278. Google Apps and the LMS

Creating course content in an LMS can be time-consuming and tedious. In this episode, Dave Ghidiu joins us to discuss ways of leveraging Google Apps to simplify content creation, facilitate student collaboration, and to allow students to maintain access to their work after the semester ends.

Dave is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Coordinator of the Gladys M. Snyder Center for Teaching and Learning at Finger Lakes Community College. Previous to his time at FLCC, he spent a few years as a Senior Instructional Designer at Open SUNY, where he was a lead designer for the OSCQR rubric software.

Show Notes


John: Creating course content in an LMS can be time-consuming and tedious. In this episode, we explore ways to leverage Google Apps to simplify content creation, facilitate student collaboration, and to allow students to maintain access to their work after the semester ends.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


Rebecca: Our guest today is Dave Ghidiu. Dave is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Coordinator of the Gladys M. Snyder Center for Teaching and Learning at Finger Lakes Community College. Previous to his time at FLCC, he spent a few years as a Senior Instructional Designer at Open SUNY, where he was a lead designer for the OSCQR rubric software. Welcome, Dave.

Dave: Thank you so much. This is so exciting to talk to you, too. I’m sure you don’t know this, but we have a very rich and robust parasocial relationship.

John: Today’s teas are: … Dave, Are you drinking tea?

Dave: I am. Halee, over at Saratoga Tea and Honey, makes tea bought from scratch and has made this Focus Pocus which is really, really good. I thought I would need my brain fog busting blend today.

Rebecca: I think I really needed that earlier in the week. [LAUGHTER] I just have English breakfast today, John.

John: And I have Tea Forte black currant tea with some honey from Saratoga Tea and Honey.

Dave: Their honey selection is out of this world.

John: It’s amazing, and they offer free samples, which is one of the reasons why I end up buying so much because there’s so many different flavors that taste so good.

Rebecca: And just for clarification, they’re not a sponsor. [LAUGHTER] It’s just a common choice lately.

John: That’s right, because that was [LAUGHTER] also in our last podcast with Jim Lang.

Dave: Oh, it was it really? Oh. that’s awesome. My wife, Katie went to high school with Halee, which is how we wound up shopping there.

Rebecca: Oh, that’s funny. So Dave, in January, you presented a workshop at SUNY Oswego, where you describe ways to use Google Apps to simplify repetitive tasks. I took many notes, started implementing some of these things. Could you provide a little bit of an overview of the basic strategy that you advocated for / continue to advocate for?

Dave: Yeah, that was a ball presenting, there was so much engagement and some really, really good questions during the presentation. Thank you for inviting me out. I think we’ll start with some level setting and I just want to let you know that everything we talk about today is using Google Docs in tandem with the LMS. At FLCC, Finger Lakes Community College, we use Brightspace. So everything that we do, and we’re talking about today will be irrespective of what software the campus uses. In fact, at FLCC, we’re a Microsoft house, and I just happened to have a better workflow with Google Docs. So I think it’s important for the audience to know that you don’t need to have Google Classroom, you don’t need to be a Google campus, you can do all this stuff today.

Rebecca: And a lot of it’s documented on won…. what’s the website?

Dave: As you know, SUNY migrated to Brightspace last year, and we in the computing science department at FLCC kicked the tires quite a bit on it. So much so that we were doing all these really niche, interesting things. So Carrie, who’s one of the professors in the department, says, “Hey, we should have a mini-Summit.” So we all got together and did a show and tell of all the things that we’ve been doing. And I chronicled all those, I wrote them down. And I just started a blog called LEARNBrightspace.com. So that will have a lot of these things that perhaps you didn’t learn in the Brightspace training, and it can potentiate your online classes. And this is also the home of where I’m putting these Google mechanisms, because I think it really blurs the line. I’m using Brightspace, just as much as I’m using Google Drive and Google workspace. So all these ideas and concepts will live at LEARNbrightspace.com.

John: And having noted that this is created for Brightspace, many of the tools that you’re referring to and the basic techniques could work with any LMS, Correct?

Dave: Correct. In fact, I started this project, working at MCC, 2010 – 2012. So I was using ANGEL at the time. And then we migrated to Blackboard. And I started ramping it up and now we’re using Brightspace. So this will work in any LMS. But it will also work just in a regular website. This is just all pure HTML.

