Teaching in Higher Ed: My Third Recommendation

How fragile, how vital, are the spokes and chain on a bicycle

In the episode of Teaching in Higher Ed that dropped today, I provide a recommendation (well, two) to help teachers improve their classes and their productivity. I’ll review those briefly for those who haven’t yet listened to the episode, and then I’ll add a third recommendation: using an .htaccess file to provide simple, memorable access to class resources on the Web. Don’t know what a .htaccess file is? No problem—here’s a handy, friendly introduction. But before I dive into how and why to use an .htaccess file for classes, here are the two recommendations that aired in the episode:

A clipboard manager to provide access to a history of copied content.

The specific app I use is Alfred, but plenty of other options exist. Clipboard managers allow you to copy something, copy something else, then go back and paste Thing #1 before pasting Thing #2. Seems minor, but it’s a huge time-saver, especially if you make a couple different comments repeatedly on, say, student feedback.

Clipboard managers really shine, though, when you copy something to paste later, multitask into a different project/app, mindlessly copy something else, then eventually get back to your original task, hit paste, and curse yourself for overwriting the clipboard. Normally, this means backtracking and re-locating the copied content, assuming it still exists. With a clipboard manager, that copied content is a keyboard shortcut away, and you can stay focused on doing what you were doing, rather than looking for what you were doing.

Talking about racism and current events in class, through the lens of your discipline.

This one’s on behalf of students in one of my classes this semester. We had a great conversation about how racism influences textbook content, class discussions, and more. We got on this subject because when a student asked about the odd name of the classroom in which we met, I said the room was named after a dead white dude. I then doused my tone in thick sarcasm and added how shocked we all were that, in America, a building would be named after a dead white dude.

That was the end of a class session, and it really set the tone for our next discussion. Directly addressing the issue of racism as it is literally built into our campus and acknowledging the awkwardness inherent in being a white (cisgendered male, at that) teacher in a racist society opened up the opportunity for frank discussion. Earlier that week brought news of the police shooting of Jacob Blake and the civilian murders of Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber in Kenosha, WI. The class session in which we deliberately discussed racism occurred the morning after the police murder of Dijon Kizzee in South Los Angeles, CA.

As our conversation wound down, students remarked that they:

  • wanted more discussion of racism in other classes;
  • were taught racism only in the context of slavery, only in history, and always in the past tense; and
  • didn’t discuss current events in their other classes.

That last point eliminates the possibility of social critique in their classes. It also means students aren’t shown how to see the world as it is through the lens of the discipline(s) they’re learning. That means learning has always been a look back to what has already been settled, rather than a look forward to what could be better understood. Conservative, not progressive. Completed, not active. Dead, not alive.

I hope to return to that topic in future posts as we keep racism on our minds this semester. But let me for now return to the list of recommendations. I want to add to it.

Third Recommendation: Roll Your Own Tech with .htaccess

Faced with changing, frustrating, unreliable, and unfamiliar tech in classrooms and offices at every institution at which I’ve worked, I always take the “roll your own” approach — I bring my own devices and solutions to my teaching and my classes, using what I know and what I can use to be most efficient and productive.

Years ago, that meant bringing my own AirPort base station into my classroom because I wanted wireless access years before it became a standard expectation for public spaces. For a while, it meant bringing my own scanner so I could digitize documents more easily, long before our copiers provided high-speed ADF functionality. And from the beginning, it has meant using my own notebook computer because I know my software and configuration and want to spend time working, not fighting the machine.

For probably 15 years, that has also meant providing my own website. At first, I used Apple’s iTools page-building tools, connected with a domain I had purchased, making it easy for students and parents to remember the URL. Now, it’s this website and various blogs and resources that I self-host and maintain.

Today’s Normal: Sharing Documents

With the ubiquity of online productivity suites like Office, G Suite, and iWork, there’s less of a need for me to self-host my content. I can save documents on the cloud and update or share them with ease.

Sort of.

Have you seen the URLs generated by the likes of online productivity suites? If you share something that’s stored within a Microsoft Team, for instance, “unwieldy” doesn’t begin to describe those URLs. Here’s a sample:

