August 22, 2019

Canvas and the Botched Gradebook Labels: Why haven't they fixed this yet?

I'm taking a Zuboff break this week because I need to document my ongoing battle with Canvas Gradebook labels. The new semester has started, and as of midnight Tuesday, I've been fighting with Canvas to get control of my Gradebook. I think the Gradebook is my space, but Canvas insists on intruding. Yes, it's the labels. If you don't know what I mean, they look like this:

Yep, that would be red ink all over the Gradebook. Here's the story:

Unlike other LMSes I have used, Canvas does not respect the Gradebook space as belonging to teachers and students. Instead, Canvas thinks it knows better than teachers and students what's going on in a class. "MISSING" says the Gradebook in angry red letters (even when the assignment was optional), and "LATE" says the Gradebook (even when the student turned the work in before the deadline). By means of these labels, Canvas is sending negative and incorrect messages to my students.

So, if anyone is curious why it is that I have zero trust in Instructure's use of student data for machine-learning and AI, this is why: Canvas is intruding into the Gradebook with wrong messages for my students... and sending wrong messages to students about grades is just about the worst thing that can happen in a class. It's hard work to turn the Gradebook into a positive, rather than a negative space (my approach:, and Canvas then pulls the rug right out from under me. I tell the students they are in control... but Canvas then tells them the opposite: MISSING shouts Canvas (even when the work is not missing) and LATE shouts Canvas (even when the work is not late).  

Does Canvas have any positive messages to send my students? Nope. Nothing but red ink. MISSING. LATE. Over and over again. And I cannot stop it. 

It's like waking up in the morning to find that someone has thrown garbage on your front lawn.

Luckily, James Jones (the API and scripting guru of the Canvas Community) has written a script that will go pick up the garbage; you can see how he did that here: Removing Missing and Late Labels. Because Canvas built the Gradebook without any course-level control over the labels, the script checks every single assignment item for every single student, adjusting the label data item by item, student by student. Because I use a microassignments approach, that means the script has to check 18,450 records each time, and it does so quickly. Yay for James! Yay for scripts!

But here's the thing: James's script cannot stop the LATE labels from appearing; the LATE labels show up no matter what, and I cannot stop the students from seeing those labels. So I apologize to the students for the incorrect LATE labels and ask them to just ignore them; then I run the script once a week to clear them out.

Picking up the trash off our lawn.

The trash that Canvas put there.

It's not like Instructure doesn't know about this problem. When they first rolled out the red labels in the Beta version of the new Gradebook in September 2017, I documented the problem in great detail at the Canvas Community; that link goes to my blog posts tagged "red ink" and the first one is called "Gradebook Dismay," dated September 9, 2017. I was not the only one who was upset to find Canvas putting labels on my students, and Instructure rolled back that Beta feature from the Gradebook. I was sure they would fix it when we were all forced to go to the new Gradebook, which at my school happened in Spring 2019.

But I was wrong. 

When Spring 2019 began, there were the labels in the Gradebook, just like before. I contacted Canvas support and found out there was nothing I could do about it; I could not disable the labels at the Gradebook level. I could not disable the labels at the Assignment level. I could not change the wording of the labels or the color or alter the algorithm that assigned the labels. All I could do was click on the 18,450 items in my Gradebooks one by one.

So, as I said, James Jones came to my rescue and wrote a script.

But is that really a solution? My guess is that most Canvas users are not going to want to copy a script from GitHub, configure the variables manually in the script, and then run that script in the Javascript Console of their browser separately for each class. And to do that week after week. Yes, it's amazingly cool how it works, and I personally love to watch the network performance monitor go blip-blip-blip as it checks on thousands of records at lightning speed. But I'm a nerd, and you shouldn't have to be a nerd to stop Canvas from putting labels on your students. Especially when those labels are completely inaccurate.

And now, let's talk about why the labels are inaccurate, because that reveals a lot about how the people at Instructure view student learning: Instructure is applying an old-fashioned, deficit-driven approach to education, an approach that is exactly the opposite of what we need in the year 2019 IMO.

