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All People > Laura Gibbs > Laura Gibbs' Blog > 2017 > October

The student-created content is the most important part of my classes (and, IMO, it should be the most important part of any class... more on the topic of non-disposable assignments here and here and here; search Google for more).


Once you retool your syllabus to shift from disposable to non-disposable assignments, that means you then have a lot of student-created content that needs to be "surfaced" in the class, connecting the content to an audience. Canvas doesn't really offer anything to help with this, but it's a really important aspect of course design, and in this post I'll quickly review the tools I currently use for surfacing student content.


You can see three strategies on the same page in my class Project Directories: Myth-Folklore and Indian Epics. Each of those directories displays the student projects in three different ways:
a static list of links (boring, but useful)
a randomizer (reload the page to see a new project at random)
a stream of recent work (with thumbnail images)


screenshot of directory


The idea is that students have different ways to find content when they come to the Directory page. They can scan the list of links, which is most useful when they already know what they are looking for, like when they have a favorite project they want to read and comment on again. They can see a project at random (the commenting assignment each week usually involves at least one random assignment; that's how I try to make sure there's a good distribution of comments). And they can also scan the thumbnails to see if something grabs their attention; images can be powerful attention-getters.




Link List. I create the static link list using a spreadsheet, which also contains the same raw data that I use to create the randomizer. So, creating the link list doesn't require anything extra, and the spreadsheet data is useful in all kinds of ways:


screenshot of spreadsheet


Randomizer. I create the randomizer using the amazing tool by Randy Hoyt; I just copy-and-paste the HTML out of the spreadsheet into a text file, upload the file to, and, presto! — I have a javascript which I can deploy anywhere that javascripts are accepted, and that includes Canvas (visit my Canvas Widget Warehouse for lots of randomizing scripts).

screenshot of


Stream. To create the live stream with thumbnails, I use Diigo to bookmark each new page at the students' projects as they turn them in (each project usually has about four or five pages total over the semester), and I save an image from the page to Diigo also. I am subscribed to the Diigo RSS via Inoreader, which gives me that nice magazine view display. I can also tweak the Diigo feed during revision weeks when a student has turned in an assignment but not a new page; I just add "bump" to the Inoreader tags to update the record, which causes it to come to the top again in the stream. Here's the stream as it appears in Diigo:



screenshot of Diigo




A static list of links doesn't have any reuse value (except that you can copy and paste it... but then you have to remember to update it in every location, ugh), but the javascript and the RSS stream can be reused in multiple locations. For example:


Reusing randomizers. I can put the javascript randomizers in assignment pages, like this Week 10 Commenting assignment:


screenshot of comment assignment


Reusing the stream. I embed the project stream with thumbnails inside Canvas like this (that's an open course, so click and look for the current view); the content updates automatically as I bookmark new items in Diigo.


screenshot of stream in Canvas


I also have that same project stream as the homepage at the course content website, putting student content right there on the front page. It's the same content stream as in Canvas and in the Directory, automatically updated here for students to see whenever they visit this site to choose their weekly reading.


screenshot of course site





I've been teaching with a focus on student content for many years, and the advent of some new tools, especially Inoreader, have really helped me in getting that content into circulation so that students can have audiences for their work. I don't know if/when Canvas will ever switch its focus from quizzing/grading to student-created content, but that is a development I would welcome, especially given that many faculty are not going to use other tools and are relying on Canvas to lead the way. If Canvas can lead the way to more non-disposable assignments, I think that would be a good direction to go!


Pinging Jared Stein since non-disposable students assignments are just as important as OER in my opinion. Even more so. :-)

Laura Gibbs

Why I Don't Grade

Posted by Laura Gibbs Oct 26, 2017

This is a must-read from Jesse Stommel about grading and about NOT grading. I've written quite a bit here in my blog about why I do feedback-not-grading, but Jesse has laid everything out so clearly here, covering so many topics. I hope others will find this useful. I personally think the culture of grading is the single biggest obstacle we need to overcome if we want to find ways to focus on real learning that will last and be of value to students.


Why I Don't Grade by Jesse Stommel


Here's just one of several good graphics you will find in the essay:


grading undermines the work


I also really like this graphic which emphasizes the idea of open-ended, spontaneous, creative, imaginative, student-initiated learning which is the kind of learning I value most in my classes:


We haven't been nearly imaginative enough with outcomes. I want outcomes for "for us to have an epiphany" or "for students to do something I couldn't anticipate."


I've collected ideas and information about my own move from grades to feedback here:


And there is always inspiration going on at the #TTOG stream at Twitter (teachers throwing out grades).

