Working against Canvas: three tips

So many instructors, some of whom have used Canvas as their LMS for their on-site classes, are now encountering the system’s complexities and limitations. Teaching fully online is different from posting ones class resources online, or at least it should be.

My advice has changed from three years ago, because Canvas itself has changed.  My reasoning, however, has not changed from eleven years ago. My article on Insidious Pedagogy: How course management systems affect teaching (2009) explained how the designs of learning management system tend to control pedagogy, especially among novice users. We need to spend some time working against the system.

So I’ve reduced my top ten tips to three. And they may well be suitable for LMSs and VLEs other than Canvas.

1) Create full navigation using Pages

As with LMSs of old, Canvas continues to default to grouping content and assignments by type. This is a holdover from Blackboard, which relied on the early computer analogies of “files and folders” to imitate paper filing systems. So “Lectures” can be a folder, “Discussions”, “Quizzes”, etc.

But for most of us, learning is time-oriented, or theme-oriented, not type-oriented. We tend to have units with multiple types of content and activities. Many of these are organized by unit or week. There is no way to express this to students without making a page of links.

Canvas, of course, has a Modules page with a list of links. On the Modules page, you can load in everything, and have students do things in sequence, or with prerequisites, or both. The Modules page is, and has always been, ugly. The most you can do is add emojis to the headings, if you know how. And every item listed on the Modules page is the same size and color, creating the impression that everything listed has the same worth. All you can do is indent, or use caps.

The best Canvas classes I’ve seen have a schedule or grid on the main page:

Each of the links goes to a Canvas page, which has links of the activities and content:

One can of course put all these in the Modules page also, which will enable the “Back” and “Next” buttons for those into sequences and control. Then it’s up to you whether to show that Modules page, because you also ought to. . .

2) Hide menu items

This has not changed from earlier advice: features we are not using, or that we don’t want students accessing from the menu, should not appear on the menu.

For Canvas, this involves going to Settings – Navigation and dragging the items you don’t want visible down to the inactive area. It used to be that when you did this and saved, neither you nor the students saw these items on the menu, and the look was clean. Recently, Canvas changed this so that the instructor sees them all, but with the hidden items indicated by a crossed-out eye.

Well, at least students don’t see them.

3) Do low-stakes stuff anyway

Here working against Canvas means working with it. Students need reasons to work on your class, and to get immediate feedback. This is difficult in Canvas. Doing extra credit, creating short quizzes, using test question banks, all are ridiculously complicated. And there is still no easy way to just copy a quiz.

Canvas will also passively prevent what you want to do. Want to create a discussion forum where everyone who posts twice gets 3 points? Can’t do it. Want to have 20 questions on a 10-point quiz, so each question is worth half a point? No can do. Want to rename an assignment and have all the internal links still work? Good luck. Want to change all 28 due dates to a week later? It’s a one-at-a-time job. (At least there’s a hack for this one.)

It pays to spend some time seeing what can be done with zero-point assignments, and complete/incomplete grades, and the default grade feature in the Gradebook. Students learn from short, formative assessments.

Working against the LMS has always been required for us to teach the way we want to. More and more, I see LMS trainings covering these problems, and teaching the workarounds, which is great. Particularly when your LMS is owned by an equity firm, after going public and answering to shareholders, we can be sure that improvement is unlikely (most Canvas problems have been around since its inception). We must be willing to work against the system.



2 comments to Working against Canvas: three tips

  • Dakin

    All this is fine, except for the grid navigation. That uses tables, which are hard for screen readers to read. So for ADA considerations, grids and tables should not be used, even though Instructure offers those in their exemplars.

    • Lisa M Lane

      Thanks, Dakin. Yes, Canvas’ refusal to use CSS properly may mean that some screen readers might have issues. And for people doing it on their own, the workaround could be troublesome. The Accessibility Checker in Canvas’s RCE can catch everything, but it takes some time. Very unfortunate.

      An alternative white-linked list could be provided at the top for those with vision issues, of course, if one still didn’t want to use the Modules page.

Simplifying a class

I think now is a good time to simplify our online classes. So while everyone is giving advice on how to add things, I figured I’d do the opposite.

Students are overwhelmed, by everything. So are we.

Faculty who have had only a half-semester teaching online are trying to prepare their classes for fall. Some of these classes will be simple, and effective. Others will be cluttered with features, or try to do too much, or not follow basic principles for student ease of use.

I’ve been doing this for awhile, and I already responded this summer by reducing the workload in my classes. But for fall I had considered keeping things the same as before, the same pattern of activities and readings.

Instead I am considering some ways to simplify.

I’m stuck using Canvas so these ideas relate to that LMS, but apply to others as well:

1. Remove “Until” dates

I have always had assignments close a week after the due date, and have told students that between the due date and “until” date they’ll get half points. I’ve never enforced the point reduction — it was just to help keep students on track. It was always inconvenient for me to re-open assignments for individual students anyway, so I’m going to remove all the “Until” dates (a batching process only possible with James Jones’ brilliant hack) on everything except the one assignment I really need to close on time. It’s been pretty clear that students appreciate the extended time.

2. Convert self-assessments to automatic points

For my primary sources, I have students post in a discussion board, then take a one-question checklist quiz to check their work. They often don’t check anything but the boxes! And this summer, I’ve had a student not submit anything, but do the checklist anyway just to get the points. The exercise isn’t working. It would be better to just give them the points when they post, then spot-check myself if certain work needs improvement, and request such improvement with no point reduction.

3. Be more available for immediate response and encourage communication

I have always been good about responding to students when they message me, but over the summer I’ve gotten even better, checking my messages continually. Students have said they really appreciate a quick response, especially since the class is only six weeks long. I intend to keep this up for fall. In addition, I have adopted some new habits designed to encourage students to contact me individually, including inviting them to “keep those questions coming!” when they contact me with a question, however simple it is.

4. Remove unnecessary assignments from the system

This is a Canvas thing. When I change what I’m doing, and no longer use an assignment, I used to just “unpublish” it. But if you do that, and it has a due date or until date attached to it, it still shows to students in various places unless you chase it down and undo that. It’s too automatic. So now I will delete them, confident that if I need them back I can import them from a previous course iteration (I already download classes when they’re finished, just in case).

