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.

The Pedagogy of Canvas

Having worked in Canvas for just a little while, its insidious pedagogy is beginning to reveal itself.

Above all, Canvas’ appearance is designed to evoke simplicity, like Google’s Search page. The fonts are large, friendly, sans serif. There is plenty of white space, implying rest, with no need for cognitive agitation or disturbance.


The language for instructions and content regions uses short words at the second-grade level, which is more reassuring than complex instructions. This implies that this will be easy, no need to fear the system.

The default left-hand menu, which cannot be moved or removed, makes it clear that certain elements are expected and that they are meant to be organized by type:


This type-centered pedagogy is enforced by design that does not permit any of the menu items to be changed, only disabled. Once on the DL, they never disappear. But neither can they be edited to prevent a long list of disabled mistakes.PCdisabledpages

You can create new pages or even external URLs as menu items, using the Redirect App, but it takes multiple clicks and multiple saves and is quite tricky (thus my long DL). The implication of so many steps is that doing this should not be standard operating procedure.

Notice that some pages cannot be disabled, only hidden (Discussions, People). This implies it is wrong not to want those items, that you should reconsider.

Getting back to the navigation: if you don’t like the content organized by type, and would prefer an interactive syllabus (like Moodle’s weekly design), you’d use Modules. The Modules page lets you organize all the class items within subheadings. These headings and all the links are bold text, with no provision for adding images (though you can apparently substitute icons if you know what you’re doing). The list of links is in forest green text and is spectacularly ugly, suggesting one wouldn’t want it to be a landing page – wouldn’t it be better to go back and do everything by type instead?


The Quizzes use test banks for creating variety (i.e. 50 questions in the test bank, using 10 randomly on each quiz), but items changed in the banks don’t change in any quizzes that have already been created. Created quizzes are thus intended to be static.

Each question in a quiz must be worth at least one point, and increase in whole numbers only. You cannot take a batch of questions and combine them into a single quiz of, say, 10 points, which might make each question worth .35 points, for example. This implies that quiz questions should be simple, each worth numbers that are easy to add up.

There are few areas where students can take control, and most of these are outside the actual LMS (like in Google Docs). Crocodoc is available for the instructor to annotate student work, but not for students to annotate together. This implies that the instructor is supposed to control all class elements that are inside the system.

Of interactive elements, only Discussions are actually inside the system. The posts are somewhat nested. This implies there should be replies to posts, but the large font size and huge amounts of white space, and the fact that the Discussions page itself is a long list of links, imply that there should be multiple discussions, on different topics or for different times, rather than one large discussion area.

Going outside the system to collaborate and meet synchronously implies these are unusual things to do. They require additional log-ins to places people might not be comfortable with, like Google. There are many “Apps” that can be linked into the class in such a way. Many require not only additional log-ins but additional payments. This implies that such places are special, unusual, perhaps dangerous.

Adding media to a post offers few options. To add media to a post, you may either record a video or audio file right then, or upload a media file. This implies that you should be using some talking head video, or have your video in computer-based files, rather than on the open web.

Confused? Assistance is available. On the top of the first page when you go into your new course is an offer of help setting up. This leads you to a list of steps:


The list implies that you should import content if you can, then add assignments, students, and files. Then decide which items on the menu you want to use. Customize your home page, set up a calendar, add TAs (how lucky are you to have these?), then publish. There is no discussion of  your objectives or your pedagogy on these helpful steps. Really, you aren’t meant to think about all that, just put all your stuff in the right place so students can find it.

In the 2013 article The Predatory Pedagogy of On-Line Education , anthropologist Brian McKenna uses an investor conference for Instructure (makers of Canvas) to highlight problems with LMSs and online education. This caught my eye:

The stakes are incredibly high. But most faculties across the country seem in the dark. “Pedagogy as an intellectual, moral and political practice is now based on measurements of value derived from market Competition,” argues educational theorist Henry Giroux, “Mathematical utility has now replaced critical dialogue, debate, risk-taking, the power of imaginative leaps and learning for the sake of learning. A crude instrumental rationality now governs the form and content of curricula, and where content has the potential to open up the possibility of critical thinking, it is quickly shut down. This is a pedagogy that has led to the abandonment of democratic impulses, analytic thinking, and social responsibility.

It is not the case the one cannot create constructivist or connectivist pedagogies, or design explorations or learning adventures, in Canvas. I intend to spend much of the next year doing exactly that. But the design of the system does not encourage it. The system strips code entered into its pages, won’t display elements it doesn’t like from outside URLs, and makes embedding tricky and difficult. In the Canvas Community, there are hundreds of requests from faculty and instructional designers to add features that have long existed in other systems. While many of these features are managerial, at least as many concern aspects of opening up the system to greater customization, faculty control, and student leadership.

As I noted years ago in Insidious Pedagogy, LMSs each have their own internal pedagogy, based on the principles of their designers. The teachers who are most likely to be led by the default designs of these systems are instructors who are new to online teaching, or teaching with a pre-made course, or using few online technologies in their own lives outside their classes. More online teachers than ever fall into these categories. Like their students, they will prefer things simple and standardized so they can work more quickly rather than learn more. Thus will the critical pedagogy of faculty, which is so necessary for creating critical thinking in our students, be suppressed.

A nicer looking Canvas syllabus

Another post to remind me how I did something.

I am trying to replace the ugly modules page. I tried to get used to the full page of text with the stupid icons, really I did, and its horrid forest green text, but it just made me gag.


