Why your LMS sucks

During the pandemic year many faculty have been forced to create fully online classes in a Learning Management System, such as Canvas or Blackboard. It has been surprisingly difficult. Even those fluent in technologies like email and social media have been flummoxed by the difficulties of using the LMS as an online classroom. There are three main reasons why.

Got folders?

Learning Management Systems appear to be innocent shells into which teachers load “content”, but in reality they each have their own built-in pedagogy. This pedagogy is often archaic and is based on outdated norms of information organization. In the 1990s, LMSs imitated the folder-style structure of Mac and PC (Windows) operating systems. They were really just places to upload content items (usually Word files) and perhaps run a single discussion board (by 2005 or so).

Surprisingly, even when LMSs added more and more features to enable greater interaction and activity, they retained the old structure. It is designed to present material by type: Pages, Lectures, Discussion, Grades, etc. You can see this in the way the menu is constructed.

Presentation by type undermines the organizational integrity of the course. Most scholars think in terms of their field, and how best to present its habits of mind. As teachers, we think next in terms of wrapping elements together to encourage understanding. We do not think in terms of all the articles, all the lectures, all the exams, all the discussions.

Instead, we think in terms of weeks, or units, or modules. We section the learning, combining various elements to cover a particular subject. Separating those resources by type makes no sense when one is creating a pattern of learning.

One solution is to break this framework. If the LMS allows us to add, delete, or hide menu items,we can make new pages which link to the whole pattern of information. It may be possible, for example, to have the menu say Module 1, Module 2, etc., instead of Announcements, Syllabus, Pages, Discussion, Quizzes.

Even so, the system may force its own design. We may have a Module 1 page with all the links to activities, but when the student clicks on that activities, the breadcrumbs may show the folder name (“Quizzes”). Students can get lost following these.

Student-led what?

None of the major LMSs make it easy to implement constructivist or connectivist learning theory. Unlike twenty years ago, instructors may have studied and be trained in active learning teachniques, and have been using them in the classroom. When faced with the LMS, they find themselves stymied.

Created student-led or student-designed work is difficult. LMSs require teacher permissions to set up an assignment, quiz, content area, or discussion. Although some discussion forums allow students to begin topics, this feature must also be set by the instructor.

Some systems seems to be more adaptable, or at least expandable. In LMSs like Canvas, LTI’s (tools using the Learning Tools Interoperability standard) can be added to the system with varying levels of success. An example might be an improved discussion board, or Google Docs, or a group annotation app. Some integrate fairly well into the LMS, making them easy to access from inside the shell and pushing grades back into the system. But all require a bit of technical expertise to set up, and the integration is rarely seamless. Some, like Google Docs, may require students to have a separate Google account, while others need their own structural folder inside the LMS for all activity related to that app. This is particularly true of textbook publishers’ material, which often tries to integrate the publisher’s own textbook site with the LMS.

The solutions here take one of three directions: the internal approach, the LTI approach, or the textbook publisher approach.

Since students can be given control of discussion boards, the internal approach would include using them for different kinds of activity other than discussion: posting lists of websites, sharing resources, posting quotations from reading. The other folder areas (quizzes, pages, etc) can simply not be used.

The LTI approach would involve using more collaborative tools, like Google Docs or group annotation apps or pinboards as the main outside tool, with the instructor learning it well and monitoring it thoroughly.

The textbook publisher approach would be to ignore or hide everything possible in the LMS navigation and use the publisher’s folder as the main work area.

Fifteen papers due today!

Gone are the days when your class was the only online class students were taking. They are now enrolled in many classes within the same LMS at the same institution. In an effort to help them remember the deadlines for everything, the LMS aggregates all the information from all the courses into task lists, using a Calendar or To Do feature.