I’m sure there will be more, but it’s a start.





2 comments to Simplifying a class

  • Nice list, Lisa. The one “addition” I might suggest – based on feedback from my own students – is vary the types of assignments week to week. My students seem to appreciate that I had big assignments every other week and little assignments in between, and varied from papers to videos to infographics.

    And as to encouraging communication, I use Twitter with my classes, which adds an interesting “real time” feel to the class.

    • Lisa M Lane

      Good addition, although I must say I give lots of little assignments and very few big ones now. Variety is important. Now if only there was an easier way to add choices. . .

No more online teaching conferences for me

I believe in keeping up in my area of expertise, or at least one of them: online teaching. Having just attended a conference on online teaching, my first in many years, I have one take-way:

The issues are exactly the same as they were twenty years ago.

The main affordance of online learning is anytime/anywhere education, as it has always been. Distance education allows people who could not come to campus to learn with formal guidance. This is the exact same benefit as correspondence courses of a century ago.

The challenges of online learning are the same also. Recent large surveys of instructors and students show that the weaknesses of students are self-discipline and time management. For instructors, it’s creating courses that are hard to navigate, and not responding in a quick and friendly manner to students.

Navigating these same issues are newly minted PhDs in instructional design, distance education, and various academic subjects. To them, it seems, all this is new. The recommendations, however, are the same: we need to help motivate students and hold their hand, get training so we create navigable courses, and answer student requests promptly.

The problems with these recommendations are also the same. Hand-holding and continual reminders undermine a student’s ability to develop their own resources of self-discipline and organization. Cookie-cutter courses undermine the creativity and academic freedom of instructors. And answering student requests promptly is mere politeness, and should not require rules other than those of basic human consideration.

In fact, the only change I saw is in the heavy-handed focus on policies, learning management systems, requirements, and training. For me, these should always take a back seat to pedagogy. And yet, there was little about pedagogy at the conference. My notes amount to half a page of large printing.

Perhaps the merging I had always hoped for is happening. Perhaps one could attend teaching conferences, and it wouldn’t matter whether that teaching took place in a classroom or online. I think I’ll give that a try.

“Online teaching isn’t working”

Looks like we have a problem with conclusion validity.

The papers are full of how students are getting behind because they can’t go to school during the pandemic.

But the conclusion for many of the articles is the same: online teaching isn’t working.

Hold your horses, boys!

Let’s review what’s happened. Most schools turned to distance education with teachers who were mostly inexperienced teaching online, and many had never had an interest in doing so. And it happened because of a pandemic that has turned the world upside down and caused untold damage to people’s lives.

That is not a controlled study of the effectiveness of online teaching.

Online teaching has been working just fine, thank you, before this March. Here’s a recent review of the literature on efficacy. Distance education didn’t just emerge like a new high tech product to clean your floor. It’s an entire discipline of study and practice. Its affordances and inadequacies have been studied for decades (or over a century if you include correspondence courses).

Concluding that online teaching isn’t working because a bunch of people have been thrown into it, unwilling and unprepared during a global pandemic, is akin to a non-pilot saying that airplanes can’t fly because he’s sitting in an airplane that has three gallons in the tank, pushing levers but just getting strange noises.

Which makes me wonder in whose interest it is to give online teaching in general a bad rap. Is it just the folks who don’t believe in the science of pandemics? The media outlets catering to worn-out parents who want their kids out from underfoot? The makers of chalk and lunchboxes?

It certainly isn’t those of us who’ve been doing it, and studying it, all this time.


2 comments to “Online teaching isn’t working”

A Bit of Pedagogy: between remote emergency learning and online teaching

Quite a few colleges are putting their classes for summer, and many for fall, online. So many faculty who had never taught in the online environment before this term will be doing it again.

What might they do differently?

The hope of many admins and techno-utopians is that the newbies will have time now to take online pedagogy seriously, perhaps learn how to use the LMS more effectively, or read up on online pedagogy. But the hope of many newbies is that they can just do what they did again, while reducing their cognitive load.

There is a middle ground.

Emergency remote instruction

What just happened did not, in most cases, cause newbie online faculty to create a pedagogical plan based on their own teaching. There wasn’t time. So it wasn’t normal “online instruction”. It’s been emergency remote instruction, often instituted in the middle of the class. See, for example:

Of course, what one does in an emergency couldn’t be the same as what one would normally do.

Pressure from above

Distance learning is different. It’s an entire field of knowledge. They give PhDs in this stuff. So now there may be a demand (mostly from those PhDs) that all faculty must up their game. Now. In the middle of the pandemic (yup, sorry, I think we’re still in the middle for summer and fall, but that’s only because I know about 1918-19).

And commercial pressure? I’m sure you’ve seen it all ready. Faculty mailboxes have been jammed with “we’re here for you” emails from every conceivable online learning product, textbook, and service. All free! Well, for now, anyway. They advertise like old 50s commercials. Got a problem? We understand! Our product will solve it for you! Try now with no obligation to buy!

We don’t want to do this

Increasing instructor dependence on the LMS, adding various products and materials from publishers, will not turn newbies into online instructors. It’s better to face the fact that those who were not teaching online before the pandemic were resisting because they didn’t want to do it. It wasn’t their thing. They didn’t care for the online environment. They were forced into this, and are still being forced. Maybe now they can use their LMS better. But they’re not happy.

Yes, there’s plenty of training out there, but they don’t want to be doing any of this. I don’t blame them.

A Bit of Pedagogy

What’s the middle ground? A Bit of Pedagogy. Bring ourselves back into our teaching, even though we must do it online. Change things? Sure. Not everything went well this time around. Good faculty will want to make changes. What they won’t want to do is become online teachers. And that’s ok.

A bit of pedagogy would consist of doing some thinking, on ones own or with others, about how we can adapt to work with our strengths. If I fell in love with Zoom, and it was effective for my students, I should use it again. If I wasn’t, I should look at different ways to do things.

