Both Sides Now: 7 Deadly Sins of Canvas Course Setup

One of the things I find most fascinating about both taking and teaching classes in the same learning management system (hereafter LMS), albeit for different schools and disciplines, is the opportunity to experience the effects of different instructional designs from the student end.

The LMS in question, Canvas, is really my favorite of the three (Blackboard, ANGEL, Canvas) that I’ve used over the years. Its visual design is clean and easy to read, it is flexibly and sanely organized, and it makes the best use, I think, of its web environment; it works pretty much the way navigating a well-designed web presence should. From the instructional side, I have found it incredibly easy to use, and as a student I am comfortable enough with its various features to find my way around without too much trouble most of the time.

Beyond ease of use, though, there is another issue: organization of information. This is where the LMS, no matter how cleanly built and beautifully functional it is, cannot save the instructor from herself. I say this with great humility, as an instructor who has sat on the student side, swearing like Samuel L. Jackson at a course arrangement that makes NO SENSE TO ME. There is a special frustration for online students dealing with a course in a purely online environment, with no F2F help to be had — if the course as presented to us is difficult to follow, then we’re going to end up spending more time yelling at the fucking delivery system than we will learning the content.

Here are at least 7 Deadly Sins of Canvas Course Setup, based on my experience as a student, that I personally will be trying to avoid as an instructor. I don’t always get it right, but hey, we’re all of us sinners here, eh?

1. Cut-and-Paste and zzzzzzzz…

One thing that really bugs the crap out of me as both student and instructor is a course in which, instead of making the syllabus presentation suit the LMS and linking out to content, the instructor just posts a doc to download or (worse still) pastes pages of syllabus content with every possible bit of information into a single, massive page in Canvas. It is exhausting to read like that. Personal rule of thumb: If it takes more than three screens to scroll through the written content of your syllabus in Canvas, there’s a better way to present that information. Create separate pages for detailed assignment descriptions, and link to them from the main syllabus page. Save premium syllabus page space for guidance, for a course description, and for important policy notes that otherwise don’t link up directly to content. By all means, provide a downloadable doc if you want your students to have easy access to one — that’s great! Just don’t paste the whole damn thing in there and hope your students’ eyes won’t glaze over while they scroll through it. Honey, those eyes are already glazed over.

2. Balkanized Content

One of the coolest things about Canvas, as an LMS, is that it makes it possible for the instructor to link content from any one location in the course to any other location in the course simply, clearly, and easily. There is no reason why some content should be accessible only one way, from only one spot, with no indication that this is the only place to look for said content. The syllabus, for example, should never be just text — it should link to every damn assignment it lists or talks about, directly, so that even if the student doesn’t know where exactly to go (modules, assignments, quizzes, whatever), s/he can find whatever s/he needs from the syllabus itself. Give your students multiple ways to reach what you want them to find, and they’ll have no excuses for not finding it.

3. Instructions as Inconsistent Variations on a Theme

Here’s the thing, though — you need to be consistent with all of the content you link. If you put due dates in text (do this as rarely as possible — set up the due dates in the LMS with the assignments when you build them in their modules, it’s MUCH better, and it puts things directly on the course calendar and in Module view without so much fiddling about), don’t forget to update the text when you change semesters! Also: proofreading your own rules is important. How many words are required for this assignment? Don’t say 250 in the syllabus and 350 in the assignment submission window! Make sure they’re the same! (I have screwed this up before…lesson learned!)

4. Throwin’ ’em Off The Dock

Even students who are familiar with the LMS could use a little hint about how you, personally, have organized your business in the course. Students new to the LMS need it even more, because they don’t already have the instinct to jump straight to the Modules or Assignments links for a layout of what’s going on. Don’t just lay things out and hope they’ll find it. Your syllabus, well-designed for Canvas, ought to provide at least a brief paragraph with links that tells your students exactly where things are and how to find them. It is incredibly frustrating even for an experienced user to have to guess where you’ve put things, and it wastes time that could have been spent learning content on trying to find the damn content in the first place.

5. Vagueness

The clearer your instructions, the better your results will be — and the easier it is for students to find the instructions, the more likely it is that they’ll follow them. If you’ve put detailed assignment info in a separate page (linked to from the syllabus, like you should), don’t just set up the assignment itself with due dates and nothing else. Put the assignment description and instructions in the assignment window, too. The assignment link itself is an instinctive point of entry for a reasonable student user — s/he’ll probably look there first to see what’s up, and will be incredibly frustrated* if the only info there is due date and file type. Instruction redundancy, as long as you are consistent (see 3, above) is a virtue here.


6. The Bugatti Veyron I Never Drive Above 25MPH

Canvas has some bang-up awesome features. Using the Assignments and Modules, you can create a really elegant course with weighted grades, conditional availability, shared files, collaborations in EtherPad and Google Docs, and a dozen other nifty tricks. Its student-facing menus can be customized, so students are interacting with content only using the links they need instead of struggling to figure out which links matter. You can grade and comment using SpeedGrader, and you can actually interact with your students in the comments on the assignment. You can use Announcements, the Course Stream, and the assorted email functions to make absolutely sure everyone knows the drill. If you are not using these features to make everyone’s life easier, you suck at Canvas. Sorry (not sorry).

7. One-Sided Mirror, Two-Sided Experience

Here’s the thing it’s easy to forget: Not everything you upload to the file collection in Canvas is reachable by your students, and some things you do NOT want to share. The system in place is actually pretty cool — a single file repository visible in the course Wiki, which allows files to be linked out to any ol’ place you want in the course. Don’t just upload files — go in there and make conscious decisions about how they are to be shared, and if you want them only to be visible via a link, make sure the link is available and can be found easily. You can check on this and on the functionality of all of the other bits of your course by using the Student View function, which you should do often, just to be sure things are where you think they are and can be found from the student POV.

There are other things I could add to this, but I think I’ve hit most of the major things. There are other little items — remembering to set up threaded discussions, for example — but I think this about covers the big stuff.

Now back to work (on both sides).


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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