So I’m thinking a nice menu, all on one page for HTML convenience for editing in Dreamweaver (or insert your WYSIWYG editor here – I’m liking Kompozer). But when I tried to make such a delightful page with tabs or accordion, or anything using CSS and Javascript, Canvas stripped my code. This happened even when I tried to embed using an iframe, or redirect using the Redirect app tool. Even when it didn’t strip stuff, it would not display to do what I want. I’m beginning to think that Canvas does not, as has been thought, simply display complex web pages in iframes and Redirect, but rather acts as a limited browser within the browser, ignoring code it doesn’t like.

Canvas itself has some styles one can work with. So I used its accordion code, though I had to adapt it some using html posted by Jeremy Perkins at the Canvas community. More style guide to stop the bullets on unordered lists. I tested it on a page inside Canvas, then copied the code over to Dreamweaver.

In Dreamweaver I was able to see the code more clearly with the colors, and catch all the relative URLs to my images, and create the many weeks for the final version. I commented out a bit in the code view so I would just paste in the material Canvas would accept.

I did try to do the editing in Canvas, by the way, but it took a terribly long time because it’s a large page and every time I’d try to edit one thing, it would hang on reloading, show me code when it was trying to switch to the Rich Text Editor, then lose my stuff. Much easier to paste the whole thing in from Dreamweaver periodically to make sure it was working.

And of course to add it as the Interactive Syllabus to the course menu requires copying the page’s URL, then selecting Settings, the finding the Redirect app, then plugging in the URL and telling it to show in the course menu. The result is here.

Now of course, this workflow is not clean and beautiful. Iframes would have been so much better. But at least it has my own images and icons, and is useful to students.

Eating (some of the) Canvas breadcrumbs

Even in these early days, I can see how the breadcrumbs in Canvas can cause real problems. They not only don’t get you out of the woods – they can lead you the wrong way into them.

Let’s say you have created your own navigation in Canvas, by creating an interactive syllabus on a Page or Google Doc, and hidden many of the standard navigation items so students won’t use them.

It turns out this will work for important pages like Quizzes. When you disable the navigation item called Quizzes, you can still create and deploy a quiz via the Modules or the link to a module. Then a student taking a quiz will see the Quizzes breadcrumb, but when they click on it, it will tell them that page is disabled.


However, you cannot disable the Discussions or People breadcrumbs. If a student is in a Discussion you’ve listed on your syllabus page, they can still click the breadcrumb “Discussions” and see a list of all the discussions. This list is often in poor order, and the student can choose the order in which to see them. All this could lead to confusion. It is necessary then to “pin” all the Discussions and put them in order. If you don’t, it could even lead to anger if you’re using the Requirements feature in each Module that forces students to complete one task before moving on to another. Then they could use the breadcrumb to see links to Discussions they cannot view.

hansel2Workflow for breadcrumbs if using your own navigation:

1. Disable all pages that can be disabled (Home, Quizzes, Assignments, Syllabus, etc.)

2. Clean up pages that can’t be disabled:

a. Discussions should be pinned and put in order

b. Grades should be organized by assignment groups for clear viewing

3. To change the names of any items in the menu:

a. Copy the URL for the page you want to change the name of (such as “People”)

b. Use the Redirect Tool to create a course navigation item using that URL, titled as you wish (such as “Colleagues”)

Creating an Interactive Syllabus in Canvas

For those who wish to eschew Canvas’ obscure “Syllabus” page (and many other un-customizable menu items), create a one-page interactive syllabus, or have their class look more like a Moodle weekly page, I offer the following:

1. Load your course into Canvas from Moodle, Blackboard, etc. (Settings -> Import Content into this Course). This will create a URL for all your quizzes, discussions, and pages.

2. Get a messy copy of your interactive syllabus framework from where it is now. Copy the text from Blackboard, Moodle, GDocs, etc. to use as a template. (Since the resulting text may have a lot of code, I recommend pasting it into Notepad or TextEdit and creating a plain text file.)

3. Create a page in Canvas. (Pages -> Add New)

4. Paste the text in to clean up.  Decorate the page as you wish with images.

5. Use the menu of “wikipages” on the right to add the correct links for all quizzes, discussions, etc, on to the syllabus.

6. Check the page using the HTML editor to make sure  nothing is linked to your old LMS.

7. Create a link to this page on the Course Navigation Menu.

First, copy the URL of your new interactive syllabus page.


Then use Settings -> Apps, find Redirect Tool, add app, create a new name (such as “Interactive Syllabus”), unclick box to have it open in new window, click box for Show in Course Navigation, and paste in URL of your interactive syllabus page. Click Add App.


You will need to click on the course name in the breadcrumbs at upper left to see the change. The interactive syllabus will then appear inside the Canvas window. You can set it as your home page or leave it in the menu as it is.


This could be done by creating it in Google Docs and embedding it in Canvas, but that adds the extra step of copying and pasting from the list of pages, quizzes and discussions in Canvas. Although I normally advise people not to build inside the LMS, the HTML text from this interactive syllabus can be saved on your hard drive for later use and edits.

However, if your interactive syllabus includes any scripts or script-based embeds (such as embed code from Voki), this won’t work – Canvas will strip the code, and you won’t see it until you use the Rich Content Editor or go back into the document. Google Docs will also strip script code. In this case, to keep  your scripts, you would need to make a separate web page for the interactive syllabus, make sure it is served as a secure “https” page, and use the Redirect Tool as indicated above.

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.

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