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 Tyranny of the Percentage: Part 2

So, I’m still kind of in shock at this nothing-but-numbers approach to grading in Canvas (see yesterday’s post). To make sure I understand things correctly I re-read this archived/failed feature request: Allow Grading Schemes where Range is based on points not percentage. The commenters note that this problem is part of a more general failure in Canvas: the lack of variability in setting grading schemes. That conversation led me to another archived/failed request: Can’t a letter grade just be a letter grade? And as I follow this White Rabbit through the various twists and turns, I see that this is a long-standing — very long-standing — problem with Canvas.

The conversation at Can’t a letter grade just be a letter grade? expresses many of my same concerns about the tyranny of percentages and number-grading only: even if you set up a scheme that assigns letters, “you cannot hide the number grade” as one commenter points out, and this concern was echoed by others.

As for it being a long-standing problem, consider this comment: “Consistently since 2011, our faculty have been seeking a way to decouple letter grades from Grading Schemes and to import certain grades via .CSV only as letter grades.” That commenter provides links to a half-dozen previous attempts to request that Canvas do something about this; they go back to a previous community forum that Canvas ran in the past, so unfortunately those conversations have been lost, but you can get a sense of what they were like from the titles:


In the current Canvas Jive forum, the idea comes back again here: Allow final grade to be letter grade only and here Grades without points. And who knows: perhaps there are other instances. That is one disadvantage of the free-for-all approach to feature requests; apparently there’s not a good system for helping people explore past requests before making a new one.

Meanwhile, again and again the commenters point out the bureaucratic problems the numbers-only grading creates for them and also the way it confuses and even upsets their students. The specific details depend on the different approaches people are taking, if they curve, if they use rubrics, etc. The main takeaway is that for many different kinds of grading approaches, this Canvas limitation is a serious problem.

This general statement by one commenter sums it up pretty nicely: “Instructors simply want a “decoupled” alphanumeric column in their gradebooks that they can type just type letters into for purposes of final grades, and import of those grades into the SIS.

One person facing exactly the same problem that I face uses the same (ridiculous) workaround is apparently my only choice: “The only way I can report this information in the gradebook is to create a new assignment. Then Canvas reports the letter grade that I enter along with a numeric score that it makes up. (I’ve attached two screenshots–one in which the letter grade “assignment” was worth 1 point, one in which it was worth 0 points.) The numeric score is meaningless. It would be a lot less confusing if the gradebook just showed the letter grade without any numbers attached.”

Entering meaningless numbers simply in order to generate the display of a letter grade is exactly what I refuse to do.

I have a lot to say about this myself, which I will save for a separate post later today. For now, I will let this post stand for now as documentation of the discussion trail at Canvas.

And as soon as I finish my follow-up post, I will begin the process of resubmitting this request, and I will contact every interested person I can find in order to see if we can (finally) manage to do something about it.

Maybe I will fail, like those before me, but I have to at least try:

I can accept failure; I can’t accept NOT trying.

Crossposted at OU Canvas Community.

The Tyranny of the Percentage: Part 1

Last week, I wrote about how pleased I was that Canvas allowed me to have true blanks in the Canvas Gradebook so that my students do not see zeroes. They only see the assignments they have completed, and their total points accumulate assignment by assignment. Because there are no zeroes, the percentage is always 100%. And that’s just how I want things to be.

So… imagine my surprise this morning when I tried to display my students’ final grade in the Canvas Gradebook. The class is over this Friday at noon, and many students have the points they need to be done with the class. So, I’d like to have their final grade display in Canvas, in addition to their total points.

But as it turns out, this is impossible.


Because Canvas only supports percentage-based grading schemes. You know, the arbitrary absurdity that declares 90% and above to be an A. Or maybe 93% and above is an A, if you’re being “rigorous.” Or maybe 94% is an A. If you’re being really “rigorous” (yes, those are snark quotes).  Here is what I see when I try to add my grading scheme to the system:


That’s it: percentages. Only percentages.

I was thinking maybe I was just missing some obvious points-based menu, but when I asked the Canvas support team at my school, they could not think of any way for me to use my points-based grade scheme in Canvas. What they told me to do was to convert my points to percentages based on total points, but I cannot do that: my students choose what assignments to complete (or not), and their percentage is always 100% … which is why I liked having all those blanks in the Gradebook to begin with. I repeat: choices, not zeroes.