What is LATE? Before the new Gradebook, Canvas had a great approach to the late problem: they let you have a soft deadline and a hard deadline. This used to be one of my favorite features of Canvas. The soft deadline is what I tell my students to aim for; such-and-such is due on Tuesday (and I set the soft deadline to Tuesday midnight). But does it really matter if students are finishing up something at midnight as opposed to 2AM? No, that's silly. My students are not Cinderellas riding in pumpkin carriages; midnight is totally arbitrary. So I set up the soft deadline, and then I give everybody a 12-hour extension for every assignment, no questions asked; that is the hard deadline, and it is set for noon the next day (so, noon on Wednesday for an assignment due Tuesday). I call it the grace period. If students make the hard deadline, that is GREAT. That is the whole point; they got the assignment turned in my the deadline: yay! But Canvas does not think so: nope, Canvas thinks the work is late, putting that punitive red label on every assignment turned in during that grace period. I call it a no-questions-asked extension, but with those red LATE labels, Canvas undermines my message. Your teacher may tell you it's okay to use the grace period, but we at Canvas know better: a good student should not need the grace period, and you are not a good student; your work was LATE. I gave the students an extension on purpose, and I want them to use the extension if that helps them to get the work done. But Canvas doesn't care about what I want or what my students need. Canvas is just going to apply its algorithm, using the mind of a machine and trampling our humanity. LATE. LATE. LATE. LATE. As if the students who struggle with time don't already beat themselves up enough as it is, Canvas is going to beat them up some more. I say: students should be praised for getting the work turned in, not shamed.

What is MISSING? So, those Late labels are pretty bad, but brace yourselves: the MISSING labels are even worse. The way Canvas applies the MISSING label means that you cannot let students choose what assignments to do. I repeat: Canvas will not let you make assignments optional. So, if you think that student choice is important (I do!), and if you want to design your course so that students choose what assignments to complete (I do!), then you better learn how to run James's script because Canvas is going to label every assignment that your students choose not to complete as MISSING. And it is going to freak your students out, understandably. That is how I first found out about the labels back in September 2017; one afternoon I started getting panicked emails from students. "You told us that we could choose what assignments to do, but now Canvas is telling me I have to do them all!" I was baffled; how could Canvas tell my students what to do or what not to do? I didn't even understand what the students were talking about because I had no idea Canvas had started putting labels in my Gradebook. But it's true: Canvas really was telling my students that they had missed assignments. Even though the assignments were not required. Of course my students were upset. And here we are, almost two years later, and the Canvas Gradebook still wants to put MISSING labels on all those student assignments. The only thing that saves me is James's magic script.

What is the point of labels anyway? Even if these labels were correct (and they are not correct in my classes; every single label Canvas applies in my Gradebook is incorrect), these labels are still not going to help students. So, this is not just about Laura-and-her-weird-classes. This is instead about a wrong approach to feedback at Instructure. Students need encouraging, actionable feedback to motivate them to improve their performance. They need to know what they got right, and they also need to know what they can work on in order to do better for next time.

The Late label fails because it disregards the fact that the student DID turn in the work, which is actually good! But instead of praising the student for getting the work turned in, the red label conveys the message "no, you did bad." Negative messages like that are not how you encourage students to do better the next time.

And the Missing label is worse: it sends a negative message, and it is not even clear what the student is supposed to do next. Are they supposed to complete the missing work and turn it in anyway? Or not? Different teachers have different approaches to missing work (if the work really is missing), but Canvas doesn't know that. And Canvas doesn't care. If Canvas cared about that, they would let us configure the labels in our own way, based on our own algorithms, and conveying our own messages to our students. 

