New Countdown Widget on Homepage

As we get near the end of the semester (as of today, there are five weeks of class remaining), I wrote up a new “countdown” widget for my class, and I thought that would be something good to share here as an example of simple date-based widget. In this post, I’m going to focus on the nitty-gritty of how to make the widget. Meanwhile, you can see that this widget is also related to time management; more about that here: time management posts.

How does the widget work? I created this date-based text widget using, a free online tool that converts HTML tables to javascripts. As you can see, the countdown widget “counts down” the days until the end of the semester, and alerts students how many points, more or less, they should have based on whether they are trying to finish the class with an A by the end of Week 15 or if they want to finish up before Dead Week in order to have a week off at the end of the semester to prepare for exams in their other classes (Dead Week is has long been a sore spot at my school, as you can read in the student newspaper).

So, voilà, you can see the widget at work in the side bar of the blog here: Class AnnouncementsBecause I use that blog as my Canvas homepage, you can see how it looks here in one of my classes; the countdown widget is under the growth cat and above the Twitter stream; I don’t want to make a big deal about it, but I do want it to be there persistently, updating automatically day by day as we get closer to the end of the semester. My classes are open, so feel free to click and take a look; no log-in required:



Making the widget. Here’s a step by step guide:

STEP ONE. Create an HTML table. The content is dynamic with a date that responds to the system clock, but it doesn’t require any fancy programming. Instead, you create the widget by generating a simple HTML table with the dates you want in the left-hand column and the corresponding HTML content (which can be anything: text, links, images, etc.) in the right-hand column: countdown.html. I actually wrote this using a spreadsheet since the content is basically a kind of formula that repeats, although the formula shifts during Thanksgiving Break and then during Week 15 when it’s no longer possible to finish before Dead Week. So, the content is partly automated (I used the spreadsheet to fill in the dates, the points, and most of the text), but also something I manually tweaked in the resulting HTML table.

STEP TWO. Convert to javascript. After you prepare the HTML table, converts the HTML table into a javascript. You then need to upload the javascript to your own webspace ( converts the javascript but does not host it for you; you need to do that yourself). If you want to use the widget in Canvas, you need to make sure that you have https webspace so that the javascript and its assets (image assets, for example) will have https addresses that will display properly in Canvas.

STEP THREE. Insert the javascript. Then, you use the https address of your javascript to insert it wherever it is going to go. I happen to put it in the sidebar of my class announcements blog, but I could also put it into a Canvas Page, for example; you can see examples of javascript widgets in Canvas pages in this demo course I created last summer: There’s information there about calendar-based widgets, random widgets, and also about how to randomly display a date-based calendar widget (it’s like having two widgets for the price of one).

Thanks to Reclaim Hosting! As always, I am very grateful to Reclaim Hosting and the Create project at my school — check it out at — which gives students, faculty, and staff access to their own web hosting space, including an https option that is very (VERY) simple to use.

Aside: I’m also using my Create domain to host this blog so that I can learn more about WordPress in order to provide better support to my students who are also experimenting with WordPress in my classes.

The power of dynamic content. Creating dynamic content like this is one of my favorite things to do! Unlike static content that students have to find manually (click-click-click, where you risk losing them at every click), dynamic content allows you to present fresh content to students automatically either based on the date (something new each day, like this countdown widget) or at random (like the growth mindset cats, with a new cat whenever the page loads). On days when they are doing a lot of work for my class, students might visit Canvas multiple times, and I want to take advantage of that by presenting them with new content. And it’s easy: I just create and insert the widget, and it is ready to go-go-go at any hour of the day or night. I like to get a good night’s sleep… but my widgets are always awake! 🙂

THANK YOU, RANDY HOYT! And, finally, a big shout-out to Randy Hoyt who created the tool many years ago and continues to make it freely available to everyone online. Randy is an OU alum, a web-maker extraordinaire, and is also a founder of Foxtrot Games, maker of beautiful board games. If you give a try for yourself, you can say thanks to Randy over at Twitter where he’s @randyhoyt.

Plus… cats.  I also want to sing the praises of Josh Walcher’s I used that to write up the first draft of this blog, and it rewarded me with kittens throughout. Why are my blog posts so long? Blame the kittens! And if you want to thank Josh for helping cats take over the Internet, you can find him at @Josh_Walcher.


Crossposted at OU Canvas Community.

How Instructors (Don’t) Use the LMS

For today’s post, I wanted to share this graphic from Blackboard about LMS use since mutatis mutandis that is relevant to the whole LMS world: Blackboard Study on How Instructors Use the LMS. (There’s a more detailed write-up at the Blackboard blog; I might respond more specifically on their blog post later.)


