Pedagogy, teaching, Technology

Reconceptualizing Course Planning with Canvas, Part II: “The New Single-Site Paradigm”

In my last post, I outlined some of the major challenges of and problems created by the LMS that I’ve used for the past four years. However, as a means to work around some of these problems, I had created a series of “Cycle Schedules” in Google Docs that I could embed into the LMS. These documents essentially served as my lesson plans and were much more detailed and robust than anything I’d created in my first eight years of teaching.

In the course of piloting Canvas in some limited ways last school year, one feature that quickly became apparent to me as a major improvement over the status quo was the way that it integrated assignments into an actual calendar.

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Rather than having two separate places to post and track assignments—1) in my Cycle Schedules and 2) in the grade book (only for those assignments that got graded)—Canvas instead attaches each assignment to a specific date on the calendar. From my experience thus far, it’s clear that the calendar occupies a central place within Canvas.

As a result, when assignments are clearly anchored to the calendar, it clearly communicates what will happen when and saves students the work of transferring assignments and homework from the Cycle Schedule onto an actual calendar. In fact, Canvas will automatically push upcoming assignments with a due date onto students’ (and faculty’s) “To Do” lists on the Dashboard.

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Moreover, the interface for scheduling these assignments makes it very easy to create different due dates for the same assignment to different sections of the same class. And even better still, I can easily select to have these assignments not count toward the final grade, which would keep my grade book free of “actively read pp. xx-yy” detritus.

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So, having explored these features last spring, it quickly became clear that my old system of embedding Google Docs into the LMS wouldn’t take advantage of Canvas’s powers to communicate assignments and their due dates clearly to students in one centralized location. Yet, I had made all these really detailed (and useful for me) Cycle Schedules that included embedded links to readings, video clips, study guides, and other resources that I hope are helpful for my students.

All of these facts meant that as I sat down this summer to rethink how I wanted to structure my courses on Canvas, I realized that the time-unit of the “Cycle” would no longer be helpful. I had adopted that system as a way to deal with my school’s rotating schedule and the fact that I didn’t see every class on every day and it was easier to communicate what would happen for all students within that seven-day rotation. But with Canvas’s more powerful and convenient calendaring features, it now seemed a hassle to preserve that system that I’d used over the past few years. You know, one of these deals:


Instead, I began exploring Canvas’s “Modules” section and thinking about how to divide my class into Units based not on the time-unit of the Cycle but around the content that I’d cover. I had, in fact, always had some of my materials organized into these pretty traditional content-focused “Units”; that remains how I organize all my files on Google Drive, for example:


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Over the past few years, I’ve taken to printing off my Cycle Schedules so that I could make notes on them about adjustments, how lessons went, things to change, etc. This resource proved immensely helpful this summer as I worked through last year’s classes and re-divided them according to “Unit,” deciding what days that used to fit into the different “Cycles” should now be grouped according to “Module.”


With these notes in hand, I was able to sketch out the trajectory of the year, figuring out how many days I spent on each unit and what content that I’d previously put into all of my Cycle Schedules could now fit into individual assignments. I always find that this type of large-scale rethinking happens best when done by hand, so I went full-Moleskine-hipster and did it!


Then, once I’d sketched out the year, named all of the different class days, and determined the dividing points between different Units/Modules, I built out that same framework within Canvas.

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As I did this, I also figured out when I wanted to have various formative and graded assignments and used the “indent” feature within the Modules to visually indicate when a particular day also included a separate quiz, discussion, or practice AP activity. Building out these “Units” in the Modules page was especially convenient because I could include assignments, quizzes, discussions, external URLs, etc. within the Module and have them conveniently grouped in one place.

So, once I’d built out the framework of for each of the days in the year, I began going into these individual assignments and copying-and-pasting material I’d previously had in a Cycle Schedule day into a new Canvas assignment.

For example, here’s my day on the “Varieties of Protestantism” that previously looked like this within my Cycle Schedule:

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Now it looked like this within Canvas:

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With the exception of re-embedding the video using Canvas’s YouTube integration tool, I more or less copy-and-pasted the material that I previously had included in the old Google Doc. The links—and most of the formatting—transferred pretty cleanly. (Though, as my friend and colleague (hereafter “friendleague”), Kate, and I were discussing, we wished that Canvas would use proper Harvard outline format to vary the symbols at the different levels of indentation. Sigh.)

After I’d created the assignment and included all the details, I then figured out where that day fit on the actual calendar by manually scheduling it in the Cycle Calendar Book that the school provides to faculty (and freshmen…for what that’s worth).

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I then included the appropriate dates for each class section on each assignment and voila! I’ve now got my schedule, homework, and grade book filled (with only the material that needs grading) in one fell swoop. (I’ll concede that it’s a pretty involved swoop, but at least Canvas won’t delete all this work at the end of the school year!)

You may perhaps have noticed that I added one new section to the top of each day’s assignment: the “Due Today” section. For that section, I’ve simply copied and pasted the prior day’s homework (in this case, 2.1 – “Foundations of the Protestant Reformation”).