Some ideas for the in between, the middle ground, a bit of pedagogy:

1. Work to your strengths.
What did you do this term online that you liked, or seemed to work for both you and your students? That should be the central guiding idea for summer or fall.

2. Decrease areas of weakness.
What didn’t work? Can you get rid of it? For some, synchronous (Zoom) meetings were horrible. Students wouldn’t show their face (why should they?) and you didn’t want to show yours. Are you required to do synchronous sessions? Then think of ways around the worst parts of it. For example, show slides, narrate, and record the session. Require students to view if they don’t attend, and submit questions to a discussion board. During the session, have a student monitor the chat for questions. Make it “present and chat”, not the Brady Bunch. Don’t expect enthusiastic participation if Zoom isn’t your strength. And if you aren’t required to have synchronous sessions, consider how to teach without it.

3. Pull in your pedagogy.
What do you like best about your pedagogy in the classroom? If  you are a lecturer, get better at online lecture. If you like discussion, work more with the discussion board, and do some database searches for how to create good online discussions. If you like student-led inquiry, think about how to do that online. A set of collaborative documents, maybe. If you like creating an environment with rich resources, then leaving students to it, do that.

4. Be kind.
It’s tempting to think that this time around, students will know what they’re getting into. They may, but that doesn’t mean they like it any better than you do. In fact, those students who were hoping to celebrate a big life change (entering or transferring to university) may well be angry about this. So the same advice is as true now as it was for emergency instruction. Don’t expect too much. Lower the bar a little, but keep the challenge. The good students want to do well. Some will depend on your class to be a distraction from the real world. Some will need to feel they can reach out to you, and get that deadline extended. Do it for them. Consider how you’ll answer the question, “how did you help students get through the plague year?”

For more than bits

For those who want to get group-y about this and work together, or follow a more structured path, you’re welcome to use or steal my open access Canvas course in Practical Online Pedagogy. It’s more than a Bit of Pedagogy, but it’s not a full course, nor is it LMS training. Rather it’s an expansion of the first three points above, and has some useful handouts, worksheets and reflection exercises. It’s available to all (the download link is on the main page) for free use only — no one may be charged for using it, no matter who’s leading the group.




4 comments to A Bit of Pedagogy: between remote emergency learning and online teaching

  • Christine Moore

    Thanks Lisa,
    I was wondering how everyone managed. It was tough even for us veterans. My in person transition went better than my existing online. This is mainly because I did not know what they had on their plates. Many did not tell me. I asked for feedback and none came. I ended up calling most and it was an excellent idea. Many felt that Miracosta and I had their backs.

    Like I said my in person class ended up with excellent feedback. They were so afraid. But we worked. I say we because we talked every meeting about how the session went. Funny thing is they won’t take another class that does not require zoom. Haha.

    I am still waffling on requiring scheduled online or purely online.

    Thanks again


    • Lisa M Lane

      Thanks, Christine. I saw you posted this in Facebook first, so replied there.

  • jmm

    Thanks (again! and again!) for everything you’ve posted about this miserable situation. You’ve been a huge help to me, and by extension to my students.

    Zoom is problematic–I don’t really have the bandwidth for a glitchless, freezeless, ungarbled experience, and my brain freaks out because it knows, deep in its primordial synapses, that Those Are Not People. I’m in the slow process of overcoming that, like an astronaut learning to respond calmly to her capsule filling with smoke, but this is not the same thing as enthusiasm.

    I loved ‘techno-utopians.’ That’s it in a nutshell. They are generous with their time and eager as young dogs, but from my perspective they’re delusional. I’m also deeply suspicious of their claims that their students are learning anything by creating memes and two minute videos. Your realism is a green salad to their artificially flavored Popsicles.

    My biggest fear going into fall is how I’m going to teach the bottom 30%-40%–the ones who read at a 6th-8th grade level and barely manage the course material in a regular class with a ton of support. Some of these students are having their parents or degreed friends post online for them, but others more honest or more earnest are floundering. I’ve decided not to care if some of them cheat–their future employers can deal with their lack of skills–but I worry about the ones who want to improve.

    • Lisa M Lane

      Oh, good, glad it was useful — I hope to have a chance to talk about some of it on the SAFE Topics podcast on Monday.

      Just read an interesting article that helps explain why Zoom is so exhausting.

      My goal for the bottom 30-40% is to have them do some history, think about some history, for awhile. My loyalty is to my discipline, not student learning outcomes or grades. Since some won’t be capable of college-level analysis, I need interesting content and alignment between types of content: pictures that go with the text, video that goes with both. Even text read aloud to them. And then places where they can play with history: finding primary source images online and talking about them. For discussion, I can start the week with a simple “feeling” question (“how do you think slaves felt about the Middle Passage?”) first, then get deeper later in the week for those who can go deeper.

      None of this really allows for “cheating”. The papers are based on the sources they post themselves, so there’s maybe a bit of ownership there, I hope.

      I am a strong believer in scaffolding to help those who want to improve. Here’s the basic stuff, and if you’ve got that you can move up. If you can’t stack the blocks to make something, they’re still pretty blocks and now you know what blocks are.

Steampunk pedagogy

I’m watching rather horrified as faculty try desperately to replicate their classroom experience online, and plan to require students to do things they might not be able to manage, even while keeping grading structures in place.

Steampunk is an art form, one that takes the technologies of the Victorian era and combines them with a contemporary sensibility.

I am sending out the following to my students tomorrow (all students, including those who’ve already completed the first half of their fully online class):

This week we restart in earnest. If you have internet and can access everything in Canvas, just follow the instructions and deadlines and let me know using the Canvas “Message Lisa” or Inbox if you have any questions (and it’s ok to have lots of questions!).

If you got this email but cannot do the work because you lack internet access or a device that can do Canvas, please email me at and we’ll figure out something together. No need to drop the class if you don’t want to.

The thing is, just because a student had good computer access before, it doesn’t mean they do now. Some never did. I had students who were already sleeping in their cars and using their phone to do the class. Some of them are now called in for extended shift duty in hospitals and as first responders.

