Annotations in Canvas: or Perusall?

I continue to seek ways to use annotation as discussion, instead of a discussion board. Last year, I road-tested Kami (commercial) and  This term I have been using both and Perusall, which work with Canvas. Sort of.

Last year I piloted the new integration. I was excited about the ability to use SpeedGrader to grade annotations, even though some people were against the very idea.

It worked in that I could:

1) Embed in a Canvas page or link out

I posted last year about embedding in Canvas. I could create pages to be embedded in Canvas. This turned out to be a poor idea – the Canvas menus on the left (there are two) take up too much screen space. To add both a document and a right-hand annotation sidebar didn’t work.

But there was still a real estate problem, even when linking out. Each week the textual primary sources were there on HTML pages to be annotated. I had to change CSS to reduce the width of the web pages to account for the sidebar, which tended to overlap the text. This made highlighting difficult.


2) Easily follow conversations, which had far more participation that a discussion board


1) Separate accounts made it hard to identify students

SpeedGrader graded according the account student name, not their name in Canvas. (Students had to set up a separate account to start, and they could choose a name different from their Canvas name.)

The two separate accounts also made it hard for students to know where to “sign in”, Canvas or

2) Groups kept class private, but choosing a group was one step too many

You can make a group for a class (another step for students to sign up for the group), but the default setting is always Public. So students would not use the drop-down to choose their class group, and their annotations would end up in Public so wouldn’t be counted properly.

3) Students wouldn’t know to click the Submit button

Again, there were too many steps. After creating the annotation, a separate Submit button was required to have it work in SpeedGrader by loading as an assignment. If they didn’t do scroll down and use that button, SpeedGrader couldn’t find the annotation, but the student thought they made one.

4) The Gradebook would sometimes show a “URL submission” for students whose annotations could not be found anywhere, so it was unclear whether the student posted at all.

The integration and double-account problem was so frustrating, that this term I did not integrate with the Gradebook. Instead of using the LTI, I just created via pages (by just adding to the front of the page URL), and linked out from Canvas. The separate account names were still a problem, but it was a small class and I  had them do self-assessments where they quoted a few of their own annotations. I used Jon Udell’s query engine to track numbers. The engine didn’t work well using the page URLs (it didn’t report all the annotations), but if I put in each student’s account name separately, I could at least compare how many annotations they did with their self-assessment.

So why use at all?

First, its business model is superior – it is built for education by wonderful people.

Second, is the best choice for using with HTML pages. Using web pages allows multi-media elements, as part of the web page, to be “assigned”. For several documents I have audio files, and want a play button on the page so students can hear the document read to them by a person.


This year I’m also trying Perusall, inspired by Dallas Hulsey’s post over in the Canvas Community. Here I went for full Canvas LTI integration, or bust, on one course.

Last month I posted on Facebook:


My colleague Laura wanted a demo, so I did one (yes, it’s 9 minutes long!).

Some comments on Perusall:

1) Auto-grading is creepy and a tool of the devil, and I love it

Although I hate the very idea, the auto-grading feature makes it possible for me to spend more time talking in the annotations to students. I have it set now at 4 annotations, but that isn’t really a set number – it means the equivalent of four good annotations. Perusall defines good with some sort of algorithm that includes length of the comment, but also other mysterious factors. So the trick is getting that number right for what you want, and being specific about what students are expected to do.

2) Instructions are important

I put them on the first week and kept referring to them. Invariably students who didn’t earn full points just didn’t do enough. When they did a variety of activities, everyone got full points, and had more fun, and conversed more.


3) The question mark thing is cool

If anyone uses a question mark in an annotation, or clicks the question mark in an annotation, it emails everyone with the question. Students are used to answering questions, and I got good varieties of responses so long as I asked good questions (like whether Milan Kundera’s comments on graphomania could apply to texting).


4) Images and videos are allowed in the annotations

This made the comments so much more interesting, once students realized they could do this!

5) I don’t call it “annotating”.

To me, it’s object-based discussion, replacing a discussion board. The link to the textbook chapter is called “Read and discuss the textbook”. For primary sources, it’s “read and discuss the documents”, and for articles “read and discuss the article”. Students cannot miss what they’re supposed to be doing.

6) The only way to access that week’s reading is through the Perusall interface, so students don’t get confused.

It opens automatically as an assignment link. The readings can be downloaded and printed from there if they want a paper copy. So no links to a complete “booklet”, just links to that week’s reading.

In fact, the only real drawback is:

PDFs only. You cannot do web pages, so multi-media doesn’t work as a source for discussion. Some instructors feel this is so important, they’d rather use a tool like Voicethread.

The Story Boxes

cassandraCassandra told two types of stories. The ones among her own tribe, the Historians, were generally understood by both Oldsters and Younguns, and they could be quite marvelous. But gradually the other type of story was told, warning that advantage must be taken of the Good Times, or the Bad Times would come. They were stories of the freedom of story-telling itself, and the absence of story boxes to contain them. They were stories of a Golden Age, but it wasn’t a past age, not yet.

The Others weren’t that good with stories, or didn’t trust them. They feared the open landscapes, the freedom to fly, the complexities of creating their own tales. So when the gods provided story boxes, they bought them, first just a few, then in ever-increasing numbers. Cassandra warned that stories were better without boxes, or with boxes one built oneself. She would show her own boxes, and people were in awe, but they felt they could not build their own and that the gods were, after all, there to take care of them.

The gods rejoiced as the Others adopted the story boxes. The Younguns loved the mini-boxes, where they could tell stories only to each other and the Oldsters couldn’t see. The Middlings, except for Cassandra and a few other troubadours, bought the larger boxes. They didn’t realize that only certain types of stories fit the box, and that over time, all the stories would begin to be the same. Some people didn’t care, having never valued the stories in the first place. They wanted to do their work and relax in the evenings watching different stories they thought were their own choices, but were actually provided in precise sets, sold by the Merchants.

Cassandra knew the intention of the gods from the beginning. Their design was to control all the stories, to make them countable and storable, to own them separate from the story-tellers. The tales, they knew, had value. The tales were the creations of the tribes, and relayed knowledge and wisdom to later generations. Encouraging them to be uniform, to make them all the same size and shape, allowed the gods to winnow out story-tellers who threatened their power. But there was no need to impose the story boxes by force or cunning. They sold themselves in their simplicity and convenience.

So over time Cassandra’s darker prediction began to unfold. The boxes began to merge into one big box, and the gods tended the box for everyone, to keep the stories safe. Security was key, they said, so that heritage would not be lost in such dark times. They merged the stories into Content Areas, and produced synthesized versions of the old natural tales, distilling them. Then they invited Cassandra and the other troubadours to good-faith meetings, where they could bless the new ways with their old wisdom. The gods were surprised when their generosity and inclusiveness met with rebuff.

Thus knowledge was lost, and the gods controlled the narrative. And they knew it didn’t matter. In time no one would remember a world without the story boxes anyway.

Pepys and pedagogy

1200px-samuel_pepysThe Institute of Historical Research published a blog post yesterday that I find intriguing, for two reasons.

First, of course, is food. Restoration celebrity Samuel Pepys loved food and drink, and the history of food is a great way to approach the era.

But the other thing that’s intriguing is their quiz. In order to answer, you must use their digital library British History Online, a new collection of primary sources from the medieval and early modern eras. Would this be a good way to get students to learn to use a database?