Category Archives: Technology

Problem solved!

Don’t worry…I promise I’m not gonna turn into tech-tip guy. I’ll get back to the business of teaching and learning mathematics quite soon.

But I have solved a problem.

Be forewarned…if you don’t also have this problem, then your response will be Cry me a river.

And it’s a rich-guy problem. Not rich in the 1%/99% sense, but rich in the developed world/developing world sense.

What I’m saying is that I know teachers in the Peace Corps don’t have this problem.

OK. Here’s the scenario:

You’re a teacher. You use a computer in instruction. But the computer you use when you teach is not necessarily the computer you use when you plan. How do you make sure the files you need are where you need them, and that they’re the right versions?

Me? I have an institution-issued iMac in my office. But I use my personal laptop in the classroom, and that laptop travels with me. If I’m in my office, I’m usually on the iMac because it has the bigger keyboard and screen and an actual mouse, etc.

So planning and other current work files need to be accessible on both devices. Here are my previous solutions…each has its own limitations:

THe “I:” Drive

At my institution, each faculty member has a large partition on a server. It’s accessible through a shortcut on the desktop, and through a complicated series of links and logins over wifi and the Internet.

It’s cumbersome to log on to, and it’s only as good as my Internet connection. If WiFi is wonky, I can’t use my files while I’m teaching. Remote file storage is no good when you need instant, responsive access. It’s a good backup, though.

Flash drive

I love my SanDisk Titanium Crüzer. (Umlaut is mine, but don’t you agree it belongs?) It’s shiny and metallic and it slowly pulses a lovely blue light. It’s fast and responsive.

And when I leave it behind I’m screwed.

Oh and it doesn’t back itself up.

enter dropbox

David Pogue is the man. I knew vaguely of Dropbox, but hadn’t looked into it. He wrote about it recently and I saw a solution to my problem.

Here’s the brilliant thing about Dropbox: Your files live on both computers and they sync automatically in the background while you work on other stuff.

Let me repeat this.


So as I plan on the iMac, my files are modified on the laptop (assuming I’m connected to WiFi, which I normally am). When I pack up the laptop for class, the modified files come with me. If WiFi is wonky in the classroom, no problemo. They are on the laptop.

I cannot overemphasize this point. The files are not just in the godforsaken cloud. They are on my hard drive. Both hard drives. As long as I have had WiFi access recently, I’m good. I don’t need WiFi access while I’m using the files.

No log on. No links. No syncing. No physical object to leave behind.

2 gigs of Dropbox is free.

And frankly, if you need more than 2 gigs for your teaching you either teach film or you need a better way to organize your files.

Canvas v. D2L, round 2 (Grades)

I never used to post grades on D2L. It drove my students nuts. That’s really all they expected out of an LMS (well, that and being able to find out what they missed in class, or maybe when the next assignment was due). So they found it frustrating that I didn’t use D2L for grades.

But the gradebook in D2L is cumbersome. There is a grading system and a grading scheme (see image below). Those mean different things, but I have no idea what that difference is.

Oh right. There are grade values, grade item values and grade calculations (both adjusted and not).

So one semester, my solution was that I would upload my grade book from my laptop to D2L once a week. I could avoid using the bad grade book on D2L and my students could have their grades online. Win/win, right?

Nope. The import/export features are fussy. Things have to be in just the right format or they won’t import. And D2L won’t tell you that the information didn’t import. It just omits information it finds problematic and tells you it is done with the import.

And integrating Assignments (which, recall, do not exist in D2L) with the grade book? Huge hassle. Lots of non-intuitive clicks.

So I was not at all convinced that Canvas was going to be better on this front. I figured I would use Canvas for discussions, assignments, etc. But not for grades.

And then I decided that I really should give it a shot. Because otherwise, I’ll never know. I shouldn’t assume that Canvas grade books will be as frustrating as D2L.

And you know what? It’s working out great. As so many other things in Canvas, the grade book is integrated throughout. There is a checkbox on the page where you create an assignment. Check that box and it’s entered into the grade book. Don’t check it and it’s not. Rubrics? If you want to use one, hit the “add rubric” button. It’s all there and it all works together.

Here’s what it looks like in action:

So those are the pros, you say; but what are the cons?

I’ve only found two so far. They are so minor as to be laughable (but both are totally fixable by the good folks at Canvas; I’m sure they have bigger fish to fry than these, but they shouldn’t be hard).