For example, a conditional release feature makes it possible to prevent a student performing Task B (a test) before they have done Task A (an assignment). Task A is designed to prepare the student for Task B, and ideally would be done within a short period of concentration. But on the student’s Calendar they see Task A, then Task 1 from another class, then Task iii from yet another class, before Task B. By the time they get to Task B, they have no idea what was learned in Task A. An example from three of may classes, running at the same time:

Same day, three different classes

Perhaps you have designed a module to lead students through an introduction, then a short lecture, then a video, then a discussion, then a test. All of these will be disaggregated by due date and will appear in a jumble on the students’ Calendar. Wrapping elements for your class together to encourage deeper understanding becomes impossible.

In addition, by listing all the tasks from all the classes together, the Calendar or List “flattens” all the assignments. It becomes impossible to tell which tasks are more or less important to the student, to learning, or to the grade. They all look equivalent in the same font and size, even if one is a two-minute video and the other is a paper that would take several days.

Unfortunately, this problem may not be solvable. Few LMSs allow control over whether or not to show calendars and lists to students. Because permissions for such features run above the individual course level, instructors usually have no access to any methods that would change the LMS behavior.

The bottom line

Creative pedagogy can work within the limitations of the LMS, but it is not easy to implement. Systems are designed to systematize, and the LMS is designed to create cookie-cutter classes based on outmoded structures rather than to promote innovative approaches. Thus for many of us, understanding its design is essential to adapting, subverting, or acquiescing to its suckiness.

 

Also published on Medium

Canvas is not your friend

Instructure’s Canvas continues to gain market share as the Learning Management System in colleges and universities, despite limitations which have become more apparent as more faculty teach online. Want to assign extra credit? That’s really hard. Want students to maintain individual graded journals? Super difficult. Want to use the shell to create student-led learning? Forget about it.

And yet schools have been overjoyed to adopt Canvas as the new friend who will help with everything while not having too many needs. It’s so easy to use, everyone says. It looks so simple and clean and Google-y. Students like how all their classes look the same, reducing their cognitive load.

But for the more creative teacher or professor, those interacting with it intensely rather than casually, associating with Canvas exposes its shortcomings and begins to cause frustration. Faculty who have had more useful relationships with other systems know exactly what’s missing, but even those new to the playground are stymied when trying to get a simple friendly response.

The fact is, Canvas is not our friend. That’s because its design forces us to engage with its emotional problems.

Navigating like it’s 2005

Canvas is stuck in old patterns of thinking, even when those patterns cause problems again and again.

Learning Management Systems appear to be innocent shells into which teachers load “content”, but in reality they each have their own built-in pedagogy. Canvas’s pedagogy (like its other market leader, Blackboard) is based on outdated norms of information organization. In the 1990s, LMSs imitated the folder-style structure of Mac and PC (Windows) operating systems. They were really just places to upload content items (usually Word files) and perhaps run a single discussion board (by 2005 or so).

Surprisingly, even when LMSs added more and more features to enable greater interaction and activity, they retained the old structure. It is designed to present material by type: Pages, Lectures, Discussion, Grades, etc. You can see this in the way the Canvas menu is constructed.

Menu on left, and text saying “friends don’t let friends have eighteen menu items”

Most teachers do not think in terms of “type”. We think in terms of weeks, or units, or modules. We section the learning, combining various elements to cover a particular subject, assigning a reading, practice test, discussion, and exam all on the same topic. Separating those resources by type makes no sense when one is creating a learning pathway for students to follow, and can undermine the organizational integrity of the course.

Trying to help

But Canvas promises an alternative navigation for the students: Modules. You can put all your tasks in the correct order under headings. The “Back” and “Next” buttons, which automatically follow your sequence, will ensure that students stay within their lane.

                                    Exciting Modules page for Chapter 4

Unfortunately, this doesn’t solve the problem. Canvas’s Modules page is a list of links, with every item listed in the same size and color. But the menu items, ever visible even on the Modules page, will still say Pages, Assignments, Discussion, etc.

One can try to break this framework. Since we can add, delete, or hide menu items, it is possible to make new pages which link to the whole pattern of information. It may be possible, for example, to have the menu say Module 1, Module 2, etc., instead of Announcements, Syllabus, Pages, Discussion, Quizzes.

You could use the Modules pages as a home page, even though it’s ugly. Or you could make all the menu items for types invisible, and build a Home page with a schedule or grid, and each unit could be a list of links. Students can then see how everything fits together for that week.