This solution, devised by my friendleague (ugh…that neologism is awful. Sorry about that), Kody, helps address the one major shortcoming of having each day be a separate assignment: it’s no longer possible to scroll up and down the Google Doc and easily see what the prior day’s homework assignment was.

So, while including this info does require some extra copying-and-pasting, and requires changing two different assignments if you decide to change the homework for a particular day, I nevertheless think that it removes potential confusion for students about when something is due.

Finally, I’m hopeful that this new structure for communicating assignments will also prove superior because it makes the same content accessible in some many different places. If need be, students can find the information about “Day 2.2 – Varieties of Protestantism” in the Module [see above], on the calendar, in the Assignments section, on Canvas’s auto-generated Syllabus [see below], or on the “Upcoming” section of the Dashboard [see above].

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In contrast to the isolated location of assignments under the old LMS’s paradigm, I’m hopeful that students will find the multiple means of accessing assignments within Canvas and seeing them all at a glance through the calendar to be much simpler and ultimately a time-saver.

My school year starts this Wednesday, so we’ll find out how good a soothsayer I am soon enough!


Pedagogy, teaching

The Pedagogical Brilliance of John Hodgman

I enjoy a number of the podcasts on the podcasting network a great deal. One of those that I listen to on a weekly basis is Judge John Hodgman, which is characteristically dry, funny, and thought-provoking. If you don’t recognize this fake Internet judge’s name, you’ll likely recognize him from his most famous role in a bunch of old Apple ads:

On his most recent episode, “Strictly Courtroom,” Judge Hodgman had a brilliant nugget of wisdom about the process of learning that I felt compelled to transcribe and share with you here:

Your argument that why not have fun while learning is undermined by the fact that you know learning is not fun. Learning is painful. Learning is awkward. Learning is essentially admitting that you don’t know something that you’re embarrassed not to know. That is the hard part of learning. And sometimes learning means chanting various body parts over and over and over again until the embarrassment of not knowing, or the embarrassment of not being good at something, or the embarrassment of not being sophisticated, or the embarrassment of not being a grown person, or whatever the embarrassment of not knowing is, gets beaten out of you until you can finally learn.

I realize that out of context that point about “body parts” must seem very strange, but give the whole episode a listen and you’ll have a sense of why that apparently bizarre comment shows up in this pithy observation about learning.

I particularly love the fact that Judge Hodgman is willing to directly challenge what seems to be the ever-growing chorus of “let’s make learning fun” with the hard truth that learning isn’t “fun,” per se, but can certainly be rewarding and fulfilling, which happens precisely because learning is challenging.

And now that I’ve got that great quote typed up, I can include it on all my future syllabi

history, Pedagogy

Facebook: Committee of Public Safety, Class of Sept. 1793–March 1794

Tomorrow my Western Civilization classes are watching and taking notes on the BBC documentary Terror! Robespierre and the French Revolution. The documentary does a great job of detailing the inner workings of the Committee of Public Safety and the major developments and transformations during this most radical phase of the French Revolution.

If you’re eager, you can spend the next hour and half hanging out right here and screening the whole documentary courtesy of YouTube:

However, in preparing for my students to watch this documentary, I realized that keeping track of everyone beyond Robespierre could be a bit of a challenge without a handy-dandy guide to each of their names. I started scouring around the Internet to find a quick guide to each of the members with their image attached. While the Wikipedia page on the Committee of Public Safety had all their names listed, it did not have their pictures attached and, of course, the page included all the other material connecting with this entry.

So, in my infinite free-time, I decided to make the “Twelve Who Ruled” their own miniature Facebook, which you can see below.

And now, I’ve filled a major void in the Internet. You’re welcome!

Non-Teaching, Pedagogy

Form *still* ever follows function

As I’m making last minutes preparations to administer my Fall Trimester final exams tomorrow, I thought I’d go ahead and create a procedure for my students to follow so that they don’t get confused about what materials they’re allowed to use for different parts of my test. The reason this is an issue is because my essay question is one where students have to compare two different articles and I want them to have the articles and their annotations handy in order to make an effective and evidence-rich argument. However, the point of this post isn’t so much to explain my test format and rationale (though the former is something the really dedicated will be able to glean from what is to follow), but instead to talk about how design can really affect the effectiveness of these types of instructions.

Louis Sullivan famously coined the phrase 'for...

Louis Sullivan, courtesy of Wikipedia

So, what follows again proves the great American architect Louis Sullivan’s famous dictum that “form ever follows function.”

Here’s the first version of my instruction/procedure sheet that I made for the final:

My primary thought process in creating this assignment sheet was to provide students a clear set of linear steps that would be distinct and hopefully clear. I asked my wife, who is quite the typographical/design wizard, to read it over and see if it made sense. She vouched for the fact that the steps made sense, but thought I should redesign it to make the organizing principle the different parts of the test and rather than different steps.

So, I took her up on the challenge and came up with my revised version:

What do people think? Does the revised version much more effectively communicate what students should do for the different parts of this test? If nothing else, I think the revised version looks much cleaner and also makes better use of different design elements (shading; various fonts) than the first version.

We’ll find out tomorrow if all my typographical wrangling nips questions about procedure in the bud before they happen. For my own (and Louis Sullivan’s) sake, I’m hoping it will!