I wrote up a post the other day here about using Google Forms to collect anonymous student feedback in a course — Simple Google Form = Anonymous Suggestion Box in Canvas  — and from a comment at another discussion here at the Community, I realized I should say something else about Google Forms: they can add some visual enjoyment to the emptiness of Canvas space! When you design a Google Form, you can click on the template icon in the bottom right corner of the color palette to have access to a wide range of really nice templates.


screenshot of Google Form template / palette


So, for example, in my classes, students set their own schedule and do their own grading, which means I need them to let me know when they are done with the class. That is a happy moment, and I wanted to choose a festive-looking Form, so after spending an embarrassing amount of time trying out the different options, I went with green balloons, as you can see below. 


This way, I can hopefully encourage the students to enjoy a nice sense of satisfaction as they fill out the form. Plus, this approach works great for me: I get an instant notification from Google that there's a new response in a spreadsheet, which I can then use to update all my class records as students finish the courses one by one. In every way, it is more useful for me than trying to use Canvas tools... and it adds a visual element to my Canvas course space that it badly needs.


And, as I mentioned in my Suggestion Box post, you don't have to be a Google school for this solution to work; I just create the Google Form with my own Google Drive account, and then use the Canvas Redirect Tool to display the form in Canvas. Easy-peasy!


And if you are new to Google Forms, check out this great step-by-step guide from Jim Elliott

Google Forms In Canvas 



screenshot of Google Form in Canvas

Argh, I wish I had thought of this earlier... but now I will have it ready to go for next year and can publicize it in advance. Today, October 20, is the National Day on Writing, one of my favorite Twitter events of the year. The hashtag is #WhyIWrite. Here's a Twitter widget ANYONE using Canvas can copy and paste into their course; you don't need to use Twitter, you don't need to know what javascript is (I'm hosting it in my webspace)... you just have to bravely copy-and-paste into the HTML Editor of a Canvas page or a Discussion Board (anywhere the editor offers you HTML access), and you will have a live #WhyIWrite feed! :-)

The code you copy-and-paste is here:

Why I Write: Twitter4Canvas 


Screenshot, which shows the Twitter stream in action:


screenshot of WhyIWrite Twitter in Canvas feed

I wanted to make sure to note here the GREAT interview with Michelle Pacansky-Brock that showed up today in Inside Higher Ed. The excuse for the interview if the publication of the second edition of her book, but ANY excuse for an interview with Michelle sounds good to me. Here's the info re: the book, and here's a link to the interview:

Teaching With Technologies. Author discusses why and how instructors should employ digital tools to effectively engage students in face-to-face and online courses.


The author of a newly released book, Best Practices for Teaching With Emerging Technologies (Routledge), Pacansky-Brock believes educators need to understand the applicability of Web 2.0 technologies, not just for distance education but for all types of learning environments.

The first edition was published in 2012, but technologies change so rapidly that the author, who recently became faculty mentor for digital innovation for two programs of the California Community Colleges system, told “Inside Digital Learning” that the book was outdated the minute it was printed. She noted that it was bit odd to print a book about technologies rather than publishing it in a digital format, but she realized the value of a physical guide that educators can reference easily. (In an arrangement with the publisher, 50 percent of each chapter in the updated book is shared online with a CC-BY-NC license for free download.)

screenshot of IHE article

In an earlier blog post, I mentioned how I use a Suggestion Box so that students can submit anonymous suggestions at any time right inside our Canvas course:

Mid-Term Assessments (with Suggestion Box)


screenshot of suggestion box in canvas


So, something fun happened this morning: I got an email notification from Google that there was something new in the Suggestion Box (you can set up a form so that you get notifications), and instead of being from one of my students, it was from another faculty member at my school who wanted some tips on how to set up a Google Form in Canvas! She included her email so I could get back in touch with her. How cool is that? Pinging Keegan Long-Wheeler because she and I connected thanks to your Create Workshop! :-)


Since my school is not a Google school (alas...), it is not quite as easy for schools with Google integration, but it's still easy: you just use the option provided by Google to embed via an iframe OR you can use the Redirect Tool. Here's how it works, step by step:




1. Log into your Google account (same account for Gmail, Google Drive, all the other great Google services like Blogger, Google Sites, etc.).


2. Go to which is where you can create and share documents, spreadsheets, slideshows... and forms!


3. Click on the New button and from the "More" options choose New Google Form. You will then see a blank form that you can edit. Here's a screenshot of what my simple Suggestion Box form looks like; it's just one fill-in-the-blank (long form) question, plus an image:



screenshot of Form edit screen



For more help with creating a Google Form, see this step by step guide from Jim Elliott:

Google Forms In Canvas 


REDIRECT or EMBED in Canvas. Then, you have two choices: if you want to just display the form in Canvas so that people can fill out the form right there, that is super-easy; you can use the Redirect Tool. If you want to contextualize it, displaying it with additional text instructions for example, you can use the embed option to add it to a Canvas Page.