John: And from what I recall, the basic principle is you try to reduce repetitive tasks within the LMS by leveraging Google Drive and Google Apps.

Dave: Sure, I call that the tyranny of repetition and software development, we have what’s known as the ground truth, and you want all the information to exist in one place and push it out in separate places. I have a twin brother who’s a software engineer, and he always talks about ground truth. I call it the single point of truth, but it’s the same thing. And a good example is your office hours. Since I’ve been listening to you, I’ve rebranded them as my student time, but your office hours, you want to have it in one spot, but push it out, maybe in your LMS. Maybe in your syllabus, perhaps you have three or four or five different syllabi, so you have it living in one spot and change it in that one spot. And you can push it out to all these other arenas. You don’t have to worry about updating it in 5, 6. 7 different spots.

Rebecca: And how do you do that?

Dave: Well, there’s a few different ways to do this. And I think the easiest way to explain it would be for this particular task. And this is going to be a concrete example of how I use this single point of truth. I use Google Sheets, Google Sheets is great for formatting tables. So I format my table. And then I highlight what I want to put, for instance, in my syllabus, and then I copy that, and I go into my syllabus, which lives in Google Docs, and I paste and when you paste, it says, “Hey, do you want to link this to the Google sheet so that if the Google Sheet ever changes or updates, we can see the changes here?” So I always click on yes, that’s exactly what I want. And the very first time I do that, I spent a little bit of time formatting it in Google Docs where I have to like bring the margins over, it’s not that hard of a lift, it goes pretty easy. Once that’s done, I’m done. I never have to reformat that table. So when I come the next semester, and I change my student time, or my office hours, I can just push those right to my Google Docs. The other place I do that is within the LMS. So within Brightspace, I have a page that says office hours or student time, and I actually embed a Google sheet right there. So when the students click on office hours or student time, they will see maybe a little blurb by me that says, “Hey, if you’re meeting in my office, here’s my office number, if you want a link to my virtual room, here it is, and look below, and you can see all my time.” And that’s really just the Google Sheet. Once I update that Google Sheet, I never touch that content in my course. And that’s semester to semester. Once I set up my course, I never touch that content again, because all the changes are live,

Rebecca: Does embedding a Google Doc or a Google sheet in an LMS present any accessibility concerns that we should be aware of?

Dave: As long as you’re using the iframe tag, they actually have a long description tag, which is not necessarily all tagged, but I think they’re screen-reader compliant, but iframes, use whatever accessibility is in the target site. So for instance, if I framed Tea for Teaching, if your site’s compliant than whatever my LMS, when I embed Tea for Teaching would use that compliancy, the screen reader just would actually be reading the Tea for Teaching website. So as long as your Google Doc and your Google Sheet or whatever you’re embedding is accessible, then this is also accessible.

Rebecca: So it’d be important to do things like have header rows and that kind of thing. And if you’re using Google Docs, you might want to know about Grackle, which is a great accessibility tool to check your accessibility of those files.

Dave: Oh, that’s interesting, because Microsoft does a really good job, with Word, of making things accessible, and they have their accessibility checker. I haven’t seen that in Google Docs. Are you using Grackle?

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s a third party tool that we have on our campus. And it works across Google Docs, Google Sheets, Google Slides, and will help improve the accessibility of all those documents and any PDFs you might need to export.

Dave: Oh, that’s awesome. I’m glad I came today. I’ll look that up as soon as we’re done. It is worth mentioning, and I’m glad you said that. In Google Docs, and I spend most of my time in Google Docs, not Google Sheets. In Google Docs, I’m always using headings, I like the textual hierarchy. And I always do the alt tags, there’s a lot of easy things to do that make my life easier and make it more accessible for anyone viewing the content. In fact, and I believe I demoed this in January, most of the assignments that I give my students are a Google Doc, and I have them make a copy of it. And then they paste images in for a lab, we’re doing computer science stuff. And I use those headings. So when they give me their Google Doc, I don’t have to scroll through 20 pages, I can use the document outline and click on the different headings where I know their answers are going to be so I can just skim it real real easily. So this is just another example of Universal Design writ large that it is better for the student, it’s better for me, it’s better for everyone.

