Laura Gibbs

Tools, Automation, Customization: Power of Spreadsheets

Blog Post created by Laura Gibbs on Oct 8, 2017

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. :-)