Rigor or workload?

It appears as though next summer, our 8-week classes will all be offered in a 6-week format. I am in favor of this. At first this seems like a good idea: students finish faster, faculty are done sooner (avoiding the problem of immediately starting fall afterword). Until one thinks about rigor.

Rigor is a word frequently argued about in academia but rarely defined. It has something to do with the academic integrity of a course. If, for example, it is a college class but one assigned a third-grade textbook, there would be a problem with rigor. Our course approval process requires a list of possible textbooks and possible assignments, ostensibly to ensure appropriate rigor.

Years ago, our historians were asked to offer 4-week intersession classes in winter, and we said no. Our senior historian at the time went in with the dean to argue that rigor could not be maintained. Our classes, as approved for transfer to university, were 16 weeks long. We could not maintain standards, particularly with students rushing through reading and writing at 4 times the speed. It’s a community college. Some students had trouble reading college-level work. Forcing them to do it faster would be disastrous for their success and our teaching. We won the argument, because at the time there seemed to be a general understanding that History requires extensive reading and writing, and by extension considerable thought. This requires more time.

As time has passed, however, the expectations for the level of student achievement have changed. The emphasis on “student success” has led not only to a natural and predictable inflation of grades, but a much broader acceptance of less rigor. The available textbooks for a college course are written at a much lower level, and have many needlessly large illustrative images and lots of white space. Courses are approved for General Education transfer that are more “fun” and have significantly lower expectations of learning ability. The push for what is called “equity” has led to an utter rejection of everything from the Western canon to any novel written by a white male, with the result that many longer works with universal themes are no longer considered appropriate for assignment.

So in a sense all rigor, in the sense of expectations of the level of the work completed, has declined. But rigor is not necessarily workload. When I was at university, lower-division courses required a full textbook, and several ancillary texts. When I was a teaching assistant at the University of California, Santa Barbara, only one ancillary text was required, but it was an extensive secondary book. Students chose the shortest one, of course. All the same, the workload (number of pages to read, number of papers to write, length of those papers) was significantly higher.

If rigor is being decreased, but achievement in the discipline continues to be expected, then workload should increase. If the level of what one is being given, and is expected to perform, is lower, then increased quantity would provide more opportunities for practice. Increasing workload thus implies a dedication to higher rigor, even if the standard is not obtained.

But we must also consider the contemporary dedication to the affective well-being of the student. This dovetails with the culture at large. It is accepted that people who are distressed cannot study well. Mental illness, overloaded schedules, job and family demands are seen as reasonable justifications for being unable to perform what could have been considered university-level work a generation ago. Before, they would have been encouraged to leave university and find a job for which they were suitable. Now they are held onto like precious gems, who without university have no chance in life. It’s our fault, not theirs, if they don’t succeed.

The university transfer approval process requires that community college rigor matches that of university. This has not been a major issue. University rigor has also declined. No one checks very carefully, anyway. But approval also requires that the same rigor and workload approved at the course level apply to every class section that is offered. So if I offer a 16-week class that normally required a full textbook, five primary source readings each week, and two assignments per week, the expectation is that this will be compressed but identical in shorter-term formats.

While this may seem to be a way to maintain rigor while increasing workload in the short term, it doesn’t actually work that way. I have adapted several of my classes to the 8-week (double-speed) format already for summer classes, and to provide a “back-to-back” single semester option to complete a two-course sequence. Enrollment in these is excellent — students do indeed appreciate completing the course faster, and they drop less often. I have long felt that 16 weeks is too long anyway. But I do not demand exactly the same number of assignments for my 16-week students. The primary source boards dropped from 16 to 8 to keep their focus on the weekly unit. Everything else, however, I simply doubled up: textbook readings are two chapters a week, primary sources are ten instead of five.

Six weeks presents a slightly different challenge. I cannot simply eliminate the Age of Discovery, or the American Empire. These are required to be “covered” to be approved for university transfer. Thus the workload must increase. I suspect that the transition from eight weeks to six may be a tipping point for rigor and workload.

