The Pedagogy of Canvas

Having worked in Canvas for just a little while, its insidious pedagogy is beginning to reveal itself.

Above all, Canvas’ appearance is designed to evoke simplicity, like Google’s Search page. The fonts are large, friendly, sans serif. There is plenty of white space, implying rest, with no need for cognitive agitation or disturbance.


The language for instructions and content regions uses short words at the second-grade level, which is more reassuring than complex instructions. This implies that this will be easy, no need to fear the system.

The default left-hand menu, which cannot be moved or removed, makes it clear that certain elements are expected and that they are meant to be organized by type:


This type-centered pedagogy is enforced by design that does not permit any of the menu items to be changed, only disabled. Once on the DL, they never disappear. But neither can they be edited to prevent a long list of disabled mistakes.PCdisabledpages

You can create new pages or even external URLs as menu items, using the Redirect App, but it takes multiple clicks and multiple saves and is quite tricky (thus my long DL). The implication of so many steps is that doing this should not be standard operating procedure.

Notice that some pages cannot be disabled, only hidden (Discussions, People). This implies it is wrong not to want those items, that you should reconsider.

Getting back to the navigation: if you don’t like the content organized by type, and would prefer an interactive syllabus (like Moodle’s weekly design), you’d use Modules. The Modules page lets you organize all the class items within subheadings. These headings and all the links are bold text, with no provision for adding images (though you can apparently substitute icons if you know what you’re doing). The list of links is in forest green text and is spectacularly ugly, suggesting one wouldn’t want it to be a landing page – wouldn’t it be better to go back and do everything by type instead?


The Quizzes use test banks for creating variety (i.e. 50 questions in the test bank, using 10 randomly on each quiz), but items changed in the banks don’t change in any quizzes that have already been created. Created quizzes are thus intended to be static.

Each question in a quiz must be worth at least one point, and increase in whole numbers only. You cannot take a batch of questions and combine them into a single quiz of, say, 10 points, which might make each question worth .35 points, for example. This implies that quiz questions should be simple, each worth numbers that are easy to add up.

There are few areas where students can take control, and most of these are outside the actual LMS (like in Google Docs). Crocodoc is available for the instructor to annotate student work, but not for students to annotate together. This implies that the instructor is supposed to control all class elements that are inside the system.

Of interactive elements, only Discussions are actually inside the system. The posts are somewhat nested. This implies there should be replies to posts, but the large font size and huge amounts of white space, and the fact that the Discussions page itself is a long list of links, imply that there should be multiple discussions, on different topics or for different times, rather than one large discussion area.

Going outside the system to collaborate and meet synchronously implies these are unusual things to do. They require additional log-ins to places people might not be comfortable with, like Google. There are many “Apps” that can be linked into the class in such a way. Many require not only additional log-ins but additional payments. This implies that such places are special, unusual, perhaps dangerous.

Adding media to a post offers few options. To add media to a post, you may either record a video or audio file right then, or upload a media file. This implies that you should be using some talking head video, or have your video in computer-based files, rather than on the open web.

Confused? Assistance is available. On the top of the first page when you go into your new course is an offer of help setting up. This leads you to a list of steps:


The list implies that you should import content if you can, then add assignments, students, and files. Then decide which items on the menu you want to use. Customize your home page, set up a calendar, add TAs (how lucky are you to have these?), then publish. There is no discussion of  your objectives or your pedagogy on these helpful steps. Really, you aren’t meant to think about all that, just put all your stuff in the right place so students can find it.

In the 2013 article The Predatory Pedagogy of On-Line Education , anthropologist Brian McKenna uses an investor conference for Instructure (makers of Canvas) to highlight problems with LMSs and online education. This caught my eye:

The stakes are incredibly high. But most faculties across the country seem in the dark. “Pedagogy as an intellectual, moral and political practice is now based on measurements of value derived from market Competition,” argues educational theorist Henry Giroux, “Mathematical utility has now replaced critical dialogue, debate, risk-taking, the power of imaginative leaps and learning for the sake of learning. A crude instrumental rationality now governs the form and content of curricula, and where content has the potential to open up the possibility of critical thinking, it is quickly shut down. This is a pedagogy that has led to the abandonment of democratic impulses, analytic thinking, and social responsibility.

It is not the case the one cannot create constructivist or connectivist pedagogies, or design explorations or learning adventures, in Canvas. I intend to spend much of the next year doing exactly that. But the design of the system does not encourage it. The system strips code entered into its pages, won’t display elements it doesn’t like from outside URLs, and makes embedding tricky and difficult. In the Canvas Community, there are hundreds of requests from faculty and instructional designers to add features that have long existed in other systems. While many of these features are managerial, at least as many concern aspects of opening up the system to greater customization, faculty control, and student leadership.