Rebecca: That’s totally the strategy I use too, Dave.

Dave: Oh, really? Oh, that’s interesting. I’m so glad to hear that.

John: And so if you’re sharing templates with students for assignments, you can set them up to be accessible so that when you submit them, it’ll automatically have the heading structure.

Dave: Yeah, in fact, one of the things that I do, and I demo this in the video in the recording in January, but also at LEARNbrightspace.com, one of the tabs says “Tools,” and in this particular thing, you can paste in the URL of your Google Doc. But one of the things I do is: instead of making a template or saying to the students click in this Google Doc go to file, save as a copy, you can just change the URL of the link to your doc and chop off the last four characters that say “edit” and make it “copy.” So when the students click on the link, it’ll actually force a copy in their Google Drive. So that’s just one of the nice things you can do with those links. And one of the really, really cool ways to bend these URLs is you can make a link that goes to your Google Doc. You can also make a link by changing “edit” to “copy” that will force a copy. You can make a link instead of edit, you can do “export?format=PDF,” and that will take a carbon copy of your Google Doc and download it as a PDF. And that’s a great thing to do, for instance, for my course syllabus, because my course syllabus is embedded. Any change I make to my course syllabus in Google Docs gets pushed out automatically, but students like to print that out. So, I just put a link right on my page in my LMS, where the course outline is, or your syllabus, and it says “Click here, if you want to download it as a PDF,” and that download it as a PDF, “Click here if you want download as a Word,” and it just downloads as a Word. And it’s not that I’m hosting a PDF or Word, it’s converting my google doc at that moment in time to a PDF and downloading it. So that’s really, really slick. And that’s a great way to get your course materials into students’ hands.

Rebecca: And I’m pretty sure I saw the code to that button on your website.

Dave: You did, at LEARNBrightspace.com. You go to LEARNBrightspace.com, you paste in your URL of your Google Doc, and it gives you the code for those buttons, it gives you the code to in bet it gives you a code to do a thumbnail of your image, which is live, and it gives you the code to embed a QR code should you want that. You can just do some really crazy things. And I think that’s a perfect example of how to learn what you can do, is just go to that website and check out like, “Oh, I can download it as a Word file.” This is a great example of a single point of truth. I have one course outline and I might have it in three or four different classes, I have different sections. I only update it in my Google Docs, and all the courses where that embedded file lives, they get to see all those changes. And you remember in the good old days, or the Dark Ages, rather, of LMSs. So if I had a PowerPoint, for instance, and I changed my PowerPoint, I’d have to go into all those sections and take down that PowerPoint and upload a new one. But I don’t need to do that anymore. If I have Google Slides, I just change the slides. Because once it’s linked in your LMS, or once it’s embedded, you never have to touch that piece of content in your LMS again. You make as many changes as you want to your slideshow and it’s live immediately. And by the way, you can do the same thing with links to Google Slides, where it can download as a PDF, download it as a PowerPoin.,

John: The show notes file accompanying this podcast will contain links to the LEARNBrightspace.com website and to the recording of the workshop that you provided in January at Oswego for anyone who wishes to explore these options in more depth.

Dave: Awesome. I just started making this website, so I’ll be building it out. And again, it’s going to have a lot of Brightspace stuff, but also all this Google stuff that I’ve been doing for a few years.

John: One of the other things you demonstrated was the use of Google draw to automatically update images in an LMS, such as the ones that you used to signal whether a module was open or not. Could you tell us a little bit about how that might work?