What happens when one increases the workload beyond the expectations and desires of the students? First, they just don’t do it. They simply won’t be exposed to the facts, interpretations or ideas. They’ll skip the Age of Discovery. Second, they will not enroll in the first place, or drop the class in favor of classes with lighter workloads. Our History department has seen a consistent slide in enrollments over the last few years. While we know that this is partly because the national reputation for disciplines like History is on the decline (as it is for intellectualism in general), there is also a greater dedication to rigor in our discipline, a dedication often misinterpreted as “white” and elitist. (In truth, historiography has been foregrounded the agency and obstacles for people challenged by mainstream culture since the 1940s.) The college now offers far easier course in “culture” that count for the same requirement, and thus compete directly for enrollment.

Simply compressing my 8-week classes into 6 weeks, I fear, won’t work. The workload will be well beyond the expectations of students, and they will leave, drop or fail. While failing used to be acceptable, we are now expected to prevent this at all costs. So some tasks need to be removed. It cannot be topics or “coverage”, so it must be reading, assessment, and writing. I am leaning toward removing the textbook reading, because it could be considered “boring”, they have more difficulty reading, and the facts are not as important as them “doing history” (my lectures may have all the facts they need). Removing textbook reading also reduces the number of quiz questions, or perhaps eliminates the quizzes themselves. The writing assignments should be given a few days without anything else due, so they focus on them — those I am unwilling to change, but I want to provide them with space and time.

The grading weights would change accordingly, so that each of the remaining tasks would be worth substantially more. That is unfortunate, because my usual method is to have many little assignments, so that no one assignment is worth a lot. That way students can learn, practice, improve. So in addition to impacting rigor and workload, my pedagogy will also be affected. I do not, however, see another way.

A free textbook experiment

For some time, I have been creating free textbooks for students. In my online classes, these take the form of a pdf file, containing edited selections from Wikipedia followed by my own edited selection of primary sources.

In online classes, students rarely print the book, although they are invited to if they wish. In on-site classes, printing is an issue. We reference the book frequently in class, and they read aloud from documents. The continual searching required by an e-book or online version wastes a lot of time compared to “see page 76”.

Few students want to print the textbook on their printer or use the library printer, because it’s about 170 sides of print. Since they do not understand the printer interface on computers, when they do obediently print the book themselves it comes out as 170 single-sided pages on 8.5 x 11 paper (that’s about A4 size). So over the past few years I’ve tried various things. The most successful has been having them bring the file to Staples or Office Depot with syllabus instructions of what to ask for.

When students asked why they must go to all this trouble, I explained. I could have the books printed by the on-campus bookstore. This is actually a corporate conglomerate, Follett, which in addition to enforcing copyright clearance that violates the TEACH Act, insists on marking the book up 26%. When I complained to Follett that I wrote it, they only printed it, and 26% was excessive, I was told that I can ask to receive my own percentage in royalties added into the price. They couldn’t see this made the problem worse, not better. Students nodded appreciatively when they understood I was trying to save them money. Then half got the book printed the first week, a quarter in the first few weeks after being reminded, and a quarter not at all.

Our college has promoted Open Educational Resources for some time. There is even a state-wide grant that faculty can get to adopt them. People like me should get these grants, but can’t for two reasons. First, the grants are for adopting OERs, not creating them. This is despite the fact that it takes over a hundred hours to create a resource, and about six to select one from the very few on offer. Second, the grants are only available to those who can demonstrate a savings over the previous semester, meaning those of us who have been offering free textbooks for years aren’t eligible.

So last term, given all these limitations and the execrable quality of open access textbooks in History, I asked the department for some printing funds. Since I teach so many classes online, I do not use much printing money each term. With this money I was able to have printed enough textbooks for the whole class (much easier in a time of declining enrollments). I did it half size and spiral bound, making a rather attractive if thick booklet.

(The “15th edition” gives you an idea of how long I’ve been creating these.)

I handed them out the second day of class, and told them to feel free to highlight or write in them. I told them what I had done and why, and that essentially these were paid for by taxpayer dollars. When I handed them out, they accepted them in an entirely different way than a handout or assignment. Each student took the booklet from me carefully, placing it on their desk. Some squared the corners with the desk. They turned the pages somewhat gingerly.

