From the land of WTF

wtfHere is the text of an email I received yesterday from my university. I honestly have no idea what it’s talking about. Does any part of this sound familiar to any of you? (Are there any palaeographers among you?)

This seminar will provide information about the university’s involvement in a national consortium that promises to enhance learning and teaching. The consortium, which includes several leading research universities, is exploring new directions in the use of instructional technologies. The intent is to facilitate and accelerate digital learning using the best integrated digital systems available that make it easy for faculty and enhance learning. The ecosystem consists of three components: a digital content repository/reflector, a service delivery platform, and a learning analytics service. The digital content repository/reflector will allow us to regain control over our digital learning objectives, allow faculty to choose to share/reuse digital content easily and seamlessly while preserving their digital rights. The service delivery platform is Canvas by Instructure, and has the characteristics of easier use by faculty and faster development of courses in it. The best learning analytics will be deployed and evolve apace as this area develops.

My first thought when I tried to read this email:  was this written by one of those software robots that allegedly can fairly grade essays?

It looks like the administrators at my university are inviting a for-profit ed-tech vendor in to make a sales pitch while calling it a “seminar.” Or rather, it’s something the university has already bought without faculty consultation and now they’re trying to sell it to the faculty. In other words,–and in either case–this is the opposite of a productive use of my time as a faculty member who believes in F2F teaching. You can “promise. . . to enhance learning and teaching,” but that’s what I’m already spending most of my time on, day after day.

Also: since when is literacy in university communications optional? If you want faculty to show up for stuff, write the invitations clearly with attention to grammar and syntax. (Just sayin’.)  If this is “Canvas by Instructure”‘s advertisement for a product that will “make it easy for faculty and enhance learning,” whatever that means, it’s not super-persuasive.

Many thanks in advance to those of you who care to plumb the mysteries of the text, or those of you who have experience with “Canvas by Instructure” and can explain it to us in plain English.

30 thoughts on “From the land of WTF

  1. No doubt this was written by someone in Instructure’s marketing department rather than in administration. Your admins are lazy, they just cut and pasted the sales literature into an all university email and sent it out.

    What I find interesting about the for profit ed-tech companies is their need to rewrite the jargon every product cycle. Near as I can tell “service delivery platform” used to be called Course Management Software. Something like D2L, Blackboard, WebCT, Sakai, or Moodle for example .

    Looking at their company page it also seems like they have invested in software to support MOOCs.

    Definitely a sales pitch. Barf. The stupid it burns.


  2. And here I used to think I could read English, and that it was worth reading!

    Can you imagine the “content” they’re repackaging for students?



  3. Canvas is definitely a LMS or CMS, like Blackboard, WebCT, et al. It’s open source, which means anybody can customize it for their particular purposes, but I suspect that in this case Instructure, the creator, is going to make money by customizing it for your university’s purposes. The question is probably who determines what those purposes are — the administration, which is probably into “analytics” for assessment purposes (but/and can probably also use it to supervise faculty activities online; Jonathan Rees would/will no doubt have something to say about this part), or the faculty, which might value other things (less standardization, more flexibility, more freedom to combine the LMS with other approaches, digital and not, into a pedagogical approach that works well for a particular instructor and particular course). So I’d be cautious, but I’d go and ask questions (especially about flexibility, freedom to choose/experiment with other platforms and/or customize the platform yourself — even if you, personally, don’t want to do that, some of your colleagues may, and allowing them to do so is probably a sign of academic/pedagogical freedom).

    I’d also be cautious about the assurance that your content is still your own (or perhaps the university’s?). The dream of many administrators is, of course, to have fully-credentialed faculty produce course “packages” that will somehow still be recognized a being taught by them for accreditation purposes even if the actual interaction with students and their work is performed by somebody cheaper. I’m pretty sure the accreditation agencies will push back against that one, but it’s definitely a point which may show how differently faculty and administrators understand the concept of a “class.”

    Looking at the whole thing again, the phrase I find myself zeroing in on is “regain control of our digital learning objectives.” The question this raises for me: who feels that things are out of control? Certainly not faculty who’ve been willingly experimenting with various forms of digital learning, but maybe administrators who want to feel more in control of said activities, both for understandable/defensible reasons (accrediting agencies government agencies dispensing financial aid, etc., etc. are looking closely at online educational offerings) and for less defensible ones (universities want to monetize online learning, and professors’ work in creating courses, somehow, or at least, as mentioned above, leverage the work of full-time Ph.D.-holding faculty to serve many more undergrad students). If I were going to a meeting, I think I might press the powers that be, explicitly or implicitly, on those questions: what’s out of control? why does it need to be back in control? whose control?


