Adventures in Accessibility Part II

Having discovered how to more easily caption videos I upload into YouTube, I have now had to deal with video clips that others have uploaded to YouTube. This seems to mean putting an overlay with captions on top of the video, then embedding the overlay on my lecture pages.

In the old days, I used Overstream, which is still there.  It was pretty awkward, and now I’ve forgotten how to use it. Our accessibility specialist Robert Erichsen recommended Amara.

My first video captioning experience on Amara was a nightmare. I was working on a cartoon, which I now have memorized, about Nikola Tesla:

If you click the CC, you’ll see the awful automatic captioning, which is unusable. (Does YouTube have something against punctuation?)

So I put it in Amara, but the timeline kept shifting when I made a mistake. I had to keep dragging handles right and left, and different segments got mixed up. It took me hours just to straighten it out. Then I got the embed code and put it in my lecture so it looked like this:

I noticed a couple of things:

You can still see the YouTube CC symbol so it’s totally possible to accidentally play the hideous YouTube auto captioning instead.

The embed code was super simple, so simple you can only customize it in “advanced embedding options” with four bits of code, mostly to turn the captions on or off without the viewer clicking.

You cannot change its size. In YouTube itself, to embed any clip, you can easily change its size using the suggested sizes or the dropdowns:


Not in Amara – I have to go into the code and reduce the size proportionally. I do remember how to do this algebraicly, but I graduated high school so that I’d never have to use algebra again, so I use a ratio calculator.

And, I can’t center it. Even though it’s in “div” tags, it won’t center the div. Or accept “span”. I have to create a table by hand and center the table.

And (last one, I promise) you cannot see it in WYSIWYG. Not in Dreamweaver, anyway. At all. I can’t find it. Of course, having to use a table helps – I can set the width and height of the table. At least then I see a blank rectangle.

I appreciate that it’s a free program, but this still seems awfully cumbersome.

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:


Annotation: Kami vs

This semester I have begun using Kami (previously Notable PDF) so that my students can annotate scholarly articles I’ve uploaded in pdf. This has worked well. But Kami has ads (yucky Google-style sidebar crap), so I’ve just asked my department to purchase the $50 upgrade to remove them.

In the process of realizing payment was required to prevent Kami ads telling me and my students about the “early signs of a heart attack!”, I took a second (third?) look at, a service with more of an educational/edupunk attitude.

Some distinctions follow. (Keep in mind that Kami is just for pdfs, while also does web pages. There are many tools that allow you to annotate web pages by adding a layer. Crocodoc, which I used to use happily, is gone. Many other annotation plugins that are for private, browser-based use. And Diigo is just more than I need.)

Kami has bigger font and is better on phones and mobile devices. It’s showier, with lots of big buttons for the features, and you can have your photo showing next to your posts. PDF rendering is a bit better in Kami.

kamientry fits better on the page and its annotation panel retracts. The toolbar creates wiki-like coding which is awkward – even bold and italics look funny in draft mode.


However, in Kami, though you can write and draw on the pdf, there is no formatting at all available in the annotations. How can I make a point without italics?

Kami, as noted, has ads or you pay. is free.

Both seem to have good support. Within minutes setting up my free account, and then again when I paid, Kami contacted me. Within minutes of creating a group in, they contacted me.

Embedding in an LMS page
Kami works in an iframe in Moodle. doesn’t seem to. Kami works using the Redirect tool in Canvas., despite the https designation in via, forces a new tab in Canvas. (Sorry, I don’t have gloves on so I didn’t touch Blackboard.)

Tracking students
Neither system (nor any annotation app, to my knowledge) works with LTI or inside the LMS, so I have to track manually. Kami allows me to upload pdfs of the articles right into their system, then any student with a Kami account can have their name on their annotation. For students who post as a “guest” I request that they sign their annotations so I know who posted. I have to remind them. lets you see public annotations on the page, but you must have an account to annotate, so there will be no “guests” to track.

How annotations work

In, the annotation area appears as a slide-out panel. It automatically posts any highlighted text in the annotation box, and allows for nested replies, which could generate true discussion. In Kami, the annotation panel takes up some real estate on the right of the screen, with the document zoomed out on the left (you can zoom in). Replies have a grey background and are attached below the original annotation post, but are not nested.

In, the “via” proxy feature allows me to make any web page available for annotation just by adding to the front of the URL. So I thought I’d try on the open textbook I just adopted, The American Yawp. If you sign in with, you’ll see that the page (I looked at Chapter 8) has already been annotated, obviously by other students. You can see it without an account at

But I can create a “group” for just my class, and everyone must use the drop down at the top of the annotation entry box to select the group name. This limits the page to just those in the group, both viewing and making annotations. Kami doesn’t need groups since the URL of my uploaded file is only shared with my students.