But no…

Both solutions will be undermined by Canvas’s internal navigation. Even if you set up Page-based or Modules navigation, the “breadcrumbs” will show everything by type anyway. Any student going from your Week 2 page of links to Quiz 2 will see a breadcrumb in the upper left saying “Quizzes”. It they click it, the full list of all the quizzes in the class appear. Ditto with Discussion 2 — the full list of discussions will be there, and students will start jumping around and get lost.

Canvas provides the way to make things right, then undermines its own good intentions.

Working in five classes at once

Canvas wants everything combined for convenience, ignoring all your plans.

Let’s say you create a learning pathway through the content, considering the holistic nature of your course, using Modules or Pages. The Calendar and the To Do list will immediately come along and destroy your careful course structure, by disaggregating all the tasks in all your students’ various classes and lumping them together into a giant list.

For students, as a convenience, the Calendar lists everything from all their classes in order of due date. When they look at the month’s or week’s tasks, everything from all their classes is listed, making it difficult to see the order of anything for one particular class. Your “Discussion 2” which you carefully designed to follow Reading 2 has another class’s “Discussion 4″ in between.

The To Do list does the same thing in an even simpler list that appears on the Dashboard and every course home page.

In addition, both the Calendar and the To Do list don’t include anything that isn’t graded. That might include the week’s main page, the discussion students are supposed to return to on two different dates, or a required reading. Students will miss ungraded assignments entirely as they innocently follow these helpful lists.

What to do?

Because the Calendar and To Do features are controlled above the course level, there is no way to make them invisible or change them, except by adding more items from your class. There is limited space in the title, especially when the Calendar or To-Do List is seen on a phone, so we cannot put “Eng101” as the first word to help. But we can add additional Calendar items for things that aren’t connected to a graded item: “Week 2 starts today”, or “Return to discussion”, or “essay corrections due”. When we make an ungraded assignments, we can check the “Add to To Do list” box. Adding more things to do may be, strangely, the best way to help students.

Relying on others for basic functions

Canvas has no inner reserves of strength, and relies on outsiders.

It is a truth generally acknowledged that Canvas’s discussion boards are the most troublesome element of the LMS. Conversation is not its strong suit. Canvas requires an administrative setting to do things like make the barely nested posts obvious in a threaded discussion. There is so much white space that one scrolls until one forgets the topic — it isn’t practical to engage in extended, much less semester-long, discussions. There is no distinction between instructor posts and student posts. The toolbar cannot be customized, so it has become bloated and even more difficult to use than when it had fewer features. There is no @ feature or notification sent to students to let them know someone has responded to their post, unless they subscribe to all posts on all boards in the class.

Canvas is very instructor-focused, making student-led learning difficult to design. There are no collaborative or whiteboard spaces built in. Extending Canvas means using LTI (Learning Tools Interoperability) apps, or what used to be called “plug-ins”. These are made by external providers, and vary widely in cost and ease of use. Some integrate better than others, passing grades back into the Canvas Gradebook with ease. Others force students to create external accounts.

Given these difficulties, it is often easiest for faculty to succumb to the temptation of using a big stick: the textbook publisher package. The big companies offer full packages that can plug in to a Canvas course, essentially connecting their own learning management system to Canvas. This adds another layer and another (sometimes more than one) menu item as a “type”. Then it becomes necessary to spend much time learning the publisher’s complicated system as well as Canvas.

Less may be more

The only solution here is to limit oneself to one LTI. If it’s the publisher package, all the time will be spent learning and dealing with that. If it’s Google Docs, that will have a learning curve too, and possibly external accounts. If group annotation is desired, that can be the only extension.