This pattern, of treating the book as a gift rather than a task continued through the semester. It was rather as if I’d given them their own chemistry set. After 12 weeks, I noticed that many of the booklets were still in mint condition.

Now we know that students don’t tend to highlight and take notes in their books anymore, unless it’s part of a specific assignment or one makes a point of insisting on it. At the end of the term, only two or three had been marked in. The rest looked perfect. None were grubby or torn. So I asked if anyone might be willing to turn in their book to pass on to the next group of students. Over half did so.

Although it may have been just a very considerate class of students, I’d like to think there’s something else at work here. I had been concerned about doing this because I thought the book would be devalued, since they hadn’t paid for it. But the opposite happened. Giving them the book seemed to tap into the affective domain. They cared that I gave it to them. They seemed to see it as a sign of me caring about them. And they cared for the object. The attitude was such that if there was no department money, I might well pay for doing it myself. I’m certainly going to do it again this term.



Musings on equity and pedagogy

I am considering the implications of mapping student learning challenges and solutions like this:

Universality in education implies open opportunity and access. It also has cultural implications, that certain philosophies, methods, and subjects are worth exploring because they lead to knowledge in a larger sense.

Communality in education implies that the people being educated, and the educators, belong to particular groups or communities. These may include professional or personal groupings, but they may also include other groups favored by social scientists: socio-economic, racial, religious, etc.

Individuality in education implies that learning in basically an individual activity, and that the effectiveness of pedagogy depends on the individual. It also implies that teaching must take into account individual talents, proclivities, abilities. It underpins ideas of individualization and personalization of learning materials and methods.

At many institutions, those who privilege communality are increasing awareness of the influence of groupings on the lives of students. Some of this has taken the form of movements for student equity. In its most useful form, communality makes teachers more aware of the challenges students may face because of their identification within a particular social group. In its extreme form, communality mandates particular forms of speech, opposes ideas that are seen to represent the dominant culture, and publicly shames individuals who don’t engage in groupthink.

Within this construct, universality is seen as tainted. Access is not enough, because those who are disadvantaged by their group membership cannot benefit equally from that access. In its most useful form, this can cause the culture to acknowledge those deficiencies and seek to remedy them, through awareness and policy designed to offset limitations. In its most toxic form, it denies the universality of ideas, and engages in cultural relativism.

Individuality is similarly tainted, because it does not consider the pressures resulting from group membership. Individuals must acknowledge, and in many cases are expected to represent, the group. A person who seeks to overcome the limitations of their group is seen as a traitor to the group. This may occur even when the group is defined externally, and the individual does not identify as a member.

The image above centers the individual within the group, and wraps both individuals and communal groups into the universality of humanity. There are similarities to the philosophy of stoicism. Using stoic concepts of individual and universal, the diagram might look like this:

Creative Commons licensed A-NC-ND John Danaher

In stoicism, the goal is to connect the individual at the center with the universal ideas that supersede the social context. The social world is an intermediate place where it is hard to tell noise from signal. Although humans are automatically attuned to the social world, they must overcome its noise to find a deeper connection with the universal. Communality is highly changeable, redefining itself frequently. Today’s communality is the not the same as yesterday’s.

In education, a central goal is to connect the individual to larger schemes of human knowledge. Pedagogy’s purpose is to assist the individual in using information, creating knowledge, and ultimately gaining wisdom. To achieve only typical attainment may attach the individual to the communal in a way that can prevent higher knowledge.

To remember when writing tests

H. G. Wells on examiners:

In many cases they live, as it were, in the border land of knowledge, and have forgotten the paths that led them there. They ask for conclusions that may be learnt by heart, and not for evidence of an intellectual process. Like worthy medieval householders, staff and scallop shell are evidence enough to them of a pilgrimage. In all these cases the examiners understand the subject of examination well enough, but the object not all.

“On the True Lever of Education”
The Journal of Education, vol XIV, no 279, pp 525-527, 1 October 1892

Use these words in a paragraph

I remember this exercise from grade school. We were given a list of terms, and told to use them in a paragraph. Not define them, but use them.

