Category Archives: Technology

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.

Can you calculate your grades by hand?

In college, students and teachers have differing expectations of technology. Teachers typically expect one of two things from online technology:

  1. Increased content consumption by the student, and/or
  2. Decreased grading workload for the teacher.

Students typically expect one of two things also:

  1. Increased access to their teachers, and/or
  2. Increased access to updates on their grades.

There are outliers in both groups, of course. I make a gross generalization in order to make a point-there has been great attention to and investment in educational technology in recent years, but teachers and students are not in agreement on what purposes that technology should serve.

I have written recently about Sophia, an online social learning platform, that relates to the first expectation of teachers and students above.

But on my mind right now is students’ access to updates on their grades.

Every college subscribes to one or another Instructional Management System. Ours is Desire2Learn and it is a mess. (I have complained about it in writing before, and on the radio.)

So I do not post grades on D2L. My students are critical of this and I have wondered why.

I contend that their discontent goes deeper than their expectation of being hyperconnected and instantaneously updated.

I contend that teachers have used electronic gradebooks to make their grading schemes too complex for students to understand. I contend that students don’t expect to be able to figure out their own grades, so they look to D2L to figure those grades for them rather than looking at their scores on work that has been returned to them.

Consider an example.

My first semester at my current institution, I had a student whom I will call Aaron in my Math Center course. The Math Center is where we teach our developmental math courses. It is a carefully constructed machine in which each individual teacher has a narrowly defined role to play, and where there is little autonomy. In particular, the grading scheme is standardized across all sections: 60% tests, 20% final exam and 20% participation points.

Aaron was shooting for an A in the course. He had scored an 89 on the first test, a 65 on the second and he wanted to know what average he needed in order to get the A that was his goal. Our conversation began something like this…

Well, you are averaging 77% on the first two tests. There are five tests for 60% of the grade, so you have 77% of the 24% of the grade determined by these two tests. Let’s assume you get all of the participation points, so you have 100% of that 20% of the grade. So we need to figure out what percent you need of the remaining 36% of the grade that comes from the tests, and what percent you need of the 20% that is the final in order to get 90% or better in the course.

Even I was confused.

So we thought about it algebraically. If we let x be the average on the remaining tests and final exam, then we need to solve the following inequality:


But in order to solve this inequality, Aaron would already have to have passed the course in which he was enrolled.

In the courses I teach outside the math center, I take a different approach. The semester has 100 points. The weighting is built into the point values of each graded item. So if I want exams to be worth 60% of the grade, then I have 60 points to distribute across however many exams I am giving. At any moment in the semester, a student can simply add the points they have gotten, the total points, divide one by the other and consider the quotient as a percent.

I can figure these grades quite easily without my computer and I can answer a question like Aaron’s quickly and easily.

Can you say the same for your grading scheme?

If not, can you defend the complexity of your scheme? Does it serve to motivate, inspire or inform? Or does it serve to obfuscate and to place a barrier between performance and evaluation?

Computerized gradebooks allow us to create complex grading schemes. But that doesn’t mean we should.

Math 2.0: cont.

Having argued that Dan Meyer is using technology in ways that are novel in American mathematics classrooms, I want to turn to the problems he is using technology to solve (I refer to problems of teaching, not math problems).

This is the area in which Meyer is most explicit about his work. He gave an online seminar (and while we’re on the topic, can we please agree never to use the term webinar again?) recently in which he described the genesis of the escalator problem. Some of my observations will surely match his.

In the Connected Mathematics Project (CMP), which I have worked with for quite some time, we talk with teachers about a teaching model-Launch, Explore, Summarize. CMP is based on problems which form the basis of most daily lessons. Teachers engage students with the context and the mathematical challenge in the Launch, give them time to work on the problem in the Explore phase and then uses students’ ideas and solution methods to Summarize and help students to meet the lesson’s goals.

Meyer is working hard on engaging students in mathematics lessons. He is developing excellent launches.

When I work with CMP teachers, I emphasize two key aspects of launching problems. (1) Students need to understand the context, and (2) Students need to understand what the mathematical challenge is within that context.

Not every student is going to have experience with even the best chosen contexts. That’s OK, but it means teachers need to pay attention to setting contexts up for students, and in helping students to pay attention to important features of the context.

You don’t need to live on the coast to solve a problem involving the ocean, but the teacher has a responsibility to bring important aspects of the ocean to the students’ attention.

But it’s not enough to get students engaged with the context, teachers also need to make sure students understand the mathematical task embedded in the context. Everyone needs to agree what the question is.

Setting up both of these in a finite amount of time is challenging, and Meyer is upping the ante.

The opening shot in the escalator video (below) establishes the context instantly-escalators at the mall. Is there a teen in America for whom this is not a meaningful context? Love it or hate it; having few or many opportunities to visit it, the mall is part of teen culture.

Opening shot of the video-Dan Meyer in the mutliplex.

The opening shot: a scene familiar to high school students in this country.