Dave: Yeah, so I actually have a very unhealthy relationship and dependency on Google drawings. And I thought it was just like a throwaway tool. But once I started using it, I was like, “Oh, this is really, really slick.” So much like a Google Doc, my syllabus or Google Slides, you can embed a Google drawing. In Brightspace, we have the visual table of contents which Rebecca, I’m sure you had like a ball with, given your role in graphic design. The visual table of contents, if you don’t have an image in the description for your module, then it will just inherit whatever your course image is, in the main course. Using Google Drawings, I’ve created thumbnails for each of the chapters. So when you look at the visual table of contents, each chapter has a unique image that somehow intimates what we’re doing in that chapter. And then I put like a big one in a circle, or big two or big three, whatever chapter it’s on. Because it’s a live image, I can change the look and feel of it. So I have a gray overlay that I put over upcoming chapters. And then I have a banner that stretches across and says “upcoming.” So the students on day one can see all the chapters, and anything that’s upcoming, they can kind of see what the chapter is about with that thumbnail because it’s behind like a somewhat transparent gray rectangle, and they can see the big banner that says upcoming. But then when that module opens, I just go into Google Drawings, that gray rectangle on the banner, I send that to back, and you can’t see it anymore. So when the students come into my course, that’s how they know what the most recent chapter is. Anything that says upcoming and is gray, that’s in the future. Anything that’s bright and exposed, that’s what we’re doing now.

Rebecca: For those that are familiar with Google Draw, because, I don’t know many of us have thought of it as being kind of a junk app… [LAUGHTER]…

John: …spoken by someone who is used to that Photoshop stuff.

Rebecca: …can you talk to us a little bit about what it’s capable of doing and what it’s not capable of doing?

Dave: Yes, it is not capable of doing Photoshop. So you’re not going to have a lot of those high-end or even mid-range tools, such as the content aware or the lasso tool, it just doesn’t have all that. This is more for what I would say as graphic design if you’re doing almost illustrations or almost vector images. And you can put photographs up there. But I use it mostly as textbox, some colors, and I don’t want to undersell it, because right now I’m convincing myself that it is kind of a puny little web app, but it’s so potent in the ability to change the content of an image. So if you want to embed that image in your course you can change it and it does do some high-end things. You can crop in different shapes. But really, if you’re looking for Photoshop, this is not an adequate replacement.

John: But the ability to do layers offers some really nice capabilities as you described, because a lot of basic drawing apps will not allow you to introduce or to have layers.

Dave: That’s a good point. And there’s also the ability, much like Photoshop, it has a canvas, but then… and I don’t know what you call the area outside of the canvas, I call it the staging area. So I can put things that I might be using later in that staging area, and it’s not visible in the image. And that’s also where I put… and Rebecca, you’ve been asking about accessibility, I keep my alt text in the very first text box in this staging area so that if a screen reader is reading it, my alt text is right there. It also makes it very easy when I need to embed it later on. Because I don’t have to keep retyping the alt text, I keep it right there.

Rebecca: That leads exactly to what I was going to ask you about. It’s almost like a read my mind is whether or not, when you’re creating these Google Drawings, if it actually maintains text or not, because that indicates an accessibility issue, if it’s an image of text, or if it’s actually text.

Dave: For the listeners that want to pull this thread, when you publish the image it is, is for all intents and purposes, a jpg png. So it’s going to be a flattened image…

Rebecca: no SVG, huh?.

Dave: Actually, you can download it as an SVG, I believe, I don’t know if you can embed it as an SVG.

Rebecca: If I can’t embed, it’s no good to me. [LAUGHTER]

Dave: One of the ways that I use Google drawings, and I saw this at a conference, and the professor who was presenting was not presenting this aspect. This was just like a throwaway thing she was doing and I was blown away. I was like, “Woah, that is really cool.” So I stole this from someone I saw presenting. She doesn’t embed it as a JPEG or PNG, she actually embeds the Google Drawings website. So if you change the “/edit” or “/preview,” and you can do that in Docs as well, it gives you a more packaged… it doesn’t have the toolbar… and if you do it that way, you do have access to all the text. But one of the things that I really like about it, and I’m glad that we’re going down this road, is I make… think of it like a horizontal rectangle, and I have three squares side by side in that rectangle. So when it comes time to exemplary work, for instance, in my class right now, students are making infographics and they might not have ever made an infographic before. So I say, “Hey, here’s some work students have done in the past.” And I take a screenshot of three really good infographics and I make thumbnails all in this Google drawing. It’s just one Google drawing that has those three thumbnails. I make those hyperlinks. So now when I embed this Google drawings, not as an image, but this Google drawings in preview mode, students can click on these different hyperlinks and it pops up PDFs that actually live in my Google Drive of the actual infographic. So to answer your question, you can embed your Google drawings in such a way that text is retained. But, my caution is, I think with accessibility your mileage may vary if you’re actually embedding the Google drawing app as opposed to an actual image.

