March 24, 2019

The Paradox of Canvas's "Big Data" and Lack of Search

If you haven't read Phil Hill's piece about Instructure's new pursuit of machine learning, start there:
Instructure: Plans to expand beyond Canvas LMS into machine learning and AI

In particular, note Goldsmith's claim about the Instructure database: he says it is "the most comprehensive SaaS database on the educational experience." I'll set aside for now the very depressing view of "educational experience" which Goldsmith is promoting here (but more on that later), and I'll also set aside the claim about "most comprehensive" except to note that it sounds scarily similar to the boasting of Jose Ferreira, Knewton’s founder and former CEO: “We literally know everything about what you know and how you learn best, everything” (more at Marketplace).

What I want to emphasize here is the stark contrast between what Instructure is doing with data for its own purposes and the data it denies to teachers and students who are trying to use Canvas LMS: specifically, the fact that you cannot search the content of a Canvas course.

That's weird, right? 

It's very weird. Read on to find out more.

Seek and Ye Shall Not Find: No Search in Canvas

One of the biggest advantages of digital content is that it is searchable. So, you would think that if teachers go to the trouble of using Canvas tools to create content, then they would be able to search the content they create, and the students would also be able to search the content.

But... you cannot search your content in Canvas. You can create Pages, sure, and you can use the "rich content editor" in order to do that. But you cannot search that content, and your students cannot search the content either. 

Here's what the Pages look like to a student. No search box. No searching.

Here's what the Pages look like to the teacher: again, no search box. Add a new Page? Yes. Edit? Yes. Delete? Yes. Duplicate? Yes. But... Search? Nope. Thou shalt not search.

You have to remember everything yourself. Memorize. With your own brain. Because the Canvas database, big though it may be, is not going to help you here.

Given all the other problems with Canvas Pages (no folders, broken links if you try to rename a page, etc. etc.), I cannot imagine why anyone would actually choose to use Pages to develop content, and I feel really badly for all the teachers who, because of school policies, are required to use Pages for their content.

Back when Canvas was just a scrappy LMS built on a shoestring budget, sure, I guess it sort of maybe kind of made sense that they skipped the search feature of the Pages area. Although even that is still very strange IMO. 

But Instructure's CEO is now making claims about how big their database is and all the data mining they are going to do... while teachers and students still cannot even search their own course content.

Project Khaki Did Not Deliver

This problem was supposed to be fixed after the Project Khaki back in 2017 when search was one of the features voted up and supposedly a priority for engineering resources. (Disclosure: I participated in Project Khaki that year.)

But that Project Khaki commitment led nowhere. The engineers scoped the project as "global search," and then they decided that they did not have the resources available to implement global search. Did they rescope the project? Like maybe the ability to search course content in Canvas Pages? Nope. They did not rescope the search project. It's just... deferred. And is there any timeline about the availability of search coming soon? So far as I know, there is no such timeline. Which means it is now the year 2019, and neither teachers nor students can search their own Canvas Pages to find something they are looking for.

Of course, if you can pay...

Given that search is a real need, perhaps it is not surprising that, yes, there is a third-party vendor, Atomic Jolt, that is willing to provide a Canvas search feature for you. Just look at all the happy Atomic searchers: laughing and smiling. Atomic Search users can search for content, they can save time... except they have to pay more money to do that. 

The existence of this paid service does prove one thing: schools really want to have a search option. So much so that they are willing to pony up additional money to pay another company simply in order to be able to search their course content and allow their students to do the same. (My school does not pay for this service.)

The Google Work-Around

The irony is that you can use a Google work-around: just open up your Canvas course — and, yes, this is my favorite thing about Canvas: you really can open up your course with real URLs, linkable and searchable. Once you do that, Google will be glad to index your content and return results via Google search. So, because I keep all my Canvas spaces fully open, I can use Google as my search engine even if Canvas will not let me search. 

Each course has its own distinctive subdirectory, so I just need to add to search my Widget Warehouse course site for any term. For example, if I am looking for cats, I can search like this:

You can also do this across a school. So, for example, adding the search delimiter to a Google search will search all the open course content at my school. The problem is that very few instructors (how many? I don't know) choose to open up their courses. All the cat results you get this way are still my cats, except that now these are results for all the cats in my Canvas Pages across all my OU Canvas course spaces:

Yes, Google is also extracting its own value from this search to build its advertising empire, but at least it is also returning some value back to me in the ability to perform my own searches.

Instructure, meanwhile, is extracting value from our course content as part of its machine-learning pipe dream, but they are not even letting us perform our own searches of that data.

Plus, Instructure is also missing out on one of the best possible data sources as a result: if they did let us search, they could learn a lot and share what they learn back with us. But instead of letting students navigate-by-search, it is all just click-click-click following the pathways predefined by the instructor: click here, click here next, and so on.

LMS: Undermining Digital Literacy

One last point: I've argued before that the LMS is bad for digital literacy, and this lack of search is a perfect example. For students to become skilled users of digital tools, they need to use real tools, and the lack of search in Canvas shows how it fails as a real web tool. Search is one of the key components of digital literacy, but Canvas doesn't allow students to search, which further means that Canvas does not help students to learn how to search well.

So, while Instructure is busy mining our data supposedly in order to further our education, it is at the same time depriving us of one of the key educational tools that we need.

The year 2018 went by without a search feature in Canvas Pages.
I wonder where we will find ourselves at the end of 2019...?
I promise to update this post if/when news is available.

Meanwhile, you can learn lots more about web literacy, and about search in particular, at this nifty resource from the Mozilla Foundation: Web Literacy: Search

Plus there's a Latin LOLCat who knows all about the power of search... and, yes, I found this cat at my Latin LOLCats blog by using the search feature there. :-) 

Quaerendo invenietis.
By seeking you will find.

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