In addition to extending deadlines, eliminating timed tests, and easing grading practices, I am willing to go backward in time. The first correspondence courses were papers and assignments mailed back and forth. The first online classes were the same, but with email. We can copy web page text (well, any text) into an email. We can accept emailed work, emailed photos of handwritten work. Even those of us who have hundreds of students can handle this for the few who need it.

I realize I will lose the students who don’t want to do this, or try but can’t manage. I don’t want to lose those who want to continue, but don’t have all the 21st century tools. While I don’t see a need to go back to mailing things with so many people owning a cell phone, steampunk pedagogy should be our fallback.



Crash Course in moving a class online

The recommendations I’m seeing for faculty are overly complex. So here’s some completely unofficial advice for faculty as we all scramble to move on-site class sections into the Canvas online environment.

What to do first

Send a Canvas announcement out from inside the class letting students know this is where the class will be and that you are creating all the resources they will need there. Assure them you are on the job and in control!

Three things to know about going completely online:

1) The process by which you inform students is diluted in the online environment. Thus reminders and deadlines should appear in multiple places.

2) Students will access the class in different ways. Some will struggle to access a computer. Others will attempt to use their phone and the Canvas app. Simplicity of tasks helps everyone.

3) Students who choose on-site classes sometimes do so because they cannot stay motivated on their own or need personal help. Individual contact with these students may be important.

Here are some basic steps for moving your classes:

Determine priorities
Set up the Canvas shell
Set up Readings
Create Discussion
Adapt Assessment
Be kind

Determine priorities

1) Students

Keeping in touch with students might seem to be a first priority, but colleges are already sending out many emails, and many students don’t use email. Use the Announcements and the Inbox in Canvas to contact students, but keep in mind:

Announcements by default go to student email, so they could miss them. You might recommend that students go into their Profile and change their Notifications if they want to receive class communications another way (such as by text).

The Inbox is tricky to use. You might consider sharing your email directly with students in several places on the site.

For students who do check email, they read the subject line, not the email. So be sure your Announcements have a subject line that contains the main point (for example, “mid-term due Sunday!”).

2) Technology

Many of us know that each class has a Canvas shell already. Perhaps we’re using it for the gradebook or to post readings. In this case, students are accustomed to going there, which helps.

The key with an emergency situation is to keep things as simple as possible. Since each class has a Canvas shell, use the Announcements feature to tell students this is where the class will be. That way, the link is included already in the email.

3) Pedagogy

There are basically three aspects to what we do (yes, I think in threes!): Presentation through readings and/or lectures, discussion, and assessment.

In Canvas, presentation elements can go on Pages. The syllabus can go in Syllabus. Discussion is in Discussions boards. Assessment is in Quizzes.

What to work on first:
If you have a big test coming up at the start of the transition, work on Quizzes first. If you have readings they must do, work on getting them uploaded using Pages and Files. If the whole format of the class is having to change (new deadlines, etc), do the Syllabus first. If you promised a discussion right away, set up a Discussion forum first.

Setting up Canvas

We refer to each instance of Canvas for an individual course as a “shell”. Shells all contain the things in the menu items. Here’s the order I recommend for set-up (adapt as needed!):


Unless you are in a hurry to start a discussion or get readings uploaded, I recommend starting with your syllabus. You have two options:

1) Upload. If you already have it in a .doc, keep in mind that not all students have Microsoft Word. You might want to save it as a pdf first. To upload, go to Files, +Upload a new file, select it on your computer, and upload. It will then appear in the Files list for you to link.

2) Create it on the Syllabus page. You can copy all the text from your word file, then click Edit on the syllabus page, and paste.


The Assignments page is what determines how much each of your syllabus items counts for a grade. Quizzes are also assignments. Anything that gets graded is an assignment.

If you have standard percentages:
First we need to set up assignment categories, called “groups”. So let’s say you have a standard 10% for each of 5 quizzes, 20% for the midterm, 20% for the final, 10% for participation.

Using the plus sign, create an assignment group for each of these, indicating the percentage. You can come back later and put in the actual assignments.

Doing this does two things: makes a category in the gradebook, and makes a list for students on the Syllabus page.

If you do cumulative grading, ungrading, points based grading:
Do not set up Assignment Groups. If you have a highly complex grading system, or one which adds points as you go, you don’t want to use the categories. You’ll want to spend more time directly with the Gradebook. But consider using the simplest system you can.

Course settings

Go to Settings at the bottom of the near left menu. It will open in the Course Details tab. We’re only going to change the important stuff.

Make sure the dates match your course dates, and that all the availability boxes are unchecked so your class is fully open.
If you are using standard grading (A, B, C, D, F) be sure to check the Grading Scheme box.

Click More Options at the bottom. This is the important list. I recommend showing the Announcements at the top of the Home page. Choose how many Announcements you want showing all the time (I prefer one!). Decide what permissions to give students, for uploading files, starting discussions, etc. Decide whether you want them to see the total of their grade all the time (I do and check), and whether you want them to know the grade distribution of the class (I uncheck).

Menu Items

Each Canvas class has two menus. The blue on on the far left is the Canvas menu, and you can’t change it. The one with a white background, on the near left, is your class menu.

There are too many menu items. Do you want students directly looking at your list of Files, or do you prefer they only access them from the pages you create? Do you want them jumping around the Quizzes in any old order? Are you even using Conferences, UDOIT, Outcomes? Let’s simplify the menu.

Go to Settings at the bottom of that menu. Click on the Navigation “tab” at the top. Drag and drop anything off the menu you don’t want to be seen by students. Then click Save below.

Students can still get to all these places. For example, if they take a Quiz, they will still see the Quizzes link (a breadcrumb) at the top, and can go to a list of all the quizzes. But removing Quizzes makes it invisible on the main menu, where they don’t need it and can get confused.


If you have a textbook, or are using a course cartridge or system, you may already be set up.

Posted readings

If you have already posted readings in Canvas, it may just be a matter of linking them to a Page with assignments.