If I’d done the reading, this could go several ways. If I’d understood the overall point of what I had read, the first sentence of the paragraph was easy, and then I could assemble the terms, sort of, even if I didn’t know what they all meant. It was like a deductive method. If I knew what they all meant but not how they went together, I could still write something, and if the sentences followed each other logically, I was good. Let’s call this the inductive method.

If I hadn’t done the reading, of course, I was f***ed.

Necessity being the mother of invention, I had a hole in my syllabus when I dropped my History of England textbook. Well, textbook is a bit of a misnomer. It was a brilliant atlas, deeply loved (by me, anyway) but hard to obtain. With the book gone, what remains are only my lectures and the primary sources for readings. Of course, that’s quite a bit. My lectures are fairly complete. More importantly, the sources are items like Magna Carta and More’s Utopia. I want them understood, so I’ve put them in Perusall for annotation. But group annotations are a bit deceptive — it’s entirely possible for the individual student to have misunderstood an entire document.

So since I have no intention of writing multiple-choice quizzes (ick), I instead have created Document Paragraphs. The instructions say:

While I haven’t actually said “use these terms in a paragraph”, that’s what they do. And I can very quickly tell what they understood and what they didn’t. It also helps align the Persuall annotations (which I call Read and Discuss) with something they must produce. It scores an automatic 2 points, but for the first several weeks I’m very careful about giving them feedback to improve, if needed.

So just a note to thank all those teachers I had for “use these terms in a paragraph”.



Top Ten List for Online Pedagogy

Over the years, I’ve done quite a bit with online pedagogy, and now we’ve come to a time when people are getting degrees in it, but I still can’t point faculty to a single resource where they can learn about it quickly. So here I’m going to list what I (and possibly I alone) think are the top ten tips for online pedagogy:

1. Emphasize your strengths

In our Program for Online Teaching workshops, the first thing we did was ask participants to think about what they did well, and what they enjoyed, in their on-site classroom. We discovered a few things.

Good lecturers not only love to lecture, but they do it well. They tend to be organized and enthusiastic, even charismatic. At a time when lecture gets a bad rap because it isn’t considered “active learning”, a good lecturer inspires students to become interested in the subject, and provides a professional role model.

Those who love class discussion, or student-led activities, revel in the chaos that can ensue, and are experts at facilitating. Their classrooms tended to be dynamic.

Faculty who like variety tend to do several different things during a class session, and keep the energy going by transitioning to different tasks, connecting them all together.

Any of these approaches (and many more) can be effective online. The question should always be how the technology can be made to do what you do well as a teacher. So a lecturer might focus on creating narrated slides or video lectures. Someone who loves class discussion might work on creating dynamic forums and alternative programs for discussion (see #4 below). Those who mix it up might create many different tasks each week.

2. Work on your weaknesses

If your lecturing isn’t so good, try making short mini-lecture videos or narrated slides for particular issues or problems in your class. This can be particularly effective for areas where students have trouble, covering those things that never seem to be understood completely in class.

If discussion is your bugaboo, look at your motives for doing it. Do you want discussion to have students review content? Then create more of a posting board, and don’t worry too much if they don’t “talk” to each other. Do you want discussion to be a place where students interact? Then design for social interaction instead of deploying a typical “one post, two reply” format. Do you want to use discussion for students to create something together? Consider ditching the discussion board for something more collaborative, like Google Docs (keeping in mind #4 below), or use it for posting things that everyone will use.

If you’re not technologically savvy, but would love to add video clips and animated images to your class, set aside some professional development time for yourself, and start searching the web for how-to videos and free programs to try.

3. Organize effectively

Sometimes fancified as “course design”, course organization may be the most important factor in your online class. If students cannot find their way around, they may get frustrated, which prevents learning. On the other hand, if it’s too obvious where you click-click-click, students become task-focused, jumping through the hoops. This may be exactly what you want, but it may not.

Think about breadth versus depth. A “broad” organization has many course menu items, but fewer clicks to material as a result. A “deep” organization has very few main menu items, but lots of clicks to go deeper into activities and pages. Think which is more appropriate for your class.