The next 20 seconds suggest the mathematics embedded in this context. We are going to be looking at rates-how fast Meyer (and by extension the students) can go up and down the stairs and escalators.

And here, in my opinion, is the one weakness in the Launch (and it’s a minor one). The video ends with Meyer getting to the top/bottom of the stairs. I want the video to hammer home the implicit question, How long does it take to go up the down escalator? I want him to turn from the bottom of the stairs, go to the bottom of the down escalator and begin to take his first step, then have the video freeze.

But that’s a mere quibble with a masterfully designed launch. So let’s dig a bit deeper.

If teachers want to engage students, they need to know the target audience. Meyer is a high school teacher and he knows his students well. Consider the following elements of the escalator video:

  1. He smiles slightly and slyly at the camera in the opening close up. Dig this, he seems to be saying to the viewer. While most high school students won’t know who this guy is, he is no longer some random guy; he is a sympathetic accomplice.
  2. He puts in his earbuds. Adults may not notice this as significant, but high school students will pick up on it right away. It builds their identification with the context.
  3. The question. I cannot say enough about the question. How long to go up the down escalator? is brilliant. It’s just transgressive enough to be interesting to high schoolers, and nowhere near the border of inappropriate for school-endorsed investigation. Compare to the original-What is the speed of the canoe in still water?-and it’s no contest.

So Meyer has some novel uses of technology, including to launch problems in high school classrooms. For him, the problems of teaching include, (1) How to engage high school students with meaningful problem situations, and (2) How to focus their work on a common question.

But to what end? What happens once the video is finished? Next post.

Math 2.0: What I’ve learned so far

If you are reading this, the odds are very good that you have seen the Dan Meyer escalator video. If not, watch it before reading further.

I met Meyer recently and was quickly impressed by his work. I have spent the last couple of weeks digging deeper and thinking about what I and others can learn from it. Rather than presume to offer such sweeping assessments, I will offer some more modest observations by picking apart a single example from his catalog over the next few posts.


If you have ever been introduced to a new band and fallen in love with their music, then discovered that this is their fourth or fifth album, you know the delight I felt in getting started with Meyer’s blog. His TED talk was compelling. But he has years worth of this stuff in his back catalog and he’s producing more on a regular basis.

I was blown away by the escalator video. The novel use of multimedia, Meyer’s engaging presence, the mathematics suggested by the video, the delightful context and the detailed curriculum design; each contributes to a novel and impressive whole.

I’ll begin with technology.


Many, many dollars are being poured into technology in American K-12 classrooms. I question a lot of this spending.

I am particularly worried that we tend to be uncritical of classroom media. The TIMSS videos from the mid-1990’s provide a useful example. In a recent professional development session in which we watched excerpts of the American and Japanese geometry videos, a participant suggested that the chalkboard was being used as the teacher’s worksheet in the American classroom.

In The Teaching Gap, Stigler and Hiebert observed that overhead projectors were commonplace in American classrooms in the TIMSS video study and entirely absent from Japanese classrooms. They offered the justification that American teachers use classroom media to control student attention, while Japanese teachers use classroom media to record the flow of ideas over the course of a lesson. Overhead projectors are good for controlling student attention-they create a bright image that draws the eye. And they are poor at recording ideas over time-they have a limited display space and resolution so the teacher needs to frequently change slides. Therefore, American teachers find them to be useful tools, while Japanese teachers would find them completely impractical.

And consider the more modern example of a SmartBoard. My experience in classrooms is that these tend to be installed in such a way that they cover and therefore replace the pre-existing chalkboards-an uncritical replacement of the old technology (chalkboard or whiteboard) with the new.

Example of a Smart Board installed over existing whiteboard

A typical Smart Board installation; the white board is rendered useless.

What is more, SmartBoards tend not to be used to add substantially to the mathematics or the meaningful engagement in classrooms. In a typical video demonstration of Smart Boards in action, students tap the board to roll virtual dice and to write and keep track of the resulting sums. While the TIMSS video demonstrated the chalkboard as an American teacher’s worksheet, this video demonstrates the Smart Board as the class’s worksheet.

But it’s still a worksheet.

Meyer’s work breaks the mold. The escalator video is not at all interactive in the sense of the Smart Board. No way is Meyer inviting students to come to the front of the room to run his computer during this lesson.

Instead, he is using technology to issue a much more meaningful invitation to his students. He is inviting them to interact with mathematical ideas.

Everything about this video is inviting. Meyer’s intimate look into the camera at the beginning, the familiar world in which it is situated, the beautiful symmetry of the composed shot.

The standard American rhetoric on uses of technology in education revolves around having students operate the technology-bringing them to the Smart Board, having them design and deliver PowerPoint presentations, getting them to use graphing calculators to make graphs, etc.

Meyer thinks differently about educational technology. He wants to use multimedia to break down barriers between students and word problems. He wants technology to bring students’ lived experiences to bear on their mathematical inquiry. And he’s damn good at it.