Stuff that isn’t blog-post-worthy, but may be helpful to think out loud.

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Tools in D2l at UCalgary

In our Learning Technologies Advisory Committee Processes Working Group meeting this week, we were discussing how instructors access new tools, or enable existing tools. Much of the discussion was about communication, rather than the processes directly - instructors aren’t aware of the tools that are available, or what they can be used for, so they ask for new tools.

We have several applications available as the core online learning platforms at UCalgary:

  • D2L Brightspace
  • YuJa video content management
  • Adobe Connect (but Zoom coming soon?)
  • Top Hat
  • UCalgaryBlogs

Within each of those applications, there are many components that can be enabled or disabled, often at the individual course level. So, if something is disable (but available), an instructor may not even know about it.

When we deployed D2L back in 2013, we had an initial mandate to keep things as simple as possible - to disable tools and features that weren’t essential, in order to streamline the migration from Blackboard. One unintended consequence of that streamlining is that nobody was responsible to circle back and revisit those decisions to see if any of those tools and features should be enabled once the migration was complete. Here’s the very very long laundry list of tools available within D2L, and whether we’ve enabled them for use in courses by default:

Built-in Tools in D2L Brightspace

Tool Name Enabled Notes
Advanced Data Sets
Ally Integration Not sure what this involves… Why is accessibility testing disabled?
Audio Capture
Brightspace Data Sets
Brightspace Feed
Broken Link Viewer
Bulk Course Copy
Bulk Course Create
Bulk Course Export
Capture a separate video capture platform from D2L, not licensed.
CAS Integration single sign-on. but will be replaced with Shibboleth someday…
Chat it’s a thing, but we haven’t tested or supported it.
Class Progress
Completion Tracking
Content Service
Course Builder
Course Updater
Custom Course Branding
Custom Data Export
Custom Reporting Framework
Custom Terms and Conditions
Custom Update Sproc
External Learning Tools
Google Apps
Guided Trial
Import/Export/Copy Components
IMS Configuration
Intelligent Agents
Learning Groups
Learning Outcomes
Manage Dates
Manager Dashboard
Media Integration
Media Platform
My Org Units
Online Rooms Connect
Online Rooms Framework
Online Rooms Lync
Online Rooms WebEx
Pearson Scripted Links
Question Collections
Quick Eval
ReadSpeaker DocReader Integration
Remote Plugins
Seating Chart
Self Assessments
Self Registration
SIS Holding Tank
Trusted Sites
Urkund Integration
User Auditors
User Profile
Video Capture

That’s a long list. Of the ones that are enabled, many need additonal configuration before they are made available within courses (like WebEx - we don’t have a license, so I’m not sure what the tool could even do…)

I don’t even know what many of those are. Discover? Sounds useful. I have no idea. And Pager? I mean. It’s 2020. Students have never seen a pager, aside from maybe watching old movies or something. Most instructors probably haven’t seen a pager, either…

Google Apps? We don’t use Google - we’re an O365 campus. How did this even get enabled?

There are a few of those tools that are enabled but unknown - we need to do a better job of communicating what those tools can do. Chat? Could be useful. Blog? Maybe (but it’s a really quirky blogging tool, for anyone that’s used literally any other blogging tool ever made).

And this doesn’t include any third party tools that could be integrated via LTI or the D2L API.

Next steps:

  • Identify which of these tools should be enabled, which might be optional, and which should be disabled entirely.
  • Communicate that clearly to instructors so they know what’s available, and how the tools might be used in their courses.
  • Develop a clear and streamlined process for instructors to request integration of additional tools that aren’t on that list - including third party tools through LTI or other. How can instructors request access to a tool in a timely manner (they often realize they need a tool to do X maybe a week before the semester starts, or much later, and can’t wait for committees or Enterprise Review Processes to take place) so they’re able to effectively use tools without risking students’ privacy or intellectual property or several other things that instructors shouldn’t have to spend time becoming experts in before adopting a tool.

Links: Sample PD Sites Teaching Instructors About Online Learning

Keegan Long-Wheeler posted a tweet yesterday, and it got a lot of interesting responses:

Some of the links provided in response:

Websites / Guides


Open (text)books


Surveillance Capitalism

Shoshana Zuboff, in the New York Times:

We thought that we search Google, but now we understand that Google searches us. We assumed that we use social media to connect, but we learned that connection is how social media uses us. We barely questioned why our new TV or mattress had a privacy policy , but we’ve begun to understand that “privacy” policies are actually surveillance policies.


Surveillance capitalists are fast because they seek neither genuine consent nor consensus. They rely on psychic numbing and messages of inevitability to conjure the helplessness, resignation and confusion that paralyze their prey.


