Textbooks as bait for “engagement”

Yesterday, the Wired Campus blog reported that CourseSmart will begin piloting an analytics feature in their electronic textbooks:

The book will be integrated into the college’s course-management system. It will track students’ behavior: how much time they spend reading, how many pages they view, and how many notes and highlights they make. That data will get crunched into an engagement score for each student.

I’ve speculated about this before, but was wrong about it in two ways. First, I didn’t believe the publishers would do it because I didn’t see how it supported their business. That was short-sighted, and I’ll comment more on it later. If they did it, I predicted it would be used for something other than the current plans. On one count, I was dead on: the data will flow into the course management system.

I was thinking about it (of course) from the standpoint of a teacher, and the fundamental utility I saw for a feedback loop was to improve student learning. I envisioned a system whereby the textbook improved as students used it and were evaluated. If students show poor understanding of a particular process after studying from the book, change the book and try again. Or better yet, set up A/B testing on a chapter-by-chapter basis and do performance evaluation on the learning results. This is the approach that big internet companies use to make nearly every decision that makes them money.

But this is not the plan, at least not yet. No, the tracking will focus on collecting information on “student engagement,” allowing faculty (or administrators) to identify disengaged students before they fail out or leave the school. This is too bad, a missed opportunity to impact learning more directly. But it does answer the previous question I had about the business incentive to build this kind of system. Administrators are keenly interested in metrics for “student engagement”, and are increasingly wiling to pay for it. Integrating the data with the CMS gives the publisher a feature than can differentiate them from competitors in an increasingly competitive market for these systems. In a sense then, this isn’t about textbooks at all. The text is merely the content with which the student engages, the bait. The engagement is the thing, or more precisely, the data and analytics surrounding engagement.


Apple opens iTunes U registration

Yesterday, Apple made it possible for anyone to create an iTunes U course simply by activating their Apple ID in the iTunes U Course Manager. Previously, an instructor had to have their Apple ID activated by a school or college and be associated with that school’s iTunes U account in order to create courses. For a seemingly small change, this carries huge potential for increasing the availability and usage of the iTunes U platform, which I’m sure was Apple’s intention.

What Apple has done is to move the control over registration from the institutional level into the hands of the individual. I suspect one of the major frustrations Apple heard about iTunes U was that a school had to have an institutional iTunes U account in order for faculty to sign up and create courses. Now that anybody with an Apple ID can register, this removes that barrier. I would think that, at any time, an instructor could also have their institution associate their Apple ID with their school, but this is no longer a bottleneck (or gatekeeper) in the process. And it certainly was a bottleneck for me.

A couple weeks ago, I decided I wanted to use iTunes U as another way to package my course materials for the fall semester, so I searched through my email archives to find the login details sent last semester by our Info Services staff. These credentials opened iTunes and took me to the private OWU page, but didn’t seem to give any obvious way to create or manage a course. After digging through the help site for a while, I realized that I needed access to the iTunes U Course Manager, which was a web-based site, not one within the iTunes store. I contacted our Info Services director, and he followed up with Apple about how to add faculty users to our account. We’re still waiting to hear back from them.

Meanwhile, yesterday’s change means I no longer need to wait to hear back from them to start creating a course in iTunes U. Their reply matters only if I want to become what Apple calls an *affiliated instructor*. This allows my institution to add my courses to the school’s iTunes U page and grants me unlimited storage rather than the “limited” 20 GB of an unaffiliated user. Unless you’re planning to include video lectures (I’m not), I can’t imagine bumping up against such a generous limit.

Not only does this change lower or remove the institutional barrier to entry for instructors, it grants creative access to literally everyone with an Apple ID. I suspect this will expand the range of uses of iTunes U dramatically. For instance, a homeschooling consortium could create and share courses among its members easily. Small businesses could create courses that train new employees. Salesmen could package their brochures and background materials on products for their clients. These are all examples of creators that were previously excluded from creating materials due to their lack of affiliation with an institution who can now, with a few clicks, publish on this platform. All with a tiny change in account registration policy.

Problems with the monolithic LMS

The LMS Product – limitations and alternative « The Weblog of (a) David Jones:

Another characteristic of an integrated system is that the quality of the tools available is limited to those provided by a single vendor or community.

I resonate with many of the points he brings up about the weaknesses of a monolithic LMS, and the discussion on the post is also top-notch, highlighting the requisition process and its influence on the vendors’ offerings.

When I really stop to think about it, all we (as faculty) would need is a more federated identity system, so that we could choose the tool we wanted and our students wouldn’t have to create a new account to manage on whatever platform we selected. The only real down side to my using Canvas last spring was this need to register and create an account. The students told me they didn’t mind doing that at all, but it still feels a bit out-of-bounds to have their identity managed by a non-institutional entity. I’d guess there are FERPA rules against it that I’ve probably violated, but oh well.