  • From iWork: https://www.icloud.com/keynote/0XbT4-cw69gFH41VceRngbYlw#ENG_121_CAH1
  • From G Suite: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1UgXLZgQUojjqtOHG7k7T65a4-SebfEg2hkfy5-ZMbSw/edit?usp=sharing
  • From Office: https://emailsaintleo.sharepoint.com/sites/ENG121CAH1/_layouts/15/Doc.aspx?OR=teams&action=edit&sourcedoc={E17A07F6-F163-446F-8E7F-4E4A216865CE}
  • From Teams in Office: https://teams.microsoft.com/l/file/E17A07F6-F163-446F-8E7F-4E4A216865CE?tenantId=24c50b87-30d2-4b89-8390-b297b4b18876&fileType=docx&objectUrl=https%3A%2F%2Femailsaintleo.sharepoint.com%2Fsites%2FENG121CAH1%2FShared%20Documents%2FGeneral%2FWRI%20121%20Syllabus.docx&baseUrl=https%3A%2F%2Femailsaintleo.sharepoint.com%2Fsites%2FENG121CAH1&serviceName=teams&threadId=19:cd3d1f58b83040bcbaa5072d35a5168a@thread.tacv2&groupId=faae323b-c5ea-4379-8db5-4f723a07f687

Obviously, those are only practical as an embedded link; nobody can remember those or type them in. That means if I want students to refer to a document stored on one of those platforms, I need an intermediary — a landing page or a redirect tool. And rather than asking students to first log in to an LMS and navigate its complexity just to find a single link taking them back out of the LMS, I wanted something even simpler and more memorable. As a side bonus, a short, memorable URL for things like class slide shows meant I could walk up to any podium computer, open a web browser, and type in a short URL from memory to directly access that class’s slides. No login, no connections, no dongles. Just immediate access. It’s a thing of beauty.

My First Solution: Bitly

For many years, I used Bitly.com as my link-shortening resource. It was simple, quick, free, and customizable…to an extent. Once I explained what “bit.ly” was, it became a little easier for everyone to remember and use. So I had things like http://bit.ly/friend19fall-cah1-slides as a “handy” URL. It’s name, semester, section, and resource. Unwieldy for a bit, but at least sensible. It worked.

Until it didn’t.

Last fall, in its infinite wisdom, my institution’s IT department decided to block on-campus network access to Bitly. By flipping one switch, every URL I used for all my classes no longer functioned on campus. Students, who had memorized or bookmarked these convenient links now had to go back to our LMS to access the longer links (which also meant I no longer got data about usage and view counts).

Suddenly disconnecting a class and breaking all its links mid-semester created a ton of frustration and made me irate, especially because I was told by IT they wouldn’t reverse their decision because they couldn’t determine what shortened links pointed to and thus couldn’t ensure their security. Nevermind that the short links merely redirect to a longer URL, which itself would be subject to existing filtering systems. I was told to find a new solution. Mid-semester, after our existing URLs had become routine.

Really, Really Roll Your Own: .htaccess on a Self-Hosted Website

Then I remembered my own server. I can create my own email addresses, webpages, URLs, you name it. If it’s on chrisfriend.us, I can do as I please. That includes, conveniently, the .htaccess file, an explanation of which is too much for this post. In that file, I could make up new, short URLs and point them wherever I wanted. And my school hasn’t (yet) blocked on-campus access to my personal domain.

So I got to work.

What had been bit.ly/friend… URLs now became chrisfriend.us/… URLs. And I could go nuts with them. This semester, I use the Office suite for all our collaborations because that’s the system our institution provides access to. A couple external resources round out the collection. All told, I want students to be able to quickly and easily access these things:

  • Syllabus (in MS Word while we write it; as a PDF when it’s finalized)
  • a MS Team
  • MS OneNote Class Notebook
  • OER Textbook in Pressbooks
  • Agenda Slides in Apple Keynote
  • class sessions hosted in Zoom

The Result: .htaccess at Work

This semester, a series of simple .htaccess redirects allows access to all those resources using simple, memorable URLs that take students directly where they need to go. All URLs start with chrisfriend.us/, then their course number (121 or 122 this semester), followed by the resource type. For instance:

  • chrisfriend.us/121-syllabus
  • chrisfriend.us/121-slides
  • chrisfriend.us/121-zoom
  • chrisfriend.us/121-notebook
  • chrisfriend.us/121-textbook
  • chrisfriend.us/121-team

Those all go right where you’d expect them to. And because each system manages its own access, I know only folks at my institution can access the notebook, team, and syllabus, and only students who know that class’s password can access the Zoom sessions. For the slides? Those are open to anyone. No secrets there. But visitors have view-only access, so I know that my plans for the class session won’t get changed by a passer-by.

This simple, elegant, convenient solution has worked great. It even allows me to change where they point on the fly — I just make a quick change to the .htaccess file, and the existing links now go somewhere new. Last night, I finalized our syllabi based on the policies students created and switched the redirect from the original collaborative Word document to the new static PDF version. Students likely won’t notice the difference, and the change took mere seconds to make.

If you have your own server space, take a look at your .htaccess file and make your class resources memorable and accessible to all your students. Roll your own and sidestep the cumbersome, labyrinthine LMS. Build your own short links and get back to the work of teaching.