Building a better syllabus in Canvas

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

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

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

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

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

But the trick is in Canvas settings:

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

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

A couple of hints:

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

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

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

Making online teaching less painful

So many people have been thrown into online teaching and learning, and the most conscientious professors want to do a good job. And yet, as the holidays approach, many are weary of the online grind, and looking to make some changes for next time.

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Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Care for students, and professors, is different in a pandemic. Changes to online teaching methods can reflect that. This fall, teachers reported spending quite a bit of time soothing fears, making exceptions, and being kind. Many found that sticking to the syllabus and insisting on strict deadlines became too hard on them and on their students. So how can we build in the kindness that makes things less painful while still encouraging learning?

Keep the deadlines but remove the penalties

Deadlines have a number of purposes. They organize workflow to make it more reasonable and logical, set a pattern of expectations, and project an aura of professionalism. One would not expect a doctor or lawyer to wait for us because their time is valuable, and teaching professionals should not be kept waiting either.

Getting rid of all deadlines would cause chaos. Work couldn’t be assessed in a timely manner, sequential learning would be delayed, and teacher burnout would result from the crush at the end of the term. Besides, most students want deadlines to keep themselves on track.

The penalties for late work, however, serve a different purpose. They punish the student for wasting our time and making us wait, for delaying the steps in the learning pathway we laid out for them. But delay does not change the path, only the timing. In emergency circumstances, eliminating penalties does no harm: students who would ordinarily do good work will simply do it later, while those who do poor work will have a chance to do better.

Consider eliminating timed assignments

Assignments have a time limit for a number of reasons. We may want students to remember something instead of looking it up, or prove they can do a task at a particular speed, or not overthink their writing.

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If we want students to remember something in a short period of time, a pandemic is not a good time to do this. Mental capacity is reduced and tempers are frayed. If we’re concerned about them looking up the answer, it might be a good idea to consider whether there’s an alternative that would allow them to do so. Can an essay prompt be adapted so it is more individualized as a response, and thus unlikely to be mindlessly copied from somewhere? Can their process be graded instead of their product?

In general, timed assignments can seem punitive, especially for students who do not have set times and places where they can be alone or concentrate. This has always been true, but is a particular problem during a pandemic. Setting the timer may just add to unreasonable levels of stress, preventing learning and leading to more pleas for exceptions, which take up teacher time.

Treat cheating differently

Academic integrity is a serious thing, and no one wants to enable student cheating. There are many ways, however, to make academic honesty more likely and dishonesty less painful.

Consider the structure of the assignment. If there is concern that students will work together and cheat, can the assignment be rewritten so that such collaborations are assumed or acceptable? Can a self-assessment or review be added, so that the student is responsible for explaining the process they engaged?

In written assignments, phrases can be spot-checked for plagiarism using quotation marks in Google. If students are not supposed to lift phrases from the internet, or are supposed to cite them and don’t, it is a teaching opportunity. An instructor can prepare a short video talking about what plagiarism is, and give the student an opportunity to view and discuss the implications before giving a grade, then give an opportunity to do that assignment again or do another.

And for the humanities and social sciences, can the written assignment be revised so that the response is individualized and thus difficult to find elsewhere?

Convert some assignments to automatic points

Assignments that students turn in may include a review or recitation of facts. These can be graded immediately and automatically in a quiz or by assigning a set number of points to an assignment or forum post. An immediate grade lets the student know the task is complete and they can move forward.

Similarly, homework, journaling, and other work that calls for reflection can be automatically scored.

Automatic scoring does not mean permanent scoring. Giving points upon submission makes it possible for the professor to go back through the work after the student has received the grade, and request any changes necessary, such as expanding an entry to cover a particular topic. The pressure is off, and students who have the time will often be happy to make the changes. Up-front grading also gives the professor more time to go through everyone’s work, or to decide to accept the work as is.

Be available but ease off the synchronous stuff

If there was ever a time to be at the computer continually, or get a second cell phone or a Google Voice phone number, it is now. Student questions may be urgent or not, but they will feel urgent. The deadline is still there, and a student may need to ask for an exception to it (the answer is always yes unless it’s the end of the term).

If there is an open forum for the class, or students message the instructor, an encouraging response is crucial. All questions should be received in an appreciative tone (“I’m glad you wrote!”) and answered as kindly as possible. We have students who are ill, who are caring for others, who are overloaded, who are in unsafe situations. Simply writing in an announcement “office hours MW 11–12” or even “contact me any time” is not enough.