Uploading readings

If you have readings you want to upload, go to Files, +Upload a new file, select it on your computer, and upload. It will then appear in the Files list for you to link from Pages or the Syllabus.


Lectures online may be written out (in which case they are like Readings), delivered in real time, or recorded.

Real Time (synchronous) Lectures

If your college requires real time lectures to comply with student contact hours requirements, the tool to use is Zoom. Zoom is a videoconferencing program. It downloads a version to your computer, and when you enter a Zoom meeting it loads that program. Participants can communicate through video, audio, and text chat.

A lecture can be just you talking on video, or you can use the screen sharing function to show slides while you talk.

If you lecture to slides in the classroom, this may be the best option. [Since you are sharing your screen, be sure nothing is showing on your screen that you wouldn’t want students to see. Some faculty use a separate browser for this purpose, so their bookmark bar doesn’t show.]

Students may be shy about using video or audio, so many faculty allow the chat to be an option for participating. It’s very hard to watch the chat window while you are lecturing. Be sure to pause every so often to read the chat. Narrate what you’re doing (“now I’m going over to read the chat…”).

Zoom lecture meetings can be recorded for later viewing by students.

Naturally, learning to use Zoom may require more time than anything else you need to do! That’s why colleges are offering workshops.

Asynchronous Lectures

Lectures that are recorded or written or can be accessed any time are called “asynchronous”.

Recording lectures can be very time consuming, as can writing them out if you haven’t already. But basically, there are a few ways to do it:

1) Audio record (podcast) yourself talking the lecture, then post the recording.
2) Video record yourself talking, create a screencast using your slides, or do both together.
3) Write out the lecture like a book chapter.

There are many complex ways to do these, too many to go over for an emergency situation. But Canvas Studio (inside Canvas) can be used to record audio and video the quick way. I’d advise keeping individual recordings short (15-20 minutes or so).


There are two kinds of discussion: synchronous (real time) and asynchronous (anytime).

Synchronous discussion: real time

This can be achieved during real time lecture (see above), or as a separate meeting. As always, if assigning any real-time activity outside of class, we need to be sensitive to student schedules. For this reason, I recommend against synchronous activity outside of regular class time when doing an emergency shift.

Asynchronous discussion: forums

Canvas discussion forums are simple, and resemble Facebook forums. Students will likely be accustomed to using them from other classes.

The most important thing to determine is how many Discussions you need. Each one needs to be fairly focused, particularly if you have a large class. Canvas’s design means that individuals posts take up a lot of space, so much scrolling is involved. It is difficult to follow a highly complex conversation.

A weekly discussion forum is traditional. You can set dates for participation when you add a new Discussion.

The simplest form of online discussion just asks a question or set of questions in the initial prompt, then asks students to reply a certain number of times.

There is a lot of literature on how to set up effective online discussions, but here are just a few tips:

1) Ask open questions
If the first one or two students answers the question(s), what’s the point for the other students? Open-ended questions, ones that require exploration but don’t necessarily have a certain answer, can be more useful.

2) Make expectations clear
If you want a particular word count, or a number of replies to other students, or a new term introduced in each post, or a picture posted, say so in the instructions.

3) Choose your own participation level
You may choose to stay out of discussion, but if you’re accustomed to guiding in-class discussion, you likely won’t. Participating occasionally can be better to encourage conversation among the students, while participating frequently can guide the discussion more directly.

4) Consider projects
Discussion forums are the only place in Canvas where students can see each others work. You can even set up forums for groups of students. Canvas also allows implementation of Google Docs for this, if you’re comfortable learning about that. But for quick group work or projects, forums may be used.

5) Consider using the discussion forum as an assignment board
Discussion forums can be set so that students cannot see what is on the forum until they post. Keep in mind, of course, that students may work together on forums. Even so, this may be a good way to turn in assignments where you want students to see what each other has done, or you want to use the initial post as a jumping off point.


We all have our own ways of doing assessment. Quizzes/tests and Zoom lectures will be the biggest technical challenges for moving a class online.


Assignments can be submitted online, uploaded, even automatically graded. Setting this up requires spending some time in the Assignments category.

Multiple-choice questions

If you do Windows, the program Respondus can help create your quizzes into a format that Canvas can use and adapt. See your campus resources.


Essays can be Assignments turned in just to you, or they can be questions on a regular Quiz. They can even be items posted in a forum. In all cases, essay questions may need to be copied and pasted into the system.

Be kind

An emergency is not the time to worry about strict deadlines, gate-keeping, or “no exceptions” policies. It is an exceptional time. Students are not just sitting at home, eager to participate. Some have jobs that are now demanding overtime, family members to care for, and concerns about feeding their families when people have been thrown out of their jobs. Do not demand doctor’s notes or “proof” of inability to finish work. The least we can do in a time like this is trust our students and help each other. We should be providing the opportunity to go to class, not increasing the stress.

Consider some symbols of online class kindness: deadlines without late penalties, retakes on exams, quizzes graded by the system, and more.

Checklist for moving a class online

____ Send a reassuring Announcement from inside Canvas to all students
____ Determine priorities: syllabus, readings, assignments/quizzes, discussion
____ Post or create the Syllabus
____ Set up Assignment Groups if using standard percentage grading
____ Select Course Settings
____ Remove unused menu items
____ Decide about lecture / learn Zoom if doing real time
____ Set up Discussion as appropriate
____ Create assessments
____ Be kind

3 comments to Crash Course in moving a class online

Top Ten List for Online Pedagogy

Over the years, I’ve done quite a bit with online pedagogy, and now we’ve come to a time when people are getting degrees in it, but I still can’t point faculty to a single resource where they can learn about it quickly. So here I’m going to list what I (and possibly I alone) think are the top ten tips for online pedagogy:

1. Emphasize your strengths

In our Program for Online Teaching workshops, the first thing we did was ask participants to think about what they did well, and what they enjoyed, in their on-site classroom. We discovered a few things.

Good lecturers not only love to lecture, but they do it well. They tend to be organized and enthusiastic, even charismatic. At a time when lecture gets a bad rap because it isn’t considered “active learning”, a good lecturer inspires students to become interested in the subject, and provides a professional role model.