Being honest with each other

These three big flaws don’t even include the many inconsistencies and gaps that Canvas has had since the beginning. There is no way to change things in bulk, like assignment due dates or quiz instructions. There is no pop-up to alert students that a message awaits from their teacher. There is no font customization on the Modules page, which flattens everything and makes it look like a two-minute video is equivalent to a twenty-page chapter. The drag-and-drop Calendar won’t let you drag-and-drop items from one month to another.*

One should not expect a friend, especially a troublesome friend, to change. Until 2015 there was a chance the relationship would improve. Indeed, things had been improving with help from the Canvas Community, a rich resource of teachers and expert users. But once Instructure went public, they became answerable to shareholders, just like Blackboard. Their “open source” street cred died, as did their need to respond to users.

It may be be best to consider Canvas as a flawed, if necessary, companion. It has its own desires and needs, which will often be counter to yours. But its unreliability means it’s best not to get too dependent.


*Update: Kona Jones has pointed out to me a couple of revisions. One can drag-and-drop to a different month if you start with an undated item from the list, and a recent update now means that Canvas includes bulk editing of Assignment dates only.

Working against Canvas: three tips

So many instructors, some of whom have used Canvas as their LMS for their on-site classes, are now encountering the system’s complexities and limitations. Teaching fully online is different from posting ones class resources online, or at least it should be.

My advice has changed from three years ago, because Canvas itself has changed.  My reasoning, however, has not changed from eleven years ago. My article on Insidious Pedagogy: How course management systems affect teaching (2009) explained how the designs of learning management system tend to control pedagogy, especially among novice users. We need to spend some time working against the system.

So I’ve reduced my top ten tips to three. And they may well be suitable for LMSs and VLEs other than Canvas.

1) Create full navigation using Pages

As with LMSs of old, Canvas continues to default to grouping content and assignments by type. This is a holdover from Blackboard, which relied on the early computer analogies of “files and folders” to imitate paper filing systems. So “Lectures” can be a folder, “Discussions”, “Quizzes”, etc.

But for most of us, learning is time-oriented, or theme-oriented, not type-oriented. We tend to have units with multiple types of content and activities. Many of these are organized by unit or week. There is no way to express this to students without making a page of links.

Canvas, of course, has a Modules page with a list of links. On the Modules page, you can load in everything, and have students do things in sequence, or with prerequisites, or both. The Modules page is, and has always been, ugly. The most you can do is add emojis to the headings, if you know how. And every item listed on the Modules page is the same size and color, creating the impression that everything listed has the same worth. All you can do is indent, or use caps.

The best Canvas classes I’ve seen have a schedule or grid on the main page:

Each of the links goes to a Canvas page, which has links of the activities and content:

One can of course put all these in the Modules page also, which will enable the “Back” and “Next” buttons for those into sequences and control. Then it’s up to you whether to show that Modules page, because you also ought to. . .

2) Hide menu items

This has not changed from earlier advice: features we are not using, or that we don’t want students accessing from the menu, should not appear on the menu.

For Canvas, this involves going to Settings – Navigation and dragging the items you don’t want visible down to the inactive area. It used to be that when you did this and saved, neither you nor the students saw these items on the menu, and the look was clean. Recently, Canvas changed this so that the instructor sees them all, but with the hidden items indicated by a crossed-out eye.

Well, at least students don’t see them.

3) Do low-stakes stuff anyway

Here working against Canvas means working with it. Students need reasons to work on your class, and to get immediate feedback. This is difficult in Canvas. Doing extra credit, creating short quizzes, using test question banks, all are ridiculously complicated. And there is still no easy way to just copy a quiz.

Canvas will also passively prevent what you want to do. Want to create a discussion forum where everyone who posts twice gets 3 points? Can’t do it. Want to have 20 questions on a 10-point quiz, so each question is worth half a point? No can do. Want to rename an assignment and have all the internal links still work? Good luck. Want to change all 28 due dates to a week later? It’s a one-at-a-time job. (At least there’s a hack for this one.)

It pays to spend some time seeing what can be done with zero-point assignments, and complete/incomplete grades, and the default grade feature in the Gradebook. Students learn from short, formative assessments.

Working against the LMS has always been required for us to teach the way we want to. More and more, I see LMS trainings covering these problems, and teaching the workarounds, which is great. Particularly when your LMS is owned by an equity firm, after going public and answering to shareholders, we can be sure that improvement is unlikely (most Canvas problems have been around since its inception). We must be willing to work against the system.

