Canvas and the Impossible Journal

Canvas, of course, does not have x.  In this case, x is a blog or journaling or portfolio function.

Yes, I know you can LTI this, but those never work like they’re supposed to.

Now, if Canvas had real threads, I could use a threaded discussion, with each student controlling their own topic. But Canvas doesn’t have this x either. To do everyone’s journaling on one discussion would thus mean scrolling for days and days…

So, instead, I tried creating a forum for each student, to act as their own space (it’s for an Honors class, so 25 students – not too bad). Then I realized to grade them in Speed(!)Grader would mean opening them one at a time. Every week or so. Ugh.

Second attempt. Create one big forum and but have groups. Put one student per group, and have all the other students peer grade. That way, each student can post on their own, but everyone can still see the posts and comment.

The wonderful Laura Paciorek helped me test it. We became students. Posting to our own forums as our own group went fine. But when we tried to peer grade, we got “unauthorized” warnings when we clicked on anything to see it. And after this humiliation, we were returned to the “group” site, which had its own Home (and everything else) links on the menu — students would be completely lost and unable to get back to the main course page.

I considered peer grading as assignments, but assignments are one-shot deals – you can’t keep going back and adding more, making a portfolio.

I considered each student having their own Page, but you can’t grade Pages, and it’s incredibly easy to wipe out everything on a Page accidentally (been there, done that).

So reluctantly, I checked out Google (OK Google, fix Canvas). Canvas is supposed to be Google-friendly: the Canvas’ “Collaborate” function is a Google Doc, intended to be a single Doc that all students can edit. But I’ve done my research and I know that multiple students working on the same Doc can easily erase each others’ work, because Canvas isn’t Google and can’t actually enable multiple editors at once. Great idea – get a bunch of people already tentative about collaborative editing to engage that little problem!

The Collaboration difficulty was confirmed by the post that gave me my final idea (so far), from Chris Long over at the K-12 Canvas forum: use Google Docs as URL assignments.

So the plan is:

  • Have each student set up their own Google Doc as their journal. It’s one page but if they mess up, they can use the revision history to go back.
  • Assign “journal checks” (I think I’ll make the dates random) where they submit the URL as an assignment. I can use SpeedGrader to see, comment, and grade them all quickly. Laura and I tested and the worst thing that can happen is you have to open a new tab.

Now, the community/peer part. Two options here.

1) I can have these journal check assignments peer reviewed. We tried that, and it’s nice because I can see all the peer review comments in Speed Grader. But there doesn’t seem to be a way to track the peers doing the reviewing.

2) Second option is to have them just comment on each others’ Google Docs. I won’t see this in SpeedGrader, but I could manually grade them a few times during the semester as some kind of participation grade, or use a quiz and have them submit the top five comments they felt were most useful to others (Laura’s using this trick for collaborative note-sharing on a Doc, so I stole it from here).

I’ll keep working on this, but, as Laura pointed out, it’s bizarre to go to all this trouble. Canvas should have a blogging/journaling feature. Canvas should have an option for real threaded discussion. Canvas should have . . .oh, never mind.


Laura discovered ePortfolios, which I hadn’t seen because it isn’t in the Canvas course – it resides in the user’s Profile, in the level above the course (like the Inbox). While not as simple as Google, it has its own URL and doesn’t need a separate login.

My use of it would be similar, except that students cannot comment inside each others’ ePortfolio. So I would use a Discussion to ask for a report, and each student would need to post the URL for their portfolio for each check. It would then be an extra click in Speedgrader to grade each one, and I would have to grade students’ own portfolio and their comments on others’ portfolios together, instead of separately.

Tutorials like this one would be needed. And, as with all things Canvas, very specific instructions would need to be given, to dumb down everything as effectively as possible. But ePortfolio allows images and (some) embeddings, and despite its hierarchy (Portfolio – Section – Page) might still work. Thanks, Laura!

The oncoming train

I was almost finished with the roughed out versions of three courses in Canvas, looking toward summer, waiting for the campus installation to open so I can upload them and tinker.

It’s taken me months.

So today I pick up my phone, which I do not use in the profligate way experienced by most Americans, to see how they look on the Canvas app.

None of my images were there.

Now, we’re not just talking a few images. We’re talking 16 images on the Home page, one for each week, in a grid. The same week’s image on the week’s intro page, images to demonstrate many pages in learning units, about 12-15 images in each weekly lecture. They were all broken.

When I switched to my mobile browser, they were all there. I contacted support. He guessed that it could be because my images are all linked from my outside server, all http (not https). I know the difference because I can only embed things from my server if I use the https format. But I had no idea there was a problem displaying images, because they all display just fine in any browser.

But not in the Canvas app. The helper explained that all the browsers are going SSL anyway, so really everything needed to be https. We’re talking hundreds of hours of work, changing every link in hundreds of pages, quizzes, discussions, learning units, all of which have my images. I asked about global search and replace? in a site? No. In a course? No. On a page, for goshsakes? No.