As you can see, hardly anybody is using the LMS for what the LMS claims to do, which is to provide a totalizing learning environment (or VLE as some call it, virtual learning environment). Just 2% have “balanced use of assessments, content, and discussion.”

And no wonder: whether you call it a learning management system or a virtual learning environment, the LMS/VLEs are extremely unappealing, faux tools created for faux school activities as opposed to the real ways people interact, learn, create, and share online.

You might be surprised to be reading about this at a blog which has “Canvas” in the title… but check out the tag: “confessions of an LMS minimalist.” I use Canvas only for what needs to be done in a secure environment: grades. (And my students record their own grades via the quiz tool; you can read about that here:

So, I am glad to take advantage of the opportunity that the common LMS at my school provides to connect with other faculty members (which is why I created this blog), but I personally have no interest in increasing my use of the LMS. Instead, I am constantly on the lookout for ways to do a better job as an online teacher, improving my own digital literacy and the digital literacy of my students. The LMS has nothing to offer me there, and the main tools I rely on are blogs and websites: real content built with real tools on the real web. You can read about how I use blogs here: Building a Student Blog NetworkAnd you can see my students’ wonderful websites here: eStorybook Central.

In future posts, I’ll have more to say about all that, and I’ll take the results of this Blackboard study as a strong indicator that faculty are clearly not making use of the LMS in a holistic way… which means a logical question to then ask is what other tools, resources, and strategies are available to achieve that holistic learning experience? Let’s share and learn from each other about that!


Constant, endless curiosity is what feeds your abilities.
(Growth Mindset Cats)

Crossposted at OU Canvas Community.


Thanks very much to Jesse Stommel whose blog post today — 16 Creative Online Educators — gave me a topic for this still-new blog: connectedness.

When I opened the post and saw this whole cast of characters, some of whom I know well and some of whom I have just admired from a distance, it felt like walking into a cafe full of friendly faces, people I could hang out with, just chatting and talking, sharing and learning. I’ve only met a couple of the people on that list in person, like Alan Levine (and we had been online buddies for a LONG time before that, way back to probably 2003 or so when I connected with Alan thanks to the free tool he had developed and shared online back in the day, Feed2JS) and also Howard Rheingold, who is a connector extraordinaire.

Yet even though we don’t meet in person, these people have been incredibly important to me in my work as an online educator: inspiring me (like how Alan and the whole DS106 crew inspired me to design my classes around creating stories), challenging me (Jesse, for example, has challenged me in some ways that have changed my approach to teaching very much for the better), and just helping me day to day in all kinds of ways (I sometimes feel like I am sharing an online office with the Michelle P-B even though she is 2500 miles away).

And these powerful connections all happened just as a result of “showing up” online, asking questions and having fun. I’ve got an omnifeed (thank you, Inoreader!) that pulls the different pieces of my online life together in one place: If you scroll on down, you can basically see what I do, every day, day after day: show up, ask questions, have fun… and connect.

At the same time, I understand that the open Internet can be kind of overwhelming, which is why I was so glad that Kevin Buck set up an OU Canvas Community where people using Canvas at OU could get together and share ideas. To make that community come to life, though, we have to work at it, which is why I created this blog… hoping to connect with other OU faculty using Canvas, sharing both here and via the same blog reposted inside that Canvas Community space. I’m going to try to make a daily contribution like this to our OU Canvas Community space, and I hope others will want to show up and connect. I know we will learn so much more if do that together, learning and sharing as we go!

And now: you know where to find me. 🙂

Learn, and then share what you learned.
(one of the Growth Mindset Cats)


Crossposted at OU Canvas Community.

Time Management Brainstorms

Yesterday I participated in a great ILED Studio session with Bucky Dodd and Rob Reynolds about helping students with time management.


This is a topic I have been thinking about a lot lately, both because on the Week 8 survey students indicated that they had a very high level of interest in learning about time management, and also because I have some students who are at risk of failing the class (seven students right now, which is more than it should be) — and that’s not because of any real academic problem, but simply because of time management problems: they have not been able to find 6 hours each week to do the work for this class.

To some extent, Canvas helps with time management because the Calendar is very responsive, and students can also synch the Canvas calendar with any other calendar system they use. I wrote up a Tech Tip to encourage students to do just that: Canvas Calendar.

At the same time, though, Canvas is really NOT helping, and that’s because it perpetuates the fundamental passivity at the heart of the system: in Canvas, I set all the deadlines, instead of each student being on the schedule that is really convenient for them.

