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The Contract Grade and The LMS

Many of my colleagues who use contract grading, or another kind of alternate evaluation system, eschew the use of a Learning Management System (LMS) such as Canvas or Blackboard. Honestly, they’re probably right to do so.

There are a lot of problems with LMSs, not least of which is how they enable surveillance and other “cop shit”. They suffer from feature bloat, entrench certain teaching styles that aren’t really supported by research, and provide an illusion that courses can be simply automated away.

Notebook, laptop, cell phone, and espresso on a wooden table
What will the computer allow you to do? Is that what you want to do?
(image via StockSnap, as usual)

Yet, I still use Canvas. This isn’t simply falling in line or saying one thing while doing another; this is a carefully considered choice. At some level, I find that in the balance between the way I’d like to teach and the way my students expect to interact with the course, I generally come down on the side of meeting student expectation because the burden on them to learn a new system for potentially every course they take is greater than the burden on me to adapt my work to a flawed system for one or two preps per semester (since I generally teach multiple sections of the same course each semester). Since the LMS is automatically rigged up for me by my institution, and students are using it for their other classes, it is an ideal point of contact for us, despite all its problems.

All that being said, Canvas is making contract grading REALLY HARD.

I’m sure it can be done. I’m not sure I have the strength, cunning, or energy to do it.

You see, midterm grades happened like two weeks ago. So, of course, now my students are having anxiety about grades. The problem is that Canvas is still telling them what “grade” they have in the course, despite my best efforts to suppress actual grading. I used complete/incomplete options for nearly everything. I posted the syllabus in multiple places. But Canvas has a place, outside of my control in my own classes, where students can see all their “grades” at once for all their classes. And Canvas is lying to them.

And, given that I’m easily in a higher tier of Canvas skill compared to many of my colleagues, I’m guessing that Canvas is lying to my students about more than just my own class. And I suspect other LMSs have similar problems.

To-do list on a spiral notebook, reading "Today" with numbers 1 through 3 and nothing beside the numbers
How contract grading should look, really.

The thing about the contract grade is that it’s basically a checklist. Complete these tasks, get this grade. I like this idea in general; it banks grades, so that poor performance later in the semester doesn’t undo good performance at the beginning of the semester, but it also balances so that later good performance can make up for early mistakes.

Canvas, however, is optimized for weighted percentage grades that translate into letter grades. It doesn’t understand checklists. Despite being a computer algorithm, it’s actually really bad at binaries. How bad is Canvas at checklists? Well, for some utterly bizarre reason, it defaults to counting missing assignments after the due date as 100% instead of 0%. This generally results in the students who most need to be told that they’re failing being told, instead, that they have As in the class and nothing they have to do to keep up. This is obviously wrong, even in traditional weighted grades, but completely opposite of the goal in a checklist-based system. And its worse even than simply students might be a little misled; the students who are most likely to be misled are generally the ones who aren’t familiar with the syllabus or who don’t think to ask their teachers because they’re used to relying on apps to tell them things and assume that the algorithm is correct, and because Canvas prioritizes scores and letter grades over course policies and communication with instructors, they are simply interacting with the app in the ways that the UX encourages them to do.

And here’s the core thing: as a series of algorithms, LMSs are not neutral things. Algorithms have a particular challenge of seeming neutral and impartial, but actually being quite political, as has been noted by a number of scholars, perhaps foremost of them Ian Bogost. The fact that Canvas makes it easier for students to see grades, calculated on assumptions that prioritize testing (quizzes are really optimized in Canvas) and weighted percentage grades, than it does for students to see feedback or communicate with their instructors speaks volumes about what Instructure believes the basic functions of education are. Honestly, all I’m asking is that my students have to make as many clicks to see their so-called grades as they do to see my syllabus or my feedback on their work.

Contract grading seeks to make the relationship between instructor and student more mutual and transparent. LMSs do exactly the opposite, making the relationship mediated by an algorithm that clearly claims that students need only worry about a letter on a grade card, rather than any content in the course or relationship with instructors. I maintain that it is possible to ameliorate this situation, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to take a lot more micromanagement of the LMS than I was prepared to do this semester.

To that end, I do encourage anyone consider contract grading to seek out an alternative to their LMS or find some other way to regularly communicate with students regarding grades, because 12+ years of training that grades come first isn’t going to be undone with one contract grading syllabus, and the LMS isn’t going to help us.

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