More on Embedded Blogs (or Sites)

Keegan just shared a great post about embedding a website in Canvas via the Redirect Tool: How To Integrate Websites Into Canvas. Lots of helpful information and screenshots also! If the goal is to have students actually stay in Canvas, using the Redirect Tool to add the site address to the course navigation definitely works. That is the method Keegan documents there in his post.

If, however, you want to use the embedded site as your Home Page, then you need a different option: the iframe tag is a way that you can insert a website into a Canvas Page. You can then make that Page the Home Page of your course. That’s the main difference between these two methods of embedding — unless there is some way to make a Redirect item into a Home Page??? If there is, I have not figured that out.

Here’s how the Blog-as-Home-Page works for me:

Whenever a student arrives at my Canvas course, the first thing they see is the announcements: (course is fully public, so you too can just click and go). Here’s a screenshot:

You’ll notice I also have a note up there at the top, alerting people that they can just pop open the embedded site in a tab of its own if they want.

So, if students are just on their way to the Gradebook, at least they will see the top part of the announcements (which is where I put the key information each day). If they are going to read through the whole announcements page, though, they will have a better time doing that outside the Canvas straitjacket, which is why I encourage them to open the blog in a new tab.

For details on how to embed a blog this way and also configure it to be the Home Page, see this post: Blissfully Blogging Announcements.

IMPORTANT: http links. Also, if you do embed a website, either with iframe or with the Redirect app, it is really important that you make sure the links open in a new tab. Canvas will not open http links inside Canvas; you have to open http links in a new tab. Worse: there is no warning or error message from Canvas if you click on an embedded http link. Just… nothing. You click and click and nothing happens. A student might figure out that they need to right-mouse-click to open in a new tab, but I wouldn’t count on it. They are just as likely to assume the link is broken.

So, given that there are still plenty of http links out there in the world — including all OUCreate sites that have not turned on encryption — I’ve found it easiest just to set up the site to open all links in a new tab automatically. I use the <base target=’_blank’/> tag in my blog template header, but I am guessing there are other good ways to do that too (more details).

Are there any other tips and suggestions from people who are using the Redirect app or iframe to bring external content into Canvas? Share your ideas in the comments here or at Keegan’s post. Or you can find us both at Twitter: @OnlineCrsLady and @KeeganSLW.

Break through the barriers!

Crossposted at OU Canvas Community.

Blissfully Blogging Announcements in Canvas

I’m making good progress on the Twitter4Canvas materials (I may have a complete rough draft of it all this weekend!), and what I wanted to do today was show how I share Twitter in my Canvas classes via the Blogger blog I use for my class announcements. I wrote about this last year, and I’m now updating that post with a focus on Twitter and Canvas.

This post has three parts: description of the blog that I use as my homepage, advantages of using a blog for the homepage, and then some nitty-gritty about how I embed the blog inside Canvas.

But first, a screenshot: here’s what my Canvas homepage looks like. You can see the latest version by visiting or; both courses are open, and both show the same blog as the homepage. You can also visit the Announcements blog directly, separate from Canvas. Scroll on down to see the whole thing. 🙂

DESCRIPTION. The blog has basically four components:

Top Paragraph. There’s always a paragraph at the top with a reference to the day and week (there are new announcements every day, including Saturday and Sunday). I put the most important information that people might need in that top paragraph.

Procedures Section. Below that is a section called “Class Procedures and Reminders” which I try to keep to at most three items per day. These are paragraphs specifically related to class activities, especially any assignments that are due. I don’t have any images here, just text and links.

Fun Section. The rest of the body of the blog post contains stuff that is for fun and exploration. Each item has some kind of image or video that goes with it. There are three items at the top that are about reading, writing, creativity or just something for fun; then a featured student project (Storybook) from a previous class; next is a free book online related to the class; a proverb poster; a video of some kind; a Growth Mindset Cat; an event taking place on campus that day; and, finally, an “on this day” event at the bottom.

Sidebar. The sidebar contains the key class link at the top of the page, an email subscription form, a random Growth Mindset Cat, the class Twitter feed, a random graphic, a random Storybook, a random free book online, a video playlist of all the announcement videos, plus an anonymous suggestion box.

ADVANTAGES. Here are the top 5 reasons why I prefer to use a blog for my homepage:

1. I model blogging. My classes consist of student blog networks, and so it is very important to me that I show the students how blogs can be a great space for writing and sharing online. In all my blogs, I try to use good strategies that my students can likewise use in their own blogs.

2. Blogs have sidebars. It drives me crazy that Canvas gives me no opportunity to develop the sidebar for my class in useful ways. There is nothing I can do with that Canvas sidebar. I cannot add dynamic widgets, I cannot add graphics. I cannot even add links to it: if you add a non-Canvas link to the sidebar students are “warned” before clicking on it, which means Canvas doesn’t even trust me to add links to my own sidebar! I need a sidebar that is going to be display cool, useful, new content every time the students log on. The blog gives me that sidebar design space.

3. The blog makes Twitter and javascripts easy. Of course, it is also possible to build a Twitter widget, which is what I will be demonstrating in the Twitter4Canvas course, but that requires an extra step, sneaking Twitter into Canvas by way of a separate https webpage. By embedding the blog into Canvas, I can use Twitter and other javascripts without going through that extra step. The javascript runs at the Blogger server, which means that Canvas is not running the javascript; it is just displaying the results. The Canvas security police are okay with that.

