The Monsters of Canvas

Goya, The Sleep of Reason Begents Monsters (1798)

Francisco Goya, The Sleep of Reason Begets Monsters (1798)


We all know that in any system, there are things that go wrong or are difficult to use. We all know people who love their previous LMS, and will hate whatever they’re forced to change to. We all know that learning curves are something we need to ride, trying not to fall off. We journey on…

But occasionally a system begets monsters.

Here are some of the early monsters of Canvas, and the brutality committed to your hard work:

Code Stripping Beast – If Canvas doesn’t like your code, your Javascript or your HTML commenting, it strips it. Other LMSs do that too. But Canvas is monstrous in that it eats everything within your naive HTML commenting, deleting the content between the tags. There is no warning that it will do this.

Quiz Question Ogre  – If you change a question in a Question Bank, it does not change the questions in any quizzes you’ve created. You might not know this, and go blithely along thinking it has.

Disappearance Dragon – Things other than code mysteriously disappear. If you’ve created a page and linked it on other pages, and you change the page’s name, Canvas can no longer find the file. After a few minutes, neither can you.

Structural Cyclops – Canvas is myopic about its own structure. If you page through a Module using “Next”, which is clearly intended as the default navigation, Canvas does not understand when the Module is done. It just continues into the next Module with no warning, necessitating that you design some form of “Start of Week x” and “End of Week x” pages to alert students so they know they’re done.

Transport Troll – You cannot move select items from one Canvas course into another, like the rubric you just spent three hours developing, or those “End of Week x” pages you made for each week. You have to remake rubrics for each course until you have it set to be saved for just that course.

Set-up Siren – Canvas seduces you with the idea that it can import. But it cannot import individual items you need, like that quiz set you backed up from another LMS.  Without any warning (something like “if you import, everything you’ve done will be erased”), it wipes out everything except its own content when you import, despite the deceptive list of imports implying you can do it more than once.

I’m sure I will find more of these in my Odyssey, a journey in a ship with sails made of Canvas.

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.

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!