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Canvas User Engagement

8 Posts authored by: Nicholas Jones

This is the eighth entry in my Preparing Your Canvas series, documenting NKU's transition from Blackboard to Canvas. If you want to start from the beginning, here's the rest in chronological order:



Once the initial, panicked rush at the start of the Fall semester subsided we had a chance to take a breath. Although we continued our daily training offerings, there wasn't anything new to add to the design team's plate for the transition. Whew. Now that we've passed the midterm I thought this would be a good chance to share some of the digital signage we're using to advertise Canvas! Signs are cool, right?


Before we go on though, a warning: if you're from Instructure's marketing group, you might want to look away. I'm sure this is the kind of stuff that gives a brand manager nightmares. (how fitting for Halloween)


A quote from a professor saying "This is easily the best training I've had at NKU. Ever." Beneath the quote is the link


Let's start with the newest sign - this one is about to go out from Marketing. This quote came from one of the faculty working her way through our workshop series. As soon as she said it, I thought "Dang, this has to go up somewhere for people to see!" Since our training isn't mandatory, building interest in our resources is crucial. However, I think that Kona Jones makes a strong argument for mandatory training in her post Canvas Instructor Training and Student Orientation. Would I make training mandatory? Yes. But I'm a monster.


The logo for Blackboard is partially ripped away like paper, revealing the Canvas logo underneath. To the right is the text "Blackboard goes away this May. Why not take a look at Canvas now?"


We currently have this sign in rotation, and plan to have it up for the entire school year. We want to encourage faculty to move as early as they feel comfortable. We also want to make it explicitly clear that our old LMS isn't accessible after May. Although its been said in emails and announcements, its hard to over-emphasize a critical deadline like this. (I think this sign is my favorite).


A table of statistics about NKU and Canvas. Over 70 Canvas trainings offered. Over 300 faculty enrolled in Canvas 101. Over 670 courses currently being taught in Canvas. At the bottom of the sign is the link


We're getting to the point where we have some good numbers to show for our transition. So let's show them off! Although there wasn't an elegant way to highlight this in the sign, we have 670 unique courses in Canvas. That's not including multiple sections of the same course. Now that I've written this, I suppose I could've just put "unique" instead of "active," huh?




Next: Preparing Your Canvas: The Feather of Truth

This is the seventh entry in my Preparing Your Canvas series, documenting NKU's transition from Blackboard to Canvas. If you want to start from the beginning, here's the rest in chronological order:



Fall 2017 is here! In the week leading up to our first day of classes emails flew, meetings were had, phone calls were panicked, and the campus network temporarily became a frenzied beehive of preparation for the incoming students. This year is the voluntary year for NKU; faculty have the option of switching at any point, up to the end of May. At the end of May, Blackboard goes away (it rhymes — try it out). However, about 1/4 of all our Fall courses look to be delivered in Canvas, which is great for our first semester. And all of that is really important. But you know what's more important? Buttons.


Its hard to over-emphasize just how much people got excited about making graphics, placing them on Content Pages, and then making them links to other parts of their course. Part of the strong response stems from the relative inability of Blackboard to handle this kind of functionality. This left the design team with a question: how much do we focus on what the participating instructors are excited about, and should we pull time from what they are "supposed" to be learning right now? Do we let participants steer the class, or do we keep them on rails to reach our pre-ordained destination? The temptation, especially when you only have about 20 hours of delivery time at most to work with, is to clamp down. Despotism can be so easy. Without veering too much myself, a lot of my personal growth this past year has been in meditating on the difference between contradiction and contrariety. Contradiction sets up an opposition with no middle:


"We can either learn what you want to learn, or what I have planned for you to learn." 


Only one of us gets to be right. Contrariety takes a different approach; it frames the problem not as an either/or, but as a question of allocation or intensity.


"How are we using our time currently? What ways could we use our available time?"