4. Blogs offer mobile view without an app. I often include links to the daily announcements in communication with students, and those links are mobile-responsive automatically; if students are checking their email on their phone, for example, they will see the mobile view when they click on the announcements link, automatically, no app required.

5. One blog for two classes. Since I use the same announcements, I need to be able to edit once and display twice. If I did the announcements using the LMS tool inside the course space, I would have to edit the announcements twice. Not good. I also like that the blog has continuity. Canvas doesn’t understand that I am teaching the same classes every semester, but Blogger does; I’ve been using this exact same Blogger blog for my classes since 2008… which means I am coming up on my ten-year blogiversary.

NITTY-GRITTY. Here is a detailed step-by-step of the options I use to configure my blog inside Canvas.

Canvas URLs. The key thing to understand is that I am using a wiki page AND I am telling Canvas to make my wiki page the default homepage of the course, so both of those addresses show my blog:
That 5-digit number refers to a specific semester course instance; it changes from semester to semester, course to course. So, make sure you notice the difference: the course homepage has the right-hand sidebar, but the wiki front page does not have the right sidebar (but it does have the very annoying “view all pages” across the top which Canvas will not let me suppress). That difference will be important in the set-up described below.

Okay, here goes:

Blogger. I use Blogger because, until recently, that was the best option I could recommend to my students. Blogger is ad-free and it is javascript-friendly, while the free hosted version of WordPress has ads and does not like javascripts. Now my students can use DoOO ( and set up their own WordPress but I’ve had students blogging for years… and I couldn’t wait for DoOO. Most of my students use Blogger too, although some use WordPress, which is great. I provide detailed tech support for Blogger since I know it best.

HTTPS. Blogger now has https. By default, it displays http, but you can use https too. That’s what you need to display the blog in Canvas. All the sidebar content also needs to be https to display in Canvas.

Blogger templates. All the standard templates (but NOT the “dynamic view” template) would work; I use the “Simple” template, and I set the blog width at 840 pixels and the sidebar width at 260 pixels. I put the page font at 15 pixels Arial with post titles at 18 pixels. I suppress the top navigation bar (the one with the search box).

Open links in new tabs. Because the mixed-content rules in Canvas mean http links will fail unless they open in a new tab, I edited my template’s HTML to open all links in new tabs automatically. To do that, just add this big of code right after the <head> tag so it looks like this:

<base target='_blank'/>

Canvas “Daily Announcements” page. I start by creating a Page in the course wiki; I called it “Daily Announcements.” Then I made that the “front page” of the wiki:
I then chose that as the “Home Page” for my Canvas course:
But, as noted above, the “Home Page” for the course shows the right sidebar but the “Front Page” of the wiki does not; that’s just an automatic Canvas thing beyond your control.

Blogger in wiki page. I use a simple iframe to put the Blogger into the wiki, making sure I use the https address of the blog; I set the width at 100%, and I have a height of 1000 (my blog posts are usually longer than that, so there’s a scroll bar in the frame).

<p><iframe src="" width="100%" height="1000"></iframe></p>

Then I do something tricky. Remember how the course homepage has the right sidebar and the course wiki front page does not? Well, for many reasons, I prefer to have a homepage without the right sidebar. So here’s what I do:

Create Homepage link in left sidebar. I use the Redirect Tool to create a “Homepage” link which I display in the left sidebar (how ridiculous is that… having to install an app just to add a link to class navigation? whatever…). That link goes to the wiki front page address (which means the right-hand sidebar does not appear):

Remove “Home” from left sidebar. After I create my Homepage link in the sidebar, I then remove the Canvas Home link from the left sidebar, putting the Homepage link I made with the Redirect tool up at the top.

Fix up “Daily Announcements” page. Above the embedded blog, I add some text to help people navigation: I want students to realize they can turn the right sidebar on or off, and I also want to tell them how to suppress the left sidebar. Most of all, I just wish they would open the announcements in a new tab entirely!

* Hide or show the right menu.
To do that I use these addresses to make the links:
* Reminder about how to suppress the left menu.
* A link to open the Announcements in a new tab.\

And that’s it! I think those are all my tricks, but if I forgot something, please ask. I really am a big fan of this approach, and I am glad to help if anyone wants to give it a try. 🙂

Do not go where the path may lead;
go instead where there is no path,
and leave a trail.

(Growth Mindset Cat)

Crossposted at OU Canvas Community.

Keep Calm and Love the Randomness

I said I’d explain how I set up the responding groups in my class at random, so I documented the process step by step today. I have really worked on this system over the years because it’s a very important part of the class. Finding ways to make sure that people meet each other and that they both give and receive comments reliably is important to me.

Plus, I also don’t want to spend a lot of time on this; using a randomizing spreadsheet means that the whole thing takes me under 15 minutes, but the students have exactly what they need to quickly find the blogs they need to comment on without having to look things up: just click and go! And the use of labels in the blog sidebars means that the blogs are all very easy to navigate.

And no, there is very little about Canvas in here. Why? Because Canvas doesn’t let me manage a spreadsheet with my students’ data along with other data. So, what you will read about here is how I create a spreadsheet in Google Sheets, in other words: a real spreadsheet, with randomizing functions, sorting, filtering, etc. Which means: nothing like the horrible Canvas gradebook which I cannot even filter. I copy the one piece of data I need from Canvas into this spreadsheet, as you’ll read below.

