“Look ma! No LMS!”

Data everywhere

If you have followed the development of data-fication of everything in our lives, and you are an educator, you either know or are not surprised to hear that your and your students’ every move is potentially tracked on your learning management system, even if you don’t have access to that data.

I’m not a fan of surveillance and I don’t see why my students’ data needs to be fed into the Very Hungry Data Machine. (This is a conversation for a different post but it’s about the question if education “scales” and the way I teach, it doesn’t.) Unlike the Very Hungry Caterpillar, it doesn’t seem to get an indigestion and it’s not showing signs of cocooning and then transforming into a beautiful, harmless butterfly.

Your institution may require you to use an LMS for communicating grades with students, but if you can, like me, experiment with gradeless classrooms/ungrading practices, then you’ll find that the LMS (Instructure’s Canvas, in our case) has not much use for you: it is too much centred on grades and the gradebook, and not enough on students and feedback.

I’m sorry, Canvas. It’s not me. It’s you.

The #elemess-free lifestyle

Over the years I found myself moving bits and pieces of my workflow out of the LMS, without doing anything that goes against the rules. Then this semester I realized that I could break free from the LMS: the last thing I was using it for was to communicate due dates for assignments. Everything else is already on my course websites, and in Fall 21 students didn’t submit a single assignment via Canvas.

Now I could create a simple spreadsheet or document with a list of dates, but I want my site to look nice. I want to show what’s possible, that we don’t have to be stuck with a boring format in which every course is the same boring format. Einheitswurst. Omnomnom…

Screenshot of a Canvas course with modules organized by week. Each week has a page and several links to PDFs. The border shows up like all borders on Canvas, with the same shortcuts. The Muhlenberg M logo at the top is the only difference.
If that doesn’t look like a Canvas course! A layout I recognize from a mile away, even with my deteriorating eyesight.

And then it struck me that what we do as educators is very similar to “project management”: we have X number of weeks to manage a group of people to complete a set of tasks; in my case that can culminate in a big group project like a Pressbook OER, or individual portfolios. Why not borrow from the corporate world where this type of management thinking abounds?

You’ll find plenty of options to organize and manage projects, for single person users, to teams; from something that looks like optimized post-its to the stuff software developer teams use. And then I remembered that I really liked the layout from the Colloquium Gallery the AHA used for the 2020-2021 online conference replacement. “Airtable” turned out to be just the thing for me.

How it works

You can make a free account and even get a few months of a pro trial account.

The basic premise of Airtable is that you have a “Workspace” (or multiple) with “bases”. That’s about as complex as the specialist lingo goes. In the base, you enter data in fields (columns) as you would in a spreadsheet table, a format that is very familiar. It even allows you to add multiple sheets to each base, and create cross-links between the sheets. You can then choose to create different “views” to present that sheet’s information: a kanban view, a calendar, a Gantt chart (for those really into project management, and on a pro account or trial), or a Gallery. I really like the Gallery because it shows off thumbnail images nicely.

Screenshot shows My First Workspace with four bases and a project tracker. Each base has a different colour and icon. There is also a tutorial base in an additional workspace
Screenshot of my homepage in Airtable

You add columns to the Base with the info you need. I’ve experimented with a few, such as “week” [of the semester], and “status” (Done, Scheduled, To Do) and “Type” (Meeting, Assignment, Pressbooks Project). Think of the way you want to filter or sort information later.

For the Gantt chart you have to add a start and end date for every task, a bit of a pain but worth it for a semester long project you divide in project-bites.

You can add one base as a sheet (page) in another base: in this screenshot you see how the three views from other bases (for my courses) are also in my “General Planning” base. But you can’t edit them there. This may be useful if you give editing access to a collaborator on a specific base and want them to know what’s going on elsewhere.

Screenshot has a red marking highlighting the tabs of additional sheets with the course numbers. Each of these sheets has a lightning bolt in a triangle in front of the name of the sheet, indicating they are a view from a different base that's imported to this base as a sheet.
In this screenshot you see other “bases” from my workspace linked

My set-up

I have one basic workspace (still called “My first workspace”), and in there I created a “base” for each course. There may be other ways to do this but I found this the easiest.

