Out with Blackboard, In with Canvas

So yesterday I went out to Heavenly Gardens to spend two unpaid hours learning to use the District’s replacement for the hated Blackboard, a CMS known as Canvas. Designed by Instructure with, according to our instructor, the intention of being as un-Blackboard as possible but with virtually no advice from anyone who actually has to use the system to teach, it is every bit as complex and work-intensive as its competition.

All faculty who use the CMS in any capacity, even if it’s just to post a start-of-the-semester “Welcome” notice for face-to-face students, are required to attend the two-hour “Basic” workshop. No tickee, no laundry: if you haven’t shown up at one of these, IT won’t give your classes the Canvas shell.

Even though I’ve “retired” (the operative term is “escaped”) from teaching freshman comp, I’m keeping the online magazine writing course, because it’s easy, it attracts fewer fools, and most of the students actually want to take it. To direct those students to the site I built for them in WordPress, I have to post an announcement in Blackboard…or, starting next fall, in Canvas, which means I have to extract a shell from IT. So that meant donating two hours of free labor to the cause.

Opportunity cost: $180, including the hour of commute time.

As it developed, though, the two hours morphed into FOUR hours. Turns out the instructor had set up the “Advanced” workshop to flow right out of the first two hours.

Damn. I figured to be out by 3:00 p.m. Needed to go by Costco and then spend the remaining conscious hours cleaning my incredibly filthy house, since a friend was coming over this morning and I couldn’t entertain in a total pigpen.

But since I was on the campus, I decided the path of least resistance would be to sit through another two hours of jawing. Then at least I wouldn’t have to traipse out the campus for another unpaid workshop.

Now the opportunity cost was $360. Not counting the round-trip commute that racks up an hour of travel time.

Oh well. At 5:30, the Costco is almost empty. Got in there and out in just a few minutes; arrived at the Funny Farm a little after 6:00. Threw down some food for the dog and started cleaning. Dinnertime: around 9:30. And the truth is, the real opportunity cost was nil, since my best client has been on the road for a month, so no work has come in from those quarters, and our other current client has hit a slow spot.

The woman the District has hired to train people in the course management software and any  number of other handy things is extremely good at what she does. Not only does she know and keep up to date with these programs, she has a doctorate in instructional design. So I can’t complain about having to work with her: she is just great.

About Canvas, here is what I would say:

It appears to have a number of significant advantages over Hated Blackboard. For example, you can mark up papers within the system, using a screen that seems to be similar to the Mac’s Preview function. Thus your students do not have to save their papers in a Word-compatible format. Since some students simply refuse to even try to understand what you  mean when you say “save it as a .doc, a .docx, or an .rtf file,” this will obviate a fair amount of hassle. One of the 101 students still has not bothered to resend her first paper to me in a word-compatible file, and that class is now on its third major paper. How many times can you tell some idiot something without getting tired of hearing your own voice rattling in your head?

You can embed YouTube videos using YouTube’s code — except that you have to remember to select the OLD code. Apparently the new code is incompatible. As long as YouTube keeps providing the old code, though, that makes life a lot easier than it is in the Blackboard universe. In exploring around, I saw something that looked like a function that would let you record a video straight from inside the program. But since we didn’t touch on it during the workshop, I have no idea how (or if) it works.

Major, huge disadvantage: they change things about once every three weeks, with no notice and no explanation. We’re told that you can turn it on one day and have it look entirely different from the way it looked the previous day.

That will not make it for me. With each passing moment, I have less and less patience with the learning curve that stretches to infinity. And I would be extremely pissed if I had everything all set up the way I wanted it only to discover the whole construct was sabotaged at some nerd’s whim.

The District, we’re further told, is Instructure’s largest client (and it must be said: the District is one of the two largest community college districts in the land, with a student body larger even than Arizona State University’s, whose esteemed president equates quantity with quality and is trying to make his institution the world’s largest university). This outfit is young and small, not all that far beyond the start-up stage. So it remains to be seen how well they can handle a huge, chaotic, far-flung district that spreads across one of largest metropolitan areas in North America (Phoenix alone, not counting its swarm of suburbs, is geographically larger than L.A.). An online class that runs only eight weeks doesn’t have a lot of wriggle room to accommodate down time, especially when it comes at some critical juncture…like the last week of the semester.

So, even had I not resolved to quit devoting hours and hours of unpaid labor to a job that’s low-paying to begin with, I still would not incline to take my course off WordPress. While the extra $4800 a year that this course pays will come in handy, nevertheless, if they tell me I must move all that stuff over into Canvas, I’m going to quit. To make up the lost revenue, I’d have to bill all of another 80 hours a year: 1 and 33 minutes hours a week!


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