As I noted years ago in Insidious Pedagogy, LMSs each have their own internal pedagogy, based on the principles of their designers. The teachers who are most likely to be led by the default designs of these systems are instructors who are new to online teaching, or teaching with a pre-made course, or using few online technologies in their own lives outside their classes. More online teachers than ever fall into these categories. Like their students, they will prefer things simple and standardized so they can work more quickly rather than learn more. Thus will the critical pedagogy of faculty, which is so necessary for creating critical thinking in our students, be suppressed.

A nicer looking Canvas syllabus

Another post to remind me how I did something.

I am trying to replace the ugly modules page. I tried to get used to the full page of text with the stupid icons, really I did, and its horrid forest green text, but it just made me gag.


So I’m thinking a nice menu, all on one page for HTML convenience for editing in Dreamweaver (or insert your WYSIWYG editor here – I’m liking Kompozer). But when I tried to make such a delightful page with tabs or accordion, or anything using CSS and Javascript, Canvas stripped my code. This happened even when I tried to embed using an iframe, or redirect using the Redirect app tool. Even when it didn’t strip stuff, it would not display to do what I want. I’m beginning to think that Canvas does not, as has been thought, simply display complex web pages in iframes and Redirect, but rather acts as a limited browser within the browser, ignoring code it doesn’t like.

Canvas itself has some styles one can work with. So I used its accordion code, though I had to adapt it some using html posted by Jeremy Perkins at the Canvas community. More style guide to stop the bullets on unordered lists. I tested it on a page inside Canvas, then copied the code over to Dreamweaver.

In Dreamweaver I was able to see the code more clearly with the colors, and catch all the relative URLs to my images, and create the many weeks for the final version. I commented out a bit in the code view so I would just paste in the material Canvas would accept.

I did try to do the editing in Canvas, by the way, but it took a terribly long time because it’s a large page and every time I’d try to edit one thing, it would hang on reloading, show me code when it was trying to switch to the Rich Text Editor, then lose my stuff. Much easier to paste the whole thing in from Dreamweaver periodically to make sure it was working.

And of course to add it as the Interactive Syllabus to the course menu requires copying the page’s URL, then selecting Settings, the finding the Redirect app, then plugging in the URL and telling it to show in the course menu. The result is here.

Now of course, this workflow is not clean and beautiful. Iframes would have been so much better. But at least it has my own images and icons, and is useful to students.

Complexity over simplicity in online classes

road to the hamlet A student goes into Online Class A for the first time. They see a list of items by type (syllabus, readings, lectures, discussion). They see a syllabus, listing the dates for when each of these content type items is due, and what constitutes them being done (i.e. complete this quiz, post one posting and two replies, submit this essay). They buy their textbook, and follow it, with chapter readings listed clearly on the readings page. At the end, they take a final exam that goes over the entire course content.
forest Another student goes into Online Class B. They see a list of weeks, or topics. There is a syllabus laying out the goals of the course: exploration, discovery, production of assignments, community. Readings are provided, but may not be required or there may be a choice. Perhaps there is a learning contract instead of a syllabus. Forum postings may be focused on what the student has discovered by following research instructions, scaffolded to adapt as the student’s work changes. Assignments may emphasize skills rather than content. The final exam is a video project where their unique research is shared and peer evaluated.

Given the dozen or so years a student has spent in traditional classes prior to college, Class A may seem more familiar, comfortable, and simpler. Class B may be perceived as difficult, or disorganized. Data on student clicks and questions asked may show some confusion, some cognitive challenges that need to be overcome. More questions may be emailed to the instructor, or posted to a forum.

Recent efforts to “improve” online course “integrity” have led to various rubrics, standards, and evaluative tools, wielded by administrators and instructional improvement teams. These assess the “quality” of an online course. The ones I’ve seen, and the faculty I’ve talked to who have been subject to them, note that the rubrics clearly prefer the Online Class A model: content-based, simply laid out, clearly expressing not only expectations but overall outcomes. Complexity is seen as “cogitive overload” and is discouraged.

The result is an unexpected (and for the admins, often unintended) standardization. Although the teams and projects deny that the intention is to standardize online classes, to make them “cookie cutter”, that is the likely result. The instructor’s role is to guide students through the material in an organized way, and to use insightful discussion prompts and exam questions to assess deeper thinking about the content. If the content they used has been structured to clearly align everything the student encounters with particular learning outcomes, so much the better, privileging textbook publishers who create such programs for profit.

