Canvas Guides for Math and Chemistry

For those of you gearing up for the Fall Semester, I want to make sure that you know that (1) Canvas upgraded the math editor recently and there is a lot of new functionality available and (2) there are print-friendly guides for using the Canvas Equation Editor. You can include these in your syllabus or as handouts if you are planning to do some intensive Canvas stuff with equations in the fall.

Basic Equation Tips (simple 1-page PDF)

Advanced Equation Tips (for using the new LaTeX feature to do matrices, tables of values, piecewise functions, and more)

Chemistry Tips (writing formulas, scientific notation, and chemical equations/reactions)

You can always find these links on the top of the How do I use the Math Editor? Canvas Guide.

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Video Code Easter Eggs

I have this sneaky trick I use to tell which students watch online videos and which don’t.  I hide “secret codes” in the videos (like the programmer’s Easter Eggs).  When a student finds one of my “Easter Egg codes” they can submit it for 1 point towards participation.  Sometimes the codes are numbers I generate at random (Ex: 40234) and sometimes it’s a word, phrase, or story (my cat is chasing a fly in front of my computer).

I don’t tell the students where the codes are. I don’t tell them HOW I’ve shared the code or what kind of code it is.  Some videos have codes, and many don’t.  Because of the random distribution of codes in videos, and my “loose” way of collecting them for points, I can always add or remove videos with codes, and it won’t affect the overall point system.

Here's an example of a video code inserted as a callout bubble. Click on image to enlarge.

Let me explain. Students are not required to watch particular videos and there are two other ways to earn participation points.  Participation for each unit is counted out of 10 points, but 5 extra credit points may also be earned.  Thus, there is a cap on the total number of points I will count.

Participation points can be earned by:

  1. Participating in a live online chat. (2 points)
  2. Posting something substantive in a Discussion. (1 point)
  3. Turning in a video code. (1 point)

Here are various ways that I hide the codes in videos:

  • In callout bubbles I add post-recording and pre-production
  • On calculator screens (sneaky, huh?)
  • In something I say out loud
  • In something I write on the journaling screen
  • In something I say and write on the journaling screen
  • In the text of a math equation
  • Underlining a particular word or phrase on the screen from a lesson
  • An action to take (call my office phone and sing the quotient rule to me)

Collecting the codes is the real trick.  Some years I’ve used a Google Spreadsheet or Doc for the collection.  This year, I’m using the comment field of the Canvas Graded Discussions.  I set up one Discussion for each unit, worth 10 points.  When a student participates in an online chat, I go to the gradebook for this Discussion and add a comment “Chat 7/9/12 = 2 points” for that student.  When the student submits a video code, I go to the gradebook for this Discussion and add the comment “Video Code 40234 = 1 point”.  Then when I go to grade the assignment, I see not only all the students’ discussion posts, but also all their collected codes and chat points (see image).

Canvas Discussions grading screen with comments. Click on image to enlarge.

It’s really interesting to see which students find and submit the codes and which students never submit a single code. This helps me to track the progression of students through a particular unit.  Pessimistically, it helps me to “catch” those students who claim they are watching videos when, in fact they aren’t.  But optimistically, I can also tell who consistently watches all the videos by seeing their collected codes pile up.  While I haven’t always enjoyed keeping lists of students and codes, the “Easter Egg” method has worked well over the years to keep track of video-watching as a way to participate in online courses.

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New Chapter: Life Reboot

For the last year, I’ve felt this yearning to do something different. I’ve been a full-time faculty member for a decade now, teaching many of the same courses semester after semester after semester after … yeah, well, you get it.

A series of conferences and events in the last 6 months has made me realize that my “alignment” between my passions and my job was off.  I attended the UpToAllOfUs un-conference in February, and felt a strong pull to do something different, something more amazing.  I attended the TEDxSummit in April, and coming back to work was like a rude awakening after being in a liquid network of ideas for 5 days. And then I attended the LAK conference and really just felt unsettled about how I was spending my time.