Be aware that the Learning Management System can work against your best intentions. For example, I prefer a simple organization, with few main course items, one main page with the weeks listed, then the information and activity links on those pages. But Canvas keeps adding more and more to the “super” Canvas menu, just to the left of my class menu, making it cluttered.

Although newspapers may seem antiquated, print journalism has useful norms. For example, despite the flattening of much information on the internet, the size of headings may still be helpful. Also, think above and below the fold. Students understand they have to scroll to get all the information, but they still look at what’s at the top first. Remember that journalistic pyramid — the important information should be at the top (and the email corollary: people read their inbox, not their email).

All this goes double when creating instructions. If your instructions are lengthy, then the activity isn’t intuitive enough, and should be rethought.

4. Use only one cool tool

You just discovered VoiceThread, and are thrilled at the possibilities. Or Pinterest – wouldn’t that be a great learning tool? How about Flipgrid? Students could do discussion that way instead. Or Google Docs – they could collaborate.

Learning Management Systems, even when they integrate their tools (Canvas uses LTIs, some of which integrate with the Gradebook and Assignments), require a lot of back-end upkeep. They need codes and updates, and you need to learn how the tool works and be able to answer student questions. If the tool you like doesn’t integrate with the LMS, then it will require students to have their own username and password. It may be difficult for you to track their progress.

So my rule if you are using an LMS is: One Cool Tool.

This may seem like a practical or technological consideration, but it is also pedagogical. There’s a reason you like a particular tool — it does something for your students that no other tool can do. So the question is how important that something is to the class itself. Does this tool enable students to do something significant to your discipline, in a way that is somehow easier or better? Then it deserves to take center stage, even to have the course built around it.

For example, my cool tool at the moment is Perusall, a group annotation program for documents. Although I use discussion boards for students to post things, the social interaction and collaborative learning take place in Perusall. It’s also where the reading comprehension happens, where students get help from each other understanding the reading. Deep reading is an important goal for me. Adding some other cool tool might dilute this one.

5. Assess responsibly

Depending on external pressures, it may be necessary to assess vast quantities of student work. But quite a lot can probably be done as “formative” assessment, quizzes or tests that are low-stakes (or even no points) but help build knowledge for larger projects. Assessment, even if it takes place separately, can be integrated into learning.

Again, it’s important to design assessments around your own pedagogical goals. If you want fact retention, repeated quizzes (or quizzes with retakes) may be desirable. If you want application of content, essays or visual projects with rubrics might work better. If you want everything to build up to one big project, there are ways to organize that with signpost assessments along the way.

Prompt feedback is more important, I think, in an online class than in the classroom. Students do not like the feeling they’ve just thrown their hard work into the void. If there are assessments that test facts, they should show the score immediately, and the answers revealed as soon after the deadline as feasible. The more individualized the assignment is, the more you need to provide feedback beyond the score. This can be done with rubrics, if you’re good at writing rubrics (see #2 above if you’re not). Individual feedback can be sped up with templates (where you have a text file of common responses you can copy and paste). The template approach used to be in vogue, but is now discouraged, because it seems to not be individualized. But my sense is that if the student work has patterns, there is no reason why the feedback shouldn’t also.

6. Encourage exploration

There are few subjects that cannot benefit from having the student pursue their own interests, even if in only a small way.

One way online teachers do this is to offer choices, either between or within assignments. Students can gather their own sources, visuals, or information, either with guidance or from an instructor-prepared list. They can choose topics for projects.

For my classes, students contribute cited visual sources to a discussion board, then use them to write their papers. This gives those who want to pursue their own interests that opportunity, and those who don’t can write based on all the sources available.

7. Act strict but be lenient

The syllabus may be strict on deadlines, not because one is dictatorial, but because we are professionals. Medical appointments, court dates, church weddings — one cannot miss these deadlines. If you do, you must pay, because the professionals involved have other things they could be doing . Despite over a century of arguing over whether teaching is a profession or a semi-profession, I think that indicating strict deadlines implies your time is important. I am always strict in front of the group.