Starting with the very first day of class, I ask students to tell me what 6 hours of the week they will use for class, and I show them how to fit the weekly assignments into that schedule. ANY 6 hours will work… literally, any 6 hours! Here’s the form I ask them to fill out:


Based on the 6 hours they report, I send them back a customized schedule, and because of the total flexibility of the weekly assignments, there is literally no schedule that I cannot accommodate.

But here’s the problem: instead of sticking to their own schedule, they drift into the Canvas due dates, no matter how inconvenient that might be for them. Then, in the midterm evaluation, many students reported that the Canvas due dates were not convenient. I sent around an email after that, reminding students that they could use any schedule that they wanted for the class (here’s what I said), but it’s still the case that a majority (a large majority!) of students do the assignments on the Canvas due dates, no matter how counter-productive and inconvenient those dates are in terms of their own personal schedules.

This is nothing new; I have been struggling with this problem ever since I started teaching online. Even though in an online class students can (and should!) set their own schedules, years of enforced passivity have made it very difficult for them to do that.


Cartoon by Dan Regan.

So, I got some ideas from the ILED Studio session, and I am thinking of trying a major revamp in the way I organize the class in order to tackle this. Right now my semester works like this:

Week 1: Orientation Week

Weeks 2-7: reading/writing
Week 8: Review Week

Weeks 9-14: reading/writing
Week 15: Review Week

In order to really get students to launch their own schedules and stick to that, though, I think I need to regroup like this:

Week 1: Orientation Week

Week 2: Planning Ahead
Weeks 3-8: reading/writing

Week 9: Review Progress / Plan Ahead
Weeks 10-15: reading/writing

See how that works? Instead of having backward-looking Review Weeks, I have will have forward-looking Planning Weeks, while the core reading/writing weeks remain the same.

I don’t think I can manage a shift that big mid-year, but what I will do next semester is to start accumulating LOTS of time management strategies and resources for the students to use and give me feedback on, and that will help me learn which materials are most useful for implementing this new structure next year.

I’m pretty excited about this, and kudos to Bucky and Rob for offering such a fantastic space for brainstorming. Next week the ILED Studio topic is student engagement, which is a closely related topic, and one that will help me a lot as I contemplate these big changes for next Fall, along with some interim changes for Spring too!

And hey, in the spirit of the ILED Studio Session, I am trying to use design thinking here! I’ll update this later as I learn more about time management strategies that can help students free themselves from the Canvas Calendar.


Crossposted at OU Canvas Community.

The Power of Random Cats

I really liked Maha Bali’s post at ProfHacker today: Tips for Effective Online Learning – Community Edition.

I immediately chimed in with a comment about the importance of meta-learning resources for students, both the content that I share with them through the Growth Mindset, Writing Lab, and Learning by H.E.A.R.T. blogs AND the “challenges” that go with them if students want to actively engage with that content.

For this post, I want to write about a Canvas tie-in, which is this: one of the ways I weave the content from those blogs into my classes is through the daily announcements, and I use my announcements blog as my Canvas homepage (details here: About My Canvas Homepage).

So, for example, there is a growth-mindset-cat-of-the-day in each day’s announcements, plus there is a widget in the sidebar of the blog so that there is a new cat at random every time a student passes through the Canvas homepage on their way to record an assignment grade (which is the only thing I use Canvas for).

So, that is the message for today’s “Teaching with Canvas” post: I like being able to have random growth mindset cats to greet my students whenever they arrive. Here’s a screenshot from — and that course is 100% open (no log-in of any kind), so just click and see what cat you get! 🙂


And here’s that particular cat at home in the Growth Mindset blog:


Crossposted at OU Canvas Community.

Canvas Community (Jive) Blog

So, I created a blog post over at the OU Canvas Community (used same banner as here; that was fun!) … and I think this is a link that will work for people who are logged in to the Community, although I’m honestly not sure about how that works. I don’t think I can make the Canvas blog public, and crossposting is going to be kind of a pain but I’ll treat this blog as the “official” version (which I’ll update for the inevitable typos, etc.), and I’ll just crosspost over at the Canvas Community. Here’s the link to my first post over there:

Teaching with Canvas

The banner image I’m using: pretty!


Hello world!

Yes, this is the proverbial “Hello world” post… I am trying to accomplish two things at once here:

  1. Have an active WordPress space I am using so that I can provide better tech support for my students who choose to use WordPress blogs in my class.
  2. Create a public space to mirror a Canvas Community blog that I am going to start using.

So, now I have something set up here super-quick (I created a subdomain, installed WordPress, and chose the Wilson theme for now)… next step: go see what’s possible over in the Canvas Community blog space (it’s run by Jive, and I honestly have no idea how it works).

Back later!