  4. I like the tweet version better for the title: “planet Administron.” The academic vendocracy is like an invasive tumor or a software worm. They started years ago with soda machines in dormitory lounges and they’re deep into the faculty suite by now. It’s a classic revolving door problem, with company “plants” in the admin wing and back-scratching the live-long day. This would be a great project for the hack community, to map the genome of former associate deputy provosts for innovation-acquisition and current team leaders on pedagogics development alley of the private sector. China is trying to get control of corruption in its military industrial sector. It should be possible to uproot the “analytics” crowd. Governing boards should push vocabulary and rhetorical clarity higher on the credential template for hiring across the adminisphere. But most of them don’t speak what once would have been called educated English either. Why did faculties ever start down the road of Learning Management Systems (sic) anyway? It’s the surest route there is to campus based cubicle hell.


  5. Beautiful write up. Probably written by the Secretary of Education. Hacks, as we all know, use half a dictionary to say nothing.

    Two guesses seem reasonable to me: First: MOOC. Second: a corpus of course material with support material being presented and manipulated by sophisticated tools. This augmented by a monitoring tools capable of recording and analyzing lessons, assignments, etc.

    Some such technology exists; a lot of the verbiage isn’t yet supported.


  6. New to me, but the Great Gazoogle suggests Instructure is a Mormon business scheme that loves it some corporate MOOC gobbledygook. Hard to believe a uni administrator would spend Colorado taxpayers’ money on it without demanding a kickback.


  7. Especially the bad writing part. I sometimes feel like people who don’t teach much (administrators, including library admins) use language differently — it’s not about actually communicating, it’s about a kind of buzzword bingo. Buzzwords used as signs of knowing what buzzwords to use and to paper things over, rather than as words meant to actually communicate stuff. A colleague once told me to stop trying to interpret the things my admin say: they aren’t actually saying anything but “authority.”


  8. The intent is to facilitate and accelerate digital learning using the best integrated digital systems available that make it easy for faculty and enhance learning.

    What, pray tell, are the digits expected to learn? In any case, I too would like to have some systems that make it easy for faculty. No matter what it turns out to be. But don’t you dare try to facilitate me. I’m not that kind of sheeba.

    The young householders and I have been learning slang phrases from the 1920s so I feel I can interject with some authority: Phonus balonus!


  9. One problem with absurd emails like this is that any useful part gets buried under the gobbledegook. My son’s school uses Canvas, and it seems like a one of the better learning management tools. In the same way that roller ball pens are better than cheap ballpoints. But neither transforms my class or lets my students learn at 1/10th the cost.

    Lately, the most transformative teaching tool for me has been Google Books — I’m using tons of pages and images from c17 and c18 publications so my students can DO history in the classroom. Is that back to the future? Tech to the past?

    (But, as with More Work for Mother household inventions, finding all these sources ups my prep time astronomically. So I guess my institution is ‘saving’ money by getting more hourly labor for the same salary… and I’m sure they’ll reward me come promotion time, right?)


  10. This is not a paleography problem, but a translation problem. Unfortunately, the source language is unclear, and no reader of your blog speaks it; though many of us have, for better or worse, picked up odd words in it over the years. Clearly Instructure doesn’t write English.

    I do love the faux environmental term “ecosystem” to describe the tools for teaching. However, “accelerated learning” doesn’t sound so environmentally sound.

    And I was going to say that my campus is about to drop Sakai (as our Sakai system is miserable) and replace it with Canvas.

    Anyway, that’s just painful.


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  12. Oh, we have Canvas here! It is very pretty, graphically. But it isn’t connected to any other platform we use. So… view movies on reserve, students have to go elsewhere, and to see the attendance roll I have to go elsewhere, and to input grades I have to go elsewhere, too. And advising? Entirely different platform. My new place loves to test-pilot freeware, which isn’t always bad, but these things need to be linked up for them to work.


  13. My spouse is the sysadmin for Blackboard at our college, and I read your post aloud to her last night. When I got to “Canvas by Instructure” she snorted. She despises the lingo that goes with the job: “learners” instead of students, “assessment” instead of papers and exams, etc.


  14. This was in my inbox this morning:


    In line with the vision of supporting the competitive standardization of the knowledge management of the GCC government organizations and with the support of the senior leaderships of the region, there has been a considerable development in the framework of modern knowledge management systems and operations.