Those who love class discussion, or student-led activities, revel in the chaos that can ensue, and are experts at facilitating. Their classrooms tended to be dynamic.

Faculty who like variety tend to do several different things during a class session, and keep the energy going by transitioning to different tasks, connecting them all together.

Any of these approaches (and many more) can be effective online. The question should always be how the technology can be made to do what you do well as a teacher. So a lecturer might focus on creating narrated slides or video lectures. Someone who loves class discussion might work on creating dynamic forums and alternative programs for discussion (see #4 below). Those who mix it up might create many different tasks each week.

2. Work on your weaknesses

If your lecturing isn’t so good, try making short mini-lecture videos or narrated slides for particular issues or problems in your class. This can be particularly effective for areas where students have trouble, covering those things that never seem to be understood completely in class.

If discussion is your bugaboo, look at your motives for doing it. Do you want discussion to have students review content? Then create more of a posting board, and don’t worry too much if they don’t “talk” to each other. Do you want discussion to be a place where students interact? Then design for social interaction instead of deploying a typical “one post, two reply” format. Do you want to use discussion for students to create something together? Consider ditching the discussion board for something more collaborative, like Google Docs (keeping in mind #4 below), or use it for posting things that everyone will use.

If you’re not technologically savvy, but would love to add video clips and animated images to your class, set aside some professional development time for yourself, and start searching the web for how-to videos and free programs to try.

3. Organize effectively

Sometimes fancified as “course design”, course organization may be the most important factor in your online class. If students cannot find their way around, they may get frustrated, which prevents learning. On the other hand, if it’s too obvious where you click-click-click, students become task-focused, jumping through the hoops. This may be exactly what you want, but it may not.

Think about breadth versus depth. A “broad” organization has many course menu items, but fewer clicks to material as a result. A “deep” organization has very few main menu items, but lots of clicks to go deeper into activities and pages. Think which is more appropriate for your class.

Be aware that the Learning Management System can work against your best intentions. For example, I prefer a simple organization, with few main course items, one main page with the weeks listed, then the information and activity links on those pages. But Canvas keeps adding more and more to the “super” Canvas menu, just to the left of my class menu, making it cluttered.

Although newspapers may seem antiquated, print journalism has useful norms. For example, despite the flattening of much information on the internet, the size of headings may still be helpful. Also, think above and below the fold. Students understand they have to scroll to get all the information, but they still look at what’s at the top first. Remember that journalistic pyramid — the important information should be at the top (and the email corollary: people read their inbox, not their email).

All this goes double when creating instructions. If your instructions are lengthy, then the activity isn’t intuitive enough, and should be rethought.

4. Use only one cool tool

You just discovered VoiceThread, and are thrilled at the possibilities. Or Pinterest – wouldn’t that be a great learning tool? How about Flipgrid? Students could do discussion that way instead. Or Google Docs – they could collaborate.

Learning Management Systems, even when they integrate their tools (Canvas uses LTIs, some of which integrate with the Gradebook and Assignments), require a lot of back-end upkeep. They need codes and updates, and you need to learn how the tool works and be able to answer student questions. If the tool you like doesn’t integrate with the LMS, then it will require students to have their own username and password. It may be difficult for you to track their progress.

So my rule if you are using an LMS is: One Cool Tool.

This may seem like a practical or technological consideration, but it is also pedagogical. There’s a reason you like a particular tool — it does something for your students that no other tool can do. So the question is how important that something is to the class itself. Does this tool enable students to do something significant to your discipline, in a way that is somehow easier or better? Then it deserves to take center stage, even to have the course built around it.

For example, my cool tool at the moment is Perusall, a group annotation program for documents. Although I use discussion boards for students to post things, the social interaction and collaborative learning take place in Perusall. It’s also where the reading comprehension happens, where students get help from each other understanding the reading. Deep reading is an important goal for me. Adding some other cool tool might dilute this one.

5. Assess responsibly

Depending on external pressures, it may be necessary to assess vast quantities of student work. But quite a lot can probably be done as “formative” assessment, quizzes or tests that are low-stakes (or even no points) but help build knowledge for larger projects. Assessment, even if it takes place separately, can be integrated into learning.

Again, it’s important to design assessments around your own pedagogical goals. If you want fact retention, repeated quizzes (or quizzes with retakes) may be desirable. If you want application of content, essays or visual projects with rubrics might work better. If you want everything to build up to one big project, there are ways to organize that with signpost assessments along the way.

Prompt feedback is more important, I think, in an online class than in the classroom. Students do not like the feeling they’ve just thrown their hard work into the void. If there are assessments that test facts, they should show the score immediately, and the answers revealed as soon after the deadline as feasible. The more individualized the assignment is, the more you need to provide feedback beyond the score. This can be done with rubrics, if you’re good at writing rubrics (see #2 above if you’re not). Individual feedback can be sped up with templates (where you have a text file of common responses you can copy and paste). The template approach used to be in vogue, but is now discouraged, because it seems to not be individualized. But my sense is that if the student work has patterns, there is no reason why the feedback shouldn’t also.

6. Encourage exploration

There are few subjects that cannot benefit from having the student pursue their own interests, even if in only a small way.

One way online teachers do this is to offer choices, either between or within assignments. Students can gather their own sources, visuals, or information, either with guidance or from an instructor-prepared list. They can choose topics for projects.

For my classes, students contribute cited visual sources to a discussion board, then use them to write their papers. This gives those who want to pursue their own interests that opportunity, and those who don’t can write based on all the sources available.

7. Act strict but be lenient

The syllabus may be strict on deadlines, not because one is dictatorial, but because we are professionals. Medical appointments, court dates, church weddings — one cannot miss these deadlines. If you do, you must pay, because the professionals involved have other things they could be doing . Despite over a century of arguing over whether teaching is a profession or a semi-profession, I think that indicating strict deadlines implies your time is important. I am always strict in front of the group.