Here is how both options work:



Google Form: Link. To use the Redirect Tool, click on the Send button when you are done editing your Form, and click on the link tab, which will give you the https address you need to set up the Redirect Tool in Canvas.


screenshot of link tab in Google Form Send


Canvas: Redirect. Then, in Canvas, go to Settings, click on Apps, then put Redirect in the search box. When the Redirect Tool displays, click on that option, then click Add App. Give the installation a name (like "Suggestion Box"), and then paste in the address you got from Google. So that the page will display right there in Canvas, make sure the "Force open in new tab" option is un-checked. If you are going to add it to the menu, click Show in Course Navigation. Then click Add App. You're done!

You can see how that works here (that's my Myth-Folklore class site; open to all, no log-in required - screenshot above):

Suggestion Box 




Google Form: Embed. To embed in Canvas when you are done editing your Form, click on the Send button, and click on the embed <> tab like this. You can choose the width and height here, but I think it's easier to do that when you copy-and-paste into your Canvas Page.


Google Form embed options


Canvas: Page. In Canvas, create a Page, type what you want, and then type PUTFORMHERE where you want to display the form. Next, click on the HTML editor (top right above editing box), and paste in the iframe code you copied from Google, replacing the PUTFORMHERE with the iframe code. Using the PUTFORMHERE allows you to just ignore all the other HTML if you are not familiar with that; you can just copy and paste and ignore everything else. This is where I adjust the height and width; for my width I changed the default 760 to "100%" and for the height, I changed the default 500 to 1500 (that way there is no scroll bar).


screenshot of canvas page html


Just as an example, here's what it looks like if I do the embed option with my same Google Form:

Suggestion Box: CanvasLIVE Playground 


screenshot of Playground Suggestion Box


I tried not to leave out a step here, but if I missed something, let me know!

In my previous post, I explained the open-ended midterm assessment process I used to help students reflect on their progress so far and make plans for the rest of the semester. I get a huge benefit from this also by reading through their posts; Inoreader pulls it all together for me in one big page, which combines all three of these posts across both classes (I can also view it by class, by student, by the three different assignments, etc.)


What I did for this post was to use Control-F to search through the overall page to find whatever remarks people made about blogs and blogging. The reason I prefer blogging as the main form of class action/interaction is because it seems to me the best way for students to "be themselves" online, expressing their personality through what they write and share at their blogs, and also as they tinker with the blog design (which is very easy to do at Blogger, the platform most of them choose). And I would say their remarks below confirm that sense of being able to express themselves through their blogs and also to connect with others! :-)


And here's an image that showed up in one of the blogs that I think expresses how I feel about the semester too. For more about this semester's blog network, see network2017



I believe that the comments really help us as a class to get to know each other and connect. Because this is an online class week to week the comment section gives me some great insight into each of the other students in the class.


I think the blogs actually help to let me get to know people and help them get to know me.


If I were to change something about my blog it may just be the format of it so it is easier to follow. After looking at my other classmates' blogs I have seen so many that are truly impressive and I would use some of those to inspire mine.


Right now, I'm happy with my blog, so I think I'll keep it the way it is.


I feel like I can put in a lot more time for my blog. I would say I'm not satisfied at the moment, but for the future I would like to work more efficiently and be happy with my long. My routine is coming together...finally. That is something I'm glad is falling in place because that will allow me to better my blog.


I really like the random generator to make blog comments, because then I'm not having to pick and choose or being assigned a person.


The introduction of the blog comments is my favorite part. I love learning about other people and their hobbies, desires, and goals.


The blog comments are the best way outside of emailing one another to get to know a person in this class. I have learned a lot from the introduction posts and hope people have learned about me from my own post.


I enjoy blog comments the most because I get to really get to know the person behind the writing. I feel pretty satisfied with my introduction page because it gives everyone a gist of who I am.


I do feel like I am meeting students by connecting with them on our introduction blog post. Surprisingly enough, I know a few people in here from other classes and campus activities, but it has still be fun to get to know other students.


I also know how nice it is to have people reading my blog, and I want other people to have that experience as well.


I think the blog has been a fair reflection of my personality.


I believe that the introductions to others blogs have been fun to read because you get a little insight of who your classmates are. I do not think that I am fully happy with my layout on my Portfolio at the moment but I am happy with my blog posts!


I think that I'm satisfied with the blog as of right now.


I think I have been able take tips from comments that were left on my blog that I have been able to pass along to other students in the class. I have definitely been able to enhance my own blog and storybook by getting to see so many other students post and taking little tips or stealing little ideas to make my storybook nicer.


Reading all of the different introduction blog post has been one of my favorite parts of this class because I think it really shows how diverse a online class can be. There are so many different people doing so many different things that it is cool to read about others taking a course at the same time. If you go through the list of people I don't think there would be one person like the other and I think that is really cool about this class.