Rebecca: Proceed with caution when putting text and images. Yes,

Dave: I did work on OSCQR, when I was working with Alex Pickett and Dan Feinberg at Open SUNY, and I think Alex been a guest on your podcast before, right?

John: She has, a couple of times.

Dave: And by the way, I think working with Alex and Dan really helped me explore all this stuff in Google as we were working on that Google software. But in the OSCQR, I think that it says “Do not ever use text on an image as your primary way of conveying information.”

Rebecca: Indeed.

John: People can refer back to a discussion of an earlier iteration of the OSCQR rubric, because it’s continuing to evolve.

Dave: It sure is, and I’m not involved with that project anymore, but I’m always really impressed when I see the new things that they’re doing.

John: You’re at a Microsoft campus where students all have access to Microsoft Office apps. So why do you choose to have students work in Google Docs?

Dave: That’s an interesting question that oftentimes when I talk to other campuses about this, that that question comes up quite a bit. I like Google Docs for a number of reasons. One, more and more students are coming to college and they’re more comfortable with Google Docs. And to be clear, most of the stuff that I do in Google Docs you can do with the Microsoft suite. And when I say Google Docs, that’s just a proxy for Google workspace or Google Drive. There’s a number of ways that people have colloquially referred to it. I like Google Docs for a number of reasons. One of the reasons why I like having students use Google Docs is version control is so simple, because unlike Microsoft Word where you might have a version on your desktop, and then you go to another computer, and you have to download it, that’s just obviated with Google Docs. But I really enjoy having my students submit in the LMS, just a link to their Google Doc, and they’re sharing it with me. I actually have them share it so that anyone with the link can comment, because all I really want to do is comment on their work. One of the problems I had with uploading a PDF or Word file is I might spend some time annotating it, and I might spend some time just like highlighting it. And those tools in the LMS have been a little wonky and unreliable at times. And by the way, the students, when the semester ends, they might not ever get that file. So all the work that we’ve put into commenting and highlighting on their work, they might not ever see that if they didn’t even know they could go back and look at their work. So I like Google Doc, because if they own it, even when the semester is over, they still have access to it, which is not how it works if students upload a file. So that was my primary impetus. But I found recently that I’m really, really happy with their commenting feature. So when I leave a comment in their work, and I like to leave comments,that’s like footprints that I’ve been looking at their work. When I leave a comment, they get an email to their Gmail account, and it says “Hey, Dave left a comment,” but also says “Would you like to reply?” and they can just, right from their phone or wherever they get this email message, they don’t have to go into Brightspace, they can just reply to that comment. And I really think that’s an equilibrium I haven’t seen in LMS’s before. It’s really been teacher centric, where the student uploads a document, the teacher says, “Let me as the teacher make some comments,” and the conversation ends there. Whereas in Google Docs, now you can have these conversations that are bilateral. In fact, I was talking to my wife about this the other day, she’s the Director of the library at MCC, but she teaches a class at FLCC and she uses Google Docs. And she said, “You know, I was in there. And I was just leaving some comments on papers for the students, and one of my students got an email notification, she popped right into the document and we actually had a conversation in the comments.” So I think that’s really, really neat. And I like that the students can leave the semester and still have it. And Google also rolled out this feature a few months ago, that allows you to, in addition to commenting, there’s an emoji button and you hit that emoji button and you can just add an emoji on whatever you’re highlighted. And it’s really, really slick, because I might historically say, “Hey, I really liked what you did here.” But now I can just leave an emoji thumbs up or smiley face or whatever I’m going to do. So that’s a little bit better for me, because I can cruise through the work and let people know my sentiment without having to be very verbose.

Rebecca: And you can save that language or when you really need it…

Dave: Yeah.

Rebecca: …which may mean it might actually get read.

Dave: Oh, that’s an interesting point, yeah.

John: Another reason for using Google apps is that they are something that most students have worked with in elementary and secondary school, because Google Classroom is a really commonly used tool and students are already used to that environment. Another thing that I’ve liked about Google Apps is the ease of collaboration where students can collaborate in real time on Google docs, Google slides, or Google sheets and that just doesn’t always work quite as smoothly in other Office applications as it does in Google apps..