However, students’ time is often beyond their control. At community college, they usually have family and job commitments. And at every college, unexpected things arise: illness, family emergencies, accidents. Being flexible with the individual is appropriate, to whatever extent you think reasonable. Accepting late work should be accompanied with an understanding that it is a favor of your professional time. This does not mean adjudicating excuses. I pretty much accept any request as coming from a responsible adult, and grant what I think is appropriate time, usually with a “just this once” caveat.

So I’m a dictator on the syllabus, and a marshmallow when an individual asks me a favor.

8. Use visuals

Pictures in online courses should not be decoration, but rather integral to either the navigation of the class or to understanding the information the class contains. They can also be an alternative to text, particularly in testing or collaborative work. Proximity is good: an image next to text describing it, a diagram inside the quiz question.

Not everyone is great with visuals (see #2), but screens and screens of text are mind-deadening. It’s death by scrolling. And I promise no one will read it (see #3).

9. Don’t get all professional

Resources posted for students need not look like they were printed at Cengage or filmed in Hollywood. Instructor presence is best expressed by, if I may exaggerate, you in your pajamas in ugly blue lighting with your dog barking in the background. Immediacy and humanity are more important than production values. If you have a great idea because you just read the students’ posts and it led you in some bizarre direction in your ideas, fire up the webcam and let them know.

Similarly, one of the most effective text documents I’ve seen is an instructor’s uploaded article with her own notes scribbled in the margins. Learning is active, so if our resources are too, that’s OK.

10. Be true to your discipline and transparent in your teaching

The biggest objection to teaching online is that the faculty member feels they cannot do justice to their discipline in the online environment. So this really ties back to #1 — no professor who feels this way should ever be forced to teach online, because it’s likely they are right: that professor cannot be true to their discipline in an online class.

But we don’t always have a choice, and some of us must teach online to have employment. So know that it is possible to be true to your discipline online, by focusing on the aspects that are essential to you as a practitioner and scholar.

So again, deciding what’s important to you must determine the design. You’re a facts person, you want drill and drill and test, because that’s how you teach best. Go for it. Spend the time to make fantastic test banks, with images or diagrams too if appropriate. Set timers for everything if your method demands it. But let the students know why that’s the method, why it’s successful, why you want them to be successful. At the other extreme, you may want exploration, for students to do things themselves, to lead the way. Create collaborative spaces, get them blogging, whatever it is that fulfills your goal. And let them know why you’re doing that, your philosophy of constructivism or whatever it is that drives your pedagogy.

So that’s it. Twenty years of teaching online distilled into a top ten list. 🙂

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)

Disaggregated knowledge and the LMS

The advantage of teaching so many classes online is that I see patterns in student messages that lead me into larger issues. This one is HUGE. It’s not just about Canvas. It’s about the decline of Western education as we know it.

I stopped using Modules last term, because they “flattened” the elements of my class, making it appear as though each were of equal worth. Modules also forced students along a linear path of that week’s work.

I instead chose to keep my weekly pages, which list the things we do each week and when they’re due. I use bold for the higher-stakes assignments. Canvas automatically puts my due dates on the Calendar, and thus populates the students’ To-Do and Upcoming lists, which appear on the main (Home) page.

Over the years, more and more classes have switched to Canvas, so the average full-time student at MiraCosta would have four classes in a term. What the Canvas Calendar does is acts like any other calendar — it lists the tasks for each day or each week or each month. On the student Canvas app, it shows the To-Do list for each week from all their classes.

Sound convenient? It is convenient in the same way that bottled water is convenient, and that credit cards are convenient. It undermines traditional relationships globally, and creates a sea change.

Yes, I probably sound crazy saying that the Canvas Calendar represents the decline of Western education as we know it. But bear with me.

This week, the first week of class, I have had an unusual number of students message me saying they missed the assignment because they didn’t “see” it. By probing this, I’ve discovered that they mean it isn’t appearing in the To-Do list. This is regardless of the fact that I did check to the box to add these items to the To-Do list (I”ll check that technical issue later). I quickly responded with the yellow highlighted note on the Home page you see below, but I still was getting apology messages for missing work they couldn’t tell they needed to do.

