingly polarized educational and political climate, but heck, I’m a pragmatist. Some students do better with the more instructivist elements, likely because they’re trained to it and it feels safe. Other do better with the more constructivist work, finding it more fun and interesting. I set up my classes with three areas of graded work: one part instructivist (quizzes based on reading), one part constructivist (posting primary sources), and one part a combination (writing assignments based on those sources).

I didn’t do this consciously – it has simply evolved based on my practical experience. Students are pushed out of their comfort zone, but only 50% of the time. They get the content I feed them, but only 50% of the time. My grade scale makes it possible to get a C in the class by being good at half and not good at half. That works for me.

Join the POT Chat in Facebook

Discovery wins!

Again this semester I have polled my students.

What’s your favorite part of the class so far?
– not answered 9
– the lectures 63
– the textbook (for two classes of US only) 2
– the primary source readings linked from the lecture 34
– posting my own primary sources 66
– the writing assignments 1
– the discussion forums 4
– connection with other students outside class 1

Every other time I’ve done this, Lecture had the highest points. For the first time, primary source posts have pulled ahead.

Why does this matter? Because their primary source posts are based on them going out on the web and finding cool stuff, then posting it and telling us about the source with a full citation. It’s a skill, and discovery, and DIY history. Then we use those sources for our writing assignments.

I’m hoping this is a turning point, although I’m OK with 50% instructivism and 50% constructivism if that’s what works!

1 comment to Discovery wins!

  • YES!!! Lisa, this is so good to hear! I think if I were in your class I would have a blast going on and finding primary sources to share. I am glad your students are happy with the seek-and-share activity. 🙂

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="https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/?view=cm&amp;fs=1&amp;to=llane@miracosta.edu&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.

circle

It’s better already.