In, I can also upload a pdf of the chapter, and put in front of it, and have a fresh (OCR, not quite as clear, but totally workable) copy only my students can work with. This also means that any pdf I upload will work, and it can still be hosted on my server, although the annotations are hosted at

Coding my own webpages

In, for my own webpages, I can add the code into the page like this:

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

The annotation panel then appears on the page. This is good for my primary sources, which are all in HTML anyway. I also can make web pages with pictures from the open text, and we can discuss them. There is no such feature with Kami.

Privacy and copyright

In, at the bottom of the annotation entry window it shows the Creative Commons license as Public Domain, meaning

“You can copy, modify, distribute and perform the work, even for commercial purposes, all without asking permission.”

I do not use this cc designation on my own work – I use NC (non-commercial) and SA (share alike). I am uncomfortable with the idea that others could use things I and my students write, and sell them. However, on the FAQ it says:

Annotations made privately or in a group are the property of the individual user (“All rights reserved”) and are ?not? in the public domain or licensed under Creative Commons.

If I make a group, things are more private so long as everyone remembers to use the drop down for the group So I figure I’ll use groups for I do not know who “owns” Kami’s annotations, but I have inquired.


Although Jeremy Dean of indicated to me that it wasn’t yet completely mobile-friendly, on my phone worked much better than Kami.

So I’m sticking with Kami for this semester (even in a History of Technology class there’s a limit how many things you can ask students to sign up for). But’s flexibility, nesting, and server-side Javascript makes it a serious contender for next year, though the iframe incompatibility is a definite issue.

Notes on Jim’s blogging workshop

Today I attended Jim Sullivan’s workshop “Blogging Across the Disciplines“. Although I’m always thrilled to listen to and learn from Jim, there were a few ideas I picked out that I’m going to work on.

The first was the way Jim’s class blogs with students emphasize the public nature of the blog. His class blogs make clear that the assignments are public writing, and he also posts to an audience rather than just to the students. When I blogged with students, I made the mistake of not emphasizing the public nature of the blog. Rather I was just using WordPress like an LMS. What I missed was the opportunity for students to change their writing in response to an audience (even if that audience doesn’t comment – I didn’t track the visitor stats either).

JimSBlogThe second idea was the way Jim makes students read each others’ work. Not only does he refer to student posts in his own comments, but he has quizzes where the student must match the post author with an idea from that author’s post.

His prompts are also expert. Just one example: “pick a scene from The Devil Wears Prada and explain what it says about work in America”. Instead of assigning the movie (which students would have to either watch or view scenes from), that exercise is embedded in the prompt. The legwork is theirs. And he creates a theme for each class (this one is work).

Some of the participants at the workshop had great ideas. One requires that student posts have “novelty” as a rubric item. Another considered assessing based on “connections”. Clarity about the goal of each post is crucial.

There was discussion about using the methods of ones discipline to design and assess student blogging. The scientific method was mentioned, and some faculty like to have students directly apply knowledge in their posts (rather than just “write about x”). I could do that with the historical method – review it with students, then ask them to apply it to the secondary source articles I assign. In fact, I could do that now, just in forum discussion.

Almost everything I heard in the workshop would also be useful in LMS-bound forums, in fact.

The alst idea occurred to me during the workshop. A blog would be a great site for a Learning Community. I’ve worked at MiraCosta for over 25 years, and during that time there have been various experiments with team-teaching, cluster classes, cohorts, and learning communities. At present it looks like the process is pretty bound up in an administrative sense. But there’s no need for that. Take two classes that work well together, plan it with the other instructor, and have both classes post to a common blog. Instant learning community.

So thanks to Jim Sullivan for another fab workshop!

Challenges of the Experiment

In my last post I detailed my experiment for Fall, wherein I will teach one section of modern U.S. History online using a publisher’s course package, adding only my own discussion topics (four) and writing assignments (five). All other presentation materials and assessments will derive from the package. The class will take place in Blackboard, our fully supported college system.

There are challenges already. The package is set up by chapters, yet chapters cannot be assigned individually inside Blackboard. I have “linked” my Pearson package to the Blackboard class, but all this means is that a button can be used from inside Blackboard which takes you out to the Pearson site. (Supposedly the Blackboard gradebook will reflect the Pearson grades – I’ve “linked” that too.)

PearsonListBut that’s not the real challenge – it’s the material. For each chapter, there is a long list of resources: document activities, image activities, map activities, “closer look” features. Since each of these has at least one question attached (I assume that’s the “activity” – there’s nothing else active here), I assumed these were multiple choice questions, for automatic grading. Turns out most of them are “essay” questions, all of low quality (i.e. “what is x talking about in this document?”), that I would have to grade. I’ve assigned over a dozen for each chapter. Besides, the whole idea of the experiment was to be using their pedagogy as much as possible instead of mine.

So now I’ve spent many, many hours creating multiple-choice questions, one for each document or image. Because I’m an experienced teacher, my questions are good and require critical thinking even though they’re multiple-choice. That in itself may undermine the experiment.