How do faculty respond to this push for simplicity, when we know that teaching is inherently complex? In my years heading the Program for Online Teaching, we have always seen a tendency for any instructor new to online classes to automatically follow the Class A model. The reasons for this are varied. In most cases, the instructor has not examined their own pedagogy in the traditional classroom, or does not use online communities and resources for their own learning. Some are intimidated by the technology and throw their own classroom pedagogy out the window, having been guided by instructional designers and other support staff to simply fill in the blanks of the LMS.

Since many faculty new to online teaching are under time pressure to develop a class, the cognitive dissonance in their own learning becomes overload very quickly. The easiest thing to do is opt for the simple path – upload a syllabus in Word or pdf, upload readings the same way, set up a weekly discussion post with a question requiring a response, and create some exams. Many, many students complain that their online classes are impersonal, that they feel like they’re just learning from a computer instead of a person (and in the case of instructors who adopt course cartridges, that is often true). Students come to believe that this is what an online class is – a list of tasks to be completed and graded, rather than a learning experience.

simplemaze complexmaze1
This maze looks complex, but it is actually simple – there is only one path. You will learn little by attempting it.
This maze is complex, so you will need to make choices.

This is why POT has focused on helping instructors understand their own pedagogy, assess their teaching strengths, and build online classes that emphasize these strengths, calling this “Pedagogy First”. We encourage models that break away from “type listing” to create a unique interactive syllabus. And we want faculty to explore models that encourage students to think critically, express their learning creatively, and utilize the affordances of technology. If the supported LMS doesn’t fit what they want to do, we want them to link out or adopt a different venue. If they excel at student-directed learning, student-developed content, constructivism, or connectivist learning, we want them to have the freedom to build their classes around those models.

That’s because we value faculty creativity, originality, and pedagogical goals. We also believe that only by offering various pathways and options to explore learning about online teaching can we help teachers excel as the professionals they are.

Unfortunately, a trend has begun to cast those of us who were early adopters of online technologies, and originators of our own online pedagogies, as outliers instead of guides and modelers. We are being told that the days of “cobbling” our own systems together are over, that we need to join the “community” of large initiatives designed to create more accountable and approvable online classes. There is head-shaking about the learning we had to go through “back then”, and reminders that such efforts (like learning html, or exploring different online tools) are no longer necessary. We now have everything laid out for us; all the features we need are inside the mandated LMS. We must step down from our role as innovators and join the parade, marching together. We must realize that it is time to, in a word, simplify.

The temptation is appealing, but what is lost when we shift from complexity to simplicity? When instead of exploring and discovering, we are given the tools and the platform? Do we wish to encourage that sort of simplification for our students, when employers have made it clear that what they want is workers who can actually learn? Are such industrial models appropriate in a post-industrial world?

The only solution, as I see it, is to continue to encourage complexity, in both the development of faculty talents and student potential. POT will continue to encourage the reassessment of the Class A model, and continue to question content-based, standardized, simplistic classes both online and in the classroom. We will view ourselves as people of value, with knowledge to contribute to the discussion. We will treat our fellow faculty as creative, self-actualized human beings, lifelong learners who want to express their teaching goals through any of the myriad of available tools and approaches. And that task, like the work we all do, embraces complexity.

Eating (some of the) Canvas breadcrumbs

Even in these early days, I can see how the breadcrumbs in Canvas can cause real problems. They not only don’t get you out of the woods – they can lead you the wrong way into them.

Let’s say you have created your own navigation in Canvas, by creating an interactive syllabus on a Page or Google Doc, and hidden many of the standard navigation items so students won’t use them.

It turns out this will work for important pages like Quizzes. When you disable the navigation item called Quizzes, you can still create and deploy a quiz via the Modules or the link to a module. Then a student taking a quiz will see the Quizzes breadcrumb, but when they click on it, it will tell them that page is disabled.