Here’s how it works:

1. Update instructions. Each week, I update the instructions from last semester; for this semester’s Week 2, they just needed a bit of tinkering because of the new “story planning” option: Week 2 Instructions. That page links to the groups for each class; now I need to create the groups!

2. Find inactive blogs (no story). I check to see who did NOT write a story this week. To do that, I use Canvas, looking for blank Week 2 Story Declarations. I also double-check to make sure they didn’t just forget to do the Declaration (if that’s the case, I fill it in for them). In a given week, there are usually a few people in each class who don’t do a story, which is fine. This time I had 3 people without stories in each class. That lets me do a quick calculation about how this will work in Groups of 3. In both classes, I have 2 left over when I divide by three, which is awkward, so the best way to smooth that out is to create 4 groups of 2, and then have the rest be groups of 3. That gives me 15 Groups in Myth-Folklore (41 active students, 3 inactive), and 13 Groups in Indian Epics (35 active students, 3 inactive) this week.

3. Spreadsheet! Then I go to the magic randomizing spreadsheet which I set up in the first week of class as students created their blogs. I have the raw HTML arranged in columns, including an “inactive” column for people without a story this week. So, I move the blogs without a story from the active column into the skip column. That gave me 41 active people with stories in Myth-Folklore, and 35 in Indian Epics.

4. Randomize! I then randomize the spreadsheet using the amazing RAND function. So, I paste in the RAND for all the active blogs and then sort on the random column. Presto. That gives me the inactive blogs at the bottom (because their cells are blank), and all the other blogs randomized. I then paste in a column of group labels that I reuse from another sheet (Group 1, Group 1, Group 1, Group 2, Group 2, Group 2 and so on). I jiggle the bottom four groups so that they have two people plus one inactive (or blank), and that’s it.

5. Group listing and alphabetical listing. I sort by groups to get a group listing and paste the HTML into the wiki page. Then, I sort the spreadsheet alphabetically by people’s names, which gives me an alphabetical listing so people can find their group number. And that’s all! You can see what the weekly listing looks like here: Week 2 Myth-Folklore. The alphabetical listing comes first, and then the groups below. The idea is to make it very quick for students to get to the blogs in their groups.

So, yes, I wish the Canvas Gradebook were like a real spreadsheet. But it is nothing close to being a spreadsheet; I will save those complaints for another day. Today I will just say that I love the power of Google Sheets and the RAND function. 🙂

(Made with keepcalmomatic)

Crossposted at OU Canvas Community.

Inoreader and Tracking Blog Comments

I was going to post about Twitter4Canvas today, and I might still have time to do that, but I wanted to write up something today about Inoreader and how it helps me make sure everything is going as planned in my classes with the students commenting on each other’s blogs, which they did this weekend.

Here’s how it works: For each student’s blog, I subscribe to their blog post feed AND to their blog comment feed (that is one of my requirements: they can use any blog platform they want so long as it is ad-free and has separate full feeds for posts and for comments). That means I end up with a folder in Inoreader that contains all the comment feeds, and I name each feed for each person whose blog the feed comes from, with a two letter prefix for the class.

Then, after the first round of comments (which is sometimes kind of chaotic because of add/drop), I can quickly click through the subscriptions in that folder to make sure everybody has at least two comments, and hopefully four. Some people might have even more than that if I have also left some comments (which I do when I have time). Here’s a screenshot that shows how the interface looks. This student in Myth-Folklore (MF) has gotten five comments, so that’s good! (I could read the comments too if I wanted, but I’m honestly just checking for numbers of comments today.)

So, it takes literally just a couple of minutes to click on through all the students (I have anywhere from 80 to 90 in any given semester, both classes combined), making sure that despite the chaos of add/drop, things look good.

I rely on the power of random for the blog comments, and as the semester goes along, students will sometimes have four comments each week, sometimes just two, and possibly none (it’s rare, but it happens), and at the same time, they also understand why it’s unpredictable. Some weeks they themselves might skip the blog commenting assignment, and so it’s a kind of lesson in comment karma. Overall, the goal is for everyone to do the commenting assignment every week and for every person to get four comments… and on average, that is mostly how it works out, with a little fluctuation from week to week. When I set up the blog comment groups for Week 2 later this week, I’ll write up a post here to explain exactly how that works; the power of random minimizes the time I spend in creating the groups, while maximizing the spread of comments throughout the class as a whole.

Meanwhile, though, I am really glad that Inoreader makes it easy for me to check on the comments during Week 1. It’s important that everybody feel included in the class during the first week, and both giving and getting comments is part of how that works. And it worked pretty well this week I think!

How is this relevant to Canvas? It’s relevant because there is nothing in Canvas that helps to check on levels of engagement in a class like this. Blogs, by having a person-based stream which in turn collects comments, lends itself to this type of inspection. Especially because I teach fully online classes, I need to be able to see that things are going well, checking on each and every student as the semester gets started, just to make sure! That’s why I am glad I have Inoreader; it works for me. 🙂

Connecting with others: it’s important both for life and for learning.

Connect with others to reduce stress.


Crossposted at OU Canvas Community.

