Canvas: It’s not all that smart on its own.

Course management tools are useful–we can, I’m sure, all think of ways that they make a professor’s life easier.  No need to have course packets of readings ready to be copied a month before the term starts, no need to copy each and every assignment 100 times, simple and easy-to-use rubric tools for grading (no need to lug about those 100 papers once they’re turned back in, either!).

They also, sadly, have their drawbacks, as does any tool that’s designed to be used by a wide range of people. When you think about it, we ask Blackboard and Canvas and other similar systems to accommodate wildly different teaching and learning needs. Our campus, for instance, uses Canvas for everything. This includes introductory, 800-person, in-person required classes that are offered 3 times each term; online senior capstone courses; tiny, highly-specialized graduate discussion- and guest speaker-based seminars.  The needs for each of these courses are vastly different–is it any wonder, then, that Canvas cannot handle all of them absolutely perfectly (or even, ANY of them perfectly)?  No.  A middle ground is the only way, and the software developers have, I think, done a decent job at this.  I teach a variety of classes, and have no more trouble with any one of them than another, but rather a few minor troubles–not always the same–with each.  (Your mileage, obviously, may vary.)

One potential drawback of online courses stems from “letting Canvas drive the thinking/organization of the course.”  One example from my own classes is Canvas’s “module” feature. When our campus switched from BB to Canvas a few years back, there were faculty webinars, live demo/Q&A sessions, pdf handouts circulated by email, etc., to help faculty learn the new system. Each and every one of these learning tools emphasized the absolute importance of using MODULES to organize your Canvas course. Modules, these documents claimed, are what makes Canvas great.

However, while the idea of a module makes sense in some contexts, in others (here I’m thinking those highly-specialized graduate seminars, of which I teach 3) they really just…don’t. As I set up for my first term with Canvas–and I was an early adopter, so this would’ve been….Winter of 2015, I think…I realized that there was no way I could teach my undergraduate introductory epidemiology class (which is conveniently already organized into 4 discrete Units) *with* modules, but my graduate seminar (which is organized entirely based on guest speaker availability, student interests, and often changes last-minute as the group collectively decides to pursue some line of inquiry or another) without. Knowing myself, I had to find a way to have both my canvas sites set up in at least marginally-similar fashion, or I’d spend the whole term utterly confused.

My solution, which I intend to employ in the hybrid version of H425, is to run everything instead through the “syllabus” tab. So, I make an assignment for everything.  And I mean *everything*.  Readings, lecture slides, class handouts, and of course, genuine turn-something-in assignments. For things that are just informational (e.g., handouts), or an assignment with no explicit product (e.g., readings), Canvas conveniently has a “non-graded assignment” classification. Just give that handout a “due date” of the day I’m going to hand it out in class, et voila!  It pops up on the syllabus tab listed right there in order.

What do YOU do with canvas?

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