For students who are in unsafe living situations or who have job requirements they did not have when they enrolled, synchronous sessions are an added stressor. Likewise with students who have social anxiety, are unaccustomed to online interaction, or are experiencing Zoom fatigue. Lectures, required discussions, or calling out students to participate may not be necessary or desirable. Instead, synchronous sessions can be used to work on homework in each other’s presence, with cameras on or off, to provide support to each other, to discuss the social changes happening around us all, to exchange ideas. The sessions may be required by faculty contracts, but student attendance may be optional or made up in an easier way.

Tame the Learning Management System

Many Learning Management Systems are overly complicated. Most, for example, have too many default items in the menu (Canvas has 18). Any that aren’t being used (that can be most of them) should be made invisible to students.

Clear navigation is more important than ever before. Whether the system uses modules or pages or assignment numbers, the sequence of tasks should be obvious. It is important to keep in mind that in many learning management systems, the student calendar or to-do list mixes together all their tasks from all their classes. Naming assignments clearly (“HUM101 Quiz 1”) can make things easier for everyone.

More often than we think, missed assignments are the result of students not seeing them or knowing they are there. Continual reminders will be of little use when all classes are sending them, not only because they go into Spam folders and students rarely use email but because the mind cannot process all of that and organize it, especially in a crisis.

And, as the saying goes, if you have to write lengthy instructions, the task is not clear enough. When the mind is overloaded, excessive direction cannot be taken in. It’s better to have a brief description of the task, and more lenience with the result.

Don’t expect close reading

This one is tough. Professionals expect their every word to be understood, and their every instruction to be retained. “Read the syllabus” is all too often the response to student questions that are, clearly, answered in the syllabus. That response, however, is unkind when the questioner is frazzled. Simply quoting the pertinent passage from the syllabus takes little time and answers the question.

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When people are struggling to make ends meet, take care of people who are ill, work double shifts at work, it is important to ask whether the workload is reasonable enough that it is possible to learn what is being taught. This is particularly true of readings, which take time and concentration as well as literacy skills. Can less reading be assigned, but more importance put on that which remains? That would create less breadth but more depth, which could reinforce concepts rather than continually introducing new ones.

Is everything we’re assigning truly necessary to learning the skills and content when students are unable to absorb as much as they usually do? If not, it’s time for some pruning.

Caring more may mean doing less

All of these recommendations involve, to a certain extent, doing less, except helping students individually. While it may feel like professors are doing more counseling than teaching, that just could be the appropriate response during these difficult times, and may teach lessons beyond the academic subjects.

It is natural in a crisis to streamline ones workload, to focus only on that which is important. Students and professors alike are trying to reduce the load to make things less painful. To the extent that professors can help students stay organized but build in flexibility, the stress can be eased and learning can happen more readily.

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.

The increasingly possible: online labs

Ever since I discovered the back pages in H. G. Wells’s Text-book of Biology, (1893),  I’ve known a bit about scientific work being done at home. Doing “practical work” at home was important for correspondence education at the end of the 19th century, so that students could study for examinations even if they didn’t have access to a laboratory.

When online teaching started at our college, back in 1998, and began to grow, a number of science instructors were concerned. You could do a lecture online, fine, but you couldn’t do a lab. Simulations weren’t enough, they said. You need real materials. Wells’s students, of course, had real materials. They ordered them by mail or, in the case of frogs, went and caught them.

So here we are in 2020, with online labs foisted onto unsuspecting faculty, and they’ve done brilliantly. I attended this session, where four professors, from auto shop to biotechnology, showed how they do labs online. For inspiration alone it’s worth the 50+ minutes.

MiraCosta College: Hands-On Labs in an Online World on Vimeo.

It’s an odd feeling for me, a promoter and practitioner of online education since the 1990s, to see that the materials (lab kits, go-pro cameras, etc) have come so far. But it’s even more thrilling to see the new attitudes, confidence, and willingness to serve students this way. It feels (finally!) like the new world we were hoping for.

As I watched, I thought like a student. In-person education isn’t always the best way to learn. When I was 19, if I’d had a way to learn about cars without having  to show my ignorance to the guys in auto shop, I might know how to fix my car today. I was shy, and had already been subject to sexism in art class — I certainly wouldn’t walk into a guy-dominated shop. I was also clumsy, but if I’d been able to make mistakes with those test tubes at home, I might have given it a try in high school or college. (I actually had a chemistry set as a child, and created something so horrid the chemistry prof at the local university had to be called so we knew how to dispose of it.)