 

 

Honor in defeat

In all my years of online teaching (and it’s over 20, mind) I have never had a worse start to the semester. My inbox is receiving student messages at the rate of about 3 per hour, and has done the entire first week. These messages are, as I’ve mentioned before, mostly related to not being able to find things. Many indicate that they haven’t read my announcements, so all have required individual responses.

This is heart-breaking for me, and not because of the time suck. My navigation in my courses has always been my pride. Students frequently mention on evaluations the ease of getting around the course, the knowledge of knowing what is due and when, the way the class hangs together. One Canvas feature, the To-Do list on the app, has put an end to all of that.

When the LMS undermines the integrity of my courses, it puts me in a bind. The disaggregation of content creates larger problems, as I’ve noted. I am being defeated by Canvas. The question is whether I can snatch honor from defeat.

The solutions I articulated last time, the new rules, are proving to be difficult to implement in Canvas.

For example, it is clear that proximity of content to task is crucial when students engage class material through disparate tasks. Reading must be together with a quiz or writing on that reading. Self-reported items must have the self-reported task alongside the submission. So what’s the problem?

The To-Do Lists

Canvas makes this much more difficult than it has to be, because the To-Do list itself is a fickle beast. Over the last 48 hours, I have learned a lot about it. There are, it turns out, several To-Do lists. One appears when you open the Home page of the course itself (let’s call this List A):

It includes Calendar events, so it would tell students everything they need. Unfortunately, it is useless, since the problem is that students no longer go to the course Home page in the first place.

Another To-Do list is on the new, improved Student Dashboard (List B). For some reason, it prefaces everything with the words, “Turn in”:

This is on the right side of what is basically a home page for the entire Canvas system for the college, and the Canvas folks don’t seem to understand that students don’t go there either. One reason is that it’s utterly cluttered with college announcements. It also does not include Calendar events.

Here is what students see in the tool they’ve suddenly started to use now that all their MiraCosta classes are in Canvas, the aggregated To-Do list on their phone in the app (List C). It also uses “Turn in”:

No Calendar events, no ungraded assignments. Here are the other things they can see on their phone:

The Inbox (Messages) Notifications (the default is Announcements and Message) Events (which shows only those manually added to the calendar) Dashboard with tiles

My student account is set as a student in five of my classes, so imagine all these from different classes, in different colors.

As far as I can tell, almost all of the students now only use the To-Do list in the app, List C. The questions I’ve received indicate that few use the Notifications, which is where all my Announcements would appear. These don’t appear on the To-Do list, implying that reading them is not something one needs To Do.

The Attempt to Solve This

Since they cannot see either the week’s readings or my lectures in the To-Do list, surely the trick was to get these to appear.

Option 1: Add everything to the Calendar as an event on a date

This would be easiest, but it didn’t work, because the app To-Do list does not show Calendar events.

Option 2: Make a page for each reading and lecture and check the box “Add to student to-do list”

I thought I could make a page for each reading and each lecture, then click the “Add to student to-do list” box, and they would be visible!

But it turns out this is not the case. Things added using the “Add to student to-do list” box only appear on the Course home page list (List A) or the Student Dashboard (List B), not the app To-Do list.

Option 3: Make readings into 0-point assignments or ungraded quizzes or surveys

No dice. It turns out nothing will appear on the To-Do list in the app unless it is a graded discussion, assignment, or quiz.

So that leaves me with only one option: make everything graded.

Grading and ungrading

No way am I grading every time they do a reading or view a lecture. Out of the question.

So the other possibility: ungrading.

I have never been a true believer in ungrading, or in the honor system. I allow it for some items, but not for others, and for those self-reported items I not infrequently discover plagiarism, dishonesty, or inferior work. The point of the system is to give feedback on this work, which I can do only up to a point.

The way to force ungraded tasks to appear on the app To-Do list is to adapt Laura Gibbs’ brilliant self-reporting quizzes and embed the material or link it in the instructions to that quiz.