Dave: Yeah, I feel like Microsoft is always like six to 12 months behind Google when it comes to innovation in the collaboration. So it’s nice to have that ecosystem. I think it’s also worth noting for the collaboration, and I’m glad you said that, the LMS doesn’t have collaboration built in, at least at the faculty level. So if there are two or three other people in the department teaching the same class I am, but different sections, it’s a little cumbersome for us to ask to be in each other’s section. And you can easily screw things up. So if we have a lot of our content in Google Docs, again, we don’t need to be bothering Jeff Dugan, who’s the Assistant Director of Online Learning at FLCC and say, “Hey, Jeff, can you add me to the sections over here?” we can just manage that ourselves in Google Drive.

Rebecca: I really appreciate the collaborative nature of Google Docs and just the Google apps generally. I use that as well for peer feedback and evaluation. I like the flattening of the hierarchy between the faculty member and the student. And you can collaborate on things. It works really well when I’m working with upper-level students or graduate students where the process really is more of a mentorship or more collaborative in nature in the first place. And it’s happening more in real time. But I always am concerned about the ability to document and maintain copies of things. Because when the students own the thing, then you have to develop a system to back stuff up, when if they’re uploading a document or something to an LMS, that backup is kind of happening. Do you have any strategies for that?

Dave: I’m working on this software right now, and I had this working with Blackboard and then we switched Brightspace so I have to change the paradigm. But I actually create my content, all the Google Docs, all the Google Sheets, whatever I’m going to do in one folder, and then I get a roster for my students. And I effectively make a folder for each student, and I give them read/write access to that folder, but I’m still the document owner, and then I can push out, I can copy all the documents into each of their folders. That is, I think, the golden standard. And then at the end of the semester, I can turn that work over to the student and I can make copies if I so choose. So I had all that infrastructure written and it was working great in Blackboard, so I’m back to square one with Brightspace. But that’s not stopping me because I still think it’s valuable even if I don’t necessarily have access to their work after the semester ends. There is a revisions feature in Google Docs too, which a lot of people don’t know about. And this is why I keep using the same syllabus that I’ve been using since 2019. I make changes whenever I need to, if there’s a typo, or if I change it from fall to spring. And if a student comes back to me, and they say, “Hey, I’m transferring, I need the syllabus from two semesters ago. Can you give that to me?” I just go to that same document, I go to file revisions, and I can pick a date and it rolls back to that date. I print it, give it to the student, and then I go back. So it’s not a perfect system, but it’s a good enough system that I think covers all my bases for right now.

Rebecca: In the past, I just had a folder that I had students submit their work in. [LAUGHTER] It was like “Put your copy here, please.”

Dave: And I think one of the things we didn’t really talk about and I think you were talking about it, but I hadn’t really considered this, is the group work. It’s just so much easier. You don’t have to make the different groups in your LMS and then articulate who has access to what, it’s all built in. To be clear, I love the LMS because it can have those features, I would never just use Google Docs alone. I need the LMS to distribute the content to say who can see what and when to manage the grades and have the assessments. But the Google docs are kind of the meat of what I use. So the skeleton is the LMS and the Google docs are the meat.

John: For quite a few years, I’ve had students do some open pedagogy projects, where they’re working in groups for their own components, but they also are working on some shared materials. And I just download a spreadsheet from our registration system with all their email addresses in it, and use that to share that class folder with them, and then just create subfolders for each group and let them work in there. And then when they’re ready to share it with the rest of the class for peer review, we just copy it from those sub folders, and they have access to it as long as they don’t remove the access after the semester is done. And it’s worked really nicely, because the basic issue Rebecca was talking about is sometimes when students would share a URL to a file, they forgot to change the access so that other people could view it. But if they start in a document that you already have access to, all those problems just go away and that makes it a lot easier.