At any rate, I think H. G. Wells would be proud. I’m delighted.

Lecture: recorded, zoomed, or what?

The word “lecture” conjures an idealized image of students listening attentively as a professor relays knowledge. Almost all of the lectures I enjoyed at university were in this format, and when I began teaching I lectured this way too.

With this year’s quick and unexpected transition to online teaching, many professors assumed that online lecture meant reproducing what they do in class. Zoom.com was grateful for this assumption, even as they struggled to accommodate the massive numbers holding live lectures. Almost immediately, however, there were complaints and problems.

Professors whined that students weren’t paying attention, or didn’t want to turn on their cameras. They couldn’t see the facial expressions and body language indicating comprehension (or lack thereof). Students complained about boring, wandering lectures, and they felt exposed. You can’t sit at the back in an online classroom, and they didn’t want thirty strangers to see the trailer they lived in. Many decided they would watch the recording instead.

The problem? Zoom provided the platform, but the pedagogy was still based in the classroom. This worked better for some professors than others. At our college, they let us choose before this fall whether we wanted our classes scheduled and in Zoom, or “online only” (meaning asynchronous, with no live meetings), or a mix. Many professors regretted their choice.  Those in Zoom wished they hadn’t, and those who chose asynchronous were sorry they’d done that.

For two decades, I’ve been pushing the idea that the technology should follow the pedagogy. Your preferred teaching method should dominate. In the rush, there had been no connection between a professor’s pedagogy and their choice of format.

So, assuming you lecture, what kind of lecturer are you?

Interactive lecturers count on student participation. They ask questions during lecture, or survey the mood, or set tasks for students during the lecture.

Interactive lecturers should consider live (synchronous) lecturing in Zoom or another webconferencing program. The live approach online, however, works best for the simple lecture, on one topic. Shortening lecture time by about 2/3 is also a good idea for live session lectures, but they can be immediately followed by breakout room activity.

Traditional lecturers are those who lecture to an audience, and don’t expect, need, or want the lecture to be interactive. They relay a lot of information, framed by their own interpretation from their professional experience.

Traditional lecturers should record these lectures, and students can view them in an asynchronous way. Students particularly appreciate recorded lectures when the topic is complex, so they can go back and review without being on the spot.

Online lecturers, long ago, were all using dial-up modems and there wasn’t much bandwidth. A lecture quickly became a typed out version of ones lecture notes. As bandwidth expanded, these written lectures could be enhanced with images, then audio, then video. Written lectures can be more like reading, or they can be multi-media experiences, but they’re based on the web page or blog. They may include recorded mini-lectures. Like traditional lectures, they tend to be asynchronous.

So, planning to offer a 90-minute lecture on the historiography of the fall of ancient Rome? Go ahead, but considering recording it with images or video clips rather than doing it live. Want to lecture on solving a quadratic equation, using a whiteboard and asking students to help as you go? Consider a live lecture. Already wrote a great article that covers everything that would be in this week’s lecture? Record your voice reading it, and add some pictures or video clips.

But we don’t all have a choice. Have you been told you have to fill 75 minutes of scheduled class time? Consider creating interactive lectures and activities that require working together. Or have students view a recorded lecture, then come to the synchronous class to work out problems or just do their homework together. I would consider this a flipped online classroom, a model that understands that absorbing information may be best done on ones own but applying it should be done together.

So as we approach spring, let’s consider.

Why discussion sucks (and what to do about it)

Students at colleges around the country are told to participate, but why?

Since the dawn of online classes, the goal of college professors has been to somehow duplicate the excitement of classroom discussion. With the advent of the Read-Write Web (Web 2.0) fifteen years ago, the threaded discussion forum became popular, and immediately the pattern was set.

We do what we’ve been told to do: create a great prompt, not a yes-no question or something too shallow. We want everyone to respond to it, reinforcing readings or other learning in the class. Then, because we want student-student interaction, each student is required to reply to at least two of their colleagues. The prompt-post-reply model has held.

Never mind that this is not the way discussion happens in a classroom. There may be a prompt thrown out by the professor, but only a few students answer, and only if their answers can be different. We might set up small groups to get students to talk, but if we’re experienced we know better than to just say “discuss”. And we usually intervene to advance the discussion or take it in another direction.

