Trying to avoid the LMS sandbox

There’s an old joke that when an old man is asked directions by a passing motorist about how to get to the next town, the man answers “you can’t get there from here.” That story encapsulates my feelings for much software, especially our LMS. Witness my latest efforts:

I’m writing all my posts in Markdown so that I can publish them in multiple formats using Marked. The original txt files then aren’t subject to weird formatting errors that happen with MS Word or bad html conversions. As a historian I also like the future-proof element of writing in plain text.

So I wrote up a citations page for the readings for week of my class, exported it as a PDF, and saved the PDF to our LMS. But the LMS likes to open pdf’s in its own viewer, and that viewer doesn’t always recognize links. Also, the viewer shrinks a full page to 1/3 of the computer screen, which makes reading a document an absurd exercise in magnifying and scrolling. Students can download the pdf, but it’s an extra step. I’m looking for one-click usability. So, I switched the file to an HTML file that opens a new tab.

In other efforts, I realized the get-to-know-you quizzes I had in the LMS were cumbersome and wanted something more concise. So I thought, “I can export the quizzes as a CSV file right, and then build a google form?” Nope, I could only export xml, which would’ve required significant cleanup. For 35 questions, it turns out retyping was faster than actually using the LMS.

Increasingly I’m coming to value the flexibility and usability of tools outside our LMS and am thinking about how to offer these things to my students without turning my classes into an website account-creation hackathon. Single sign-in is important, but how important? If you can’t get there from here, why stay here?

Just a few technical details. . . on the imaginary “time off” for teachers.

I’m redesigning my World History 1 course around digital history projects with texts that are free to my students. So that my students have access to the sources I selected five sources from one of our college libraries databases, downloaded those sources as pdfs, stitched the pdfs together using Acrobat Pro, wrote up citations for the sources in Markdown (recall I want to be able to give this course away so documenting everything in a format that others can easily play with is important) and . . .  then, uploaded the sources to a third-party clearinghouse (SIPX) that will ensure our use of the databases clears Title XVII of the U.S. Code on copyrights. That last part requires minor navigation of our college’s learning management system so that students don’t have to sign in to our library or another website to do their readings.

Citations in code.
Citations written in markdown.

Now, if you teach, I’d wager that little in the above paragraph impresses you. You probably do similar electronic jumping jacks all the time. But if you don’t teach, please note my activity was for one week’s worth of reading. I still need to design the quizzes and the digital history assignments around the readings. I’m on summer “break.” This is what we do- a highly-skilled and time-consuming dance that requires time away from face-to-face contact in order to continuously improve our teaching.

So tonight, if one presidential candidate makes a snide comment about educators, I’m going to roll my eyes. Congress may not have its eye on our students’ futures, but I do. . . you too I bet.

Safe home.