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Course Design on a Fresh Canvas: a frontline report

I learned of the Canvas Learning Management System (LMS) pilot in late August through an informal conversation with Mary Finn. Stages that followed included:

Anticipation: Eager to explore an alternative which would help alleviate my Blackboard frustrations, I petitioned for inclusion in the pilot. Academic Technologies and MMLC were gracious enough to include me. Throughout the training and implementation process, they provided great support.

Panic: As the Fall quarter approached, I struggled to adapt my materials to the new framework. Though the Blackboard folder model of class content distribution limits freedom of organizing course content, it is also easier than the wiki page Canvas model. However, the work invested in the jump should be a one-time cost: the investment of time and effort to move course materials to the new format improves and expands a user’s abilities significantly.

Satisfaction: Several weeks into the quarter, I am satisfied with the new system and I hope the university will strongly consider making a switch to Canvas or a similar system.

Pedagogy: from Blackboard folders to Canvas wikis

As a long time user of Blackboard, I have experienced growing frustration for its limitations. Its structure seems to encourage a “throw documents in a folder” strategy. This takes virtually no time, but also allows zero flexibility. With Canvas, I have an LMS that supports my pedagogy rather than limits it.

For my physics course, I have designed weekly wiki pages to present the course content in a coherent narrative. To support this narrative, I incorporate learning objectives, problem solving tips and links to outside sources that parallel my links to Powerpoint notes, homework solutions and other content. Not only does this represent a significant improvement, the structure facilitates further evolution as I return to these wikis in future courses. In future iterations of the course, I may use the modules feature to better assess student progress along with the course analytics tool which provides a wonderful at-a-glance summary of how students are doing and how they are using Canvas.

Course growth and development: the apps system

The malleability of Canvas stands in stark contrast to Blackboard. I can organize the content so that students can use the site in diverse ways, using the wikis, content folders or through links in my announcements. Blackboard seems constructed as a “walled garden”: all applications are internal and isolated from the rest of the web, not allowing any way to integrate either novel sources or social media tools. Also, Blackboard has more limited capability in student contribution: communication seems one-directional.

Canvas is, by contrast, completely modular; it gives access to many tools on the web, with little limitation, so many kinds of tools can be used in a plug-n-play format. Users can specifically design tailored environments through their Apps system. For example, I have used the Youtube and Vimeo apps to include videos within my wiki pages and Twitter and RSS apps to distribute relevant news stories. For my first trial of Canvas, I did not specifically encourage student contributions via Canvas features, Twitter or other avenues, but I have the ability to do so in future courses. In short, course communication and interaction both become bi-directional: Canvas brings a flexible new environment, changing the top-down didactic method of instruction into a changing conversation that allow the course to grow.

Part of the Twitter widget on the Physics 130-1 Home Page

The student experience

So far, anecdotal student feedback has been strongly positive. Unsolicited comparisons to Blackboard compared Canvas intuitive structure to Blackboard’s frustrating navigation. Students pointed to the overall structure, the Canvas gradebook and more “modern” discussion boards as key advantages.