Friday Thoughts re: Online Presence

This week’s posts were originally going to be all about the blog networks in my classes (the students’ blogs, my blogs), but it ended up getting mixed in with a couple of posts about the online Canvas training in which I participated this week. For this final post of the week (Happy Friday!), I want to write a post that follows up on both of those themes: ONLINE PRESENCE. Specifically, the way that blogs build online presence, and the way that Canvas does not.

Online Presence: Instructors. As an online instructor, I consider “online presence” to be the most important factor in my course design. What can I do to be “present” to my students? That’s actually pretty easy, for me anyway; I see other faculty struggle with this. I’ll have more to say about that below. But even more important is…

Online Presence: Students. This is the biggest challenge I face as an online instructor: how can I encourage students to be “present” both to me and to each other? Students don’t really expect to be “present” in an online class; there’s not really an online equivalent to classroom attendance. To be present in a classroom-based class means to show up. You put your butt in the seat. You answer “Present!” if the teacher calls roll. But that mere physical presence doesn’t rank really highly in my experience: if students are present but not participating, I’m not impressed. Presence needs to be more than just butt in seat (or eyes on screen), more than just taking notes (or mouse clicks).

The notion of “online presence” is a big one, something that you can explore in many ways. And it is something very important to explore. In this post, I’ll describe some of the ways I think about online presence in my classes. In fact, it is such a huge topic that I think I will resort to just listing the first 10 thoughts that come to mind, knowing that I will return to this topic again later. So, in no particular order, here are 10 things that come to mind when I think about online presence in online courses:

1. Blogs provide a personal space AND a personal stream. Blogs are a space in the sense that you build a blog like a website, but it’s better than a website because the blog is also a place where people can come visit you and leave comments (person to person) and it is also your personal stream which can then be combined into larger streams for the class as a whole (see my post on Inoreader for assignment streams).

2. Canvas has no personal space and no personal stream. There is a Canvas profile page but it is very static: you just put in a little bio and a list of links. The profile page does not reflect your activity in the Canvas network; see my online convo with Jared Stein at Instructure about the lack of personal streams in Canvas. It would not be rocket science to make the profile page into a dynamic personal stream: Canvas has all the data it needs to do that. The problem is not a lack of data; it is a failure of design. A failure of culture. A failure to be present.

3. You can be yourself at your blog. As students work on their blogs over the semester, it builds their presence through the contents of their posts and also through the way they work on the blog design: the look-and-feel of the blog overall and also the contents of the sidebar. They are making choices, they are getting ideas from one another, they are learning about technology. It’s a great process, and it is one that unfolds easily step by step over the course of the semester. There are always new things to explore and experiment with in the digital world. Words, images, media, design. Personal. Creative. Fun. (I need to make sure to come back around to fun before this post is over!)

4. You cannot be yourself in your Canvas profile. I am more than a picture, a paragraph, and some links. But that is all you can be with a Canvas profile.

5. People don’t even fill out their Canvas profile. Even though I think the Canvas profile page is totally boring, I took a few minutes to fill it out; since it is so primitive/limited, it only takes a few minutes to complete. Yet in the online Canvas training I had this week, there was no reminder to fill out the profile, and the trainer had not filled out her profile.

6. An Introduction post in a discussion board does NOT help to build online presence. What is up with the cult of discussion board introductions? In the Canvas training, we were not told to fill out our profiles in Canvas (which is at least potentially useful over time), but of course we were told to write a “self-introduction” post at the Discussion Board… yet those Discussion Board Introductions were not important at all as things turned out. I commented on a few of them to try to create some kind of conversational atmosphere, but the trainer did not reply to any of the Introduction posts, and we were not encouraged to read and reply to each other. Time and effort are precious commodities, both online and in real life. Writing those Introduction posts was not the best use of our time and effort.

7. Introduction blog posts can be in continuous use. In contrast to the perfunctory discussion board Introduction posts, it’s possible to make really good use of Introduction posts at a blog, but you need to design the class with that in mind. In my classes, students do an Introduction post in their blog in the first week of class, and they use the “Introduction” label on that post. It’s the only post that will have that label, and by having a label, the post then shows up automatically in their sidebar navigation. I make sure to explain to them how labels work as a navigation system for the blog overall; it’s part of the Introduction post assignment! Then, at the end of the first week, I put students in random groups where they read each other’s first week posts, including the Introduction post. But here’s the key thing: they are in random blog groups like that each week, and when they meet a new person in their blog group (which is almost every week), they read that person’s Introduction and leave a comment. So, as a result, they are reading and commenting on Introductions all semester long, and the Introduction post is always the one with the most comments because it is in continuous reuse.

8. Introduction blog posts can evolve. As the semester goes on, students can expand on their Introduction posts. They might want to add “new news” about themselves (accomplishments, big events), and they might also expand on their technical skills, like if they learn how to embed video or audio media into a blog post and want to go back and add that to their Introduction. Some students keep on tinkering with their Introduction, some don’t — and it’s all good! The continuous activity in the comment section for the Introduction post is both a way to connect with other students in the class along with a reminder about the existence of the Introduction post, an open invitation to tinker with the post some more as the semester progresses.

