Laura Gibbs

Surfacing Student Work: Images+Randomness

Blog Post created by Laura Gibbs on Feb 25, 2018

This is a post not so much about Canvas (although I could deploy this same web content in a Canvas page if I wanted to); instead, it is meant more as an example of very specific solution for my classes to a very GENERAL problem that I think we all face: how do we surface student content in a class so that students can see their own work as being of real value?


As someone who really believes both in constructivism and in connected learning, it is absolutely essential for me that the students be able to share their content with one another. I could go on and on about the pedagogical reasons for that (just Google non-disposable assignments for lots of thoughts and leads to follow), but what I want to focus on here is the practical problem that we face: when there are a lot of students (I have 90 students total every semester) who are producing a lot of content (my students write one or two stories every week that I want to share), then what can I do to make sure that this valuable content finds an audience of other students...?


Last semester, I tried a "live stream" experiment where I used Diigo to bookmark new story additions to the students' projects, and then with Diigo RSS I displayed that live stream in Canvas and also on the project directory page at my class website. The Diigo RSS worked great, but I wasn't getting the complete surfacing that I really wanted: there were too many new stories coming in, especially at certain times of the week, so they were not all getting equal display time, while other stories were getting more display time, etc. And using Diigo as an image management tool was hard because it doesn't work well with screenshots; Diigo really only works for image files that are part of the bookmarked page, and even then it created some weirdly truncated thumbnails.


My new approach this semester: an image randomizer. Randomness is a superpower for displaying content when you have a large body of content that you want to surface, especially the randomizer is used on a page that students visit frequently, which is definitely the case for the class project directory pages: Myth-Folklore and Indian Epics.


There's an alphabetical list of links in the left-hand column, and the right-hand column contains multiple iterations of the image randomizer (there's also a text-only randomizer at the top of the right-hand column):


screenshot of myth-folklore project directory


Indian Epics project page screenshot


So, I won't go into the nitty-gritty since this is something really only relevant to my classes, but suffice to say that I have a spreadsheet (I have a spreadsheet for basically everything that goes on in my classes), and it lists the address for each student project. When a new story comes up, I snag a picture (either an illustration from the page, or a screenshot if they have used the illustration as a banner image), I put the name of the image file in the spreadsheet, and upload to my webspace. Then, once or twice a week, I update the randomizer (a simple copy-and-paste from the spreadsheet), and presto: ALL the stories appear at random, linked to the project they come from. Probably about an hour of work each week total, but it is well worth it. And it's fun to snag the images!


Now, one drawback is that, at the moment, the same image will occasionally show up more than once; it's the same randomizer repeated on the same page, which means the same image might come up at random more than once. But the odds of that happening will grow smaller over time as there are more and more images from the stories accumulating. More images to randomize!


And really, that is the only drawback... which means I am very happy with this system, much more than the Diigo stream from last semester.


One of my biggest complaints about LMSes in general, and that includes Canvas in particular, is that content is generally viewed as top-down content created by the instructor which is usually in a one-size-fits-all, this-first-then-that sequenced approach that is the same for all students. That doesn't work for me: I want to students to be able to choose what content they are working on, and I want student-created content to be at the heart of my classes.


Randomizers are a big way that becomes possible for me, and here's a more general observation about the power of random: I hope that when Canvas redoes the Discussion Boards (as surely they will some day?), they will think about the power of random for surfacing content in those discussion boards and connecting students one to another. :-)