For me, it was reframing the question in this way that made building a separate course, Canvas-201 make sense. I also think the enthusiasm towards making buttons speaks to the fundamentally creative nature of the instructor. The definition of creativity that I have found the most useful is the ability to connect concepts. We could also say that part of the function of an instructor is to help learners connect concepts. Providing instructors the means to functionally express their creativity was an easy decision to make, then. So, let's (finally) take a look at Canvas-201:


  • Module 1 goes over the kinds of functions graphics can serve in your course: Interactive, Informative, Organizational, Decorative.
  • Module 2 lays out some guidelines for things you should and should not do when making your graphics.
  • Module 3 walks through the process of actually building a graphic and deploying it to a Canvas course. 


In building Canvas-201, we chose to do everything in Powerpoint. We can guarantee all our faculty have access to the program, and they probably have some familiarity with it already through making presentations. In addition to talking about how to make graphics, it was a design goal to have the course model its principles. So every graphic inside the course was also created using Powerpoint. For similar reasons we also chose to pull all the photography from one website — pixabay. Module 3 is what most faculty were interested in, as it contains the actual tutorials for how to make images in Powerpoint. The tutorials try to cover a range of styles, and some of them are... basic. However, each tutorial builds upon the previous, and each provides a critical skill or strategy that can be employed in a variety of ways.


And guess what? If you're interested, you can go through the course, too. Just go to the course homepage and enroll. You will need an account with, but that's free.


Next: Preparing Your Canvas: Signs and Wonders

This is the sixth entry in my Preparing Your Canvas series, documenting NKU's transition from Blackboard to Canvas. If you want to start from the beginning, here's the rest in chronological order:



I started writing this post over the weekend, intending to finish it before the final SFI started. Oops. In general there's this palpable sense of acceleration as the beginning of the fall semester looms on the horizon. Although interacting with faculty in the intimate setting of the workshops is rewarding, its only one part of our responsibilities. This applies equally to the participating instructors as well; the rest of our duties do not patiently wait while we all set aside this time to dig into building great classes. Part of navigating this transition successfully will involve faculty and staff alike negotiating a balance of their time and resources. 


We spend part of the workshop time thinking about cognitive load in different contexts. For example, how much information is being presented to a viewer at once? Humans can be visually overwhelmed easily. We also expand cognitive load to encompass what students are being asked to do overall. Just like faculty and staff, their behavior as students is a constant negotiation of time, resources, and competing responsibilities. Looking back at our Summer Faculty Institutes, we connected these points with participants while learning about Canvas:


  1. Students attend a class to learn content, skills, and meet objectives.
  2. The more students think about the structure of a class, the less they will think about the content.
  3. Canvas helps improve course design so that students think about course structure less.


These last two SFI's have also offered us new perspectives on the problem of engagement and disenfranchisement. In earlier posts we brought up involving other staff in learning Canvas. Many people besides instructors need to know about Canvas. We also have to respect the needs of instructors who aren't on campus. Online-only instructors, remote faculty working out of other states or other countries — they are equally important in the adoption of a new LMS. To that end, we recorded our WebEx sessions, which I covered more in depth in a previous post. This dips into a larger problem that many institutions face, which is how to provide equity and empowerment to remote faculty and students. Working with online-only organizations previously, I'm familiar with the communication problems that arise for individuals working remotely. Communicating at a distance requires a higher degree of intentionality and follow-through from everyone. You can't just "drop-by" their office or cubicle right when you remember something. The dematerialization of the physical office into emails, WebEx sessions, and phone calls can easily create a feeling of disconnect from the larger system.


Besides holding virtual sessions, sharing the recordings of those sessions, and having the independent Canvas 101 course, what are other ways to support remote faculty and students? I'm curious to see how other institutions have tackled similar issues.


There's still one final group we haven't talked about: the students! The students need to buy into the new LMS just like anyone else. Good things can be ruined by bad introductions. Part of our adoption strategy needs to account for setting a clear narrative for students about what is happening and why. In the past week we've reached out to our Marketing & Communications group to establish a plan of attack for getting the word out. Currently our plan involves 4 stages of advertising, using a combination of digital signage, campus-wide email newsletter, and social media. The advertising strategy performs a couple duties for faculty and students. For students, it makes them aware of the transition, and sets clear expectations for how their education will be changing. For faculty, it will help encourage more voluntary transitions before the end of Spring '18, when everyone must transition. Part of our overall strategy relies on distributing when faculty make the move as evenly as possible.


