Canvas and Lunarpages: A Cautionary Tale

It seems like such a good idea to embed things in Canvas. All those wonderful iframes. You can embed anything you like!

Well, no you can’t. You can only embed secure (https://) web pages and files. But that’s OK! Your host, Lunarpages, like many others, offers free shared SSL. All you have to do is change all your URLs. I did this with not only, but many other things: lectures? embedded! pdfs of textbook pages? embedded! pages with cool stuff? embedded! images on my home pages? embedded! Canvas and an external host, BFF!

Until today. I log in to Canvas and all my images are gone. Ditto all my embedded syllabi and pages. I try the SSL URLs in my browser. None work. I contact my host, Lunarpages.

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Excuse me? I knew the Fand server was being upgraded today, but was told it wouldn’t change anything. Now they want $109 to keep the functionality I had yesterday. Bluehost has free shared SSL. Reclaim Hosting has free shared SSL. I found out today that even my college’s home folders have free shared SSL. According to Lunarpages’ own pages, so do they. But not as of today, with no notification, nothing.

This is not the first time Lunarpages has made me crazy. For years they pestered me periodically about “high CPU usage” and shut down my pages. Last time it was hackers from Mars or something. I am not a company, I sell nothing, all I have are 19 years worth of teaching pages, images, videos. I had to take down my decade-old WordPress blog, because it was being hacked. I had to move it here, to, the island without a salad bar. Isn’t that punishment enough?

Evidently not. Now I have to spend the week before the term starts manually changing URLs back and unembedding pages in Canvas. Now everything will be linked out and ugly. This morning I was surprised by a recent Canvas Community post asking whether anyone was simplifying their courses. I had no idea I’d be spending days doing just that.

Thanks, Canvas and Lunarpages. You’re making the web what it is today.

How do I get students to…?

…do the reading?

…participate in discussion?

Well, I don’t know. But here’s what I’ve been doing, and I’m pretty happy with it.

Getting students to do the reading

Here’s where the rubber hits the road on accountability. Like most people, I assign quizzes designed to make sure they “do the reading”. But unless you have 100 questions on the weekly quiz, or get draconian about quiz timing (I don’t time any quizzes – I think it’s rude in an online class), they can skip to answer the questions.

Besides, I don’t really want them to do the reading – I want them to engage it, as scholars do all texts. I want them to observe, note, ask questions. So, since few of my classes have discussions, I’ve combined reading and discussing using group annotation, originally in and now using Perusall in Canvas.

I call each week’s reading “Read and discuss the chapter and documents”. The only link to the reading for the week is that one – they cannot access the reading without being inside the annotation program. Reading and discussing is 20% of the grade. I suggest in the first week what they might do to appropriately discuss, and set auto-grading accordingly. My student surveys suggest it worked well, though some balked at having to do it since the grade percentage was so high. To me, that means it’s working!

Getting students to participate in discussion

This may be the longest-standing concern about online classes, especially if you naturally encourage and enjoy discussion in the classroom. I enjoy it, but have trouble getting it to happen naturally, so perhaps that’s why I have spent more time trying to make it happen using technology!

This last year, I had a new class in early American history, and I didn’t want to write quizzes (laziness is actually the mother of invention). So I designed discussion boards around a short video prompt from a series on controversies in American history. These are simple, and just present a couple of sides on an issue. Using my patented two-step discussion process (well, ok, it’s not patented, but I did do a presentation on it in 2010), I allowed the first half of the week for responses (often emotional and immediate, since here I wasn’t tracking their reading). Then I came into the discussion on Thursday for my “Take discussion from here!” post. This post, in a different colored text, summarized the discussion they’d had so far, mentioning students by name, then suggested a different (deeper) direction for the second half of the week, based on their responses.


Discussion was worth (you guessed it) 20% of the grade, given in two 10% grades, one a mid-point and one at the end, with feedback. Student survey responses at the end of the class featured rave reviews:

I absolutely love the interaction from the discussion boards. There is a lot of reading but it is not difficult. I also loved Lisa’s constant interaction and getting the second part of the discussion board going by setting up a prompt. I loved this class!

The discussions were very engaging and forced students to really think about and consider the topics, not just memorize dates and events.

I really liked the discussions because it’s not an online class where we just take quizzes every week, but we get to form arguments and change our perspectives by our classmates.

Make it important: the magic 20% (or more)

I’ve come to the conclusion that whatever important thing we want them to do, it must be worth at least 20% of the grade. If I really want them to read, our grade percentage should say so. If the goal is discussion, ditto. 20% is a serious grade swing. The only complaints I got from students on either of these techniques was that they wished it wasn’t 20% or didn’t realize until late that it was 20%. They owned that this was their problem, not mine.

If I’m going to dedicate hours and hours to designing discussions, and creating second posts, it can’t be a 10% assignment (to me, 10% says “optional”). I’d be comfortable, if I didn’t also have them doing primary source posts, at 30% for either of these.

This post was inspired by the wonderful faculty at Yavapai college, and their posts  about professorial participation in discussion and getting students to read.

Recent articles indicate…

I am catching up on some recent readings in online teaching:

Scarpin, Mondini & Scarpin, Technology and Student Retention in Online Courses
Study indicates that student motivation and quality of information in the class are important to student retention in online classes, but that social influence on the student (from peers, fellow students, family), self-efficacy, and the quality of the system don’t matter much to retention.

Annette Backs, Promoting Online Learner Self-Efficacy through Instructional Strategies and Course Supports
Not too surprising that self-efficacy for online students means asking their profs and peers, not using the available systems of the library, counseling, or LMS support.

Melanie Shotter, Exploring the use of workshops to encourage educators to use online learning platforms
Workshops get educators interesting in making greater use of the LMS.

Kirsty McClain, The Satisfaction and Success of Students Enrolled in Online Education at Mississippi Community Colleges
Students completing an orientation are more satisfied with their online course experience.

Research Center for Digital Learning and Leadership at OLC, Online Faculty Professional Development Framework
Yet another stifling list of “best practices” designed to privilege the research findings of people who rarely teach and still talk about “adapting” pedagogy to online while writing their dissertations using a research method originally intended to determine the impact of technology on warfare, all to add to the already bloated pool of Ed.D.s . (Oh, did I say that out loud?)