This morrning a student wrote me saying she was sorry she missed it, but the primary source assignment wasn’t on the To-Do list. I sent a student my screenshot in Student View, showing that the assignment was indeed appearing on the list.


She replied with two screenshots where it wasn’t there. Here’s the one she sent from her phone:

And it suddenly hit me. The process she’s accessing, the To-Do List, lists all the tasks for all the classes a student takes. It thus disaggregates the courses entirely. She’s no longer taking my History class, or a Sociology class. She’s just doing work, clicking links, crossing things off a list.

By showing the student the tasks for the day, for all three of her classes, Canvas has not only reasserted its contention that all learning tasks are equivalent, but that they are tasks unrelated to anything else. They are just stuff the student needs to complete.

Most scholars think in terms of their field, then teachers think in terms of wrapping elements together to encourage understanding. On my weekly page, you can see that the tasks for the week relate to each other. They are all part of that week’s topic. They follow sequentially: first post the primary source (forum), then check it for points (quiz). My design has instantly become irrelevant.

My practical response today has been to go through all my classes, adding the weekly page to the To-Do list, as the first thing that week. It will be tricker to do this for my lectures and other non-graded or linked items, since Canvas doesn’t “see” those at all. I will have to link each on a Page and put the Page on the To-Do list, forcing students to click twice to get to it. This will take all weekend.

But my holistic response is much more important. The units we teach are no longer units — they contain no flow or contiguity when seen as disparate tasks. If students access all academic work as a flat list of tasks, there is no connection between assignments. There is no connection, for example, between Reading 3 and Quiz 3. Assign the Reading for Monday. Assign the Reading Quiz for Wednesday, and it isn’t clear they relate to each other.

This explains the other messages I’m receiving. “I see we have a Lecture quiz due, but what is that on?” At first I smirked and thought, “The Lecture, of course!” But now I realize they don’t see the Lecture unless they’re on the weekly page. “The Calendar says the second post is due – where do I post?” You can’t put two due dates for the same discussion forum. They don’t know where to return to in order to post.

In an age when we worry that students don’t read whole books, we have something here that is much worse. How can they do sequential and scaffolded learning when the system won’t let you scaffold?

It changes the rules utterly. Here are the “new” rules (some have been good practice for awhile):

1. Assessment and responses must appear with the content.

Quiz 3, in other words, must contain Reading 3 within it. You can’t have a link for Reading 3 on Monday and Quiz 3 on Wednesday.

Note here that group text annotation, of the kind I’m using in Perusall, is ideal. The content and the activity are inextricably linked.

2. Double-level discussion may not work.

In Canvas, to have students return to a discussion, it will be necessary to link to that same discussion in the Calendar later in the week.

One alternative will be to have the entire class inside a discussion forum. This won’t work in Canvas because it doesn’t allow real threads, but might work in other systems.

3. Navigation schemes are useless.

Obviously, my own weekly page navigation, even if it’s on the To-Do list, is worked against forcefully by Canvas.

Some would say return to Modules. But Canvas’ own Modules are irrelevant, except for adaptive release, or to force task order. Students won’t use the Modules page either, even if it’s the main page. They may never see it.

This also applies to the Home page itself, especially a nice one. It is now obsolete. All we’ve learned about making the Home page welcoming is irrelevant.

Again, the new rules (and I’m sure there will be more as we all think about it) are the result of the disaggregation of content and tasks. This is both an effect of the technology, and a cause of the disaggregation of knowledge. We’d better plan accordingly.

Ending the reading/quiz cycle

I certainly didn’t mean for the relationship to end suddenly. It has been tenuous for awhile, various arguments and complaints, but I always thought it was a communication problem. But finally I had to walk away.

In my History of England class, the textbook has been an issue for a long time. The most suitable and available academic text, by the Messrs Roberts, is two volumes, so that won’t work. The class is, unfortunately, only one semester (we have two for the history of the U.S., with a much shorter history). And realistically, even one volume is asking for trouble.