However, students’ time is often beyond their control. At community college, they usually have family and job commitments. And at every college, unexpected things arise: illness, family emergencies, accidents. Being flexible with the individual is appropriate, to whatever extent you think reasonable. Accepting late work should be accompanied with an understanding that it is a favor of your professional time. This does not mean adjudicating excuses. I pretty much accept any request as coming from a responsible adult, and grant what I think is appropriate time, usually with a “just this once” caveat.

So I’m a dictator on the syllabus, and a marshmallow when an individual asks me a favor.

8. Use visuals

Pictures in online courses should not be decoration, but rather integral to either the navigation of the class or to understanding the information the class contains. They can also be an alternative to text, particularly in testing or collaborative work. Proximity is good: an image next to text describing it, a diagram inside the quiz question.

Not everyone is great with visuals (see #2), but screens and screens of text are mind-deadening. It’s death by scrolling. And I promise no one will read it (see #3).

9. Don’t get all professional

Resources posted for students need not look like they were printed at Cengage or filmed in Hollywood. Instructor presence is best expressed by, if I may exaggerate, you in your pajamas in ugly blue lighting with your dog barking in the background. Immediacy and humanity are more important than production values. If you have a great idea because you just read the students’ posts and it led you in some bizarre direction in your ideas, fire up the webcam and let them know.

Similarly, one of the most effective text documents I’ve seen is an instructor’s uploaded article with her own notes scribbled in the margins. Learning is active, so if our resources are too, that’s OK.

10. Be true to your discipline and transparent in your teaching

The biggest objection to teaching online is that the faculty member feels they cannot do justice to their discipline in the online environment. So this really ties back to #1 — no professor who feels this way should ever be forced to teach online, because it’s likely they are right: that professor cannot be true to their discipline in an online class.

But we don’t always have a choice, and some of us must teach online to have employment. So know that it is possible to be true to your discipline online, by focusing on the aspects that are essential to you as a practitioner and scholar.

So again, deciding what’s important to you must determine the design. You’re a facts person, you want drill and drill and test, because that’s how you teach best. Go for it. Spend the time to make fantastic test banks, with images or diagrams too if appropriate. Set timers for everything if your method demands it. But let the students know why that’s the method, why it’s successful, why you want them to be successful. At the other extreme, you may want exploration, for students to do things themselves, to lead the way. Create collaborative spaces, get them blogging, whatever it is that fulfills your goal. And let them know why you’re doing that, your philosophy of constructivism or whatever it is that drives your pedagogy.

So that’s it. Twenty years of teaching online distilled into a top ten list. 🙂

3 comments to Top Ten List for Online Pedagogy

  • jmm

    Your reasoning is so cogent and your approach to online teaching is the only one I’ve seen that acknowledges it’s not a magic wand but just a different set of chalkboards. I think you could have a second career in teaching-online-teaching, if you wanted it.

    • Lisa M Lane

      The only thing that’s magic about online teaching is that it can be done from any distance at all. Everything else is just…teaching. And thank you. 🙂

  • Bethanie

    Twenty years and a fantastic list! Thanks for sharing, it’s a good reminder for us who teach online.

Disaggregated knowledge and the LMS

The advantage of teaching so many classes online is that I see patterns in student messages that lead me into larger issues. This one is HUGE. It’s not just about Canvas. It’s about the decline of Western education as we know it.

I stopped using Modules last term, because they “flattened” the elements of my class, making it appear as though each were of equal worth. Modules also forced students along a linear path of that week’s work.

I instead chose to keep my weekly pages, which list the things we do each week and when they’re due. I use bold for the higher-stakes assignments. Canvas automatically puts my due dates on the Calendar, and thus populates the students’ To-Do and Upcoming lists, which appear on the main (Home) page.

Over the years, more and more classes have switched to Canvas, so the average full-time student at MiraCosta would have four classes in a term. What the Canvas Calendar does is acts like any other calendar — it lists the tasks for each day or each week or each month. On the student Canvas app, it shows the To-Do list for each week from all their classes.

Sound convenient? It is convenient in the same way that bottled water is convenient, and that credit cards are convenient. It undermines traditional relationships globally, and creates a sea change.

Yes, I probably sound crazy saying that the Canvas Calendar represents the decline of Western education as we know it. But bear with me.

This week, the first week of class, I have had an unusual number of students message me saying they missed the assignment because they didn’t “see” it. By probing this, I’ve discovered that they mean it isn’t appearing in the To-Do list. This is regardless of the fact that I did check to the box to add these items to the To-Do list (I”ll check that technical issue later). I quickly responded with the yellow highlighted note on the Home page you see below, but I still was getting apology messages for missing work they couldn’t tell they needed to do.

This morrning a student wrote me saying she was sorry she missed it, but the primary source assignment wasn’t on the To-Do list. I sent a student my screenshot in Student View, showing that the assignment was indeed appearing on the list.


She replied with two screenshots where it wasn’t there. Here’s the one she sent from her phone:

And it suddenly hit me. The process she’s accessing, the To-Do List, lists all the tasks for all the classes a student takes. It thus disaggregates the courses entirely. She’s no longer taking my History class, or a Sociology class. She’s just doing work, clicking links, crossing things off a list.

By showing the student the tasks for the day, for all three of her classes, Canvas has not only reasserted its contention that all learning tasks are equivalent, but that they are tasks unrelated to anything else. They are just stuff the student needs to complete.

Most scholars think in terms of their field, then teachers think in terms of wrapping elements together to encourage understanding. On my weekly page, you can see that the tasks for the week relate to each other. They are all part of that week’s topic. They follow sequentially: first post the primary source (forum), then check it for points (quiz). My design has instantly become irrelevant.

My practical response today has been to go through all my classes, adding the weekly page to the To-Do list, as the first thing that week. It will be tricker to do this for my lectures and other non-graded or linked items, since Canvas doesn’t “see” those at all. I will have to link each on a Page and put the Page on the To-Do list, forcing students to click twice to get to it. This will take all weekend.

But my holistic response is much more important. The units we teach are no longer units — they contain no flow or contiguity when seen as disparate tasks. If students access all academic work as a flat list of tasks, there is no connection between assignments. There is no connection, for example, between Reading 3 and Quiz 3. Assign the Reading for Monday. Assign the Reading Quiz for Wednesday, and it isn’t clear they relate to each other.