(1) When you create a rubric, you start with two categories for each criterion (e.g. 0 and 1). To create more categories (e.g. 0 to 4), there is an awkward column-splitting interface. It would be nice if you could just type in the number of categories you wanted.

(2) There are no fractional points. My courses always used to be 100 points total for simplicity. That required using decimal numbers of points. My workaround is simple; I multiplied everything by 10. So now there’s 1000 points in the semester and I no longer have decimals.

Like I said, these are really, really minor in comparison to my complaints about D2L’s grade book.

Round 2 goes to Canvas too.

Canvas v D2L round 1: Assignments

This is the first in a series of brief posts documenting my semester-long experiment with a new Instructional Management System (IMS). This IMS is called Canvas. It’s from Instructure. I wrote about it last spring. Individual instructors can use it for free.

D2L (or Desire 2 Learn) is the adopted IMS in our state college and university system. I have hated it for years and have complained loudly to faculty and students about its bad design.

I learned of Canvas and decided I could either complain for another year or do something about it. I am doing something about it.

First, the caveats…

When you go outside of the adopted IMS, please note that you’re on your own w/r/t FERPA. I have alerted my students that if I use Canvas to post their grades, their data will be stored outside of the institution, and that if they are uncomfortable with that, they should let me know and I will not use that feature of Canvas. (In previous semesters, I have not posted grades in D2L, so technically it’s a wash for them.) No student has indicated this to me so far.

Caveats out of the way, it’s time for round 1.

Round 1: Assignments

From a design and usability perspective, let’s think about how students use an IMS. They go there, I imagine, with one of two questions 85% of the time. The most common one (sadly) is probably What is my grade? More on that in a later round. The second most common has got to be What is due next week?

D2L has no Assignments area.

I’ll say that again. D2L has no Assignments area.

There is no choice that answers the question, What is due next week?

Can you read those choices? If you want to know what is due, what do you choose? It turns out you need to choose Content.

When you do, you get a screen that looks like this:

See those due dates, for example the one for Homework 2.1, about halfway down the image?

I typed those due dates into the titles of the links. There is no system for keeping track of due dates in D2L.

Now let’s look at Canvas. Remember that you are a student and you want to know what’s due next week. You see this menu:

You click Assignments. You see this:

See those due dates? They are part of the structure of Canvas. Assignments have a special place, and they have due dates (or not, depending on what the instructor wants to do).

But this isn’t really the best organization of things. You don’t want to have to pan through all of the categories of assignments to find the one thing that is due this week. No you would rather see things laid out in calendar format. Well, my friend, you’re in luck:

Round 1 goes to Canvas for sure.

FYI: Update to TinkerPlots

Tinkerplots is a really creative piece of software for middle school data analysis. Tinkerplots 2 has just been released.

Watch the introductory video on the Key Curriculum Press website for full details.

The Tinkerplots developers are really, really smart about designing ways to get kids interacting with data much as they interact with square tiles when studying area. I wish they were 20% more clever about user interface design, but it’s a relatively minor quibble and they are saddled by certain features of Fathom, a more sophisticated educational data analysis software package upon which Tinkerplots depends.

For the record, I have no financial interest of any kind in this product. Its functionality is incorporated into several Connected Mathematics units and I do work for CMP, but on a salaried basis unrelated to sales or the publisher.

Meet my new online lover

I have complained about D2L-my college’s online course management system-before. It is based on a mid-90′s file-centric paradigm that has become clunky and awkward in the age of Facebook.

But I recently came across a new system-Canvas. I spent an hour messing around with it yesterday and it seems to do everything I have wanted from D2L, including:

  1. Integration of its various areas. If I start a discussion, that discussion becomes part of the course’s homepage. If I post a new document for students to read, it becomes part of the course’s homepage. Etc.
  2. It has an Assignments section. (Can you believe that D2L has no Assignments section? Really?)

    Canvas's sections

    D2L's sections

  3. Students can choose to integrate each course into the rest of their online world however they like. If they want to receive a tweet each time a new document gets put up, they can. If they want a daily summary email of everything that happened in the course, they can have that. Facebook, texts, any way a student wants to be notified (even if not at all)-they can have it.

    Canvas plays nicely with all of these.

And can we talk about graphic design?

My College Algebra homepage on D2L

A homepage for a sample class in Canvas.

Individual instructors can establish their own free Canvas accounts for use in their courses.

I am signed up for the fall. I’ll report back on how I’m getting along with my new lover.