Surveillance capitalism begins by unilaterally staking a claim to private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data. Our lives are rendered as data flows.

The common trope of “if you don’t pay for it, you’re the product” is just the tip of the iceberg. This libertarian bullshit of blowing up society in order to hand it over to The Invisible Hand™ is some scary stuff. We coast along, and it’s happening behind the scenes. I have no idea if it can be stopped, or, some day, reversed.

Photoblog automation using iOS Shortcuts, Mk II

Shortcut automation, Mk II

Trying a photo publishing workflow to Hugo using iOS Shortcuts app. It’s almost working, but still a little funky. I still can’t get it to save the Hugo file as a .md file rather than .txt, so I’ll need to rename the file before publishing. But, still. Handy.

This Shortcut currently lets me pick a photo from Photos, resizes it to 750px wide for use on my blog, saves it where I tell it (but this could be done better…) then asks me for a title and description before generating a Hugo file entry with proper frontmatter. That can definitely be refined, but it’s a start.

here’s what it looks like. still lots of rough spots, but workable.


Brenna’s Digital Detox post about algorithms got me thinking about where algorithms and opaque magic bits of code intermediate what I see online. It’s definitely less than it has been, since unplugging from Facebook and reducing my Google exposure. But, still. These are the ones I’m aware of… (I’ll update this as I think of stuff and/or realize something’s managed by The Algorithm™)

Algorithmic stuff

  • Amazon - searches and listings are based on what they think I’ll buy. apparently, it’s a lot of chinese knock-off electronics for some reason. who knows how it determines what crap I should buy, or what crap I’m likely to buy even if I shouldn’t, but if I see it’s ON SALE NOW I might be 4% more likely to buy it on an impulse and have it delivered by 9am tomorrow…
  • Apple Mail. Junk filter - it’s pretty accurate, but I have no visibility into how it does what it does.
  • Apple Music. “Hey siri, play my radio station” - I have no idea how it comes up with the playlist. It’s almost always perfection. Based on likes/dislikes and previous plays? some input based on what friends are listening to? some trending stuff? opacity.
  • Apple News. I don’t know how it decides which stories I need to see. It’s not very accurate, though.
  • DuckDuckGo search results. I assume it’s purely relevance-related, but who knows? And how is “relevance” defined? This is 99% of my search engine use.
  • Google search results. Only in the rare cases where DDG doesn’t find something I need. Who knows how this crap is sorted/filtered/promoted.
  • Office365 Mail Focused/Other inboxes (which messages are deemed “important” and which are “noise” and can be dealt with later)
  • New York Times’ “For You” section.
  • Reddit front page & Popular - based roughly on what subreddits I subscribe to, with some wackiness involving activity somehow. Definitely not just based on chronological order. Who knows…
  • Twitter feed. It sure ain’t reverse-chronological order. I have no idea why it shows me what it shows me.

Non-algorithmic stuff

OK. It’s impossible for something to be completely non-algorithmic. Sorting is an algorithm. Pagination is an algorithm. But, things that don’t obviously intermediate in the content or people I see…

  • D2L Brightspace - courses, course content, etc. is all straightforward. There is an adaptive learning thing available, but we haven’t licensed it.
  • feed. I think it’s mostly reverse-chronologial order, but maybe it’s not.
  • NetNewsWire RSS feeds - it’s strictly reverse-chronological-order, with no cleverness applied. Perfect.

Disinformation Campaigns

John Gruber:

I really feel as a culture we are barely coming to grips with the power of YouTube, Facebook, and to some degree, Twitter, as means of spreading mass-market disinformation. The pre-internet era of TV, print, and radio was far from a panacea. But it just wasn’t feasible in those days for a disinformation campaign — whether from crackpots who believe the nonsense, corporate industry groups, or foreign governments — to get in front of the eyes of millions of people.

It feels like something out of a Kurt Vonnegut novel that this is not only the state we’re in today, but that big name mass market advertisers are running commercials on this stuff.

citing this article by Alex Hern in The Guardian:

The group found that more than 100 brands had adverts running on YouTube videos on the site that were actively promoting climate misinformation. The brands, including Samsung, L’Oreal and Decathlon, were unaware that their adverts were being played before and during the videos.

So. Companies buy ads, as they do. They let The Algorithm™ decide who gets to see the ads - and The Algorithm™ has one job - maximize revenue. It doesn’t care about ethics, or accuracy, or branding. All it cares about is “how can I get this ad in front of the most people, who are most likely to click on it so we can charge the advertiser more?". It doesn’t care if that means “show this ad to climate change deniers because they’re likely to click on it” or “hey - nazis kind of like clicking on stuff and they don’t really stop to think about the ethics of stuff, so here we go!”