So each lecture link would go to something like this:

For readings, I could adapt the trick I’ve been using to bring proximity to readings and homework assignments: use iframes to embed the reading in the instructions of the quiz. Then each reading link will go to something like this:

For six classes, needless to say, this will take a huge amount of time.

Now some people may say, “But Lisa, what happens when Canvas changes everything? It worries me that you might have to do all this work again!” As the Scottish policeman said in Casino Royale (1967), when it worried James Bond that he was a French police officer but had a Scots accent, “Aye, it worras me too.”

The Justification

As Jeff Goldblum’s character noted in The Big Chill (1983), it is impossible to go through the day without a juicy justification — it’s more important than sex.

So here I will defend a system in which I don’t believe: the honor system. Clearly, if everything that is assigned becomes a self-graded or auto-graded quiz, we’re on the honor system automatically.

I return to Stephen Downes’ idea of education: that it is the role of professors to model and demonstrate, and the role of students to practice and reflect. I think, frankly, that reflection is dead when the content and tasks are disaggregated. So what’s left is practice. The doing of history is what’s important, and I will grade it when they do it: writing assignments will always be graded by me. The rest will be (ungraded) practice, for points.

This will create an environment of trust (um….ok) and responsibility for learning (yes indeedy). [Suppressing cynicism will become my new watchword. Whiskey may become important.]

But wait, there’s more!

Possible further changes, then, after the zillions of hours making quizzes for the unquizzable, would include:

1) changing from weighted categories to points accumulation, because there’s no point in weighting anything

2) returning to Modules (which I just happily jettisoned) to force task completion

3) using Modules as the ugly home page to eliminate beautifying a Home page no one uses

4) eliminating the weekly pages I decided to keep instead of using Modules, which would entail losing all my introductory videos because it’s stupid to put a 2-minute Voki on a quiz

5) eliminating all multiple-choice quizzes because (a) I get too many student questions about them, (b) it isn’t really practicing to do them, and (c) Canvas can’t properly handle test banks anyway and I’m always having to fix them

6) vigorous use of James Jones’ brilliant due dates spreadsheet to make sure everything is dated properly

7) sorting out the remaining problems: getting students to the Information page (which is a FAQ they need), and forcing them to return to a Discussion that they think is completed after only one post

Thomas Jones Barker, Death of Captain Nolan (1855)

The hour before the deadline

We all have stories, usually told while shaking ones head, of how students do things at the last minute.

Long ago, the deadlines for my online classes were set at 5 pm on the day something was due. But “everyone else” (the dozen or so others teaching online) set theirs at Sunday midnight. I would receive panicked emails between 5 pm and midnight, or after an assignment was graded late. So my nicely planned evenings of sitting and marking papers didn’t work. I changed my deadlines to Sunday midnight.

So when I began using Perusall for annotations, I asked, repeatedly, for students to participate beginning on Tuesday and ending Sunday midnight. Some do so. But many try to read five documents and cram in all the annotations on Sunday. This prevents the close reading I had intended by assigning annotations in the first place, an issue for another post. But it also provides a bizarre opportunity.

Perusall emails me when a student answers a question I’ve posted.  It also emails when a student tags me with an @. Throughout each Sunday, these emails increase, with a flood of them in the last hour: 11 pm to midnight.

If I go into Perusall on Sunday night between 11 pm and midnight, I can participate in the discussion, adding questions and using @ to reply to individual students, and I’ll get a response. It becomes almost synchronous.

I’m not saying I do this every week and every class, but if I’ve assigned a particularly difficult document (last week’s Henry Miller: Tropic of Cancer comes to mind), I can engage a great deal of the class at that hour.

No, I’m not recommending this. But it does seem to open potential for the last hour before the deadline. I have a colleague who uses Google Docs and notices that same activity shortly before the deadline — he sees the number of participant bubbles at the top increase as he watches.

So I wonder two things. First, is it safe now that we have many online classes to change deadlines to a more reasonable hour? And is the last hour before the deadline an opportunity to teach that we should be using?