An experiment with Pearson’s OpenClass ends badly

I’ve written several times before about my LMS anxiety disorder, and this summer it lead me to experiment with yet another LMS, OpenClass. This one is built by the textbook publishing house Pearson, and has some integration with Google Apps. OWU is a Google Apps for Education campus, so I thought this would make certain aspects more familiar to the students.

I really only rely on the LMS for two things: a private gradebook and the ability to accept electronic assignments. I created a new course shell in OpenClass and used their form-based tool to create a syllabus. One nice thing about OpenClass is the (relative) simplicity of organizational tools. I didn’t struggle with the nagging sense of “Where should I put this thing” in it like I do with Blackboard. There doesn’t appear to be a way to create pages of content in OpenClass like there is in other LMS tools, there is just an ‘Announcement’ feature that posts short messages to the main page. Unfortunately, the character limit for these posts is too small to make it useful for anything other than to point someplace else. This is where the integration with Google Apps comes in – when you do need to share more than a few words, you just create a Google Doc and it can be shared automatically with the appropriate users by virtue of their enrollment in the course.

The issue of enrollment brings me to my first complaint about OpenClass, at least for my situation: I couldn’t add students to my course directly, but had to rely on our Technology folks to do it. I’m sure this issue would go away if OWU adopts OpenClass and we build the integrations necessary with our enrollment system, but it was still a pain to make sure my roster matched the OpenClass roster. Once students were enrolled in the class though, they could access everything already shared with the class.

Electronic submissions

One of the two key functions I need in an LMS is the ability to accept student work, grade it, and return comments. This is one area where Canvas really shines, and I was eager to see how OpenClass handled it. The short answer is, not well. Students experienced all kinds of problems submitting their work, mostly related to the lack of any feedback on their end about whether the submission worked. As a result, they emailed their files to me, too. I hate this so hard. But they were justified in doing it, because I didn’t end up with many duplicate submissions, which means OpenClass just failed silently for them.

For those students whose work was uploaded successfully to OpenClass, there were two more problems. There does not appear to be any way to view a Word doc in place, which means I had to download each file and open it in Word to read it. Canvas really spoiled me on this count – I could fly through student writing assignments right from my iPad because their built-in viewer was so good. The second huge problem is that the student submission is not connected to a grade entry form, only a form to comment and ‘return’ the work to the student. So I had to keep one tab open to download the assignment and another with the gradebook loaded to enter scores. This is a far cry from the ease of grading in Canvas, and not even up to par with Blackboard.


The other key function I need in an LMS is the gradebook, and OpenClass disappointed me here, too. One minor complaint is that assignments don’t seem to have a way to show an average score. Another more significant weakness is that grade entry does not have a spreadsheet-like mode where I can arrow through the column to a student’s entry for an assignment. When you click on an entry for a student, a modal dialog window opens and floats over the page. After entering a score, you have to use the mouse to click OK, as pressing Return won’t do it. This gets old for data entry really fast. But not nearly as fast as losing all the quiz scores from your gradebook.

Wait, what?

That’s right, lost scores. I entered scores for quizzes one day, came back the next day to score some writing submissions, and the quiz scores were missing for all but 3 students. Obviously this is a whole different category of bad. I would’ve thought that some software engineer somewhere had the job of ensuring that, even if everything else fails, save the gradebook data. Guess not. So it was at this point that I jumped ship and moved everything into Blackboard for the rest of the term. And sheepishly requested that my students return their most recent quiz to me for grade re-entry.

Final thoughts

OpenClass is certainly garnering lots of attention in ed tech circles (it says ‘open’ right in the name, so it must be good, right?), so I was excited to try it. For obvious reasons, I found it less than acceptable. Even without the loss of data though, I wasn’t all that impressed and probably wouldn’t recommend it to a colleague unless they already made heavy use of Google Docs, with which it stands out. I’m still optimistic about progress in LMS development thanks to the growing competition, and that’s a great thing for everyone.

Canvas is a Delightful Departure

As I’ve shared previously, I’m restless with the technology I use for teaching, especially the LMS. Rather than only complain about it, I choose to experiment with other tools in the hope that I’ll find a better fit for my style. This term I’m experimenting with Canvas, the latest darling of the educational tech scene, and I’ve found its excellent reputation to be mostly well-deserved.

For starters, the fact that I can use it to host an actual class is the result of the fact that Canvas is a cloud-based LMS that is free for individual faculty members. The only practical limitations that I’ve found include a cap on the storage space per class and the need to upload my own roster and ask students to create accounts. Neither of these have been big points of pain for me, but if you need to host many large presentation files you may run out of storage space or have to rotate files off throughout the semester.

In the big picture, these are low costs to pay for the chance to use an LMS with an elegant user interface and straightforward usability features. If you are of the opinion that “design” is just how something looks, I challenge you to compare Canvas to the other big LMS out there. You will conclude that design is how something works, it’s made that well.