Since I began blogging in 2007, I’ve learned about so many things in my free time: education technology, the scholarship of teaching and learning, social media, data visualizations, professional development for faculty, higher education, leadership, learning analytics, eLearning strategies, game design, writing, speaking, technology for productivity, mobile apps, and … well, probably a lot of things that aren’t coming to mind right now.  In this decade I’ve finished a Ph.D., made a name for myself as a futurist, and connected with instructors, innovators, and futurists around the world.

Now, the time has come to shed one identity (math faculty) and take on a new one.  It’s actually an identity I’ve been donning in my “free” time for a while now, I’m just shifting the focus to it full-time now.

I have accepted a position as the Director of Learning and Research at Instructure (they build the Canvas learning platform), in Sandy, Utah.   The position will give me a chance to grow professionally, to use all the skills I’ve learned in the last five years, to work with some really amazing, talented, and energetic people,  and (bonus) I get to move back to the mountains.

The view from the Instructure building.

Why Instructure? After all my complaining (for years) about the state of the LMS market, I began using Canvas in May and fell head-over-heels in love with it. It is, by far, the best learning platform I’ve ever seen, and Instructure is innovating like mad. I have always said I’d know the right job when I saw it, and this is it!  I want, more than anything, to help Instructure  to build and spread the best learning platform the world has ever seen, and I am super-excited to get started.

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Online Office Hours in Instructure Canvas

UPDATE: Unfortunately, the video chat service provided in Canvas was turned off in Fall 2012. It has now been replaced with a Text Chat that is built in to Canvas, but no video.


I have been incredibly happy with the online office hours that I’ve been holding in Canvas this semester (see previous post on SAVI tools in Canvas here).  Day after day, students are showing up for office hours to ask their own questions, hear other students’ questions, and just kind of hang out while they work on problems.  It’s lovely to SEE my online students regularly and I feel a much greater connection to this summer’s students than from any prior semester.

I’m quite sure that the difference is the ease of use of the Canvas Chat tool.  There are no logins, no scheduled sessions, and there is no separate software to install.  To get into the online office hour, the student (and the instructor) simply has to click on Chat.  To share camera and/or audio, they click “Start Broadcasting” and follow the prompts.  It really does not get much easier than that.

Images of Instructor and Student Guides for Online Office Hours in Canvas. Click on image to enlarge. Follow links in blog post for actual documents.

To make it easier for other instructors to implement the practice of online office hours, I wrote two guides:

The instructor guide contains tips on:

  • Webcams: Should you require or not?
  • Scheduling sessions: When and how?
  • Syllabus considerations
  • User Limit to Chat
  • Sharing a YouTube video, with an interactive whiteboard, or a screenshot
  • Sharing a document through the link to a Canvas page
  • Taking attendance
  • Students with low bandwidth
  • Troubleshooting technical problems
  • Reducing the “echo” effect that commonly plagues SAVI tools

If you’re going to share these with colleagues or students (which is fine), please share through the hyperlink so that if I update the documents in the future, you’ll always have the current version.  Hope these are helpful to you!

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Tears of Joy: Canvas Analytics is ON

For years, instructors all over the world have been coached to begin making more “data-driven decisions” and for years, we just haven’t gotten easy access to our data. I won’t even begin to rant about just how difficult it has been to get usable data out of Blackboard or Datatel.  But on Thursday, that all changed.

Order of data randomly changed to protect student identities. Click on image to enlarge.

On Thursday, Instructure turned ON Canvas Analytics.  And now any instructor who’s been teaching out of Canvas can see ALL the data about their students and courses – not just from this point forwards, but from this point forwards AND backwards.  That is a HUGE leap forward in education.  In one hour, I have now seen more data about my students, their behaviors, and their interactions with the course I teach than I have from using Blackboard for 6 years.

This data is only going to get better and better as Instructure actually does listen to their clients and is constantly pushing for better and better features to help us do what we do best: help students to learn and be successful.

Here are the full images of screenshots of analytics from my Calculus course. I’ll keep adding snapshots as the semester progresses. Enjoy! Oh, and you might want to pull out your hanky first, because there are going to be tears of joy (if you use or are about to use Canvas) or tears of frustration (if you don’t).

Analytics is all about student success.  With data at our fingertips, we can be the best possible learning coaches.  We can perform better research about the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. We can make better assessment decisions. We can make better pedagogical choices.  Welcome to the new era of learning.

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