Tips on Using Canvas

Canvas is central to the online parts of the class. It is worth taking a time upfront to learn to use it effectively and to configure it to your needs.

Canvas is the University’s officially supported “Learning Management System”. As a student, you probably have lots of experience (or will get a lot of experience with it).

Canvas has always been a big part of this class. So, even if you are a Canvas expert, I recommend that you:

  1. Understand what we will (and will not) be using Canvas for in this class.
  2. Confugre Canvas to your needs (especially with announcements)
  3. Learn how to work with Canvas, especially discussions (there are some non-obvious tricks)
  4. Be familiar with the key tasks you need to do
  5. Set up your Canvas Profile

Recently, I took online courses (on how to run online courses - how meta?) and saw Canvas from the student perspective. It gave me a new appreciation for the student perspective on Canvas. But I also learned some useful tricks (since the instructors of the classes were Canvas Ninjas and shared tips and pointers).

I used Canvas for many years and didn’t realize some of the things I could do with it. Admittedly, some of this is that Canvas is evolving and getting better - but some of this is that I never bothered to look at the documentation.

You will use Canvas a lot. It is worth investing time to make peace with it.

So, some things I’ve picked up. If you’re a Canvas expert, maybe you know this already…

Understand what we will (and won’t) use Canvas for

We will use Canvas for:

  1. Making broadcast announcements.
  2. Having you turn in anything that will be graded.
  3. Giving you graded feedback.
  4. Keeping track of assignments and scores.
  5. Required, structured discusions (the weekly online discussions and seek and finds)

We will not use Canvas for:

  1. Individual discussions (either between staff and a student, or between students)
  2. Computing your final grade. Canvas will try to estimate your current grade. Ignore it. It will be wrong. See Grading.
  3. Ad hoc (student initiated) discussions. (use Piazza)

Do not use Canvas grade comments to communicate with course staff. We will use grade comments to give you (private) feedback on things. If you want to respond to that feedback, you need to use another communication medium.

Set your notifications correctly

Canvas can notify you about everything, and can notify you in many different ways. If you aren’t careful, you be overwhelmed by too many notifications or miss urgent things. Or both.

My suggestion: have course announcements sent to you via email (these will be infrequent and generally of high importance) - or whatever medium you are most likely to get it quickly; get discussion updates digested; and use assignment reminders in a way that best fits your workflow.

Whatever you choose, you should look at the different settings and configure Canvas appropriately (see the documentation). You can set the notifications for each course separately (see the documentation).

Learn How to Really Use Canvas

Canvas seems straightforward. But it has so many different ways to do things, and some things are not well designed. It really is worth taking some time to figure it out.

We will use Canvas discussions for parts fo the class. They are not as good as other discussion tools (like Piazza or Slack), but they have some key features (grading integration, post before see others, scheduled timing, …).

For a long time, I thought they were totally terrible. But then, I found out they had features I wasn’t aware of (this is poor design, IMHO - some useful features are hard to find and non-obvious). Once I learned that you can filter and re-organize discussions as you read, Canvas discussions became less terrible. They still aren’t as good as other tools. Here’s the Canvas Documentation. Even after reading that, I had to hunt for the “unread” filter button.

We will make a lot of use of Canvas discussions for the “structured” discussions (see Parts of Class).

Canvas does make it remarkably easy to record a video clip as a response in a discussion. It’s worth figuring out how to do this. There are pros and cons to video over text. In particular, video is more “personable” which can be important when given feedback/criticism. On the other hand, with text, you can edit and review and be careful with your words.

Canvas Likes

Use likes as a way to acknowledge that you read something. One downside of online discussion (as opposed to in class discussion) is that you don’t know if anyone sees what you’ve written. In a real classroom, you know people hear you (even if they aren’t “listening”) - and getting the subtle head nods and other non-verbal cues is really valuable. Canvas' simple “like” mechanism gives us a way to tell each other we’ve heard them.

Canvas' “like” is an imperfect mechanism. You don’t know who has liked something. And, it couples acknowledgement and appreciation (there is no thumbs down). For example, Slack lets you use different emojis to convey information in your response and lets you see who has responded. Sadly, we’re stuck with Canvas.

The other mechanism to do this is to write short responses. The downside is that they clog up the discussion. You have to read through a pile of “I like this” or “thank you” responses to get to the next content.

Canvas Groups

This class is too big to have everyone in a single discussion - you can’t have a conversation with 50 people at once! Therefore, we will break class into smaller groups for discussion. Canvas handles this well.

We will randomly assign you to groups for discussions. We will shuffle the groups occasionally. There is a benefit to staying in the same group (so you get to know people), but there is also a benefit to shuffling the groups (so you get to meet more people). We’ll try to balance.

Unfortunately, Canvas groups are one of the more confusing aspects of its UI. When you are “in a group”, you are in the group - not in the class. So, if you want to get back to the class, you need to backtrack. It’s not a great UX design, but you will get used to it.

Set Up Your Canvas Profile

It is important for you to have a Canvas profile. As we interact with each other, it will be useful that we know who we are talking to. In an in-person class, we get to know each other by being in the same place.

I am requiring people to set their Canvas profile. A picture will really help everyone (course staff and classmates) better connect with you and know who you are. Some personal/professional details will remind others that you are a real person and help us (course staff and classmates) remember who you are. Of course, only share what you are comfortable with.

Two resources for making profiles: Canvas Documentation and a video tutorial.

To get to your profile click on “Account” and “Profile” - there is an edit button in the upper right corner.

Uploading Images to Canvas

You will need to be able to upload images into Canvas to place into your discussion postings (especially for seek and finds).

Canvas makes this relatively straightforward.

When editing a posting, click the “embed image” icon on the toolbar (it’s a little mountain icon). Choose the “Canvas” tab, and you’ll see “your files”. You need to pick a directory in “My files” (the root level directory is OK). You can then “upload file” to this directory (or pick an image that is already there).

Note: if your image is big, set the size to something reasonable (600x400) so it doesn’t take too much space in the discussion. You can then click “update” to embed the image into the posting.

Uploading and Recording Video

Canvas makes it easy to either upload an existing video, or record a new video using your webcam.

If your video is already recorded, the best way to do this is to upload the video to Kaltura and embed it in Canvas because it doesn’t use up your (limited) Canvas space. Click on the “more external tools” icon icon and pick “embed Kaltura Media”. This isn’t as easy as just uploading to Canvas.

You can add a video using the Canvas video tool. Click the video icon icon. It will let you record a short snippet with your webcam, or upload a snippet you’ve already recorded.

What we won’t use Canvas for

  1. Do not send private messages to the course staff in Canvas.
  2. Do not reply to grading comments.