Laura Gibbs

Tools and Systems: Thoughts on the Future of Canvas

Blog Post created by Laura Gibbs on Mar 13, 2019

I have been informed by the Community Managers that my opinions here have crossed a line that violates the Community Guidelines. It was not my intent to be rude or disrespectful, but I understand that when you blog in other people's spaces, you follow their Guidelines. 
July 2019 update: Happily blogging now at OU Digital Teaching.


In a back-and-forth with some people at Twitter yesterday, an idea started to take shape that I wanted to share here: the difference between tools and systems. I am a fan of tools, but I am not a fan of systems...


A TOOL: something you use to do things; you are the user, and you decide how you want to use the tool and for what purpose


A SYSTEM: you are part of the system, and the system does things; the work you do is part of how the system works


So, Canvas is an LMS, a learning management system as the name proclaims, but I wish it were more like a tool.


Here are just two examples that are on my mind as I think about this distinction of tool versus system; if I have time later this week, I will write some more about this.


GRADEBOOK LABELS. The Canvas Gradebook looks like a spreadsheet, but it is not. A spreadsheet is a tool that I can use for all kinds of purposes (and I do! spreadsheets rule my world!), but the Canvas Gradebook is a system imposed on my class by Canvas, and I cannot configure it except in small and trivial ways.


For example: the punitive Late and Missing labels. I've written about this extensively in the past:
Gradebook Dismay: The Thoughtless Tyranny of Red Ink : punitive  labels in the old Gradebook
GET THE RED INK OUT OF MY GRADEBOOK. The Sequel. : punitive labels in the new Gradebook
The Amazing Power of Community: James Jones to the Rescue! : a script to remove the Gradebook labels


Because the Missing labels are completely inappropriate for my classes, I used James Jones's script to remove them as soon as enrollment was concluded (I could not do that sooner because James's script cannot alter the Gradebook system but instead only the records in it: item by item, student by student).


But what about those Late labels: would students want to be reminded by a red Late label that they had used the "grace period" I offer them, a no-questions-asked extension on any assignment? Canvas presumably thinks students supposedly benefit from this constant reminder of their past errors, so maybe Canvas is right: maybe students want the Late labels...? To find out, I had the students vote during the mid-semester review week: Remove the Late labels, or not? The majority voted yes, so I removed the labels.


gradebook label vote results


But what about those few students who wanted to keep the labels? Too bad for them: the system cannot accommodate what they want. Instead of being able to use the Gradebook like a tool in their own way, the students are just part of the Gradebook system: like it or not, there can be only one way to configure the Gradebook for the class... and even that option is only thanks to James Jones who used the Canvas API (because, yes, the API is a tool, and a powerful one!) so that we have a partial solution to the Gradebook label problem. Thank goodness for that at least; I don't know what I would be doing right now without James's script.


So, the Gradebook might look like a spreadsheet, a tool for me to use. But don't be fooled: the Gradebook is a system and your class must conform to the expectations and assumptions of that system. There is no other way.


CANVAS AI AND ANALYTICS. If you have not read Phil Hill's piece on the latest robotutor-in-the-sky hype from Instructor, then you have to go read this, depressing though it is:

Instructure: Plans to expand beyond Canvas LMS into machine learning and AI


This quote from Dan Goldsmith sums up the vision, if you can call it that: one AI to rule them all, one AI to bind them.

We can take that information, correlate it across all sorts of universities, curricula, etc, and we can start making recommendations and suggestions to the student or instructor in how they can be more successful. Watch this video, read this passage, do problems 17-34 in this textbook, spend an extra two hours on this or that. 

The claim, as we have heard again and again from ed-tech solutionists, is that instead of giving students and teachers tools we can use for our own purposes, they are instead going to monitor us and build a system that controls (or attempts to control) our behavior. The student doesn't know best, the teacher doesn't know best... the machine knows best: the machine is going to do the learning and then tell us all what to do, as opposed to offering students and teachers tools we can use to design and direct our own learning.


Even if it worked, I would say that is undesirable: people need to learn how to make their own choices about life as well as about learning. But it is not even going to work.


Why won't it work?


Because the data is not there, not really.


Canvas has lots of data, sure, but it does not have MEANINGFUL data on which to make these decisions. Canvas knows NOTHING of importance about our students... because it has never asked them. Canvas knows when they log on and off, it knows how long they have a page open in a browser, it knows what score they get on a quiz.


But that data is all TRIVIA. 


And if you build your AI on trivia, then it will indeed be nothing more than a trivial pursuit.


So, in conclusion:

I say we need more meaningful communication, and less trivial data.

Likewise, we need more tools, and less system.

And we need to be able to make more choices, instead of having the system choose for us.


Don't get me wrong. I love the digital world. I love teaching online. That is why I will fight back every time educational systems take away our freedom to explore that world and use what we discover in our own ways and for our own purposes. I still believe in the promise of the web. This web, the one that we build. With our own tools.


Final thoughts from back in the day (2007) thanks to Michael Wesch