However, you cannot disable the Discussions or People breadcrumbs. If a student is in a Discussion you’ve listed on your syllabus page, they can still click the breadcrumb “Discussions” and see a list of all the discussions. This list is often in poor order, and the student can choose the order in which to see them. All this could lead to confusion. It is necessary then to “pin” all the Discussions and put them in order. If you don’t, it could even lead to anger if you’re using the Requirements feature in each Module that forces students to complete one task before moving on to another. Then they could use the breadcrumb to see links to Discussions they cannot view.

hansel2Workflow for breadcrumbs if using your own navigation:

1. Disable all pages that can be disabled (Home, Quizzes, Assignments, Syllabus, etc.)

2. Clean up pages that can’t be disabled:

a. Discussions should be pinned and put in order

b. Grades should be organized by assignment groups for clear viewing

3. To change the names of any items in the menu:

a. Copy the URL for the page you want to change the name of (such as “People”)

b. Use the Redirect Tool to create a course navigation item using that URL, titled as you wish (such as “Colleagues”)

Creating an Interactive Syllabus in Canvas

For those who wish to eschew Canvas’ obscure “Syllabus” page (and many other un-customizable menu items), create a one-page interactive syllabus, or have their class look more like a Moodle weekly page, I offer the following:

1. Load your course into Canvas from Moodle, Blackboard, etc. (Settings -> Import Content into this Course). This will create a URL for all your quizzes, discussions, and pages.

2. Get a messy copy of your interactive syllabus framework from where it is now. Copy the text from Blackboard, Moodle, GDocs, etc. to use as a template. (Since the resulting text may have a lot of code, I recommend pasting it into Notepad or TextEdit and creating a plain text file.)

3. Create a page in Canvas. (Pages -> Add New)

4. Paste the text in to clean up.  Decorate the page as you wish with images.

5. Use the menu of “wikipages” on the right to add the correct links for all quizzes, discussions, etc, on to the syllabus.

6. Check the page using the HTML editor to make sure  nothing is linked to your old LMS.

7. Create a link to this page on the Course Navigation Menu.

First, copy the URL of your new interactive syllabus page.


Then use Settings -> Apps, find Redirect Tool, add app, create a new name (such as “Interactive Syllabus”), unclick box to have it open in new window, click box for Show in Course Navigation, and paste in URL of your interactive syllabus page. Click Add App.


You will need to click on the course name in the breadcrumbs at upper left to see the change. The interactive syllabus will then appear inside the Canvas window. You can set it as your home page or leave it in the menu as it is.


This could be done by creating it in Google Docs and embedding it in Canvas, but that adds the extra step of copying and pasting from the list of pages, quizzes and discussions in Canvas. Although I normally advise people not to build inside the LMS, the HTML text from this interactive syllabus can be saved on your hard drive for later use and edits.

However, if your interactive syllabus includes any scripts or script-based embeds (such as embed code from Voki), this won’t work – Canvas will strip the code, and you won’t see it until you use the Rich Content Editor or go back into the document. Google Docs will also strip script code. In this case, to keep  your scripts, you would need to make a separate web page for the interactive syllabus, make sure it is served as a secure “https” page, and use the Redirect Tool as indicated above.

From the Drive-Thru Window: Non-features in Canvas

Many of us being forced to switch over to Canvas are coming up with metaphors, such as my idea of your old LMS being like your old house, and your new LMS like moving to a new house where nothing’s in the right place.

drive-thruBut you can eventually set up your new home the way you like it, so this analogy doesn’t fully work for an LMS. For me, Moodle was like running my own restaurant, with table service. Canvas has reduced me to a drive-thru window. It is difficult to present your meal attractively or in an appetizing way through that window, though I can package it for you conveniently so you can take it with you in a box.

I can now get a little more specific about what I would need in Canvas that isn’t there, just by looking in the Canvas Community for what people want to add. Ideas are submitted, evaluated, and then some are voted on and moved forward.

I have marked the ones I’ve been accustomed to having in Moodle, or very much need in Canvas, with a *.

List of features open for voting in Canvas include:

*Create a student-accessible rubric for self-assessments
Allow two-part quiz questions
*Add subject lines to discussion posts (I have them edit them by putting their thesis there for easy searching)
Tables in Canvas (request for actual WYSIWYG in Rich Text Editor)
Batch question editing in a quiz
Assign peer reviews by student group
*Custom canned comments in SpeedGrader
Context help
*Add, Create or Modify a Calculated or the Total Colum in the Gradebook
Time between quiz attempts

And under consideration: (not likely in six months)

*Allow students to upload an image directly to discussion (crucial for my Primary Source posts)
*Make attendance visible to students
*Compile all essay reponses to a quiz questions on one screen for grading (crucial for my writing assignment and primary source grading)
*Create a more simple, intuitive way to offer extra credit
Warn before leaving unsaved item
*Show quiz as percent score in Gradebook
*Warning when submitting quiz
*Assessments – add more than just quizzes
*Override final grade (critical for getting attention and adjusting grade upward)
*Treat zeros as ungraded for both teacher and student views
*Make polls available in the desktop version of Canvas, not just as an app

This is the start of the list of things I’ll have to find workarounds for!

Would you like fries with that?