That said, there are still unintuitive aspects to its design. For example, my class just completed peer reviews of a writing assignment. These reviews were a cinch to assign, and I assumed the students would see their assignment in their ‘Recent Activity’ stream. But to get their assignment, they had to go to the assignment page and look for it, something that never occurred to any of them. Thirteen email replies later and lots of links to the help section, the problem was solved, but still, it might be nice if they could add this to the activity stream.

I still don’t want to rely on an LMS completely, at least in part for philosophical reasons, I’ll admit. But Canvas has been great for what I’ve used it to do, and it’s made it dead simple to do paperless grading (their Speedgrader iPad app is excellent). I don’t feel like I have to feed it my whole course, to fill in all the spaces with content. It works for what I want it to do, and stays out of my face for the rest. That’s pretty good, I’d say.

The Open Web and the LMS

Before the start of almost every semester, I find myself taking inventory of the various tools I use to do my job and asking whether there’s something better. I feel a bit like a contractor preparing his truck for a job — I want to make sure I have everything I need, because I don’t want to waste time focusing on the wrong things once I get to the job site. How should I provide updates and information to my students? Where should I post notes, outlines, slides, assignments? Should these things be on the open web, or tucked safely behind a learning management system (LMS)? Do students want to take quizzes and submit assignments online? Should I have them email those to me, should I do that within a LMS, or should I use something offered by the textbook publisher?

For most of these questions, one answer is to use Blackboard. It does most, if not all, of the tasks listed above, integrates with our campus registration system (unless you happen to teach cross-listed courses, but I digress), works reasonably well, is familiar to the students, and the university is already paying for it. Why wouldn’t I use it? When colleagues ask that question, my reply usually includes something about how difficult I find it to do the various tasks I want to do, how many clicks it takes to do something. For instance, how do I decide where to put the stuff so that students will find it? Is this an assignment, or content, or a file, or an announcement, or what? But it’s beginning to dawn on me that my hesitation to use a LMS goes deeper than usability — my own or that of my students.

Building with borrowed tools

To return to the contractor analogy, using an LMS feels a lot like building with someone else’s tools. Sure, it’s probably going to do the job, but things just don’t quite feel the same as using your own. In addition to the issue of feel, there is a sense when I’m using a LMS that everything I post has to fit in one of the categories defined by the system. The answer to this problem in particular seems to be for the software designers to create a whole lot of nooks and crannies to file things in hopes that at least something will seem like the right place for the instructor to add that content. This always leaves the users (both instructor and student) in want, though, because it feels like the order is backward: the information shouldn’t be organized in service of a system, but rather the system should support the information by getting out of the way. I always feel like I’m fighting against the system when I add information and try to make it discoverable and linked where appropriate. I suppose the other approach, which many professors apparently follow, is to dump absolutely everything into a single bucket and let the students hash out the germs of value from the chaff. (This happens all the time, from what I hear.)

Building on someone else’s land

If my problem were just a matter of borrowing tools, I might be able to get over it, but it’s not. In January, as I prepared for another semester and spent several hours setting up my courses in a LMS, it became clear to me that I’m not just borrowing tools, I’m also building my course on land that is not my own. In fact, if I’m really using the capabilities of the system, I’m spending hours and hours loading information into this system that is a shadow of the web, a sandboxed web, walled off from the real thing. If and when I stop using it, that information (and the time it took to produce it) is most likely lost. Maybe the system provides a way to download my course if I want to, but what useful thing could I do with it then? I’d have to write my own software to parse that file and make any sense of it, let alone to make use of it in some other system.

Redeeming Qualities

My feelings toward the LMS are not all negative, though. One of the best things about a closed LMS is just that — it is closed to the outside, allowing instructors to keep certain material off the public web. If I were to post all of my slides online for my students, I’d have to remove all the copyrighted figures I use from the textbook, which would be a big bummer. I don’t make the posting of slides a habit, but an LMS with authentication sidesteps this issue. Ideally, I would design my own figures and could share them as freely as I chose, but I haven’t done that yet. Another important use of a system with authentication is for posting grades, which students seem to expect. I know of no way around this other than to use some kind of closed system to keep this information confidential. A third feature of an LMS is handling work submitted by students. I have tried to collect student writing by email, and it sucks. A good LMS at least has the potential to make this suck less, and could actually save me time if designed well. For example, I just graded a short assignment in Instructure Canvas using their SpeedGrader feature, and I have to confess, it was slick. I’m looking forward to using it again later in the semester, and might even use the peer review feature rather than managing all that on my own.


So for now, I see a role for both the open web and a closed LMS occupying different parts of my toolkit for teaching. The trick for me is to keep as much as possible in my own web space, and use the LMS for things for which it is essential (copyrighted material, grades, student submissions). It’s schizophrenic, and some students don’t like having to look in more than one place. What I’m finding is that I tend to use the LMS for some classes, and the open web for other classes, and this minimizes student consternation over where to look for class materials. Making a goal of posting more on the open web has also motivated me to go back and create more of my own materials, too, which has been a great side-effect.

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