Right now I am happy with my blog but will continue to read the comments and see how I can make my story book the best it can be.


The blogs are a marvelous way to get to know different people. We each present ourselves differently, and I believe that they are tailored to our personalities.


I do have a sense of getting to know people by connecting with them at their blogs. Their writings and introductions tell about about themselves. I'm happy that I can meet new people at my blog.


I kinda want to change the layout of my blog a bit.


I like reading through the other blogs. Some give me a very clear idea of what the author is like while others are more obscure. I think my introduction post gives a good idea of my personality and interests, and I have really enjoyed people's comments on my blog posts.


Also, I feel that the fact that this class encourages feedback allows students to take ownership over their blog, since they know other students will be viewing it. It makes the assignment of more consequence and not seem like busy work.


I am satisfied with my introduction post and my blog because I feel like people can see my sense of humor in my stories.


Right now, I don't think I want to make any changes to my blog since I am content with it.


I really like the blog comments and how they make an online class a little more personal.


The blog comments has been one of my favorite assignments we have done. I really enjoyed reading peoples introductions and there are some very interesting people that I have read about! I also enjoyed writing my own introduction an giving people a bit of an insight into my life.


I kind of want to try more of the extra credit options because I think doing more of those would be really helpful in updating and improving my blog, as well as making it more appealing to others who may come across this website.


I've come to recognize people's blogs and I know their writing styles. I believe my introduction provides a good sense of who I am as a person and allows my classmates to reach out and connect with me if they find something similar to themselves in the post. As for the rest of my blog, my writing really envelopes who I am as a person. People seeing my writing really helps them to understand who I am and how I view the world.


I actually really enjoy the bloggosphere we've created for this class and it's nice reading my classmates stories just for fun sometimes.


I don't think I need to make any changes to my blog. I'm happy with it.


I have loved getting to read people's introductions. Everyone in the class has done a great job bringing their personality to life through their blog. I am super proud of my blog and my project. My intro is super fun and people are seeing my fun, laid back side through it.


I can grow as a reader and as a story teller so that I can improve positively. I am thinking about changing the background of my blog to something a little more similar to my personality and interests.


I think my favorite assignments in the class are writing the stories, because I feel so accomplished by the end of it. I do the extra credit assignments once in a while, whenever I think my blog needs updating.


I think it’s been really cool interacting with other students via blogging. Further, being able to create my own blog has been a really cool experience and is a way I can express myself.


By reading other people's blogs, I definitely get a sense of their personality! However, I am not getting to know people through commenting. I don't stick to reading the same people every week because I would rather read lots of different writing styles and switch it up often.


I do feel like I have gotten to know many of my classmates through their blog posts. I think that I am happy with my introduction as it sums up my life without boring the reader.


I really enjoyed going back and looking through my blog and all of the different post I have made. I have been more caught up in getting each individual assignment turned in, that I had not looked back at all of the work I have accomplished.


Something that surprised me was how much I like the blog comments! They are actually fun, especially when you go to comment on a blog and realize that they commented on yours and left a really nice comment. Its a great way to get to know people too! I probably know more about the people in this class than I know about the people in any other class I've taken. It's really refreshing.


I feel like I am getting to know people when I visit their blogs. I mean, obviously, through the introduction, but everyone has also designed their blog in their own unique style and you learn little bits of information through comments they leave on your posts and author's notes at the end of their stories. I love my introduction and blog style because I think they really do give people a sense of who I am and what I'm all about. Most of the pictures I use on my posts are because I think they're funny and gives people an idea of what my sense of humor is like.


Many times, I will see things on other people's blog that I really like, and when I stumble across a blog that doesn't have it, I will usually project that idea forward.


When I give feedback, I usually tend to comment on the story material itself, but I think I should also give suggestions on the person's blog layout as well, so they can make it as appealing as possible for others, not just people in our class!


I'm definitely getting a sense of what people like and I'm finding things in everyone's blog that I can connect or relate to in some way. I think I'm happy with my introduction. I feel like I'm so much more than what I wrote about but it's a good beginning to get to know me.


I am happy with my blog the way it is so I'll most likely not make any changes.


When I am done with these two courses, I plan on sharing these blogs that I have created with others. I never really considered that I could write stories until I was made to! So, this has been a nice push for me and a real growing experience.


I really enjoy commenting on people's blog introductions. With this being an online course, I could easily go all semester without meeting or even knowing who is in my class, but I really like how I am forced to get out of my comfort zone and "meet" people, even if it is through their introductions. Also, I am a huge animal person, so I love reading blogs and getting to see everyone's pets.


I think I am getting to know people because I get to read their introductions and I can hear their voices in their writing. I can get a sense of personality from their stories. I am happy about my introduction and blog because I am an open book so it's easy to get to know me from reading them.