The summer institutes, and summer in general, are behind us. Canvas is in front of us. In my next post, we'll get to everyone's favorite: buttons!


Next: Preparing Your Canvas: Buttons!

This is the fifth entry in my Preparing Your Canvas series, documenting NKU's transition from Blackboard to Canvas. If you want to start from the beginning, here's the rest in chronological order:



Summer is slipping away, and Fall semester is barreling towards us! Next week we will begin our third Summer Faculty Institute out of the four we have scheduled. For the past few weeks we've been continuing our stand-alone workshops. We also completed a cycle of synchronous, virtual trainings. Basically, these were instructor-led versions of the workshops delivered through WebEx. For folks who have been teaching online, what I'm about to say next won't surprise you: delivering content online is very different from delivering in-person. 


What I'm not saying is that online delivery is less effective than in-person delivery; virtual synchronous sessions are just different, and your pedagogical strategies have to adapt to account for that. Because I'm a huge nerd, this reminds me of a concept I learned as an art student: ekphrasis. In short, ekphrasis is the use of one artistic medium to describe a different artistic medium. A poem about a painting, for instance. So how do you translate your pedagogy from one medium to another? Your tools will be different from face-to-face (or brick and mortar, if you prefer) to online (or VILT - virtual instructor-led training).


Now, in a former life I had experience running synchronous virtual trainings. I was pretty comfortable (and in fact required by the job) to reach a minimum threshold of engagement from every participant through chat, audio, and video, and to use collaborative tools like shared documents and whiteboards to enhance the learning experience. Trying to apply that experience to my work at NKU has been a major learning opportunity for me, as I've come to understand just how much of my perception of effective pedagogy is mediated and organized by the tools I'm using. Its a theoretical concept people are familiar with, but delivering this WebEx workshop series grounded it in very practical terms.


I came into the workshop series with several assumptions: I would have access to a public chat where all participants could see each others' responses. I would have an object-oriented whiteboard (meaning I could select annotations and drawings from participants and move them around the whiteboard). I would have a participant list that showed participant status that would automatically refresh. Participants would be able to easily mute and unmute themselves. And each of these assumptions, and others, predicated on my entire online teaching experience being based in AdobeConnect and Blackboard Illuminate. And none of these were valid in WebEx. 


As an aside, participants can unmute/mute themselves in WebEx easily depending on how the virtual sessions were setup. Our sessions had been built so this was not feasible.


Fortunately, the workshop series didn't crash and burn. Also, I was not the only person delivering the workshops. My challenge was in translating the fifth workshop in the series to this virtual environment. This final workshop covered best practices for structuring a course in Canvas. A major part of the workshop revolves around having participants define terms like information architecture, student UX, and cognitive load. Then, we use those terms to have learners analyze how we, myself and the other designers, built a previous module in Canvas 101. We ask participants to critique our design choices as a means to applying the concepts they just defined. Once they've worked through our design choices and analyzed them, we wrap up the conversation by showing them the same module structured four alternative ways, assessing how each option solves or creates design problems.

screenshot of content page in Canvas, showing several examples of how to organize a module


All of that necessitates  a lot of back and forth between participants. My solution was to build a whiteboard with predetermined spaces for learner comments. Remember, they can't see each other's chats, and once they add something to the whiteboard, I can't move it.


screenshot of WebEx whiteboard


So far we don't have any more WebEx workshops planned. We do have recordings of each session to share for people who weren't able to attend. However, we know that the faculty response has been incredibly positive, and we'll want to offer more opportunities for them. Also, as the first semester of our transition careens towards us, we are getting more requests to create resources for students to equip them to use Canvas. But this post is long enough, so that'll have to wait.