Never mind that we haven’t bothered to ask why we’re doing online discussion at all. It’s discussion. You’re supposed to do it. Or you have to do something. Many colleges require “student to student interaction” for all online classes. But no one explains why. It’s just assumed to be a Good Thing.

And yet the result is often appalling.

The problem

Most online discussions are absolutely worthless to read (from an instructor perspective) and worthless to do (from a student perspective). The eager students answer the questions first and fully. The others trail along just to finish and get the points. Every student knows the drill: post once, reply twice. Then leave as quickly as you can and do not return.

If the prompt is a question, however intricate, or a specific task (“post your thesis”), then once their first post is done, the student’s task has been completed. The only reason to reply to anyone else’s post is because the prof told you to. That’s not interaction. It’s mandatory politeness, like saying “how are you?” when you don’t really care.

“I agree, James,” they write, “I also think that slavery was bad.” Nothing really happening there mentally, I don’t think. And James likely won’t return to see the reply anyway. Why should he?

A twist on traditional discussion

I went as far as I could with the method, in an effort to increase participation. I achieved discussion somewhat successfully with my two-step approach. This involved starting with a prompt that did not require previous knowledge, and set up some kind of moral judgement to get people engaged. Questions like “was it right to drop the bomb on Hiroshima?” or “did the Confederacy have a point about states rights?” or “was slavery essential to the growth of the United States?” got students started.

After they had all emoted about the topic for the first half of the week, I posted “Take discussion from here”. I used big font and a color for my post, and it summarized what they’d said so far, naming names of students who had made good points. Then I asked different questions that seemed to follow from what they’d said, questions that relied on their reading and used reason (rather than emotion) to deal with the main issues. Their second post was a reply to mine and/or to each other, to conclude that week.

It worked, in a way. But many students, having given ill-informed opinions to start, didn’t bother to return for the real work in the second half.

Designing for necessity

Sometimes, there’s simply no need for conversation. You read (or look, or listen), you do the work, and you’re done. Discussion should only take place when it is necessary, whether in the classroom or online. There are two things that can make discussion necessary:

  1. If talking together is essential to work something out or to complete a task.
  2. If the product of the conversation is going to be used, applied, or figured out.

So we could design for necessity. Let’s say I’m teaching design, and I demand on the discussion board that each student design and post a different carnival ride. Once they have posted, they seem to have finished the task. There could be no reason to ask them to comment on two other students’ designs. But if the next task is to write a short paper contrasting three designs (yours and those of two other students), then the comments become preparatory for creating something.

Or we could do role play. The class is to be considered a committee-as-a-whole for determining which route across campus would be best for the architects to create as a footpath. What information should be gathered, and how? Once results have come in, how will the data inform the decision? The deadline is Thursday, because the architects need to break ground.

Or let’s take my two-step discussion technique, where I start with something ill-informed and emotional, and then we get informed in the second step. I could have made it better by making sure that the discussion was used somehow, through a formal assignment such as a paper or quiz. The conclusions we developed could have been summarized and used to inform individual work.

The rules

So my new rules for discussion would be:

  1. ensure that conversation is inherently necessary to the task or subject
  2. design so that each student would naturally post something different
  3. create something that applies or uses the results of the discussion

Otherwise, I’d say there’s no point.

Discuss.

Practical and equity-minded class changes

As I finish preparing my classes for Fall in a time of plague and social distress, I’m making several changes with contemporary practical/pedagogical issues and equity issues in mind.

Make textbook reading optional

My textbooks were already free and included as part of the class, and were well-balanced in terms of coverage of events and social groups. Most I edited myself, and they took a lot of time and thought.

Practical/pedagogical: They don’t have time to read everything, and reading blocks of text on a phone is wearying. This stuff simply won’t be remembered. I want to focus on process and skills instead, doing things rather than reading. I made textbook reading optional during the summer, and had several students contact me about items in the textbook anyway.

Equity-minded: Even the textbooks I edited myself are still “traditional”, focusing on facts and tending to ignore the thinking shaped by the last ten years of scholarship, particularly on race and gender issues. Textbooks themselves are increasingly seen as tools of the elite, creating a narrative that keeps social hierarchies intact. The diverse voices of the past are more significant than the interpretation of those voices in a secondary text, particularly since my lectures already contain a secondary synthesis.

Eliminate content quizzes

I have set up the quizzes to be as fair as possible, with no time limit. All are open textbook (see above) and have been rigorously tested by students in other classes. They are multiple-choice and score immediately, providing instant feedback. They took much time to create.