Overall, I like the way my blog and project are turning out. Feedback has helped my stay on track, and checking out other peoples websites and projects has helped me gauge where the rest of the class is skill-wise.


I feel like all the blog comments are good because they're connecting all of us together between stories and our interactions. We're all getting to know one another through our stories and it's really fun.


I feel that I have a pretty good handle on some of my classmates based on their blog posts and their introductions. Some are a bit less of an open book, but that tells me something on its own. I'm mostly comfortable with my own introduction and posts. I don't want to lay all the parts of myself out for everyone to see, but I've laid out enough.


At this point I am pretty happy with my blog.


I do like commenting on peoples blogs. The introductions are a good opportunity to get to know some of my classmates, and the commenting on them is pretty easy to do.


I've never particularly enjoyed online classes as much as in person because I felt like I was just off on my own doing my own thing but that has not been the case for this course. I enjoy the requirement to comment on however many blogs each week because it incorporates a chance to get to know people and get a few points while you're at it, providing an incentive.


I feel that blog comments really give the sense of interaction that you would get from a real class setting, in fact it might be better since the blog comments can be posted at any time. I feel that the blog comments really add to the class and make it more complete.


Looking back through the comments that I have received, I see a pattern of people praising my blog format and my author’s notes.


This image just makes me smile and it is fun to be able to pick an image that really just encompasses what you are feeling at the time. Whether it be related to the readings, or if it is just a fun picture you want to share, I think it is important to be able to express yourself through writing and also visual effect in this blog.


I can feel like I am getting to know the people in this class by connecting with them at their blogs. I can see reflections of them in the stories they write, like inspiration from their hobbies or aspiring majors or professions, which makes seeing what everyone comes up with all the more interesting.


As of right now, I feel no need to change up my blog or its format. However that may very well change later on. It's always good to keep this fresh and new.


I don’t want to make any changes to my blog, I feel that it represents me perfectly as it is.


Some people really come across in their introduction post. Just the way they write you can hear their voice! But other people keep it pretty basic with their interests and don't even post a picture with them in it! I actually think my introduction is pretty good and represents me and my passions fairly well!


I don't want to change my blog at all though. I love it just the way it is.


I am happy with my introduction post, and I think the blog commenting is a great way to connect with class mates! I really enjoy reading everyone’s introduction, and it really shows just how unique each person is.


I really like my blog but I'm definitely going to try to be better about posting creative writing stories even though they make me nervous!


I would say I get more interaction with my classmates than any other class I am taking.


I forgot to mention changing up my blog site to make it stand out more and be more creative with personality. I haven't had the time to play with it just yet, but I will find some time this week to work on making my blog site into my own, without looking so plain and boring!


I think that my blog's introduction does a pretty good job of explaining who I am, but possibly could use some more pictures. I think that my blog could let people know the type of person I am better, but at the same time I kind of want people to just look at my blog for the stories rather than who I am as a person being that some of my stories are slightly dark and I don't consider myself a dark person.


Looking forward I really want to work on my project page and overall layout of both of my blogs. Over the course of the past 8 weeks I have just been posting and finishing whatever is due that day. I really want to take some time and work on the big picture of everything.


I think I am slowly getting to know people better based off of their blog comments, but due to the random nature of the comment-making, it is hard to feel like I am really connected with them. I more feel like I am jumping from one to another. In order to improve this, I suppose I could make more of an effort to maybe read someone’s introduction post first, in order to remind myself of who they are.


I will say that it is cool to get taken back to blogs that you have been to before via the randomizer, and getting to see how their blog has progressed.


However, I can say that this class's introduction blog posts are way more interactive than any other class I've taken so far. Online classes usually require you to introduce yourself on the class discussion page, but honestly not a lot of people actually read those. In this class, it is part of our assignments to read everyone's introductions, I actually like it a lot.


I plan on changing a few things around in my blog as well as my portfolio due to some of the comments I have received. They have been good comments and I'm glad I got these suggestions because I'm always looking for ways to improve my writing and design layout.


I might try spicing my blog's graphics up a little when I find myself with free time. You can never make a blog look too good!

My school's Teaching Center sent around a really helpful mid-semester newsletter, and because they used an email newsletter service that also has a web form, I can link to it here:
CTE Mid-Term Newsletter – Fall 2017

In particular, have some good resources and examples there about doing mid-term student feedback, including information at their website about using Canvas for mid-term surveys: How to Collect Mid-Term Student Feedback in Canvas?


CTE newsletter screenshot


From semester to semester, I change the way I approach mid-term evaluations. Last year, I was contemplating a lot of big changes to my classes that I made over the summer, and so I solicited a ton of feedback from the students in both the Fall and Spring midterm evaluations that I could use in making those changes. The feedback was focused on me and the work I do in designing/teaching these classes, and that is the kind of feedback that the Teaching Center resources focus on in the link above. I used Google Form surveys with a mix of both scaled and open questions.


