Sep 2, 2012 - education, technology    2 Comments

Back to School with Canvas

Today I greeted my new class of first year students. I love teaching this class (you have to, to be okay with giving up your holiday weekend each year to teach it!) because I am the first instructor they meet. I take that role seriously — I try to set the tone for their college experience on that first day, by being positive and friendly and accessible.

This year, I am setting the tone by being even more prepared. Sure, I have started each class with a syllabus, posted a link in the portal, etc, but this year I built my whole course in Canvas. The other sections are using a 3 ring binder, developed by the course leader, and in lieu of the binder,  I rounded up electronic versions of those files and created modules (where the binder has tabs.)

But that’s just the baseline – the part I am even MORE excited about are the assignments, and how in Canvas, the assignments can be done so flexibly. For instance, my students are required to attend two different events during the semester, and in the past, that was proven by the student providing the handout in their portfolio. Which was fine, but easily forged. So, when I heard an instructor lament that they’d never seen an electronic device being used in class for classwork, I decided to make those event assignments something different than providing the handout. For those, the students need to provide a photo of themselves at the event. They will get 10 points (full score) if they are in the photo, and 5 points if it’s a photo of the speaker. Simple, but that I can specify the file type of .jpg or allow a link makes it easier.

We also do journaling in this course, but in the past, we were to collect journals at the end. So, of course, many were done the day before they were due and just backdated. This time, I have made 5 journal due dates throughout the semester, and only accepting submissions via URL. (Have I mentioned that we are ALSO converting to Google Apps this year, too? Another huge, bright spot in my day!) Attaching the rubrics makes the expectations clear to the students what is due. The calendar makes it clear WHEN it is due. I am in love.

When I was researching our next move with an LMS, Canvas was my personal first choice, and I knew that regardless what direction the institution would go, that I would use it my Technology in Education course. (Due to the nature of the course, it’s sort of part of the design that I get to go a little rogue with my choices.) The one thing that my evals have dinged me on is “timely feedback for grades,” and it’s the area that I’ve tried to make better with each class. The challenge in that course is that so much of it is blogging, and I can’t provide a grade on the blog, for privacy’s sake, so I end up with my Google Reader open and a Google Spreadsheet and trying to cross reference and set color coded rules, but I can’t share the spreadsheet with students because it has ALL their grades (FERPA again) and I inevitably scroll past (and thus, “mark as read”) a blog entry, and half of them title their blog “my ED307 blog” so I have to dig to see which student is saying what, and…. it’s a logistical nightmare. Add Twitter to my curriculum, and that doubles. So, when I saw the URL submission piece in Canvas, and the Speedgrader, it was the EXACT solution I had been looking for. I can now use a rubric for the blog posts, grade and comment all at the same time, and my students will know exactly where they stand.

Secondly, one of the biggest WTF? moments of last semester was when many students bombed a major project. I am a big fan of the “double dip” – I don’t create work without a purpose. So, when we discussed writing rubrics, and rubric tools, I used that class to have students design the rubric for the next big project. We designed the rubric, I posted it, and they had 3 weeks to complete. Many students failed, and it was clear that they never went back to the rubric to help guide their project. Those that had used the rubric, did great. Those that didn’t…. After that assignment, I knew that next year, I would have students do a peer review – if they had just had a peer look at it, with the rubric, everyone should have aced the project. And so Canvas offers every.piece.of.that. Every one. I can create the rubric, they submit the project via URL, I can demand a peer review, they can correct any issues, and THEN I can assess with the rubric.

I am convinced that my students will be more confident in their progress in the course, and that I will see that reflected in my teaching evals. And I am also convinced that students will start asking for more of that from their instructors, and once they see how much EASIER it is than any other method we’ve used before, that they will be into it, too.

Here’s a little clip showing how SpeedGrader works, from Instructure’s guides:



  • These Assignment and SpeedGrader features are exactly what got me excited about Canvas way back in early 2010. I was able to make a real difference in my students’ learning by leveraging the flexibility of Assignments for blog submissions, and by redirecting time I’d normally spend on the mechanics of grading toward meaningful feedback. That Canvas not only acknowledges, but even encourages teachers to use real-world/outworld tools and services like G Docs and blogs was most refreshing.

    I blogged about this experience a little earlier this year as I ended a long run of those online courses.

    (Full disclosure: I now work for Instructure, but was an teacher, then customer, first.)

  • Yes! Whereas other systems feel like I’m being boxed in, I feel like Canvas lets me branch out.

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