The other (huge) challenge is the quality of the materials. Not only are the questions stupid, but the items themselves do not contain full citations. Some are just copyrighted “Pearson”. Many do not name a photographer, or just say “Library of Congress”. PearsonClipSome don’t even have a date! They let you into just enough code that I can kind of correct some of these by adding words to the title. But there are audio files with no lyrics or transcripts. And, worst of all, the primary source video clips (Edison’s footage of Annie Oakley, footage of the Rough Riders) are in low resolution and look terrible. I could find better quality of the same footage using Internet Archive. There are also typographical errors in the transcript and in the titles and descriptions of the sources.

The interface for me requires a lot of deep drilling to do things, and the system persists in showing items I supposedly made invisible because I won’t be using them. It does, however, distribute any changes I make across the system.

Clearly MyHistoryLab is just a book supplement, rather than a full course cartridge, and yes, I expected much more. REVEL, their new, more interactive program, only became available yesterday, so I can’t use that yet because I don’t have time to play with it and make assignments. Stuck with MyHistoryLab for this semester, I can only hope this will be a semblance of the experiment I planned.

The Jekyll and Hyde Experiment

Cybermen_formation_DoomsdayAs I continue to advocate hand-made “artisan” online classes and openness and freedom, all forces are moving in the other direction. New education initiatives lead us into forced, system-wide learning management systems, standardized rubrics for evaluating what makes a “good” online class, and tracking mechanisms that give surveillance a whole new meaning.

So I’m going to give the other side a try.

cc licensed Vicky Hugheston via Flickr

cc licensed Vicky Hugheston via Flickr

Right now my online classes are designed and developed by me, and taught in the only LMS that allows for nested single page forums (Moodle). Nested single page forums are essential to the primary source assignments I believe are best for students (and on which I published awhile back).  My self-designed classes feature my own lectures, written in HTML by me, with embedded media elements throughout. I wrote all the quiz questions myself, and have moved almost everything toward free, open resources (one class still has an atlas). My writing assignments are scaffolded and designed to support my learning objectives and student learning outcomes.

But this semester one of my class sections will be different.

For one section of US History, I will abandon all artisan elements of my class. I have searched through the modern US History course packages and cartridges available from the major publishers. They were all quite expensive. I chose the least expensive option with the best textbook (Faragher’s Out of Many). Pearson is developing what they call a REVEL package for this text, but although due out this month it does not appear to be finished yet, so I will use the previous package, MyHistoryLab.

blackborgflickrI’ll use Blackboard as the LMS. I’ve linked the Pearson MyHistoryLab account to the Blackboard course. Although this was supposted to provide “integration”, what it provided was essentially a button that links the student out to the Pearson MyHistoryLab website. Frankly, I was expecting something a little more sophisticated. I know that several of my colleagues use course packages that are more seamless, but I guess History isn’t one of the hot sellers for this stuff.

For this Blackboard class, I am making sure I have all the elements written up in articles on “Best Practices” for online classes, including:

  • BestPracticesNextExitAn introductory video about me containing some personal revelations
  • A forum for students to ask questions
  • A full syllabus with complete schedule and all pertinent rules required by the college
  • Discussions with insightful prompts (no “one answer” questions) and required interaction
  • Frequent low stakes assessment (robograded)
  • Speedy evaluation of all work (mostly robograded)
  • A variety of media – text, documents, images, and video

One thing I can’t bring myself to do is write a statement of Netiquette. I just can’t do it. Since I removed such a statement from my syllabus, I have had absolutely no problems with anyone posting bad things.

I am striving to make the class as standardized as possible. I will, however, have to change a couple of things. MyHistoryLab doesn’t cite its sources for primary source images or documents. They just write “Copyright Pearson” on everything. Some of the photos don’t even have a date. None name the photographer. This is bad History. But it’s a publisher’s product, so it must be OK, right? Nevertheless, I may feel obligated to add a few accurate citations.

The other thing I can’t do is substitute my writing assignments for Pearson’s. My scaffolded assignments fulfill half of my student learning outcomes, so I’m keeping them. It’s just that instead of students going out on the web to find their own sources and pursue their own interests, they will have to use sources from MyHistoryLab.

Dr.-Jekyll-and-Mr.-Hyde (1)I call this the Jekyll and Hyde Experiment because it feels like I am two different instructors. Jekyll teaches “old-fashioned”, hand-made classes designed to provide students with choices and freedom within a structure. Hyde will teach with materials and assessments developed and sold by someone else.

I realize that many, many online teachers have to be Hyde all the time. At most for-profit diploma mills, faculty teach a course developed by a “team”. The only way to insert their own personality is in the Staff Information page and their Discussion Board prompts. So this experiment should also give me a better understanding of my colleagues who have far less freedom than I have had.

Then we will see. Will the students in the canned section do better than in my artisan sections? Will they be happier? Will it make any difference at all?  I’ll blog as we go….