This semester, though, I took a really different approach, focusing on the students taking a self-assessment approach, totally open-ended, so that I could get a good sense of what they were experiencing in the class in the context of the many changes I made over the summer. So far, that is going really well! This week the students are writing three different blog posts; you can see the prompts here. The idea is to help them separate out the two main dimensions of the class — their own reading and writing, and then their interactions with other students — plus a third post assessing their progress so far and looking forward to the second half of the semester. Thanks to the power of Inoreader as the tool I use to manage the blog network, you can see a live stream of their responses here (that is all students, all three posts, across all three classes): Week 8 Feedback


Here's a screenshot as of this moment; the first post is due today, but some students have been working ahead:


screenshot of blog stream


By having the students reflect in this way, I hope it can be really useful for them, and I get lots of indirect feedback about what I am doing this way too.


Of course I also want them to be able to give me direct feedback, including anonymous feedback, so I have a Suggestion Box they can use at any time. It's a Google Form which is embedded in the daily announcements blog sidebar, and I also have it embedded in my Canvas courses at and I make sure to mention that in the prompts for these midterm evaluation posts too.


screenshot of suggestion box in canvas


So far, nobody has left me any feedback in the Suggestion Box this semester, but that's okay: the Suggestion Box is valuable as a statement of my openness whether or not students decide they want to use it.


Meanwhile, I am looking forward to their blog posts. I made big changes to the classes over the summer because of a mandated 20% increase in enrollment that totally strained my course design. From my perspective, the changes have been GREAT... but what I really need to hear is what the students think. The blog network gives them each their own space in which to reflect, and the power of RSS lets me see those reflections pulled together into a stream that I can follow easily in one place, learning from what they are all saying. More about the blog network: network2017


Is it around the middle of term at your school now? What kind of midterm evaluations do you find most helpful...?

I was so glad to find out that Instructure was able to carry through with rolling the red Gradebook labels back to Beta; as promised, with the October 7 release, the red labels are no longer visible in the student Gradebook view:

Canvas Production Release Notes (2017-10-07) 

I really was lucky with this in the sense that my particular complaints (I don't want red Late or Missing labels for personal, pedagogical reasons) also coincided with a serious bug (which was that assignments were labeled Missing even when they had been turned in, had been graded, etc.). I hope there will be a more wide-ranging discussion about this kind of intrusion into the Gradebook before the feature is re-implemented.


I hope that discussion can also lead to a larger discussion about what it means for the LMS to be a tool (instead of a "system"), and also about the difference between automation (where the LMS is doing things on our behalf... whether we want it or not) and customization. I prefer to see the LMS as a tool that I customize. The more settings under my direct control, the better. I totally understand wanting to have out-of-the-box default settings that will suit a wide range of users, but I absolutely do not understand taking away the option for instructors to control the settings, using the LMS as a tool in the way we want/need to use it. There is simply no way that Instructure will ever know (or want to know, ha ha) just what it is I do exactly when I teach; so, that means they are never going to be able to fully anticipate my wants and needs. That's why I expect to have the ability to configure the LMS to meet my needs, or, if that's not possible, then to disable features that I will accomplish using other tools instead.


I use spreadsheets to manage much of the work that I do as a teacher, and I use a lot of conditional formatting and formulas in those spreadsheets to automate what I do. It's automation, but customized automation to the individual things I do as a teacher. I manage my content with spreadsheets, and I also use spreadsheets to manage the students' projects. Since that is kind of like what a Gradebook does, that's what I'll focus on here.


I would never expect any LMS to give me ready-made a Gradebook that lets me track my students' work the way that I do with this spreadsheet. This screenshot shows the non-personally identifiable parts of the sheet; there are other columns with the students' names, blog address, website address, email address, etc. GoogleDrive has no clue about what I do as a teacher, but I am very glad that they have given me an awesome meta-tool that allows me to build the Gradebook tool that I need:


screenshot of spreadsheet


With this spreadsheet, I am able to sort my students by the class they are in, by first name, by last name. I can sort by who has assignments turned in waiting for my comments (that in turn lets me update the stack list I share with them so they don't worry about whether I got the assignment they turned in). I can sort by who has what due and when, and I use the email addresses to send a customized reminder out weekly with links to the specific instructions (in any given week, students might be adding a new Storybook story or revising the Storybook, or adding a new Portfolio story or revising the Portfolio). I can tell who is ahead of schedule, and who is running behind (and so who might need some extra help and/or encouragement). I can manage my own workload week by week by anticipating how many new stories versus how many revisions I can expect to come in (this coming week, I can expect only 35 revision assignments; all the rest will be new items, which makes it one of my busier weeks of the semester). I also know which of the new story assignments have popped up in the assignment stream for student browsing (Myth-Folklore and Indian Epics); I can also see which revisions I might choose to manually pop into the stream (that depends on a variety of factors). And, most importantly, I can make little notes about completely unanticipated issues with a student's project, something that doesn't need a column of its own but which I need to be reminded of when I get to that student's assignment in the stack (like the student who told me they would be out of town next week, or the one who is taking care of their grandfather in the hospital right now, etc.).


