Building lessons on free websites . . . or creating children’s books.

One of my favorite “wow” lesson plans uses the website It presents a variety of data in clear visualizations that let students play with historical statistics. It has huge limitations when studying history. Still, I use it as part of a lesson on quantitative history and the importance visualizing big numbers.

Last week one of the key data sets failed to load (Income per person). The gapminder people corrected the failure in 8 hours, but then the website broke again. Students howled. I howled on the “Report a problem” section of the website. In the end I pushed the due date for their assignment back one day. Nothing ground breaking about the pedagogy or our response to a common problem, yet something worth considering when building from open web resources.

In contrast, for my MN History students, I asked them to write a historical fiction children’s book based on 4 chapters in our textbook. One of the learning objectives for the class is to demonstrate the ability to write different genres of history. A full short-story would take too much time, both to teach and to create, but the basics of historical fiction can be taught with children’s lit (sources, plot, narrative arc, critical deployment of the suspension of disbelief, historical accuracy). And the final products are just fantastic. Granted, some spend more time on the art than the sourcing, but this low tech assignment forces students to grapple with how to tell a story about the past that even my best digital history assignment don’t yet.

So, this week is a contrast in pixels and paper.

On the inelegance of the LMS and the tech world’s response.

My not-so-new though: much of the software we use in college is needlessly complex and inelegant.

We’ve seen this progression in text editing, with MS Word evolving from a more writerly program to a behemoth publishing giant that requires four clicks to do anything and at least 27 inches of screen real estate to be functional. Fed up with the rococo features of Word, writers increasingly turn to simpler apps, such as FocusWriter, WriteRoom, evan nvALT (which is a text editor), to just write.

Similarly, I’ve decided that the feature creep of my college’s LMS has moved beyond baroque to rococo, especially linking and collecting information. When I want to link in most WYSIWYG editors, I hit control + K and it links whatever text I’ve highlighted. In D2L, I need two additional steps to do the same thing. When I want to collect information from students, say on a midterm student evaluation, I need to use quizzes or self-assessments, and then run a report. Set up for both quizzes and self-assessments is straightforward, but not simple. And the reporting system is Byzantine (sorry Constantinople). In contrast, I can throw together an easy google forms response in half the time it takes in D2L, and the form will auto-generate a spreadsheet of the responses.

We’ve come through Web 1.0 (the renaissance)  and Web 2.0 (the baroque and rococo of software and user interface design). I’m hopeful for selfish reasons and for the sake of our students we’re coming to Web 3.0 design: essential function without adornment- Bahausian design mixed with the Prairie school, perhaps?