The light at the end of my tunnel had become an oncoming train of work. If I didn’t do it, every course that rolled over in future semesters would similarly not be https, and students won’t see the images in the app.

I began. Several hours copying home pages, search and replace, pasting back in. But single images on single pages were much harder, and mind-deadening. I’m not actually sure I can do this. I considered ways to do it, by week or by item type. I considered making a chart. I considered paying someone else to do it.  I considered early retirement.

I’m still considering. Reasons for doing it include
a. students can use the app on their phones to take the class
b. some day we’re all going over to the encrypted web, which is really what all this is about

Trouble is, I’ve never, ever thought taking a class on your phone was a good idea. Of course, there is the tablet problem. They’re big phones. But although I saw a lot of tablets in the classroom when they first came out, now there are fewer. Laptops seem to be coming back. Gosh knows what they use at home.

Gosh knows what they’ll do when their browsers won’t show them non-secure pages. And how will they post images in my class? This finally explains why students complained they couldn’t see other students’ images in posts on their phones. My whole pedagogy down the drain.

Do I take all this time? I was about to start a research project I really want to do. Do I do link changes slowly over the next several semesters, a constant task hanging over my head? Do I avoid it and hope the encrypted web goes the way of all those programs I built things in, the many that died off after I did so much work? After all, the folks saying we’re all going SSL are the ones who’ll make money off this closing of the open web.

My professional activity survey results came in today, the one where colleagues say what they think of me. One wrote that I am “not afraid of hard work”.

I’m not. But this is ridiculous.

Lisa’s Top 10+ Tips for Canvas

Now that I’ve experienced conversion (including full immersion if not a blinding experience of insight), I offer my tips:

1) Use the calendar, even if just for you

The calendar is drag and drop. You can leave everything without a due date, then set them in the Calendar by opening up the “undated” items menu on the right, and drag them in. Default due time is 11:59 pm, but you can change it.

Also, adding events to the Calendar makes it possible to put ungraded things on the schedule. The most important of these for me is “Begin Week x” so that students know each week starts on Monday after Sunday deadlines.

Notice that everything with a deadline is listed on the syllabus page – this makes a good check once you’ve done the calendar.

You can also export the calendar to Google Calendar and other programs.

2) Use the modules, even if just for you

Modules can organize content, but they also make every item look like it’s of equal weight, so I make it invisible in the menu. But I use it to:

a. lock each week until I want it to open
b. make sure that students complete every item for the week
c. import from a “base course” I set up on the free Canvas – the assignments I have that every class does are created there as modules, which I then import and adjust to the class using the Modules page

3) Don’t embed much

Canvas allows embedding if your page is https, but it doesn’t like to do it and it may look awful. Although I love embedding, it’s actually better to link out even though that grey button is so ugly.p

The exception would be web pages you’ve made yourself, that reside on a secure server, and that don’t have width or height settings. My Help page is one of these, so I embed it.

4) Use small nicknames for graded items

The gradebook is not good yet (they’re working on it). You may only view graded items in order of due date, or type of assignment. If you have a lot of assignments, the gradebook scrolls out of sight pretty quickly. If you use short names at the beginning for each assignment (“WAI Writing Assignment I”), then you can drag the columns smaller and see the big picture much better.

5) Use an “end page” for each module

If you are using Modules (whether or not the student can see them), the last item in a module with always have a “Next” button going to the next page, the first page of the next Module. Students won’t realize they’re done with the module unless you put a page that says something like, “Congratulations for finishing Week 2! If you click Next, you’ll go to Week 3.”

6) Put Announcements at the top

Yes, they get emailed to students and can be accessed through the “Announcements” link on the menu. I get rid of this link, and use the new Setting for the course to have the Announcements show at the top of the Home page.

7) Use rubrics

Although Speed Grader isn’t speedy, it handles rubrics well, and can speed up grading. The trick is to make sure to edit your rubric after you’ve made it, so that you can set each assignment to be graded using the rubric.

8) Let students know how to see comments and rubrics

This is not intuitive. They get assignment submission comments sent to them, but can easily miss them. Similarly, the rubric is available when they do an assignment, but they can miss that too. They are usually interested only when they’ve got a grade, so show them how to access comments and the rubric from their Grades.

9) Think a bit about mobile

I don’t always follow this myself – I do tell them they should only use mobile to check grades and assignments, but not to submit things. However, when creating Pages, consider using percentages instead of absolute width and height to make sure the content will shrink to be seen on a phone.

10) Understand the Syllabus page

It has on it a place at the top to add your syllabus (I embed mine as pdf), but the other two elements you can’t remove are the list of all assignments, and the list of weights for each assignment category. This means that you don’t need to add these yourself to your own syllabus.

Special thanks to Robert Kelley and Sean Davis – I learned about the calendar and end page idea from them!