I don't want Instructure to build this for me... that would be crazy. And that's exactly why I don't welcome the intrusive Missing and Late labels either. I need flexible tools that I can customize for my own purposes, using the automation features of that tool when, and only when, applicable (I use lots of conditional formatting and formulas in the spreadsheet shown above for example). I find the Canvas Gradebook to be woefully inadequate as a spreadsheet tool but, hey, that's okay. My students are really the ones who use the Canvas Gradebook, not me, and for their purposes (recording their work, checking their points), the Canvas Gradebook is fine. And luckily for me, there's Google for my own feedback and workflow tasks.


About the colors: some weeks I want gold, some weeks I feel like purple, and some weeks I go emerald green. I regularly change the colors to suit my moods.


But I never pick red. Hence my antipathy to the red ink in the Canvas Gradebook as well. :-)

I originally published this in the University of Oklahoma Canvas Community, not realizing it was totally private, so now I am reposting in my regular blog. See also the CanvasLIVE video for more about Blog-as-Homepage:
Blog-as-Homepage CanvasLIVE Slides – Teaching with 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 all classes. Since I use the same announcements for both of my classes, 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)

I don't often participate in online discussions at Inside Higher Ed because the comment space sometimes fills up with trolls, but I felt compelled to comment on this article, and the discussion has been useful, so I wanted to share it here:
Coming to Campus to Teach Online.


screenshot of article at IHE


I hope the author will respond too! It's not that I disagree with her about the good things that can happen in face-to-face interaction among colleagues, but it really worries me that she considers face to face interactions to be the "best" ... even though she teaches online. One of the other commenters, who also teaches online, clearly has very low expectations for interaction in his online classes. In fact, it sounds like he has doesn't expect any kind of meaningful interactions online. Ouch.


In my opinion, the element of interaction is essential in online education, just as in the classroom. An online class CAN be excellent, as good as or better than any classroom-based class, but we are being hampered by the low expectations and lack of experience by the faculty who teach online, especially their low expectations for online interaction and their own lack of online presence. Instructor presence online AND student presence online are both essential, and I design my own classes with that mutual presence as a top priority.


I would blame the LMSes, including Canvas, for contributing to this lack of presence. There is no obvious way to build a really lively instructor presence in a Canvas course, and almost no way at all to build persistent student presence. That's why I use other tools to do that, like my student blog network (read more about that at network2017  ), and my own use of a blog for daily class announcements. See for today's announcements — the course is open... always open... with new announcements every day.


screenshot of class announcements


As I see it, the key deficit in Canvas for online presence is the lack of dynamic profile pages. As they are now, the Canvas profile pages are pretty much a dead zone. For some thoughts about that, see this lively discussion that James Sanzin started here:
Is there a way to spice up profile pages? 


So, here is my question for others: what do you do to create a sense of instructor presence inside Canvas? Are there Canvas features and/or Canvas apps that you are putting to good use? And what about student presence...? Share your ideas here!


And to get more ideas, check out the wonderful work that Michelle Pacansky-Brock is doing with her Humanizing Online Courses project; you can find out more at her website and at her @brocansky Twitter:



. . . 


Even the growth mindset cats create their online presence. :-)


two cats staring at a laptop screen in which their images are visible: I'm creating my online presence.

I wrote a post last week about student choice as a course design principle, and I wanted to follow up on that today. In that post I said: I think it's wonderful that Instructure brought the awesome Sheena Iyengar to speak at InstructureCon (I read her book and loved it), but it would be even better if Instructure listened to what she said and respected student choice as an important element of course design.


It worries me that Canvas's commitment to simplicity can lead to oversimplification, which is not good for learning. (I'm a big believer in Carol Dweck's notion of making challenge the new comfort zone, Vygotsky's ZPD, etc.). In my experience, cognitive underload is a more clear and present danger than cognitive overload. Boredom, lack of engagement, lack of motivation, etc. etc. are the real problems I am struggling with. And one of the best strategies I have for combating boredom et al. is STUDENT CHOICE.


So, naturally I was very interested to read Iyengar's book, The Art of Choosing ... but I had no idea how much it would expand my understanding of choice; here are my Kindle highlights.