Button update: Canvas 201 is finished and live! I'll be sharing material from it shortly. For now, here's the first page of it:


screenshot of home page for Canvas course


Next: Preparing Your Canvas:  All Together Now

This is the fourth entry in my Preparing Your Canvas series, documenting NKU's transition from Blackboard to Canvas. If you want to start from the beginning, here's the rest in chronological order:


This is the week where I got to run some of my first stand-alone workshops. We don't have another Summer Faculty Institute till the end of July, so it's just workshops for the next few weeks every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. We intentionally avoid Mondays and Fridays because we expect low faculty attendance on those days during the summer. The other two instructional designers I work with had already ran a few sessions themselves, so I was interested to see for myself how the experience would change in this other format.


The format of the 3-day institute afforded us a lot of control that we would sacrifice in the open workshop format. We could guarantee that participants started each lesson with comparable knowledge about Canvas. With the workshops, participants could attend or skip whichever lessons they wished. We also had more flexibility with the length of lessons in SFI; its easy to let one lesson take an extra 15 minutes to accommodate participant questions, and then shave a few minutes off a couple later lessons to compensate. Finally, my prior experiences as a trainer had involved enough time where I felt like I could form a meaningful connection with participants. I didn't know the names of their children, or see all of their tattoos, but I felt like I had enough time to build a rapport with people. It would be overly dramatic to say I "struggled" with the workshops, but the lack of rapport was something to which I definitely had to adjust. 


As I've mentioned in other posts, our workshops and SFI are extracted from the Canvas 101 course we built, which is divided into 6 modules. Each module potentially contains multiple lessons within it, and each stand-alone workshop corresponds to 1 module. For 1 workshop, we combined 2 modules to give us 5 workshops total. Why? Part of the reason relates to when we do the workshops: Tuesday through Thursday. If we do 6 workshops, 1 workshop a day, and only on the same 3 days each week, we risk having faculty who will never be able to attend 2 of the workshops. By having 5 workshops, we can cycle them out of sync with the days of the week. With enough repetitions Module 1 will eventually happen on a Tuesday, then a Thursday, and finally a Wednesday.


I want to wrap up this post with a review of one of the workshops I did this past week. I developed Modules 3 and 6, so those are the ones with which I'm most familiar. However, for this week only I helped out by also delivering the Module 1 workshop "Getting Started." The point of the module is to introduce in broad terms the unique features of Canvas, contrast them to Blackboard Learn, and migrate at least one course to Canvas. Module 1: Getting Started is hard. I believed it before I had to teach it, but I'm more convinced of it now. You have to manage this balancing act between introducing a new piece of software and not digging into all the specifics of how to use it (the workshop is only 2 hours long). This is complicated by the fact that the module discusses how to migrate content. Part of knowing the best way to migrate the content is to understand what Canvas is going to do with that content, and to do that you really need to just know how to use Canvas.


Part of me thinks that course migration would be a better topic at the end of the training. On the other hand, we built the 6 modules in an order that roughly lines up with the steps an instructor would take in building their course by themselves. Ugh. Its complex.


Also, button update: the Canvas 201 course about making buttons and images is making a lot of progress. Maybe I'll post some examples from the course.


Next: Preparing Your Canvas: Ekphrasis

I'm writing this after our second Summer Faculty Institute, which I described in Preparing Your Canvas: Starting a new LMS. All of the presenters (myself included) felt more confident and comfortable going through it again. In response to feedback we received from the first LMS (some of which you can check out in Preparing Your Canvas: In the Trenches), we tried to purposefully include more discussion of design.


I'm gratified by the interest and enthusiasm folks had toward the design discussions. During the concluding learner presentations one of the faculty said (and I will horribly misquote, bear with me):


"I used to think of this technology as just a repository. [The design topics] really created a breakthrough moment for me and opened up my thinking."


Ooh! That warms the cockles of my foolish heart. Hearing that faculty member's words gave me a lot of motivation. For designers of any kind, the craft can often feel neglected. Its a practice that ideally recipients never have to think about, so its only noticed when its missing or done poorly. We included an extra hour of demonstration about how to create graphics and implement them. We chose to do the image creation in Powerpoint as many faculty are already familiar with that software.


