Success in online teaching: working with your LMS

I’m teaching my online graduate research methods course this fall, and as it is a 9 week course it starts next week.  Since each new section of the course is cloned from the ‘master’ version of the course, every time I teach it, I have to go in and manually update the due dates for assignments.  Most of the syllabus simply says that things are due in Week 3 or Week 6, and the weekly assignments are listed on an ‘activities’ page for each week, but many of the assignments have due dates too, and those need to be changed. It’s tedious but doesn’t take too long.

I’ve noticed in the past that students sometimes miss assignments.  There are 3-4 each week, a mix of discussions, quizzes, and other assignments, plus scaffolded project components, and I will occasionally have students that miss an assignment or two.  I’ve been teaching this course for years, and rather ironically never noticed until today that there was something systematic about the assignments that students tend to miss.

I gave specific due dates to some, but not all, of my assignments.

I guess I wasn’t super consistent when I created the course, or more likely, that as I’ve tinkered with it over the years I’ve forgotten to set due dates in the master section (why would I, since those due dates always change?).  What happens, then, is that while all the assignments are listed in the activities page, only some of them show up on a student’s to-do list on their Canvas dashboard as ‘due soon’.  

This is where paying attention to your Learning Management System (LMS) can be very helpful, whether your course is fully online or you use it for face-to-face classes to turn in assignments.  We use Canvas, and on the dashboard it will tell students what their upcoming assignments are. If I don’t list a specific due date, it won’t show up for those students–so they may think they did everything (since SOME have due dates), when in fact they are losing points without even knowing it.

So, students attempting to complete all components of the course in good faith will see a couple of exercises and discussions on their dashboard, complete them, and assume they are done with their work for the week. In reality, there are one or two more assignments also due, but only listed on the activities page at the end of each module.  Since they think they’ve already completed the activities, they may not even think to double check that they’ve completed everything by checking those pages.  And since some weeks everything does have due dates, there is no particular reason for them to assume that I just forgot to give some things due dates.

Now, you may note that these assignments ARE listed on the activity page, so student’s shouldn’t be excused for missing them.  Yes, that’s true, and the most diligent students will note the full list and get everything done.  But why should I set up this kind of check on how close my students are paying attention?  My job is to be as transparent as possible, so that students know what is expected of them.  So either everything should have due dates so they show up in the dashboard, or none should, so that they must consult the activities page.  This haphazard approach does nothing except penalize students who are trusting the LMS to tell them what is due.  I may want to teach my students to be detail-oriented, but this would be a mean and dangerous way to do so.

So the lesson here is: know your LMS, and don’t accidentally put up artificial barriers that cause students to not even realize they have assignments due.