Dave: It sure does. And in fact, Rebecca, that problem I have all the time. So my very first assignment in all my classes is: make a copy of this Google Doc, share it appropriately, and send me the link. And because there’s these interactive checkboxes that you can do in Google Docs, I have a checklist. So I kind of get rid of that problem immediately. But I’m glad you talked about also open pedagogy. It was either one of your podcasts, or maybe it was Teaching in Higher Ed, but I was listening to some stuff about open pedagogy. And also, I’m married to the director of the library at MCC. And so that might have had something to do with it. And we created at FLCC our Java textbook. It is all open pedagogy. The faculty kind of did the bones, but the students, and this textbook’s been around for like three or four years now, the students, even today I’m getting email messages like such and such made this change… that even today, someone’s like, “Hey, it would be really cool if you thought about talking about this.” So we get hundreds of comments every semester, because our one open textbook is commented on by all the students… we share it so that they can comment. And likewise, in my principles of information security class, we have the students every semester look at a recent cybersecurity issue, debrief what happened, and give an analysis of like this could have been avoided if you’ve done a, b and c. So they create them in Google Docs, I aggregate them all into a PDF, and then that PDF lives in Google Drive, and I actually embed it in the course. So students next semester can see all the work that the students have done this semester. And there is a conversation that students have about Creative Commons, so they know what they’re getting into.

John: One of the things you shared in that workshop presentation was a tool that would allow you to use markup to create documents outside of the LMS that could then be embedded in the LMS. And that’s specifically in Brightspace, so this may not be as generally applicable. But could you talk a little bit about that tool and why you might want to do that.

Dave: I would love to talk about this tool. And I would love to take credit for it, but I can’t. Aaron Sullivan, who’s a professor in the department, came up with it and he was suffering a different tyranny, not the tyranny of repetition. He was the tyranny of formatting your texts in Blackboard only when you hit the submit button, it wouldn’t render how you thought it would. He’s like “There’s got to be a better way.” So he started this project in Blackboard, and then when we switched to Brightspace, he tweaked it for Brightspace. It takes someone like me, who is very good at math, computer science, but I have no eye for design, and my students think that I’m a graphic design luminary. What his software does is just… I can’t even describe it, you’ll have to go back and watch the video, but it thrives on markdown, which is a very simple language. In Microsoft Word you might highlight text and then hit the bold button to make it bold. Or if you’re savvy you might hit Ctrl-B or Command-B if you’re on a Mac to make it bold. Markdown is even lower level than that. So you would say for bold, I think, you put an asterisk before the words, before the text and after the text, and italics will be an underline. But Aaron’s gone bonkers with this. And he’s come up with all sorts of ways with very, very easy to apprehend markdown codes, make your course in Brightspace just eye-poppingly delicious. It is unbelievable. I can’t say enough good things about it. And you kind of have to know a little bit about markdown, but it’s the kind of thing where you can easily digest and be like today I’m going to work on bullet points, and bullet points, by the way, it’s just an asterisk. I’m going to work on bullet points, and then it converts it to all the HTML and just paste the HTML into your course. And then maybe the next day like “Oh, I really want to do the accordions because Brightspace has the accordions built in, and also the tabbed interfaces. But it’s really hard with the way Brightspace is setup, at least at Fingerlakes, to have both of those on the same page. So Aaron has distilled everything to be a very easy language where you can just do like ^acc, and that creates an accordion. It’s awesome. It just saves so much work. And then we actually save all our text files. We use GitHub and I make it public but you could use it in OneDrive or in Google Drive. You just host these text files. So when it comes time next semester and you want to tweak things, you just tweak this text file, run it through Aaron’s software, which is at LEARNBrightspace.com You run it through the software and it translates everything to the HTML with the JavaScript and the CSS and you just paste it in Brightspace and it works and it looks gorgeous and it’s responsive. It has heightened my aesthetic game by about 1,000,000,000%.

John: And the way the accordions, for example, in Brightspace work is there’s an accordion template that you can use as a style sheet. The default page has 6 blank accordion templates on it corresponding to 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 item accordions, and then you delete the ones you’re not using. And then you just paste or type your content into that accordion template’s contents. But this tool, you don’t have to do any of that. And you’re not limited to a six-item accordion, if I recall correctly.

