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.


The hubris of a digital historian. . .

Writers spill way, way, way too much ink writing about the future of education as it relates to computers. I’m not going to rehash all debates or research on digital education except to say three things:

  1. Technology does not equal progress forward for humanity. Witness the history of weapons, or, say singing cats videos. If you’d like to read someone who understands this and writes about education, see Hack Education. (Hat tip @Trianglemancsd for sharing)
  2. Students demonstrate uneven penetrations of knowledge about technology. Older does not equal clueless, younger does not equal skilled.
  3. Technology skills do help get students jobs.

Given theses issues, how do I as a teacher work to ensure digital technology benefits my students, rather than act as barnacles on their career ships?

Continue reading “The hubris of a digital historian. . .”

It can’t wait for a sabbatical. . .

When I tell folks what I’m doing this summer, they say, you should wait for a sabbatical to do that. But my students are drowning, and I don’t know if I can save them, but I can give them a fighting shot at swimming to safety on their own if I go now. It can’t wait. This is my blog about how to build a better (world history) course. I write in the hopes that others will see my work, help me, and perhaps consider how to help poor students succeed in their courses. And, if I write my thoughts down, maybe they’ll be better thoughts than when they’re tangled up in my head.

This is not a blog about feelings or inspiration: I have both, as do you, but we don’t need better feelings or more inspiration, we need better tools to teach our students.

I’m increasingly distressed at the failure of my poor students. These folks can be train wrecks as students. They often come from un-supportive homes, have uneven or limited access to technology, they are ignorant of college as an institution and ignorant of how to navigate institutions in general. I can see their failure and I know it’s historically rooted. Responses to poverty tend to be condescending (poor dears) or systematic (let’s create a scholarship fund), neither of which I find useful.

After years of teaching poor students at four and two-year schools, I started asking colleagues: “If I could do one thing to help poor students succeed in my classroom, what would that be?” Most folks suggested additional resources (buy them tablets, pay for college), which I can’t do. Others suggested pointing out resources my college already has, which is sound, but insufficient. You see, most students drive to college, walk to the classroom, finish the class, and drive to work or home. Car- class – car. Continue reading “It can’t wait for a sabbatical. . .”