Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Little Boxes of the #Elemess

I've been working this summer on a demo course in our new Canvas space, using examples of live content so that I don't edit anything in Canvas; I use real tools on the real Internet — Twitter, Diigo, Pinterest, Flickr, etc. — and the content shows up automatically inside Canvas, as well as on the real Internet where I do my work and interact with people every day. You can see that course at

But here's the thing: it doesn't really feel like "my" course at all. Below I've listed some of the design frustrations I am feeling as an instructor not able to control the Canvas space to make it feel like my own... and just imagine what it's like for the students: they are even more straitjacketed than the instructors in terms of being able to have any sense of ownership or agency when it comes to the design of the learning space.

I cannot control the screen real estate. I only get to make my own choices in a small part of the screen space ... in a 1200x800 browser window (my usual size), 800x600 is my space: just half of the screen. Worse, it's the bottom right of the screen, so that when people scan top to down and left to right, they see the useless space that I do not control first, and only get to "my" part of the page later. Here's my little box:

As you can see, I also have to give up 1/6 of that for a navigation bar that I build manually since Canvas offers no support for content navigation in the wiki. My users can attempt to regain some space by clicking the next-to-the-left browser bar closed, but I cannot count on them doing that... and why would they? It's so annoying: you have to do that for every single page, clicking to close the bar on page after page after page. You cannot pin it closed/open. My guess is that most students just leave it open rather than clicking ... and clicking... and clicking... to close it every time they navigate to a new page.

And that's assuming, of course, that I can get students to completely skip the homepage; on that so-called homepage, less than 40% of the space is mine. It's a very little box indeed:

My attempt at a playground is surrounded by concrete, and there seems to be nothing I can do about it. With my URL (that a redirect URL I created in my own webspace), I can at least bypass the homepage and go straight to a course page (that awful right-hand navigation only shows up on the homepage, thank goodness), but this sad-looking homepage is where my students are going to show up, finding very little of "me" there to greet them.

I cannot be fully open to the Internet. Yes, I can make the course outward-facing, fully open for anyone to view without a log-in of any kind, and that's great. But for some bizarre reason, I cannot just create navigation links that go directly to the Internet: yes, I can add new links to the left navigation (although it's tedious: I have to install a new "tool" for every single external link and likewise for every course tool I want to rename), but if that link goes to the real Internet, students must go through an additional warning click to get out. What's up with that? Does Canvas not trust me to share a link with the students that leads them to the outside Internet? Even after you click on the "Mindset Cats" link, for example, you then have to click again in order to actually get out of the Canvas box:

If a person already clicked on the Mindset Cats link, they have already made the choice to visit the URL: so open the damn link... now. You don't have to ask again. And you especially don't have to ask over and over and over again and again every time the same person clicks on that link.

I guess I should consider myself lucky that an emergency alarm does not go off when they venture outside the Canvas space...

So, I've found ways to cope with the https requirements for live content I am displaying inside Canvas (I got my Pinterest Board widgets to work, along with other fun javascripts), but I cannot find a way to stop Canvas from insisting that students be "protected" from the links (even https links) that I myself have added to the class navigation bar. 

Finally, I cannot control the overall look and feel. Don't get me wrong: I'm not a web designer, not at all. I just use themes and templates to configure my web spaces, but I do use themes and templates enthusiastically: how things look really does make a difference to me! Plus, I know it is not just me: as soon as my students start their class blogs, they start designing them to match their own interests and personalities — choosing different fonts, layouts, background images, widgets. It's wonderful! Even better: they learn from one another as the do that, seeing something that they like at another person's blog, and then figuring out how to do that same thing or something like it at their own blog.

But in Canvas (and in every other LMS I have used), there is no such process going on: everything looks the same. And the system is designed to make everything look the same: it's not a bug... it's a feature. I've tried to add a some kind of distinctive image to my "little box" on the dashboard, but all I can do (apparently?) is pick the color. There's a purple one, and a green one... sing along!

Digital diversity. I know people will advance the argument that students want or need things to all look the "same" ... but I don't think that makes sense. Aren't we supposed to be encouraging students to LEARN NEW THINGS...? To develop new digital skills? To appreciate the variety and diversity of the Internet as a space for sharing and interaction? Along with human variety and diversity too (not an unrelated problem, but that's a topic for a separate post...). It's a sad commentary indeed when students can find more variety going from one university food service location to another than they will find as they go from class to class in the LMS.

I've been teaching fully online classes since 2002, using very distinctive and unusual web spaces built with a wide variety of tools, and students have never said that that they wished I used the LMS instead. Sure, they have suggestions for how I could do a better job of building the class space (and thanks to their suggestions, the class space gets better and better every year), but not once, ever, has any student ever said in a course evaluation that they would have preferred the standard LMS instead of the shifting configuration of blogs and wikis and social networking spaces that make up my class.

Of course, no post is complete without a cat! And even though I am now using this #elemess hashtag just for fun (thanks to George Station), my point here is a serious one — really! Just take a minute to read the article that inspired this particular cat: How to Spark Curiosity in Children Through Embracing Uncertainty by Linda Flanagan.

So, I say: bring on the mess in the LMS! Or, even better, go wild with OUCreate (our Domain of One's Own installation) where the spaces that OU faculty and staff and students can create for themselves will look wonderfully different from one another. I just hope that faculty will spend as little time investing in Canvas as possible... and as much time as they can spare in exploring the possibilities that OUCreate (and other online playgrounds) can offer, while encouraging their students to do the same.


  1. OH what fun, Laura! Rise up out of the #elemess and enjoy the digital playground. Inspiring words for all faculty! Your frustrations with constraints and boundaries that are arbitrary and limiting for our students and their learning are very evident in this writing. Your passion for open, creative, and serendipitous learning is 'writ large' and your humour shines through.

    Loved the video support - now I have to get 'little boxes' out of my head!

    1. Hi Helen! As I mess (!) with Canvas, that makes me think of HumanMOOC of course. It makes me realize that there was not a lot that could be done in Canvas after all to make it more human: at the time, I had thought they had stripped it down for research purposes to heighten the difference between the two different ways to doing the class. I hadn't realized that this is just the way Canvas is: designed on purpose to keep things from getting messy, even if you want to let in some mess. But luckily there is the whole rest of the Internet in which to let more spontaneous learning happen! :-)


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