All the books I’ve used, including works by Roy Strong, Asa Briggs, and F.E. Halliday are outdated, out of print, or both. These have been replaced by volumes that sell well in the U.K., but require a previous knowledge lacking in American students: works by Jeremy Black, Simon Schama, and Simon Jenkins. I’ve been using the Penguin Illustrated History, which I love. It’s visual, I’ve written a bunch of quizzes for it, and it’s beautifully written. But students have become less enthusiastic, and it’s outdated now anyway.

Besides, it costs money. All my other classes require only my own pdf textbook, freely downloadable and printable. We are now required to indicate in the class registration system if we have a low-cost or no-cost class, so that automatically creates competition among classes as students realize they can take a class for less money. This was my last class with a textbook that had to be purchased, and it wasn’t easy for the bookstore, or students online, to find an inexpensive copy. So I unceremoniously dumped the textbook, and spend a couple of weeks this summer downloading, editing, and reformatting appropriate pages from the web. Then I wrote matching quizzes.

Canvas is not user friendly when it comes to importing, editing, and reusing quizzes, in any format. It’s test banks are obscure and hard to use. The result of my machinations was a set of single-question, matching quizzes for the new readings, and my old (now five-question) multiple-choice quizzes for my lecture. So I put one due Wednesday and the other Sunday.

Well, now the weekly course page was becoming really cluttered:

I don’t want to go all Copernican on this, but if I were a student it’s starting to look like hoops to jump through, instead of ways to explore material.

So I thought, what do I want them to get out of the reading anyway? My lectures already have a good outline of the main events of English political, social, and cultural history. And the depth is already provided by the documents we “read and discuss” (i.e. annotate in Perusall) each week. These readings are pretty intense for today’s community college students (Magna Carta, Archbishop Cranmer). So instead of adding new readings, it may be better to have them deal with these documents more.

I spent yesterday deleting all the quizzes, both lecture and reading. Instead, I’m having each student submit a “Document analysis paragraph” which uses all the names of the documents to support any single idea they have about the era we’re studying. I made a silly sample paragraph to model what I want them to do:

It’s in the form of a single-question graded survey, which will automatically apply points if they turn it in, so I can read them at my leisure and communicate individually with students who are struggling. And now students are doing, not reading and quizzing.

And thus I’ve broken the entire reading/quiz cycle in one swoop. I didn’t set out to do this — it just happened. But I’m pretty sure I’ll have no regrets.


Class annotation of images

This is another post where I share how I did something, solely so I don’t forget how to do it.

Perusall is a wonderful program for annotating documents with a whole class, and I’m currently using it for all my online classes, which are located in the horror of an LMS they call Canvas. I upload a PDF, and students and I can highlight the document, with a panel popping up for discussion. When anyone clicks on the question mark, it indicates a request for responses. When anyone uses @Someone, it notifies them someone has responded. I have used it to solve the “what if they don’t do the reading?” problem, since we all kind of do the reading together.

All this is great. The system “auto-grades” (though I have to set it then check it very carefully), and pushes the grades to Canvas gradebook on my command, so I can focus on the discussion itself instead of evaluating it.

But you can’t do this with images — just upload and everyone talk about it.

Except…you can. Perusall won’t upload images natively, nor link to images directly on the web. So I downloaded an image, and saved it as a pdf in Preview, then uploaded it. Then I clicked on a section of the picture. Instead of highlighting text, Perusall put a pin. I can then ask a question or make a comment about just that portion of the image. Click the pin, and the conversation panel opens.

But the interface itself takes up a lot of the screen, which we don’t want for images. So I’m going to show students what to do about that:

If they do it, then it will look like this:

More room for the image, less clutter. I’m thinking it would be possible to put several images on a page to be discussed for that week.

What it’s doing is similar to ThingLink, which I learned about from our wonderful art historians over a decade ago. But ThingLink and similar programs, although they can be embedded into Canvas with iframes, cannot track a student’s comments, nor auto-grade them. Perusall can, which shortens my workflow so I can focus on the discussion, just as I do with annotated text.

So, annotations for images when I teach a European history course that focuses on the Humanities, and a History of Technology class that can get bogged down in text? I’m in!