I found the best way to make it look nice was to create a “Gallery” view for every base, and then add images. Srsly. We are a culture that relies heavily on visual cues, images more so than text. And be a good sport and add an additional column for “Image Source.”

Because I use the same image for repeating tasks, it gives students a visual cue that they are doing the same task again: weekly blog post, weekly feedback, link to information about our classmeetings,…

Screenshot shows the card-like layout in Gallery view, with thumbnail images at the top of each card. Some cards have the same image, indicating the task is repeating
Screenshot of the Airtable for a course, with some repeating tasks and meetings

I added a “Status” field to all my bases, with the options “Done,” “To do,” “Scheduled” (for upcoming meetings). I also created an “In Progress” option but I never use it. This “Status” is useful when setting up for the next step –> Sharing Airtable

How to share outside of Airtable

Have I recently told you how much I love <iframe> tags? It’s how I get the random cats, or any website for that matter, onto Canvas pages.

<iframe> tags are also how you can add the Airtable views to any other website, of course including Canvas pages.

Remember the “Status” column I added? Now I can use the status column to filter which tasks show up on the course website: I only want to show tasks that are still due/ and meetings that are scheduled. What’s done is gone! Selecting “Filter”, I add a condition (“Status is not Done”).

Next when I click on “Share view” different options pop up. I choose to “show all fields in expanded records,” so when you click on an item a card pops up with more information, like hyperlinks in the notes or additional dates.

Screenshot of the pop-up when you click on "share view" while in Gallery view. Text of pop up: "Create a shareable gallery view link. You can send the link to anyone or embed it on a website"
Click on Share View while in Gallery View and create that shareable link

Choose “embed” and hey presto! You get an “embed code” and a preview of the Mobile and Desktop format. Copy the code, and head over to your website or your Canvas site, and paste it in the HTML editor where you want it to appear.

Screenshot of a Canvas page with an embedded Airtable Gallery View. There are three cards on view in the "iframe" section. Above the iframe is text with information for students, formatted in the standard Canvas font and layout
Canvas page looking a lot more colourful!

A viewer has access to simple sort and filter functions, and they can download a CSV of the tasks that are visible.

So, is it better than Canvas?

Here’s my assessment after one (already too long) semester:

Canvas is better at doing the “cop shit” part of teaching such as alerting you to missing assignments and students being late with work. Since that doesn’t fit in my teaching philosophy, and my groups are small enough to follow up manually, I don’t miss that functionality. I also need to manually change “To-do” and “Scheduled” to “Done”, but it helps me check with who’s behind as little reminders of what we’ve done the past week.

You can email a record from inside Airtable to students. On many a Tuesday I check who’s not submitted their blog post (because I create the randomizer that day) and just copy the email address from a spreadsheet I keep handy. I personalize the note with the course number and a quick comment to indicate their post didn’t show up, can they please check? If students are on Airtable, I could just add a comment but we’re not there yet this semester. A bit more labour than Canvas which emails everyone at the click of a button, but again, it works for me. If you have large classes, this may not be for you. But we need to talk about “does education scale?” urgently IMHO.

Airtable sure looks prettier, and it doesn’t measure student engagement to make a profile or create analytics about performance and grades. I prefer working with Airtable because it’s a bit more nimble: duplicating tasks if you have repeating assignments is a lot easier than in Canvas. To be honest, I’ve always felt that Canvas was the better of the three LMS-es I tried but it’s increasingly become like driving a tank down a bicycle path. Is that enough to convince you to try this?

I’m sure there are plenty of ways I can improve on my current set-up, and there may be better systems than Airtable for those of us committed to an LMS-free lifestyle. But after just one semester of using this, I don’t miss Canvas anywhere near enough to go back. I’m sorry, Canvas. It’s not me. It’s you.

If you are contemplating decreasing the amount of time you spend on Canvas, or have already made a bid for freedom, please share your thoughts and/or experience! Comments are welcome!

About this blog series

This post is part of the second series explaining the digital tools I use for teaching courses online, face-to-face, and mask-to-mask.

If you like this post, please explore the others in the series, and sign up for new posts in the sidebar, under the Growth Mindset Cats 😀, add the blog to your RSS reader, or check back every other Monday, 6pm CET/12 noon EST, so you’ll never miss a post!

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