About uplift. I'll add one last observation here, and that is about what it means to be "uplifting." I used to be an active member of the Canvas Community, and my last blog post at the Community was about the Gradebook labels, along with my criticisms of Instructure's claims about AI and predictive algorithms. If they can't get the Gradebook right, why should I trust them to get anything else right about student data? At the time, the Community Managers told me I could no longer write posts like that; all contributions to the Community must be uplifting in nature, so say the Community Guidelines. Fair enough: it's their space; they make the rules, and they don't want me complaining in their space. Because I was not willing to self-censor my posts in order to be uplifting all the time, I started blogging again here; that was back in March of this year.

So, what about the Gradebook? Who makes the rules there? Just like Canvas wants an uplifting Community, I want an uplifting Gradebook. Those punitive red labels are NOT uplifting to my students, and I want them out of my Gradebook; those are my Gradebook Guidelines, and Canvas should respect that. The Gradebook belongs to me and my students. It is our space, and we should be able to tell Canvas to get its negative messages out of our space.

And so, in 2000 words (tl;dr I know), that is why I have zero faith in Instructure's ability to do anything useful with data analytics. The devil is in the details, and the details about the Canvas Gradebook are not pretty. 

That's it for this week, but I'll be back with more Zuboff again next time. And I'm glad to say that, aside from the Gradebook labels, my classes are going great! The blog network is up and running; I'll be writing about our adventures at Twitter: @OnlineCrsLady. Happy New Semester, everybody!


  1. These are some back of the napkin ideas, definitely not larger solutions to a [much] larger problem:

    Could you use events on the calendar to mark hard/soft deadlines? These events can be added to the student to-do list on creation, so they show up chronologically. You can also enable commenting so students can link to a submission directly to help keep it organized. That way, you can set all assignments due on the last day of the term and the gradebook labels don't show up based on due date.

    If you do set hard deadlines (no more submissions, but I don' think that's your particular situation) using Modules to limit access to assignments can allow you to close them for students on a given date and then you could use the 'Assign To' area to open sections or individuals back up.

    I'm just trying to think creatively about how Canvas sets those labels. These are not solutions to the problem, nor do I think Instructure will be making systemic changes as most institutions don't care about the labels at all. But, it might give some more wiggle room and allow you to stop manually running a script every day.

    1. Hi Brian, and thanks for trying to help! Events won't work (lots of reasons; I thought through that last Spring when this first happened based on a suggestion from someone at the Community). I'm using Modules to manage closing out the extra credit: I removed all dates from the extra credit and then shut down the Module at the end of the week (which is unfortunate because they no longer show up on the calendar, but whatever... I'm just looking for a way to cope; it's obviously not optimal and not what I would choose in normal circumstances). The real problem I face is the volume of assignments; that makes any adjusting very hard. I use microassignments for a reason; it is essential to my teaching, even if Instructure seems not to even consider that approach when they design their software. More about that: The Value of SMALL Data and Microassignments
      So, my efforts at this point are really directed at getting Instructure to give me an off switch for all the labels everywhere. James's script allows me to erase them once a week, but those labels should not be showing up in the first place.

  2. ICYMI tomorrow's FTTE Forum guest is Dan Goldsmith, CEO of Instructure. Show how up and ask.

    1. I RSVPed to Bryan's email in about one millisecond. :-)
      Now let's hope my Internet holds out and doesn't collapse under the weight of video as it did last time I tuned in in real time (for the awesome John Warner)

  3. I love this post. I'm so unhappy with my institution's choice to move to Canvas from Blackboard. I don't know why so few people are willing to speak up about Canvas' shortcomings!

    1. Hi Donna! The "open" feature of Canvas was very important to me, being able to publish courses as real websites with real URLs, part of the real Internet. Without that, no LMS is of value to me personally. Since Canvas does have that feature, I tried really hard to make it work for me and I participated very actively in the community. In the end, I was just very disillusioned by it all. I think the company has really changed, and in ways that do not work for me at all, alas. I hope you will find some things you like about it. Here are my favorite Canvas tips.

  4. Thanks for that thoughtful reply! :)


If the comment form misbehaves, you can also find me at Twitter: @OnlineCrsLady. (Sometimes convos are faster and easier there in fact.)