This explains the other messages I’m receiving. “I see we have a Lecture quiz due, but what is that on?” At first I smirked and thought, “The Lecture, of course!” But now I realize they don’t see the Lecture unless they’re on the weekly page. “The Calendar says the second post is due – where do I post?” You can’t put two due dates for the same discussion forum. They don’t know where to return to in order to post.

In an age when we worry that students don’t read whole books, we have something here that is much worse. How can they do sequential and scaffolded learning when the system won’t let you scaffold?

It changes the rules utterly. Here are the “new” rules (some have been good practice for awhile):

1. Assessment and responses must appear with the content.

Quiz 3, in other words, must contain Reading 3 within it. You can’t have a link for Reading 3 on Monday and Quiz 3 on Wednesday.

Note here that group text annotation, of the kind I’m using in Perusall, is ideal. The content and the activity are inextricably linked.

2. Double-level discussion may not work.

In Canvas, to have students return to a discussion, it will be necessary to link to that same discussion in the Calendar later in the week.

One alternative will be to have the entire class inside a discussion forum. This won’t work in Canvas because it doesn’t allow real threads, but might work in other systems.

3. Navigation schemes are useless.

Obviously, my own weekly page navigation, even if it’s on the To-Do list, is worked against forcefully by Canvas.

Some would say return to Modules. But Canvas’ own Modules are irrelevant, except for adaptive release, or to force task order. Students won’t use the Modules page either, even if it’s the main page. They may never see it.

This also applies to the Home page itself, especially a nice one. It is now obsolete. All we’ve learned about making the Home page welcoming is irrelevant.

Again, the new rules (and I’m sure there will be more as we all think about it) are the result of the disaggregation of content and tasks. This is both an effect of the technology, and a cause of the disaggregation of knowledge. We’d better plan accordingly.

4 comments to Disaggregated knowledge and the LMS

  • Is there no way to subvert this terrible system?

    • Lisa M Lane

      The system is just indicative of larger issues. It was possible before, of course, to write down the disparate tasks on a paper calendar. The “rules” I’ve given are ways to go with the trend while trying to maintain a more holistic view, but it’s far from sufficient.

      Yes, one can not the system for anything except grades, as Laura Gibbs does. The record-keeping, however, is a nightmare for the number of students I have.

  • On the one extreme, the aggregation of the To-Do’s could be seen as student-centered, as opposed to each professor trying to be the center of their own universe. In either case, learning-centered seems to suffer. Helping students balance multiple courses and lay out a flow that best drives learning is not something algorithms are going to solve.

    • Lisa M Lane

      That’s true — I suppose it could be seen as student-centered in a way, because it manages their workflow. But it does it for them, in a flattened way, rather than encouraging them to engage a larger view of their course or the discipline. Balancing multiple courses in the best way for learning, it seems to me, would involve either interdisciplinary approaches that have been much lauded but are rarely used, or a culture that encourages deep study and supports the hours of study necessary to work in several disciplines. As if.

The internet’s not for learning?

I confess to being depressed by a summer article in The Economist, “The second half of humanity is joining the internet” (June 6). In the spirit of Thorstein Veblen’s critique, poorer parts of the world are getting on the internet*, mostly though mobile phones. And even fewer people there than in the developed world are using this online time to learn things.

The Economist article did not specifically count online courses, only “education information/services”, but the use is pretty low. And it likely includes looking up something on Wikipedia so you can win a game, or checking the weather.

People everywhere do the same thing: use the internet mostly for “timepass” – passing the time by communicating with friends and family, playing games, and watching videos. I’m not saying these things don’t cause learning. They do. But the purpose is entertainment and emotional satisfaction, not becoming an educated citizen.

It just serves to remind me how truly wide the gulf is between those who value education for its long-term benefits, and those who just want to pass the time. Are the people who get satisfaction from intellectual challenges rare? If so, will the smartphones make them even more rare?

Because that’s the crux of the issue. When all this internet-y, web-by stuff began, we educators were all excited. Vast libraries of information! Massive open online classes! Anyone can learn anything from anywhere!

I’m not anti-entertainment. I’m a huge classic movie fan, and I watch a lot of TV programs where one character calls another “Inspector”. I read modern novels just for fun, or to get to sleep. I’m not always working, always teaching, or always learning.

But I am again reminded of the old Zits cartoon:

The internet relies on huge servers, and uses tons of resources. It only seems “clean”. The mobile phones contain rare earths, the servers are so hot they need to be in the Arctic, the power plants chug away so we can have long power strips full of our charging device plugs. It’s odd to make that sacrifice just so that people can play Fortnite from anywhere.

Perhaps our goals were too utopian. The article points out that our vision of the subsistence farmer checking weather on his phone to save his crop doesn’t really happen. But why shouldn’t everyone use the internet for whatever they like? And can’t we learn wonderful things on our own? Some little boy somewhere is watching a Zeffirelli clip on YouTube and is inspired to become a great set designer. Some little girl is watching the US women’s soccer team and will be a great player. Is formal education a more important use of technology?

After two decades online, however, I am saddened that there hasn’t been a little more educational uptake and a little less “Whasup?”.


* I used to be very careful to distinguish the web from the internet — the internet is the entire online structure, while the web is the world wide web accessed through a browser. The recent dominance of the “app” and sites requiring log-in is closing the web, and has become the most-used aspect of the internet other than email.

2 comments to The internet’s not for learning?

  • jmm

    In the paleolithic, when I was in grad school and the internet was only a gleam in little Bezo’s eye, we thought that when everyone had access to all the accumulated knowledge of humanity, humanity would spend all its time watching porn. From this perspective, perhaps Fortnite is a win.

    If it’s true that we’re wired by evolution to exert the least possible effort to get what we want, and it’s also true that survival is easy these days (in developed countries), what incentives are there to learn anything? Is the deep joy some of us find in mastering ideas, or understanding how photosynthesis works, or knowing the difference between American and cattle egrets, just a fluke in our wiring?