The Olden Days of advertising, where a company had to spend a fortune on a big media buy on a national TV channel, or a national chain of newspapers, or give up on reach and spend less to hit a local market instead, made it difficult for these kinds of “markets” to be targetted - there was no way to push advertising to “climate change deniers” or “nazis” without, well, being explicit about it and settling for the niche. Now, advertisers can just say “hey - show this to as many people as possible” and The Algorithm™ does the dirty work. And there is no broad visibility on who gets to see it - nobody’s carrying around Nazi Gentleman’s Quarterly, they’re just logging into Facebook and YouTube and Twitter and seeing their own personal version of the world (including targetted advertising).

Dystopian hellscape, with no visibility or transparency or awareness of how this stuff works and what it’s doing to society.

The Tyranny of Convenience - The New York Times

A good article by Tim Wu in the New York Times, on the effects of convenience.

Convenience has the ability to make other options unthinkable.


Yet our taste for convenience begets more convenience, through a combination of the economics of scale and the power of habit. The easier it is to use Amazon, the more powerful Amazon becomes — and thus the easier it becomes to use Amazon. Convenience and monopoly seem to be natural bedfellows.

(Extend that line of thought to Twitter/Facebook vs. individually owned websites distributed across the internet as a heterogeneous and diverse culture of sharing and interacting…)


We are spoiled by immediacy and become annoyed by tasks that remain at the old level of effort and time. When you can skip the line and buy concert tickets on your phone, waiting in line to vote in an election is irritating.

Source: The Tyranny of Convenience - The New York Times

This is why blogging largely died out (Alan pointed out in the comments that blogging has definitely not died out, and that there are still bajillions of active blogs. Which is awesome. But it still feels different now, to my curmudgeonish self) , replaced with tweeting. This is why RSS largely died out, (also, not so much actually dying out…) replaced with algorithmic activity streams. Because it’s easier to just numbly follow a stream. This has huge implications on how we interact with each other, and how we formalize our thoughts. It’s a race to the bottom, to the easiest possible form.

What to Say When You Meet the Angel of Death at a Party - The New York Times

A tragedy is like a fault line. A life is split into a before and an after, and most of the time, the before was better. Few people will let you admit that out loud.

Source: What to Say When You Meet the Angel of Death at a Party - The New York Times

That bit resonated. Actually, the whole article resonated a bit more than I’m comfortable with. Small talk becomes a bit like navigating a mental minefield. “How are you?” is either answered with a gentle lie, or with the truth. The gentle lie is what people are usually asking for, and, frankly, is what I usually want to say anyway. The truth is brutal and scary and life-altering and nuanced and exhausting. “I’m fine. How are you?”

The Looming Digital Meltdown - The New York Times

Zeynep Tufekci, in the NYTimes:

Modern computing security is like a flimsy house that needs to be fundamentally rebuilt. In recent years, we have suffered small collapses here and there, and made superficial fixes in response. There has been no real accountability for the companies at fault, even when the failures were a foreseeable result of underinvestment in security or substandard practices rather than an outdated trade-off of performance for security.

Source: The Looming Digital Meltdown - The New York Times

Her butler metaphor is great, too.

The World Is Getting Hacked. Why Don't We Do More to Stop It? -

Zeynep Tufekci, writing about the latest ransomware, in the New York Times:

If I have painted a bleak picture, it is because things are bleak. Our software evolves by layering new systems on old, and that means we have constructed entire cities upon crumbling swamps. And we live on the fault lines where more earthquakes are inevitable. All the key actors have to work together, and fast.

Source: The World Is Getting Hacked. Why Don’t We Do More to Stop It? -

In one of the Reddit threads about the ransomware, it was speculated that the “kill switch” (that was activated when an unregistered domain was registered by a security researcher) was really just a test in the code to see if the virus was running in a sandboxed environment. It tried to connect to a URL that didn’t exist. In a sandboxed environment, it would get something returned like or somesuch, and the code terminated to avoid being analyzed more deeply. Coincidentally, by registering the nonsense domain, all infected computers behaved (to the virus) as if they were sandboxed, so the code terminated.

But a new variant without this kill switch behavior is already in the wild. A leaked NSA “cyber weapon” is now in the wild, with no kill switch or any way to stop it. Awesome. Digital infiltration tools built by US military intelligence, now in the hands of Russian teenagers with no control or oversight.

The flip reaction is “update your systems, jerks!” - but it’s just not that simple or easy (for the reasons outlined by Zeynep in the article). And, throw on the new Internet of Things pattern, and it’s going to get really bumpy, really quickly.

I work at a campus that got hit hard by ransomware last year. It’s not fun, for anyone involved. Our IT folks moved mountains to try to get systems and data back online. Again, this problem is only going to get worse. How do we prepare for that?