    In this context, Datamatix presents the ‘Universities’ Role in Developing the Knowledge Management in the GCC Region’

    It’s from an event management company in Dubai, UEA.


  15. You are getting the spillover from vintage management-by-objectives on steroids, brewing in the US Department of Education during the Cliton, Bush 1, Bush 2, and Obama administrations inflicted on teachers in public elementary and secondary schools. The tech mongers there are collaborating with hedge-fund managers and entrpeneurs looking for huge profits in education, including “recommendation systems” for “learners” that are wiser than any teacher, able to “individualize instruction,” with “recommendation systems” integrated into your new 24/7/365 educational lanscape in the manner of Netflix and Amazon. Be glad you are not at Arizona State University, where Michael Moe, serial entrepeneur and CEO of GSV Investments (Global Silicone Valley), is connected to the hip of ASU’s “transformative” university president Michael Crow. See


  16. Oh, God, Michael Crow came to speak at my university (because we wanna be just like ASU!) and it was horrifying. By which I mean not just the presentation, but the idea that we’re going to pattern ourselves on them. The promotional video we had to watch had absolutely no representations of the humanities — arts, yes, look at the ballet dancers! — but all of the other achievements shown were clearly on the STEM side.


  17. That email is insane, but canvas is fairly great in my experience. We have used if for the three years I’ve been teaching at the prep school, and I love it. We are a 1:1 laptop school, so it’s great for the “look ma! I grade papers electronically!” Element, and so much more. Everything lives there for my courses.


  18. Oh, yes, I do love the electronic grading function. I find it actually increases the number of comments I put on each paper, which is odd, because it is called ‘Quickgrader’ or something like that. I’ve actually had students notice.


  19. @truffula: Your email is worse than H’Ann’s! I am still puzzling over what “the competitive standardization of the knowledge management” might be…


  20. competitive standardization

    is perhaps the best thing I’ve heard all week. It’s nearly perfectly without meaning. I think it is about applying what they call business analytics (finding patterns in data) in higher ed but I could very easily be wrong.


  21. The “reflector” part is a little ambiguous and scary to me. My approach on the whole “platform” issue is to mind the gap, stay well behind the yellow safety line (at the head of the stairs leading to the platform), and wait until the pilot has brought the machine to a full stop at the terminal before reaching for my content, which may well have shifted during the trip. “Seamless” is another buzz word that tends to make me want to stay well back from the whole package until it’s been looked at carefully and cleared for use by professionals. Call me a chicken, but I’m hanging onto my paper gradebook!


  22. Okay, putting my cynical cap on:

    1) The ‘consortium’ is a for-profit enterprise. It is attempting to suck money out of your university. The ‘other research universities’ in it are not the only members. They are either earlier victims, or renting out their reputations for a share in the profits.

    2) Consortium is, as other commenters said, trying to sell Baa Ram U on their MOOC software and a service contract, probably also with plans to re-sell courses that you faculty members develop.

    3) The ‘ecosystem’ they are offering consists of two parts that will deliver the MOOCS, specified as Canvas by Instructure. The third part is the “learning analytics” which “will be deployed and evolve apace as this area develops”. Meaning they don’t have anything in mind and hope to fill the gap later.
    Either ‘learning analytics’ will be used to evaluate the professors, and provide excuse for hire-and-fire-type decisions, or the ‘learning analytics’ will be used to evaluate the consortium’s fulfilment of its contract. Either way, the ‘learning analytics’ will be gamed to suit the interests of those in power; that’s why they’re leaving the methodology unspecified.


  23. My university adopted Canvas three years ago. I won’t defend this corporate marketing-speak, but I will defend the software itself as a pretty-good course management system (certainly a huge improvement over Blackboard, which we were using before). It hasn’t dramatically improved or transformed my teaching, but it does make it easy to grade papers electronically, it keeps up the grade book for me, and it gives me convenient ways to communicate with my students outside of class and make resources for the class available to them (PDFs, links to videos).

    So far as I can tell, “Learning Analytics” means that you can see how many times your students have participated in the program, how many page views each has racked up, and where each one’s grade on each assignment stands in relation to the class as a whole. I’m not sure why this is useful, but maybe it would make more sense in an online-only course.


  24. We got Canvas while I wuz on sabbatical. I think you should go on sabbatical prior to learning to use it. Stay one step ahead of new institutional software, is my view.


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