9. Discussion board posts do not evolve. The problem mentioned above with the perfunctory Introduction discussion board posts applies to the use of discussion board posts in general. Although there are some creative ways that people can use discussion boards, the actual technology involved works again the reuse of discussion board posts compared to blog posts. Discussion board posts are hard or impossible to link to (blog posts and even blog comments are linkable), discussion board posts are hard or impossible to find (compare the automatic navigation provided by blog labels), and discussion board posts do not contribute to evolving personal streams (see comment above about the gap between the Canvas profile page and user activity in a course). In short: blogs can build personal presence in so many ways, but discussion boards do not. Insofar as discussion boards are the locus of inter-action in an online course, that course design is not actively helping to build each person’s online presence in a lasting way.

10. Online presence can … and should be … FUN. Spontaneous. Unpredictable. Dynamic. Stimulating. Pleasurable. But Canvas is just not fun. Aside from the panda, is there anything fun about Canvas? The design imperative of Canvas is clearly to make things look all the same, to have everything (and everyone) behave in the same way, and to standardize everything. Which also means: to take the fun out of it. For more about Canvas and cognitive underloading, see the sharp and insightful commentaries by Lisa Lane at her blog; here are just some of her posts:
The LMS and the End of Information Literacy
The Pedagogy of Canvas
Complexity over simplicity in online classes
(and you can read my thoughts about all that here: Engagement, Creativity, and Non-Conformity)

Okay, I have reached the magic number of 10, and I have work to do today, so I’ll stop here. That was admittedly a hodge-podge of thoughts, but it gives me something to return and build on the next time that I address the question of online presence. Blogging: it iterates! 🙂

It takes time for potential to flower.

Crossposted at OU Canvas Community.

The LMS and Its Dis-Contents

So, I’m following up on yesterday’s post re: connected blogs as a content management system, as opposed to putting content into the LMS with its semester-based course-defined approach. For me, blogs are better in every way, and I’ve actually never put content into an LMS; before I switched to blogging platforms exclusively around 2005, I created freestanding websites with tools like Composer and Dreamweaver. There are a lot of factors involved, and I’ll sort them into two categories:

  • the advantages of publishing on the open Internet and using real publishing tools
  • the disadvantages of publishing inside an LMS and using the LMS tools.

I’ll try to limit myself to just 10 factors (5 for each category), and then maybe somebody who has had success with content inside the LMS can share their experiences. I’m sure that content inside the LMS can work well in some situations, but I honestly don’t know what those situations would be. What I do know is that publishing content on the Internet with real tools has worked great for me, and here are the main reasons why… and I hope I’ve zoomed in on the most important reasons here, but I’m giving myself the option to add to the list later if I realize I left something important out! 🙂

Advantages of publishing on the open Internet and using real publishing tools:

1. Fast, fast, fast, fast, fast. Did I say fast? The whole reason I have opted for blogs over websites is that blogs optimize my time for content creation. I rely on labels and other blogging tricks to manage the navigation, and I am happy with simple templates for the design. That means I can focus on content creation. And I have so much content I want to create and share! If you look at the list of blogs for my classes, you will see what I have created lots of content. Beyond those blogs, I have many other blogs for my writing and research that are full of yet more content. The thought of trying to create all that content inside an LMS makes me shudder.

2. Fun. It may sound silly, but the fun factor matters a lot to me. If I am going to spend serious time creating content (and I do), I want to be able to have fun doing that, creating fun widgets to use in my blog sidebars and playing around with the template design. Nothing fancy, but being able to just play around with it. There is nothing (NOTHING) fun or playful about creating content inside the Canvas LMS. At least D2L kind of sort of tried to provide some fun design templates. In Canvas, the goal is clearly to stop anyone from having fun because everything is supposed to look exactly the same in every course everywhere all the time.

3. Project-Based. As you can see from my list of content blogs, they are project based. Some are old projects, some are new projects; some are retired projects, some are ongoing projects, and some are projects that I’m thinking about reviving. A few of the blogs are specific to a course, but the majority of blogs are actually not course-specific. I need to be able to develop content based on specific project goals, and it would be very limiting if I were to think of my content in course-based terms.

4. Co-Learning with my Students. As I mentioned in previous posts, my students are blogging too, so we are learning about blogging together. Canvas is not a tool I can co-learn with my students. I far prefer to use the same tools as my students so that we can do that together. I learn more, they learn more. We all learn more. Connecting learning: it works.

5. Real Tools for the Real World. This is closely related to the previous reason I gave about using the same tools with my students, but with a forward-looking / outward-looking emphasis. If my students and I are using real tools as we work and learn online, it’s more likely that we will able to use those same tools for other tasks, both now and in the future. The LMS is a faux tool that does not have a lot of transference. Blogs have great transference, as do the other digital tools that I encourage my students to use as they create content for this class. Their blogging and content creation skills are something they could put on their resume; their use of the Canvas Discussion Board is not.

Disadvantages of publishing inside an LMS and using the LMS tools.

6. Lack of Course Continuity. Instead of seeing a course that persists over time with new cohorts of students (which would make sense), the LMS treats every new semester instance as starting from scratch: new students and new content. So, each semester you “copy” content from the old semester to the new semester, but that’s a bad way to do business — and it’s a TERRIBLE way to do business if you want to make your courses public, as I do. If you make your courses public to share with other teachers and learners, you want the links to continue to be valid, and you want the links to lead to the current version of the content. That kind of content continuity is impossible when the LMS treats every semester as starting from scratch. How did we end up with this deplorable mess? It happened because the LMS was built, first and foremost, to meet the administrative needs of enrollment and grading, not for the purpose of developing online content.