Practical/pedagogical: Since the first part of each week already features lecture, and the whole week may be needed for annotating primary documents, the quiz is shoved to the end of the week. That’s too much to do in a time of plague, and it divides the mental tasks too much. If the textbook is optional, such quizzes are unnecessary.

Equity-minded: Quizzes are intimidating, and present themselves as being objective when they really aren’t. Such assessment tools have built-in barriers. These are technological (it’s not easy to take a Canvas quiz on your phone), emotional (quizzes cause stress even when you have multiple tries), and cultural (they privilege those individuals trained to answer factual questions quickly and confidently). Like textbooks, “objective” tests in general are viewed as enforcing social hierarchies. Instead, I have students turning in lecture notes, annotating primary sources, and writing on their own subjects, all of which can be informed by what they bring to the class from their own experience.

Beef up Learning Units

There are five Learning Units: two about primary sources, and one each for the three Writing Assignments. They are designed to teach students the skills before they engage the practice. Each features a written and illustrated lesson, followed by a quiz that has drop-down and matching choices.

Practical/pedagogical: I had a comment on a summer evaluation that Learning Units should be longer and more detailed. Students realize these are helpful to doing well on assignments, but need more.

Equity-minded: Not everyone comes to college prepared to do college-level work, and preparatory low-stakes exercises help such students gain confidence as they earn points for learning the ropes. But more hands-on help may be needed. Even though my classes are asynchronous, I am considering Zoom sessions that would take students not only through the unit but through the quiz together.

Emphasize annotating primary sources

My primary sources are carefully selected — I once had a student call them an “activist workbook”. They are a mix of political documents, cultural expressions, and on-the-spot journalism. We annotate using Perusall.

Practical/pedagogical: Reading things written long ago takes more time and energy, as does interacting with ones colleagues. Annotating primary documents combines social interaction and helping each other with deep reading of the sources. In a time of plague, I want students to focus their attention on fewer items, and those items must be significant.

Equity-minded: The primary documents I have students annotate are the voices of the actual people who experienced their time, and their voices are diverse. If we want students to “see themselves” in their work, they need to hear from history’s people.

Remind about individualization

In all my classes, students find and post visual primary sources for the era being studied. Then all writing assignments are based on the collections of sources all students have created. I tell them they can follow their own interests, posting sources that fit their topic and writing all three assignments, each building on the last, about their topic. They don’t have to do this if they wish to just put together papers using available sources, but they can.

Practical/pedagogical: I want to continue to offer a choice, but some students simply do not believe that they can follow their own interests, and assume I secretly want papers on “The Impact of Andrew Jackson on the Cherokee” or “Should We Have Dropped the Bomb”. I don’t. I want original theses the students create themselves. It makes plagiarism a non-issue and creates papers that are so much more interesting to read. Since some students don’t figure out that they can do this until the last assignment, I want to remind, remind, remind. With examples.

Equity-minded: Some of the very best papers I have read resulted from a student following her own complaint or perspective about society’s ills. Supporting ones own view, informed by ones own circumstances, with historical evidence makes for much stronger arguments against racism, oppression, classicism, sexism, etc. Intellectually and methodologically solid argumentation is a major tool in the fight for social change.

There are other issues to address, of course, that may not be seen as either pedagogical or related to equity in the current sense. Most of those will be in the practice of teaching: kindness as a default, for example. And I went at this backwards. I’ve attended numerous workshops and read many blog posts and articles on equity-minded practice, but it seemed like I was already doing everything I could while being true to my own belief in equality of opportunity. I change some of what I do every semester. But it only occurred to me as I was making these changes I innately felt were necessary why I was making them. Perhaps others will go about this in a more forthright way, but I think the result will be helpful to students on a number of levels.

Behind the scenes?

We’re nearing the end of summer term, so I get two different kinds of emails: one asking for an extension on the final essay, and the other thanking me for the class.

I’m happy to deal with both (yes, you may have an extension — we’re in a plague, dammit). But the emails thanking me are so nice. One of my top students wrote me that even though they unfortunately could not see or meet me, she always knew I was behind the scenes, helping them through it.

Gratifying, certainly. I love that they know I’m there for them. On my student survey, I have a question on the Lickert scale: “I felt that Lisa was really present and visible during this class.” I get extremely high marks on this, which makes me proud. But last spring, they were a little lower. And now, a student feels I was “behind the scenes”.