We also uncovered an assumption we made. We worked on the in-person component of the training (the SFI in particular) with the mindset that participants would go into Canvas 101 on their own either prior to the SFI or during the  3 days. The reality (as it often is) was different; participants can be hesitant to dive into Canvas 101 outside of when one of the instructors asks them to for an activity. Coincidentally, we also received feedback from this SFI asking for more examples of successful course design. In our next round of iterations we'll be looking for ways to murder two waterfowl with the same rock and discuss Canvas 101 itself as part of the SFI.


Finally, we are also budding off the image creation/user experience discussion into its own course for people to take. So we can add that to the set of plates we're trying to keep spinning. Fortunately, there's a lot of positivity going around. At the risk of jinxing us, I'll say things are going pretty smoothly so far.


Next: Preparing Your Canvas: Stand Alone Complex

We just finished our first Summer Faculty Institute, which I described briefly in last week's Preparing Your Canvas: Starting a new LMS. I wanted to take a moment to reflect on what we learned from our maiden voyage and to play with  this still (for me, at least) unanswered question: how the heck do you build a Canvas orientation course?


It's not that explaining how to use Canvas is necessarily difficult; there are lots of great resources, either in the Canvas Instructor Guide or in the tutorial videos on Vimeo. The resources are good enough that they constitute part of the problem. Again and again I found myself thinking "Am I just repeating work here?  How can our explanations be better than what's already out there?" Well, here's what I personally arrived at:

  • We can provide an ideal order for learning how to use Canvas that the guides cannot.
  • We can tailor our language to be specific and unique to our users — NKU Faculty.
  • We can intertwine pedagogical/design concerns that would be beyond the scope of the guides to explore. (Examples: cognitive load, formative assessment, how to use Pages or Modules)


Here's the order of lessons we selected for our Summer Faculty Institute, separated by day:


A schedule of the Summer Faculty Institute, listing names of lessons by hour each day.


To make building the course manageable, we broke up the modules between the three designers. I was responsible for Modules 3 and 6. We also made the conscious decision to not restrict the order of our instructor-led training sessions by the module structure we used to organize building the content. We also tried to include multiple opportunities for participants to work on their own course; one of the conditions for joining the SFI was bringing a course to develop brand new in Canvas. The institute concluded with participants sharing their work with each other, discussing decisions that they made. We also collected feedback using a system I've borrowed from my last training job I was taught to call Plus/Delta. Basically, each participant is handed two pieces of paper. On one, they draw a + symbol and write something they liked about the experience. On the other they draw a delta (a triangle), and write something they would like to change about the experience. Submissions are anonymously collected. Below are some examples of the feedback we received:


  • Loved the in-depth interaction with the designers.
  • Wanted more "workshop" time to work on my own course.
  • Really liked seeing the work of other participants.
  • The room was really cold!
  • Learned a lot about how to make buttons!


Well... we can't fix the room temperature, but we did receive actionable feedback. As course designers, we knew we wanted to maintain the amount of instructor/participant interaction in the next iteration. We also wanted to trim down the presentation components of the course to provide more workshop time. What we weren't expecting was the enthusiastic response from participants about how to make buttons. Faculty were eager to build home pages for their course, and to use buttons to connect student users to their content. Part of that enthusiasm stems from the home page we ourselves built for Canvas 101. Check out part of it below:


six red boxes each with a number 1 through 6, representing 6 modules.

You can also see part of the banner we created for the course at the top of the article. So we taught them how to make images, but not necessarily how to best use the images. We are looking for ways to incorporate that discussion into our "Student UX" lesson. This coming week has no SFI, so it's prep and more prep for us. Well, that and start the extended workshop series.


Next: Preparing Your Canvas: Round Two... Fight!

I'm Nick, a designer at Northern Kentucky University, and we just announced our official switch to Canvas! Now that its official, I wanted to start documenting our transition from Blackboard Learn. I'll be live-blogging our transformation into pand- sorry, our transition to a Canvas institution. I've only gotten active in the Canvas Community recently, so this post will have to do the legwork of recapping what's happened so far.