Standardizing what’s good

Every October, I work on my classes for next term. Partly this is because the spring schedule comes out the third week of the month, and partly because October has always been particularly difficult for morale and motivation (mine as well as the students’). I’m not sure why. Could be the lack of any real holiday except Halloween (Columbus Day is tainted and it was never a day off anyway), or just mid-term blues.

That’s my excuse anyway, since I’m not supposed to be doing this till after my sabbatical is over. But I am still doing my reading and research. Prepping is more like a break, because mostly what I’m doing is changing settings rather than creating things. It turns me into a non-thinking machine, changing hundreds of due dates and adding lots of links (why aren’t we at a place where I can assign this to someone?). Definitely mindless.

I’ve decided I like the sources and readings for my classes, I like my lectures, so no changes are needed. But at the end of last term, I added two elements to my weekly coursework for two of my classes, then tested again for three this summer. These elements are “Check primary source for points” and “Submit lecture notes”.

So once I’m done, the weekly tasks for each class I teach online will be this:

  • Due Wednesday:
    • Read the textbook
    • Read/listen to lecture
    • Research and post primary source
    • Check primary source for points
  • Due Sunday:
    • Read and discuss the documents
    • Submit lecture notes
    • Quiz

In addition, for the first two weeks there are multi-pages quizzed Learning Units about primary sources. And, three times during the semester, there are Learning Units for the next writing assignment followed by the assignment itself. Writing Assignments are based only on the sources that have been posted in the Boards by the class, and have a scaffolded format that I created myself, so they are difficult if not impossible to purchase or plagiarize. The Final Essay, for the full-term sessions, is based on the third writing assignment, and folds into the grading for Writing Assignments.

“Read the textbook” is linked to the actual textbook pages, except for the one class where I’m still using a purchased book.

“Read/listen to lecture” is linked to my online lectures, hosted on my rented server, which contain audio of me reading the lecture, video clips, etc.

“Research and post primary source” is the laboratory type posting, on a discussion board, of visual primary sources students find on the web, with citations and student commentary.

“Check primary source for points” is a one-question quiz checklist of all the things required for full points on a primary source (image, author, title, date, live link, commentary), so it’s a self-evaluation of their own source, instantly graded.

“Read and discuss the documents” is annotating the assigned textual sources using Perusall inside Canvas as an LTI, which assigns points automatically but I do have to check through all of them and make sure they’re right.

“Submit lecture notes” automatically assigns 2 points when they submit them, and they can be in any format, including images of handwritten notes.

“Quiz” is a multiple-choice quiz based on lecture, documents, and textbook readings.

The grading breakdown is:

Read and discuss the documents 20%
Quizzes 20%
Primary Sources 20%
Lecture Notes 10%
Learning Units 10%
Writing Assignments 20%

Right now, the only class that varies from this is the one US History where I have full discussion. In that class, it’s:

Homework 20%
Lecture notes 20%
Writing Assignments 20%
Discussion 20%
Constitution exercise 10%
Final Essay 10%

The pedagogy, briefly, is based on emphasizing task completion, with grading considerations as secondary. Each individual assignment is low stakes, though with only three or four writing assignments, the stakes are higher for putting all the knowledge together. Assignments that can be graded immediately (quizzes, learning unit knowledge checks self-assessed primary source points, lecture notes) are, so that students can get immediate feedback (yes, I reserve the right to change points if there are inaccuracies or instructions aren’t followed). The addition of lecture notes and self-assessed primary source points adds a metacognitive learning aspect. The work of doing history is engaged in multiple ways, including reading, writing, discovery, sharing, and visual analysis.

Student choice is built in, in several ways. Students choose their own primary sources to post, and their own topics for writing assignments. They can choose which days they work, so long as deadlines are met (each unit opens a week in advance). Lecture note format is up to them, to meet their own note-taking style. Since each individual item is low points, they can choose to miss one or two without it doing serious grade damage. Two attempts are given for self-graded items, so they can go back and correct something without penalty.