                                  CC Flickr Osman Kalkavan

I used to work in theatre. A lot. I was a lighting designer, sound board operator, props person, stage manager, and I even directed once. I know “behind the scenes”.

But my online class? I have all of these roles, plus I am the actor on the stage. My lectures are written out, and they are original. They can click a button and hear me reading them. I have video recordings of me talking to them for each unit. The whole production is mine. I’ve even put together the textbook. I am the show. I’m not just behind the scenes.

So why do they think so? Because I’m not doing synchronous. I’m not using Zoom.

Thank you, pandemic, for making people think that the only way to teach, the only way to get to know your professor, is live on camera. It isn’t. Asynchronous education is brilliant. It allows people to learn when they can, from anywhere. For the past 20 years of asynchronous teaching, I’ve developed solid relationships and firm friendships, students who write from wherever they are to keep in touch years later. None of them have ever said it was unfortunate we never “met”, because we meet all the time.

But within the span of a few short months, even students who don’t want to be on camera think that’s how it’s supposed to be. Administrators have cleverly figured out that this is the way to make sure faculty are doing the work. They have always suspected that, even though studies show that teaching online takes more hours than classroom teaching, we’re all here shirking in our summer shorts. Now they can track camera time.

As videoconferencing company shares go through the roof, I’m here to tell you: it’s only one method. It can be used effectively, for getting a group or class together to do something meaningful that requires being together. It can be used badly, for watching students take an exam or for enforcing attendance.

And you’d think the plague would have demonstrated the limitations of synchronous learning. I don’t just mean the frozen frames students have on Zoom so they can do something else. I mean the students who are first responders, whose parents are dying in hospitals while they sit and cry in their car in the parking lot, the ones doing double shifts at the food bank. They want to go to school, and they can’t be online every Tuesday and Thursday from 10-11:50 am. That was the whole idea of online education in the first place: to accommodate those who couldn’t do the butts-in-seats thing.

So I’m thrilled the student knew I was there. I really am. I have spent many hours this summer conversing with individual students through messages and emails, often responding minutes after they write me. It’s real. It is the scene, not just behind the scenes.

 

Modified Ungrading

I have written a lot on this blog about grading, about my longing for “ungrading”, my qualms about heading that direction, and the things I’ve decided to do instead. This is a more specific post about the latter, and my gradual shift in emphasis I’m calling “Modified Ungrading”.

We know the arguments against A-F grades. They encourage a focus on marks rather than learning, and they can be discouraging. We know there are also arguments in favor. They rank performance against a standard, they inform the student of their level of success, and they mark improvement. (Many years ago I heard a speaker say he did not want to drive across a bridge built by someone who got a C in engineering, or be operating on by someone who got Cs in medical school. I get that.)

This is an area where faculty workload and student desires can profitably intersect. Most of us teach large groups of students, and at community college we do it without teaching assistants. The big argument in favor of ungrading is that students benefit more from individualized feedback than from grades. But in this environment, tutorial-style feedback and individualized learning isn’t possible. Auto-grading, with current technology, is possible, and helps fill the gap between grading and ungrading.

In most learning management systems, when a student submits something, a certain number of points can be automatically assigned. The arguments for and against doing this are the same as those for grading in general. But in addition, auto-grading provides immediate marking and a sense of completion, two factors which are often ignored in discussions of grades vs feedback.

So far, I’ve implemented auto-grading for two types of assignments, both of which are submitted only to me: lecture notes, and document paragraphs. What this enables me to do is have 2 points automatically assigned, then go back and look at the work itself. Sure, I could assign the points when I look, but auto-grading instead changes things, for me and for the students.

For the students, they get their two points immediately, so it’s confirming they did it. For me, I then have ample time to go back and peruse their work. And with the points already given, I can pay more attention to my Assignment Comments (feedback). The tendency is to talk to them first, then think about the grade, instead of the reverse.

I’ve had to change the grade sometimes, but I’ve had the chance to explain individually before doing that, and to give an opportunity for corrections.

This shift to Modified Ungrading may seem ridiculously subtle, but it’s quite real. Mentally I can shift from “processing” the work of 40 students per section, to responding to it personally.

In fall, I intend to apply this to discussion forums, which we use for posting primary sources. Ultimately, I would like everything auto-scored except writing assignments, on which I can spend more individual time.

This way, I can focus my work more on communication than grading. And when students see their points immediately, and rarely changed, I’m hoping they will do the same.