Dave: You can do more than six if you’re really brave with your HTML. But like, who knows what happens. And the other issue is you can’t do accordions and anything else, because the templates don’t have accordions and tabs, I don’t think. So if you want to have both those in one piece of content, then you kind of have to maybe open up another tab that’s like your sacrificial tab, and it’s just really, really wonky. So Aaron’s software, we’ve been calling it “Markdown to Brightspace.,” that’s the working name, anyhow. You can see that at LearnBrightspace.com. We will be building that out with videos and things to help people understand how to use the tool because it is more power than one person should wield.

Rebecca: That, at least, reduces high levels of irritation.

Dave: Yeah, Brightspace and Blackboard both have much better text editors than they did two years ago. The one and Brightspace, it’s just so unreliable, which is I think, what drove Aaron mad enough to make the software. And to your question earlier, John, I think that it did work for Blackboard and it can work for HTML, but we need to add some tweaks to it just to make sure that it’s universal. So right now, the predominant version is for Brightspace.

John: It would be nice if there was a universal translator type application that would generate the code in Blackboard, or Brightspace, or Canvas or any other commonly used LMS.

Dave: And Aaron’s is very, very close, it would really be just some small, small tweaks. But I will tell you, just last night, in my role at the Center for Teaching and Learning, I send out a newsletter every week. And I’ve been doing it in Outlook and you can do some things. And last night, I was like, I wonder if I can use Aaron’s software to do this. So I use the markdown I created an email, like a template, and then instead of copying the HTML code, I literally highlighted all the HTML, not the code, but the actual like images and graphics and stuff. And I just pasted it into Outlook, and it is gorgeous. It is absolutely beautiful. So perhaps that might be a way to have that work in other LMS’s, I would encourage people to look at that video. Because I think that having the how to of how to do all the things we’ve been talking about might help. And that was the video from your professional development in January. And just keep coming back to LEARNBrightspace.com. By the way, it’s not monetized and I don’t track you or anything… purely putting out there for the benefit of the world. But we’ll be publishing more stuff on Brightspace, some really cool, wacky things you can do there, we’re going to be putting out some really cool, wacky things you can do with Google Docs. And we’re going to be doing some really cool wacky things that you can do with Aaron’s markdown software.

Rebecca: Sounds exciting, and it’s interesting that you’ve said all these things that are coming. But our last question is always: “What’s next?” And now you have to come up with something else.

Dave: Well, I knew that was going to be your question, I thought I could preempt that. But I would say some of the things that I’m working on right now is first of all accessibility. So if anyone out there is listening to this and is an accessibility expert and wants to team up with me to refine my processes, and I can see you waving to me so maybe we can chat offline and really just check this and make it more accessible. The other thing is, I’m working on a few other projects that I think would be of benefit to educators and not of benefit to anyone else. And that all uses Google Docs. So for instance, I have a spreadsheet where I keep comments that I might use for different assignments. But then one of the reasons I really like Google Docs, being a computer nerd, is every Google Doc and Google sheet has a JavaScript component to it. So you can build software off spreadsheets. So some of the software I built is this comment generator. So you manage the comments in your Google Sheet, and then you hit a button and it pops up this nice window with all the comments and it’s tabbed for the different classes you teach. And you can just click on the comment, it copies it into your clipboard, and then you can just paste it. So when you’re grading, and assessing other students’ work, it just makes it go a little bit faster. And I’m also working on rebuilding that tool that I was talking about earlier, where it can spin off Google Docs for all the students in your class, and then you own them until the end of the semester where you can turn custody over to them. So I’m constantly building tools to help me be faster and better at what I do. And hopefully sharing those with other people along the way.

Rebecca: Yeah, if you need a user tester for backing up documents. [LAUGHTER]

Dave: Yeah, I would happily swap that experience with some accessibility knowledge.

Rebecca: That sounds fair. Well, thanks so much for joining us. It’s always a pleasure, and we always take away something new.

John: Thank you. It’s great talking to you, as always,

Dave: Yeah, it’s great seeing you too. And thank you so much. I really appreciate it. I just listened to, I think I told you this, but I listened to the most recent episode about Chet GPT and it blew me away. So keep doing what you’re doing because every episode is better than the previous, with the possible exception of this one. This one might be one of the low points, but the rest of them I really enjoy listening to.

John: Well, thank you


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.