My role is guide on the side, in the middle, at the front, and in the end. Instead of grading constantly, I spend my time reading their notes, viewing their posted primary sources, answering questions, writing weekly or twice-weekly communications, conversing with students in the Perusall annotations, and yes, grading their writing assignments. I have had no complaints about how much work the courses are, since most of the things I’m requesting (like lecture notes) are common to on-site classes. Some students appreciate the trust, and the autodidactic opportunities. Others appreciate that I’m there for them, and respond quickly to their individual messages. (On this, I’ve decided that students want the individual approach, but not necessarily for class content – rather they want it for their individual problems and issues, most of which have nothing to do with the subject. My method leaves time for that.) And I can grade more generously, because the point is to do the work, be the historian, rather than show me you’re good enough to do history without me.

There is also something interesting about having the courses this structured. The course itself seems to be its own entity, has its own trajectory and completeness. It is almost like it’s me, the students, and the course. The students and I interact with the course together, instead of the course acting as a weapon with which I beat students using grades. This goes along with the LMS (Canvas – blech), which the students and I can work in (and on, when things go wrong) together — it’s them and me against the system.

So although on the one hand I don’t like the idea of standardizing courses, in this case I’m standardizing what’s good, what works, what meets my pedagogical goals. I am free to change readings, lectures, materials, instructions, at any time. After 20 years of building these courses, I think I’m onto something less subject to the vagaries of passing fads (personalized learning, individual learning styles), dangerous web spaces (MOOCs, open education), and changing jargon (student learning outcomes, guided pathways), and more founded in solid pedagogy.

 

 

Roll call in Canvas

For the first week in every online class, I have an introductory discussion forum. I’ve done many things here (asked for students to talk about themselves, respond to a news story, or discuss videos on being a college student) but the point is for me to know they are actively in the class, that I don’t need to drop them as “no show”s.

The law says that signing in to an online class is not “attendance” – they need to do something. So this is what they do.

rollcall

Since it’s not something I grade, I have had it set up as a forum, and I left unchecked the Graded box. Then this morning, I realized that to contact the students who haven’t posted (it’s due yesterday, the first day of the 8-week term), I’d need to print my roster and mark it manually, or write down the names of the students who hadn’t posted.

Instead, I went back in to the forum, checked “Graded”, made it 0 points, had it graded as Complete/Incomplete, and set the deadline for last night. Then I could go to the dropdown in the Gradebook and message the students who hadn’t done it, all at once.

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Of course, I also then need to use Speedgrader to mark each one Complete, since Canvas doesn’t really understand what Complete/Incomplete means, or it would mark it automatically. But still, it’s better than manually tracking students!

Calendrically speaking

I have always been a big fan of paper calendars. But when it comes to teaching, there are many things I need to put on a calendar that are the same from semester to semester. My solution recently has been creating a spreadsheet calendar, putting in these recurring items (grade primary sources, grade Writing Assignment III, etc), then printing it out and writing in the dates.

After almost three decades working with Microsoft products, I could not figure out how to get the pages to print correctly.

Why do I need such a calendar, when the LMS has its own calendar? For the first time since Blackboard days, I will be teaching in three different systems: MiraCosta’s Canvas (two classes), MiraCosta’s Moodle (four classes), and free Canvas (one class). This is how I will transition from Moodle to Canvas over the next 18 months.

The Canvas and Moodle calendars, plus my own grading calendar, would need to be in the same place to do this electronically. So today I used the URL from the Canvas and Moodle calendars, and put them into Google’s calendar, then added my grading tasks.

Both LMSs, unfortunately, export the full calendar (all classes), not each class – this is a problem because Google imports them all as one calendar, with all tasks in the same color regardless of which class it is. I wanted a separate Google calendar for each class. Luckily, I was able to solve this for Canvas by exporting each course’s calendar from Student View, as recommended by Chris Long in the Canvas Community. There is no way to do this for Moodle, but it didn’t matter, because both sections are of the same class and on the same calendar.

Now I have all tasks in one place, accessible on my phone or on computer.

I’ve never not used a paper calendar of some kind (yes, I know, call me steampunky), so we’ll see how it goes.

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.

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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.

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.