Last spring at Maryland, Jim Ridolfo visited to give a talk about his research and he stayed to talk to graduate students. One thing he mentioned, almost in passing, was that he questioned the necessity of Learning Management Systems because most teachers only used them as file storage systems – which is something any number of free services can provide, often with better functionality than Blackboard. This alternately felt like inspiration and a friendly accusation: even if my Blackboard sites were pretty well organized, I was basically creating file folders where students could download stuff and turn stuff in. In my first experience with Canvas this summer, I tried to become a more functional user. But looking back at my course site, I feel like there’s little I do here that requires the system with (perhaps) the exception of the gradebook. I use Wikia for Wiki projects, WordPress for student discussion. The LMS provides all these features in a private and secure space, while I want my students to think about writing for a public audience.
If the best thing about an LMS is its ability to store, collect, and localize different virtual logistical features, I’m piloting an attempt to use this in a way that helps students think about writing and revision. On two of my syllabi, I’ve include the following statement:
My students’ first paper is due tomorrow (Friday), and I’ve post a “draft tracking” prompt each day since last Wednesday. Here, they can submit the progress of their paper – whether that’s an incomplete draft, a series of ideas, an outline, or a list of links for articles. Since this assignment asks them to write four analysis paragraphs, they have mainly been submitting those drafts.
My goal is to encourage them to work on a project a little bit per day, and then to post the evidence of that online. It’s completely optional and ungraded. When a student emails me to say she is going to come to my office hours, I take about five or ten minutes before the appointment come to review her progress. As I explain in the syllabus, and in more detail in class, I only look at this if the student asks me to, and I won’t give feedback over Canvas. I really don’t have the time to do that on a daily basis, and I want the students to develop their own revision process, which I can’t model as well virtually. But both the student and me have a record of the progress of revision, so we can both figure out ways to improve that process.
BTW, If I continue to do this, I’ll cut the didactic tone at the end of my syllabus statement – “the goal of this. . .” – because I think it implies a stereotype about “lazy students” that I wasn’t intending to establish. Rather, I’ll let them see the value without me explaining it to them. Also, I’ll cut the part about “leniency,” even though I’ll keep the general philosophy: this does show a students’ diligence and willingness to improve, and that’s something to take into consideration when the paper falls between a B- and a C+.
I welcome your thoughts for this test-run. At this point, the students are using it predictably: they’re turning in paragraphs that they’ve either already submitted for peer review in class, or full drafts that they want me to read during my office hours. I’d rather them use it as a space to store and collect their thoughts, outlines, half-finished drafts, or questions. But maybe that will come with the longer papers.