7. Terrible Content Creation Tools. I’ve now created a fair number of pages at Canvas for my Canvas Widget Warehouse and my Growth Mindset Playground, and it is a very frustrating experience. Probably the biggest frustration for me is how little of the screen space I control. Looking at a 1200×800 display, I have 900×500 of real estate that I can edit, which is less than half of the available space.

8. Terrible Content Navigation. Or, rather, there is no navigation. I have to build the Pages navigation menus manually, which is a nightmare. If I want to try to use the left-hand navigation bar, my only recourse is to keep adding instances of the Redirect LTI, as opposed to just editing the navigation directly. If I want to, god forbid, put an external site in the sidebar navigation, students are warned of the danger of leaving Canvas, even though I am the one who put the link in the navigation bar for them! The idea, of course, is that I am supposed to do all the navigation through the Modules, arranging everything in linear order. But there is nothing linear about my pedagogy, and nothing linear about my content: it’s exploratory, not a one-size-fits-all scripted experience of “previous” and “next.”

9. Terrible Content Maintenance Tools. Or, rather, the LMS content maintenance tools are non-existent. In Pages, I cannot put my pages into folder or tag them in order to help me manage my workflow. Why are there folder options in the Files section, but not in the Pages? I can sort Pages by creation date and last edit, but that’s it. There are no other tools available for me to use in managing the content. Not even a search box. Eeek.

10. Uncertain Longevity. My school stayed with D2L for many years, and based on that, I can imagine we will stay for many years with Canvas LMS. But that’s not something that I control; Canvas could go away next year or the year after. As someone who is in this for the long term (I’ve been developing online course materials since back in 1998), that worries me. I’m not a proponent of “it must all be on my own domain,” but I am a proponent of being able to make my own decisions about the platforms that I use, and longevity is important to me. When it comes to my school’s commitment to an LMS, I can hope for longevity, but it is just that: a hope. They could change LMSes any time, a decision completely beyond my control and even beyond my influence.

So, as part of driving my own learning, I need to be able to drive my own content… and the LMS just does not give me a way to do that. For me, blogging is by far the better option.

I drive my own learning.

Crossposted at OU Canvas Community.

A Blog Network for Class Content

Yesterday I wrote about how I use Inoreader to collect all my student blog posts so that I can read them, and also how I use Inoreader to organize those posts into content streams that I can then share with my class. My students’ blogs form a network that IS our class: all that they are reading and writing and learning travels through that network, reaching me and reaching the other students in the class. Connected learning. I cannot imagine teaching any other way.

What I want to write about today is a different blog network: the interconnected set of blogs that provide the content for my classes. I do have a class wiki, but it just contains the class calendar and assignment instructions: Online Course Lady Wiki. All the actual class content comes through my various blogs.

Why blogs? I use blogs for my content because they are the fastest, easiest, most flexible, and most organized type of web publishing that I have found. YMMV. Today I will list the different blogs I use to support my classes, and then in tomorrow’s post I’ll describe the advantages of using blogs for content as opposed to (ugh) using the LMS.

Daily Class Announcements. This is the blog that I use as the homepage for my Canvas courses; it features new content every day during the semester, but I do not use it when school is not in session.
Total posts: 1839.

Writing Laboratory. This is a writing support site with all my help pages for English punctuation and other writing mechanics. Plus, I add new humor and motivational materials during the semester. This blog houses the content for my Writing Inspiration and my Writing Humor widgets.
Total posts: 537.

Growth Mindset Cats. I added new content to his blog regularly for three semesters; now I add new content periodically, and I also recycle old posts to bring them back to the front page of the blog. This blog also houses the contents for my Growth Mindset Cats widget.
Total posts: 426.

Learning by H.E.A.R.T. This is a newish blog, a companion to the Growth Mindset blog, and I am actively developing it this semester; I’ll be adding new content several times each week as the semester gets underway. I also have a H.E.A.R.T. widget using contents from this blog.
Total posts: 178.

E-Storybook Central. This is a blog which used to house a lot of content, but it has been mostly spun off to the Freebookapalooza blog. With the coming demise of the old Google Sites, though, I will be repurposing this blog to archive past student projects in a kind of online catalog before the old Google Sites is shuttered in 2018. Right now, the main purpose of this blog is to provide a list of past student Storybook projects in both of my classes, along with the Storybook widgets.
Total posts: 68.

Freebookapalooza. This blog was a summer project from 2016; I managed to add about 900 books that summer. I hope to spend a good chunk of next summer adding more materials. I have created a variety of Freebookapalooza widgets using the contents of this blog.
Total posts: 937.

Myth-Folklore UnTextbook. This blog was a summer project from 2014; it contains the 100 reading units that students choose from in the Myth-Folklore class. I also add new content periodically that I think would be of interest to students in that class.  Most of the stories in the reading units have illustrations, and so I have a Myth-Folklore Images widget that uses those illustrations.
Total posts: 2572.

Indian Epics Images. I regularly add new content to this blog, based on artwork that people share at Twitter or that I find at museum websites. This blog is also the home of my Public Domain Editions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (a project from Summer 2015), which students use in for reading in the Indian Epics class. I reuse the images from this blog in my Indian Epic Images widget.
Total posts: 1142.