Let me start with a study I mentioned briefly in the previous post; this is an early study of hers that showed teacher-choice was the least motivating of the three learning conditions she tested: student-choice, mother-choice, teacher-choice. Among Anglo students, student-choice was the most motivating condition ("Anglo American children who were allowed to choose their own anagrams and markers solved four times as many anagrams as when Ms. Smith made their choices for them, and two and a half times more than when their mothers supposedly chose for them"), while for the Asian-American students, mother-choice was the most motivating ("the Asian American children performed best and were most motivated when they believed their mothers had chosen for them. These children solved 30 percent more anagrams than those who were allowed to choose their materials themselves, and twice as many anagrams as children who were assigned materials by Ms. Smith"). For both groups of students, though, teacher-choice was the least motivating condition. Yet teacher-choice is the dominant course design feature across the board in both K-12 and higher ed: teachers make the choices (what to read, what to study, what to write, etc.), instead of creating courses based on supporting and facilitating student choice.


Iyengar's book then goes into great detail about just it means to have a "choice" (real choice, free choice, meaningful choice), and I would really recommend that everybody read it. She is a great writer, and the narrative of her research is really compelling as she shows from one experiment to the next how she is driven by yet more subtle questions about choice. Each experiment answers some questions, but raises more questions in turn, and she is very attentive to cultural differences (something sadly lacking in a lot of education research), as you can see already in that early study above.


And, I am pleased to say, Iyengar's book was really transformative for me: I had previously looked at student choice as a practical strategy for motivating students; I wanted the students to choose what to read and what to write about because I hoped in that way they would be more engaged and would produce better work. More choice, better work, more learning... which would mean I could feel good about the job I was doing as a teacher. End of story.


But after reading Iyengar's book, I see things differently. I still know that choice is a very powerful strategy for motivating students (15 years of teaching tells me so), but Iyengar got me to see the question of choice as something of far greater importance, something existential, extending far beyond the classroom. And it is also something complex and even paradoxical, not straightforward or simple at all:

To be ourselves while remaining adaptable, we must either justify a decision to change as being consistent with our identity, or we must acknowledge that our identity itself is malleable but no less authentic for it. [...] One might say that we are trying to arrive at a state of homeostasis through a feedback loop between identity and choice.

That was a WOW moment for me in reading her book, identifying this back-and-forth between identity and choice and how there is a feedback loop there, which is also the source of the paradox: do I make my choices because of who I am? or am I who I am because of my choices? Or .... (queue Twilight Zone music) ... is it paradoxically both at once?


Much of Iyengar's book is taken up with this interplay of identity and choice, and also with the question of how HAPPINESS emerges through that interplay of identity and choice, and also the tension between constraint and creativity. Iyengar ends up being a strong advocate for choice, and that advocacy is based on a really deep understanding of people's choices as she has documented them in so many different experiments with so many different people from different cultures in different contexts.


Even more importantly: Iyengar is very away of the Pollyanna trap into which I think many teachers fall (I know I do), acting as if the choices we can offer in our classrooms can somehow compensate for the world of injustice in which we live:

At its best, choice is a means by which we can resist the people and the systems that seek to exert control over us. But choice itself can become oppressive when we insist that it is equally available to all. It can become an excuse for ignoring inequities that stem from gender or class or ethnic differences, for example, because one can blithely say, “Oh, but they had a choice! [...] As we saw in the very first chapter, the promise of choice, the language of choice, and even the mere illusion of choice have the power to motivate and uplift us. We should not, however, take this to mean that faith, hope, and rhetoric alone are sufficient.


So, with that incredibly important caveat in mind (and I've written elsewhere here about designing-for-equity), I want to close this post with a really cool exercise that Iyengar recommends for discovering motivation, the real intrinsic motivation, the motivation that is both your identity and your choice:

Try this for yourself. Write three versions of the story of your life (or a particular period in your life), looking in turn through the lenses of destiny, chance, and choice. [...] Which of these versions is most motivating for you? Which one encourages you to try harder, push further, reach higher? Which emphasizes that you have the power to go from where you are today to where you want to be tomorrow?

And here's something really cool you will see when you read the book: Iyengar starts the book with three such narratives about her own life: this woman practices what she preaches! 


I read the book too late in the summer to be able to weave these ideas into my classes, but next summer I want to build in a new layer of writing based on this idea of "my story" (or stories!). My classes are already centered on storytelling, and I would really like to help my students find connections between their writing choices in the class and the life choices that they are making, seeing how all of those stories (the real ones and the fictional ones) emerge from that interplay of creativity and constraint.


Anyway, this post is already way too long... there is so much more that I would say, but if I have made you curious to go read the book, then I will consider this post a success. Thank you for reading! :-)


And here is Sheena Iyengar is at InstructureCon via Twitter, whoo-hoo!


picture of Iyengar presenting at InstructureCon