I’m still hoping I’m wrong (Canvas gurus, please enlighten me!), and I’ll take some more time tomorrow to research this (hence the “Part 1” in the title of this post). But this archived feature request seems to confirm the worst: Currently, you can only setup a Grading Scheme by setting the Ranges as percentages.


So, I hope that somehow I am wrong… but if I am not wrong, you can believe I will have a lot to say about this in Part 2! 🙂

Growth mindset cats break through the barriers.


Crossposted at OU Canvas Community.

Canvas Hack: Repeated Quiz Content

Yesterday I explained how I have “hacked” the true-false quiz format to create a Grading Declaration system so that students do their own grading: Student Gradebook DeclarationsIn today’s post, I want to explain another hack that helps me manage repeated quiz content that recurs from week to week. This hack might be useful to anyone who uses repeated quiz content from week to week for whatever reason, either in a Declaration-style system or for some other recurring purpose.

Here’s the problem: Canvas does not understand repeated content. If you have a quiz question one week and you repeat that quiz question in another week, they are completely separate entities. If I copy quizzes, Canvas doesn’t understand that they are copies; if I use the question bank, Canvas does not update existing instances when you change a question bank question. The result: if I decide to make a change (to fix an error or to make any other change), I have to go to each quiz and edit the question again, and again, and again, week by week by week. This was really frustrating for me. REALLY frustrating. I’m always trying to tinker with the language in the Declarations to make them as clear as possible and also to fix the inevitable typos, etc. Having to spend 30 minutes or more just to correct one error in one Declaration, going click-click-click through one week after another, is a terrible use of my time, not to mention the way that it introduces even more opportunities for errors to creep in. Ugh.

In D2L, I did not have this problem. The D2L question bank was no help (it did not update quizzes containing questions if the questions were later edited), but if you used the D2L “copy” feature, D2L would remember that questions had been copied one from another. So, if I created a Declaration quiz for Week 1, and then copied that to Week 2 and Week 3 and so on, D2L understood the connection. If I needed to make a change or correction later on, D2L would ask me if I wanted to apply the change to all the other instances of the question. You could say yes or no, and I always said yes, so D2L would automatically update all instances of the repeated question (if you said “no,” then D2L would sever the connection, no longer considering the questions to be the same).

My Canvas hack. So, after pondering this problem all summer, I came up with a solution, a weird solution, but it’s ended up working really well. Since Canvas refuses to let me create connected content, I decided that I would host the content remotely, and then display it via a remote-linked image, along with a link to the text for students who, for whatever reason, couldn’t read the image. You can see an example of what I did here in a Reading Declaration, one of 24 Reading Declarations that appear in each of my two classes (48 instances total per semester). 


As you can see, the content of the Canvas quiz question is an image which is remote-hosted (image file) and displays as part of the quiz, along with a link to the quiz text (text file). This exact same remote image and link appears in each Declaration, week by week, matching the assignment instructions. Even better: this solution works across my two classes, which makes this hack even more efficient than my D2L system (which required me to make the same changes to my two classes separately). So now, if I want to make a change to a Declaration, I just edit the assignment and update the image and the text file — presto, the new image appears in all the quizzes, and the link is the same link but it leads to the new text. I don’t even have to do anything in Canvas at all!

The magic of HTTPS. The key to making this solution work is having HTTPS webspace so that the images I use in Canvas will not be blocked out according to the mixed-content rules which require that remote linked images come via HTTPS. I am so lucky that the Domain of One’s Own project at my school, powered by Reclaim Hosting, gives me access to HTTPS webspace. That’s also the key to making my javascripts run in Canvas; I’ve written about that here: New Countdown Widget on Homepage.

Final thoughts. So, I am really pleased with this solution… but the failure of Canvas to support quiz content reuse is very frustrating. One of the boons of digital content is distributed content for effective editing and reuse, but the folks at Canvas don’t seem to have figured that out. They could take a lesson from D2L in this regard: the way D2L handled quiz question reuse was not ideal, but it was far (FAR) better than the lack of support for quiz question reuse in Canvas.

Of course, this quiz question conundrum is part of a much larger problem with content reuse, as I explained here: Open Content: Resources, not Courses. Digital tools should encourage us to review and improve our work, and also to distribute it widely, sharing with others. Unfortunately, the Canvas approach does not encourage you to improve and reuse content; just the opposite: it creates a burden that can discourage people from reviewing and improving, deterred by the click-click-click of mindlessly having to do the work of the machine ourselves.

This growth mindset cat is ready to review and improve! 🙂



Crossposted at OU Canvas Community.