Indian Epics Reading Guides. This blog houses reading guides for the additional reading materials that I use in the Indian Epics class, along with other content that I think would be of interest to students in that class.
Total posts: 371.

Indian Epics Comic Books. This blog was a summer project from 2015; it contains pages for the 100+ comic books that students use as reading options in the Indian Epics class. I don’t add new posts here, but when I have time I add more detailed reading guides to the comic books that are most popular with the students.
Total posts: 151.

Proverb Laboratory: Posters. This blog was a summer project from 2013; I don’t add new Posters, but I recycle the old posters by using them in the daily class announcements. The new content at this blog consists of Latin LOLCats (a hobby, not for a class that I teach since my school, alas, will not let me teach Latin). Using the contents of this blog I’ve made a Proverb Posters widget and also a Latin LOLCats widget.
Total posts: 1665.

What I like best about blogs: they start small, and then they grow!

Big oaks from little acorns grow.

Crossposted at OU Canvas Community.

Inoreader: How I Manage Incoming Blog Posts

Okay, as promised: back to our regular programming. Yesterday I wrote about how I add the students’ blogs one by one to Inoreader, which the blog reader I use to set up my student blog network each semester. In addition to subscribing to the students’ blogs, I also have set up RULES inside Inoreader in order to  tag posts automatically as they come in from the students’ blogs. If you use rules to manage your incoming email, this is very much the same approach. Here’s an example of one of the rules I have in place:

As you can see, the rule-making system is highly configurable. Because I put the students’ blogs into folders when I subscribe to them, I can then have the rule run whenever a new post appears in the folder, and it can be triggered by words in the body of the post and/or in the title which will cause Inoreader to automatically assign a tag to the new post. There are many other possible actions as well, although I mostly just assign tags.

In addition, I can add or remove tags manually, so if something goes wrong (like if a student doesn’t use an expected title word for example), I can add the tag, remove it, etc. in the tag listing that appears at the bottom of each post.

So, as students create their “Favorite Place” posts (which is the first real blog post assignment), it gets automatically tagged by Inoreader. I can then see all those posts grouped together, along with the students’ names and also the class they are in because of the way I name each blog when I subscribe:

As I explained yesterday, I then add a star as I leave comments on the posts (and I do a lot of commenting during the first couple weeks of class). So, based on what I see here, it looks like there are two “favorite places” posts that have come in which I have not commented on yet, so as soon as I finish this post, I will go comment on them.

And… there’s more! In addition to being an RSS aggregator, Inoreader is also a syndication engine. That means I can re-publish this tag stream as a new RSS feed of its own. So, for example, I can create a page at my course wiki where students can easily take a look at the Favorite Places posts so far. This screenshot shows the magazine view, and I also have a link there to the full-post view.

And, not that I would actually want to do this myself, I could easily run that feed inside Canvas as a page inside a Canvas course too; you can see an example of an Inoreader RSS feed inside Canvas here.

So, in the instructions for the assignment, I encourage students to take a look at the posts that other students have already published. Especially for students who are a bit hesitant at first about blogging, being able to see other students’ work is a big help, so I am very grateful to the students who get started early, giving me posts that I can share in the stream this way.

And it’s automatic! As the “Favorite Place” posts keep coming in, that live feed will update post by post by post, showing the latest posts at the top… until all 90+ students have posted. It will be quite a nice collection of places by the time they are all done with that assignment next Tuesday (the first official day of classes).

As you can probably guess, I am really happy with how Inoreader helps me do a good job of watching my blog network so that I can engage with the students in a timely, useful way, and I also really like how it lets me share the content back with the class, assignment by assignment, so that all the students can be learning from each other too.

And now… I feel better. After feeling trapped in the LMS this morning (ugh), it feels much better to be pondering student blogs instead! 🙂

Here’s a growth mindset cat inspired by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.: “Every now and then a man’s mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions. After looking at the Alps, I felt that my mind had been stretched beyond the limits of its elasticity and fitted so loosely on my old ideas of space that I had to spread these to fit it.”

After teaching online in a learning network, I could never go back to being stuck inside the LMS: give me the Alps, please, not the so-called walled garden. 🙂

Crossposted at OU Canvas Community.

Building My Student Blog Network with Inoreader

Today was such a fun day: I got to spend it reading and responding to student blog posts, which means the new semester really has begun! In this post, I actually won’t be saying much about Canvas because the LMS is, sad to say, a complete fail when it comes to letting people create their own spaces online. That’s why I use a blog network instead, and I am going to spend this week explaining how the blog network works in my classes.

Today, I’ll begin at the beginning: how the students get their blogs up and running, and how I then subscribe and follow their blog posts.

Student blogs. Most of the students in my classes have never blogged before. I really hope that in a few years I will see that start to change. I teach (mostly) graduating seniors, so that means they have taken 25 or more college courses so far and not have not learned to use a blog in any of those classes. Ouch. Luckily, blogging is super-easy, and here are the instructions I share with them to get them started: Creating a Blog and Writing Your First Post. (That’s the second assignment in the week-long Orientation that occupies the first week of class.)