In the Beginning...

During our research phase, I learned that our situation isn't unique; according to Ovum, 30% of institutions would significantly alter or replace their platform for online learning by the end of 2016. On top of that, NKU has been looking to increase its online learning presence. Internally, we've had an ongoing dialogue about what has worked for us and what would continue to work for us in the future. Part of staying relevant and effective is having the will to examine where the path of a product is headed. Eventually, we were able to begin piloting LMS options to see what implementation could look like. Canvas presented us important questions we needed to address for ourselves:


  • SaaS: With Blackboard, we ran the LMS from our own servers. Downtime wasn't a major issue because we controlled and supported the whole system. How would we handle a transition to a SaaS-based LMS model?
  • Folders: Our faculty love using folders. Loooooooove them. This became a repeated sticking point. Canvas relies on a fundamentally different information architecture than Blackboard, and enforces a different navigation, too. How would faculty handle the paradigm shift?
  • Budget: 'nuff said. 


The Pilots take off!

We ran a number of pilot courses, with some professors testing multiple LMS's at the same time. Canvas came out as the overwhelming favorite amongst faculty. The only hiccup we experienced was when the internet effectively shut down because of Amazon. As Canvas relies on Amazon Web Services (AWS), Canvas was unusable for that period of time. Of course, the other LMS we were piloting also went down with AWS. And a number of learning technology tools not tied to either LMS. So that was fun.


Working with the pilots, I noticed two patterns: 1) Switching from "Blackboard thinking" to "Canvas thinking" could be an awkward, difficult process. 2) Actually learning how to use Canvas was incredibly intuitive once faculty were introduced to the software. Most of my time working with the pilots was spent making the conceptual shift necessary to think about how their course would be organized in Canvas versus Blackboard, not so much which buttons they needed to click.


Based on feedback from the pilots, and other factors, Canvas was selected! With the decision made, the instructional design time faced the task of preparing an entire institution to migrate to a new LMS.


The Art of War

Maybe that's melodramatic — colleges can make their own plans for the transition, and some even have their own instructional designer. Its not literally up to just our instructional design team to make it all happen. At the start, though, I was definitely caught up in just the sheer volume of what we were attempting to do. What would it take to shift from the pilot program and bring Canvas to scale? We will be able to stretch our transition out for an entire academic year, which helps immensely, but that's still ~1000 faculty and their associated courses. And this doesn't say anything about acclimating the students to Canvas.


It can be easy to say "Well, they're digital natives, they'll take to it like a duck to water!" But that's not the case for several reasons, some of which are beyond the scope of this blog. However, preparing faculty, and leaving the students for themselves just means faculty will be bogged down answering questions outside the scope of their subject expertise. Moving from students, our old LMS was utilized by staff for purposes completely removed from a classroom. How do we avoid disenfranchising the staff during the transition?


Currently, here's our game plan:

  • Summer Faculty Institutes (SFI): We are offering stipends to faculty who volunteer early to develop a course in Canvas. We are also using this as an opportunity to create embedded Canvas experts in every college, and as many departments as we can.
  • Extended Workshops: We are taking the content from the SFI's and delivering a lighter version of it as individual workshops. Faculty can attend the ones they wish, and skip others. We have them scheduled so they happen on different days of the week. That way, even the instructor who is never available Tuesdays can, in theory, attend every session.
  • Web Session: We are also conducting a WebEx-based version of the workshops for faculty who work remotely.
  • Public Course: The SFI, extended workshops, and web session are all pulling material from the same source, a course we built that we're calling Canvas 101 (we're still undecided if the name is too subtle ). This course is also being made public, that way faculty that just cannot attend anything can still get all of the information from us.
  • Student Course: One member of our group is also building a student-oriented course about successful online learning. At this point I'm not sure if that will be adopted by every college or not.


And... I think that's everything so far. Our first Summer Faculty Institute happens next week, so we'll be able to see how it plays out. We'll also dive into a big question that's been looming in mind: 


What does it mean to build a Canvas Orientation course?


Next: Preparing Your Canvas: In the Trenches

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