Canvas is not your friend

Instructure’s Canvas continues to gain market share as the Learning Management System in colleges and universities, despite limitations which have become more apparent as more faculty teach online. Want to assign extra credit? That’s really hard. Want students to maintain individual graded journals? Super difficult. Want to use the shell to create student-led learning? Forget about it.

And yet schools have been overjoyed to adopt Canvas as the new friend who will help with everything while not having too many needs. It’s so easy to use, everyone says. It looks so simple and clean and Google-y. Students like how all their classes look the same, reducing their cognitive load.

But for the more creative teacher or professor, those interacting with it intensely rather than casually, associating with Canvas exposes its shortcomings and begins to cause frustration. Faculty who have had more useful relationships with other systems know exactly what’s missing, but even those new to the playground are stymied when trying to get a simple friendly response.

The fact is, Canvas is not our friend. That’s because its design forces us to engage with its emotional problems.

Navigating like it’s 2005

Canvas is stuck in old patterns of thinking, even when those patterns cause problems again and again.

Learning Management Systems appear to be innocent shells into which teachers load “content”, but in reality they each have their own built-in pedagogy. Canvas’s pedagogy (like its other market leader, Blackboard) is based on outdated norms of information organization. In the 1990s, LMSs imitated the folder-style structure of Mac and PC (Windows) operating systems. They were really just places to upload content items (usually Word files) and perhaps run a single discussion board (by 2005 or so).

Surprisingly, even when LMSs added more and more features to enable greater interaction and activity, they retained the old structure. It is designed to present material by type: Pages, Lectures, Discussion, Grades, etc. You can see this in the way the Canvas menu is constructed.

Menu on left, and text saying “friends don’t let friends have eighteen menu items”

Most teachers do not think in terms of “type”. We think in terms of weeks, or units, or modules. We section the learning, combining various elements to cover a particular subject, assigning a reading, practice test, discussion, and exam all on the same topic. Separating those resources by type makes no sense when one is creating a learning pathway for students to follow, and can undermine the organizational integrity of the course.

Trying to help

But Canvas promises an alternative navigation for the students: Modules. You can put all your tasks in the correct order under headings. The “Back” and “Next” buttons, which automatically follow your sequence, will ensure that students stay within their lane.

                                    Exciting Modules page for Chapter 4

Unfortunately, this doesn’t solve the problem. Canvas’s Modules page is a list of links, with every item listed in the same size and color. But the menu items, ever visible even on the Modules page, will still say Pages, Assignments, Discussion, etc.

One can try to break this framework. Since we can add, delete, or hide menu items, it is possible to make new pages which link to the whole pattern of information. It may be possible, for example, to have the menu say Module 1, Module 2, etc., instead of Announcements, Syllabus, Pages, Discussion, Quizzes.

You could use the Modules pages as a home page, even though it’s ugly. Or you could make all the menu items for types invisible, and build a Home page with a schedule or grid, and each unit could be a list of links. Students can then see how everything fits together for that week.

But no…

Both solutions will be undermined by Canvas’s internal navigation. Even if you set up Page-based or Modules navigation, the “breadcrumbs” will show everything by type anyway. Any student going from your Week 2 page of links to Quiz 2 will see a breadcrumb in the upper left saying “Quizzes”. It they click it, the full list of all the quizzes in the class appear. Ditto with Discussion 2 — the full list of discussions will be there, and students will start jumping around and get lost.

Canvas provides the way to make things right, then undermines its own good intentions.

Working in five classes at once

Canvas wants everything combined for convenience, ignoring all your plans.

Let’s say you create a learning pathway through the content, considering the holistic nature of your course, using Modules or Pages. The Calendar and the To Do list will immediately come along and destroy your careful course structure, by disaggregating all the tasks in all your students’ various classes and lumping them together into a giant list.

For students, as a convenience, the Calendar lists everything from all their classes in order of due date. When they look at the month’s or week’s tasks, everything from all their classes is listed, making it difficult to see the order of anything for one particular class. Your “Discussion 2” which you carefully designed to follow Reading 2 has another class’s “Discussion 4″ in between.

The To Do list does the same thing in an even simpler list that appears on the Dashboard and every course home page.

In addition, both the Calendar and the To Do list don’t include anything that isn’t graded. That might include the week’s main page, the discussion students are supposed to return to on two different dates, or a required reading. Students will miss ungraded assignments entirely as they innocently follow these helpful lists.

What to do?

Because the Calendar and To Do features are controlled above the course level, there is no way to make them invisible or change them, except by adding more items from your class. There is limited space in the title, especially when the Calendar or To-Do List is seen on a phone, so we cannot put “Eng101” as the first word to help. But we can add additional Calendar items for things that aren’t connected to a graded item: “Week 2 starts today”, or “Return to discussion”, or “essay corrections due”. When we make an ungraded assignments, we can check the “Add to To Do list” box. Adding more things to do may be, strangely, the best way to help students.

Relying on others for basic functions

Canvas has no inner reserves of strength, and relies on outsiders.

It is a truth generally acknowledged that Canvas’s discussion boards are the most troublesome element of the LMS. Conversation is not its strong suit. Canvas requires an administrative setting to do things like make the barely nested posts obvious in a threaded discussion. There is so much white space that one scrolls until one forgets the topic — it isn’t practical to engage in extended, much less semester-long, discussions. There is no distinction between instructor posts and student posts. The toolbar cannot be customized, so it has become bloated and even more difficult to use than when it had fewer features. There is no @ feature or notification sent to students to let them know someone has responded to their post, unless they subscribe to all posts on all boards in the class.

Canvas is very instructor-focused, making student-led learning difficult to design. There are no collaborative or whiteboard spaces built in. Extending Canvas means using LTI (Learning Tools Interoperability) apps, or what used to be called “plug-ins”. These are made by external providers, and vary widely in cost and ease of use. Some integrate better than others, passing grades back into the Canvas Gradebook with ease. Others force students to create external accounts.

Given these difficulties, it is often easiest for faculty to succumb to the temptation of using a big stick: the textbook publisher package. The big companies offer full packages that can plug in to a Canvas course, essentially connecting their own learning management system to Canvas. This adds another layer and another (sometimes more than one) menu item as a “type”. Then it becomes necessary to spend much time learning the publisher’s complicated system as well as Canvas.

Less may be more

The only solution here is to limit oneself to one LTI. If it’s the publisher package, all the time will be spent learning and dealing with that. If it’s Google Docs, that will have a learning curve too, and possibly external accounts. If group annotation is desired, that can be the only extension.

Being honest with each other

These three big flaws don’t even include the many inconsistencies and gaps that Canvas has had since the beginning. There is no way to change things in bulk, like assignment due dates or quiz instructions. There is no pop-up to alert students that a message awaits from their teacher. There is no font customization on the Modules page, which flattens everything and makes it look like a two-minute video is equivalent to a twenty-page chapter. The drag-and-drop Calendar won’t let you drag-and-drop items from one month to another.*

One should not expect a friend, especially a troublesome friend, to change. Until 2015 there was a chance the relationship would improve. Indeed, things had been improving with help from the Canvas Community, a rich resource of teachers and expert users. But once Instructure went public, they became answerable to shareholders, just like Blackboard. Their “open source” street cred died, as did their need to respond to users.

It may be be best to consider Canvas as a flawed, if necessary, companion. It has its own desires and needs, which will often be counter to yours. But its unreliability means it’s best not to get too dependent.


*Update: Kona Jones has pointed out to me a couple of revisions. One can drag-and-drop to a different month if you start with an undated item from the list, and a recent update now means that Canvas includes bulk editing of Assignment dates only.

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