Platform-neutral. Building a blog network just means that all the students need to blog; they don’t need to use the same blogging tool. Any tool will work provided that the blog has a full RSS feed for the posts and a separate feed for the comments, and it should also be ad-free. Blogger and WordPress are the obvious candidates, but if someone wanted to use another blog platform that met those requirements, that would be fine. In fact, that would be great! In terms of the technical support that I provide, it’s based on Blogger, and that’s because’s ads make it a no-go for my class. Now with the OUCreate project, students can get WordPress blogs for free, so I am seeing more and more WordPress blogs in the class, which I really appreciate: it’s a way for all the students in the class to see that there are a variety of blogging platform options, and just a matter of personal choice which one you might use. I’ve been using blogs in classes for over 10 years, having moved from Bloglines to Ning to Blogger and now to this system of student choice, but Blogger is still my go-to blogging platform, and I think it’s the easiest one for students to start with who are new to blogging. I’ll have more to say about that in a later post too!

Building the network with Inoreader. As the students create their blogs, they send me an email with the address. After that, they don’t have to email me about their blog posts: I can subscribe to their blogs and see the posts pop up automatically. I use Inoreader as my blog reader, and it is AMAZING. It’s like a combination of the old Google Reader and the old Yahoo Pipes plus all the filters and rules you might use in an email program. I’ll have a lot more to say about that in future posts, but I’ll just explain the basics here today.

Roster with addresses. I have a spreadsheet going already with the students’ names, nicknames, majors, and email addresses as a result of the first assignment they do, which involves completing a simple Google Form. I add a column to the spreadsheet with those form results where I can paste in the blog address (it will be useful later on to have a complete list of all the blog addresses), and then I paste the address into the subscribe box in Inoreader. Students give their blogs all kinds of titles, but I rename the subscription in Inoreader to make it easier for me to keep track of, using a class code (MF or IE for Myth-Folklore or Indian Epics, the two classes I teach), and the student’s preferred name along with last initial if needed to avoid ambiguity. I then put the renamed blog into two different folders (you can put a blog in multiple folders, no problem): one folder that is class-specific and one folder that is for both classes; I need those two different folders to manage the filters-and-rules that I will explain next time.

I then subscribe to the comments feed, renaming the subscription again in the same way, and putting it into a folder with all the comments (I don’t need those separated by class, so there is just one folder with all the comment streams in it).

Watching the blogs. After I subscribe, Inoreader harvests all the blog posts, and it does so in almost-real-time, which means that I see the posts basically as soon as the students publish them. During the first few weeks of class, I actually do read all the posts, and I comment on a lot of them; I’ll explain more about that later this week in a separate post (later in the semester, the blog network is really a space where the students interact, while I focus on giving feedback about their projects).

Here are just some of the views I use in Inoreader:

Incoming posts by class, title only (I can then click on the title to pop open the contents of the post that I want to view, much like opening an email):

Or full-view, where I can scroll through the full view of each post without having to pop them open — I see images, embedded video, etc. in this view. That’s the view I most often use:

Student view. In addition to viewing the contents of an entire class folder, I can also choose to view a single feed in that folder, looking at the blog posts of just one student, as here:

I use the “star” to indicate the posts where I have left a comment, and I’ll have more to say about that later also!

The real power of Inoreader comes from being able to view the blogs in specific assignment streams: all the Introduction posts, for example, as you can see here. I’ve been diligently commenting on the Intro posts, which is why they all have stars:

Inoreader assigns those tags to incoming posts automatically. I’ll make the amazing Inoreader rules and filters the subject of tomorrow’s post!

And now that I’m done with this post, I’ll go back to reading student blogs. It’s so much fun getting to know all these new students each semester and also reconnected with students whom I know from a previous class. It is indeed a Happy New Year!

The blog network: it’s a space I will explore all semester long!

I need space to question and to explore.

Crossposted at OU Canvas Community.

Fall Semester: Blog Success

I finished the Fall semester today! Grades are turned in, students are congratulated… and while they might fretting about finals next week, I am thinking about the fun things I get to do between now and January when classes will start up for me again.

And one of the fun things I will get to do is to keep on blogging in this webspace. I started this blog on October 25, and I’ve managed to keep at it, Monday through Friday, for the past six weeks, with no shortage of things to blog about, even though I am still an LMS minimalist. Canvas is not so much the subject but more like the excuse for writing about issues in teaching and learning that interest me.

Someone at Twitter remarked today that she didn’t have time to blog, whereas for me, it is kind of the opposite: I don’t have time not to blog. Blogging is what helps me keep my focus from day to day, especially on big questions and long-term projects that I would lose sight of if I were not blogging. Blogs are also how I share my work with others online, linking to my blog posts at both Twitter and Google+. And, most importantly, blogging is how I become a co-learner together with my students: they are writing in their blogs several times each week, and I am doing the same.

This blog, for example, is my first WordPress blog; I usually use Blogger, and so do most of my students, but some of my students do use WordPress, and now I will be able to learn some blogging nitty-gritty together with my WordPress students in the Spring.

Since there is a WEC workshop next week at my school, that will probably be a good excuse to think some more about writing in general and blogging in particular, so after the flurry of posts about grading this week and last, next week will be about something more fun: writing. Are you an OU faculty member? Come join in; you can find out more and register here: Online Mini Course: Writing Enriched Curriculum.


And, as always, this is crossposted at OU Canvas Community.