canvas2By Jacob Day, WIC GTA
Special thanks: Brooke Howland and Sara Jameson

As many of you may already know, OSU is transitioning from Blackboard to Canvas. Many instructors have already started using Canvas, but everyone will be required to make the leap by the fall of 2015. These types of transitions can be difficult for some instructors, especially if they are a little less tech savvy or comfortable with the current system. To ease this transition, OSU is periodically offering campus-wide presentations and workshops. Additionally, Lynn Greenough and Brooke Howland are holding open labs in Waldo 320b every Tuesday and Friday at 9am and every Wednesday at noon. These two women are extremely helpful and can answer many of your Canvas questions.

I sat down with Brooke Howland with a few questions of my own. I wanted to know how Canvas was going to help the WIC instructors with their online and face-to-face courses. Brooke kindly showed me many of Canvas’s useful functions for writing instructors. To begin, Brooke explained that Canvas is more student-centric than blackboard, which is very useful for writing instructors because it allows for students to collaborate with each other and the instructor more easily.

These collaboration tools are easy to access and use. Once the user logs in to Canvas, a series of tabs appear on the left of the screen. Some of these tabs are: Announcements, People, Conference, Pages, Collaboration, and Chat. The Announcement and Discussion tabs are similar to Blackboard, but they also offer new options. For example, in the spirit of student-teacher collaboration, the Announcement feature allows for students to respond. These student responses can be seen by the entire class, which is beneficial if a student’s questions and comments are shared by other students. And as Brooke Howland adds, seeing questions and answers in a thread can lessen the amount of repeat questions an instructor will directly receive.

The Discussion tab operates much like the Discussion feature in Blackboard, but threads can now be pinned and video, text, and even voice can be incorporated. What this means for instructors who use discussion boards for collaborative learning exercises is that really important or reoccurring threads can be pinned, which permanently places them at the top of the thread list. Additionally, any discussion thread can be used with traditional digital text, but now students and instructors can respond with video or audio. One Oregon State writing instructor, Sara Jameson, uses this feature in her online writing course to introduce students who would otherwise never see each other. Jameson explains that students in her online class, who live all over the country, upload videos introducing themselves, and then they are asked to comment on other student’s videos to acquaint themselves with each other.

Video and audio are actually available in many of Canvas’s features. Brooke explained to me that the conference, chat, and peer review features all offer video collaboration. The Conferences tab uses the “Bigbluebutton” feature (I suggest looking at the YouTube tutorial: , which allows an instructor to video conference with just one student, or simultaneously with several students. This feature is extremely helpful in online courses, because the instructor can see the student’s computer screen, if they allow it, which enables students to look at their work with their instructor. The student and instructor can use digital drawing tools to mark on the documents together, as well. Sara Jameson also uses this feature in her online course for office hours, required conferences, and even peer review (students can use this feature without an instructor present).

There is a separate peer review tab, which includes the options to randomly assign peer review groups and manually assign peer review groups. Sara Jameson uses the conferencing feature to do peer review, however, because it offers the ability to chat and review work in real time, where the peer review feature only allows for documents and videos to be uploaded into more of a discussion board type platform. Both of these features are sure to be helpful in assisting in peer-to-peer collaboration, depending on the instructor’s preference and style.

The Pages and Collaboration features also aid in collaborative learning. The Collaboration feature links to each student’s gmail account (students can choose which one, but Jameson recalls that most will link it to their onid account), a function that aids students in sharing documents and links via Google docs. Pages acts just like a Wiki page, where the instructor creates a thread, adds students to the thread, after which students can add and delete information from the page. Sara uses the Etherpad function in the Pages tab to create collaborative wikis, where all student changes can be tracked.

Grading also becomes quite a lot easier with Canvas. In the SpeedGrader tab, instructors who have students turn writing assignments in digitally can comment and mark on the document itself. There is also a rubric function that can be used to score and comment on student assignments. Instructors can even respond via video or audio message, whereby student can respond—if the instructor so desires.

As mentioned earlier, Canvas is truly a student-centered program. Centering students in writing is one of the main principles of collaborative learning and Writing Intensive courses. Even though transitioning to a whole new teaching system can be daunting, we believe it will be worth any temporary inconvenience in the end. We should all be excited for this transition, because Canvas is sure to ease the burden of a large class size, the grading of process/iterative writing assignments, peer-to-peer collaboration, and the limitations of online courses.