Sorry Canvas, It’s Not Me…


Feeling a little stabby after dealing with an LMS for too long
LMS flickr photo by Harold Jarche shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

This week’s blogging assignment for EC&I 834 was to test out a learning management system and discuss our thoughts and experiences. Since Alec and Katia had us look at Canvas anyway, I decided that would be the best choice for me. I had looked at it shortly after it first came out and thought it would be good to see what has happened since. Originally Canvas was created to be student-centric as much as possible. This was the push, a way to be an LMS but be different because it would be made for students. I agree with Audrey Watters’ assertion that reinventing the same thing, especially an LMS, is not necessarily an improvement. It still takes the same premise and I wanted to see whether Canvas had done much to live up to their original intent.

Upon logging in under a teacher account, I am taken to my Dashboard area.

Canvas dashboard
blocks, colour coding, and a bit of customization

For students, this is pretty much the same. You see an icon menu on the left, the center is the courses represented as coloured blocks, and the right has items you need to look after as your “to do” list. The colours of the blocks can be changed, including by students, to personalize it. Yup, this is definitely personalization. I like the “to do” list being there although I dislike the organization of it. If I’m a student, I want to have it much clearer which tasks are for which course, not just which are due first. Same thing as an instructor. If I get the option to colour code things, that should carry over into things like that.

color
color flickr photo by sepideh* shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Let’s talk about the colour coding. I’m not sure how I feel about it. If it really only applies in very limited ways, I’m not sure how much it adds to my experience as a student or teacher. Also, a colour block is the lowest level of visual identification. Those are big blocks. Why couldn’t they be images WITH colour coding? That would be far more visually appealing for me. What do you think? Is being able to change the colour of the block associated with a course particularly helpful?

For comparison, in UR Courses right now the colour themes for courses are set based on faculty. It’s a branding thing. So at a glance a student will see different colours that they cannot change, depending on what faculty their courses are from (or federated college). So if a student is only taking education courses, they would only see courses with that colour. I can see the improvement for students there. It would drive me crazy as an instructional designer, but I am not really who an LMS should be designed for. I might have 10-130 courses in my list at any given time so I use the current colour coding to help me scan. I would be setting the custom colours FOREVER if I were doing that myself. So this comes out a bit more student-centric. Students can choose a colour.

They can also set a nickname for a course. So if you don’t remember the number or the name of the course, you can retitle it. Okay, again, that’s personalization. It has no real impact on your learning but you can call a course “Math Sucks” if it makes you feel better.

dashboard icons in Canvas
Icons for different aspects of a course

The little icons at the bottom of each course block let you go directly to aspects of the course. That’s handy for students as it can reduce the number of clicks, assuming that each time they log in they have to go back to the dashboard. It does not alert you to items you should check, though, like highlighting new discussion posts, announcements, files, etc.

The “Courses” tab just pops out a list of courses so if you’re on the Dashboard page, it’s pretty useless. You can customize the list. Again, not too useful for students but it gives the illusion of control. This is more useful for instructors and administrators who may have a need to rearrange the list. It could be useful for students if they retain access to courses after the end of the semester, so they could put older courses at the end of the list, etc.

The Account area is pretty clean. Much more texty than the Dashboard but it is relatively easy to navigate and it allows the creation of an ePortfolio. I didn’t test this out as a student so I’m not sure how easily I can take that with me, which is something Stephanie really highlighted as a concern.

Getting into it, however, left me a bit overwhelmed and confused. Liz, it is not just you:

So really, my conclusion of Canvas is that it can be a great LMS if used properly. If used poorly, it can become clunky, difficult to follow, and overwhelming. But really, isn’t this the case with most LMS?

To be fair, like Liz, I’m used to a different LMS. I’ve been working in Moodle heavily for almost 4 years. I am not particularly a fan but I can still find most of the things I need (most, because sometimes it is horrible). So going into Canvas, I opened an assignment that needed grading. I had no idea how to get OUT of the assignment I was grading. I couldn’t see an X, or a “Back to course” link or anything. I did eventually figure out that I can click on the assignment name to go back to that assignment but that takes me to editing the assignment.


directions flickr photo by ollesvensson shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Overall it looks relatively straightforward and it’s fairly attractive. It is not, however, particularly student-centric. As the instructor, I still have all the control. Students are granted very limited controls of things that don’t particularly matter. It is not geared towards student ownership of work or even student creation. It is precisely what Watters is talking about:

Despite all the bells and whistles that have been added since … the learning management system remains a way to offload the administrative needs of the student information system β€” roster, grades, attendance for each individual class β€” to an interface, accessible through the web, that students and faculty can use.

Canvas is still an LMS. It is still a walled garden. Sure, some of the interface makes it look like the courses aren’t hermetically sealed (I can see a “to do” list for all my courses, I can see a calendar showing dates for all courses) but they are. They are separate. I can’t build a community of students outside those enrolled in the course, I can’t interact with the wider web aside from linking out or importing content. It isn’t about building a student-owned data area.

So in the end, Canvas is still an LMS. A prettier LMS than Moodle and less complex (it hasn’t had nearly the number of coders sticking their fingers in it to create 5 ways to do the same thing and getting rid of the easy way to do something else), and it is a little more focused on the student experience. BUT. It is still designed on the same principles. It is still about managing the students, managing the learning. I can’t open up parts of it to make them public while other parts are private. I don’t see “export content” anywhere (if it’s there, I’d love to hear it).

As another note, I mentioned in our Google+ community that I got called within 48 hours of signing up. I found it invasive and irritating on top of the email I received about 12 hours prior to that, which I hadn’t had a chance to open. I also hate salespeople hovering in stores, though. But not everyone felt that way:

Canvas is marketing and selling their product. They want to have good “customer service.” But who do they consider customers? I said I was trying it out as a grad student (I was also busy at the time so wasn’t too responsive or chatty) and was let off the phone pretty quickly. I’m cynical. I presume this is because they want me to push my university to buy in (I used my U of R email and signed up for a trial with the teacher option so I’m an obvious target). They want my business so they want to make sure I have a good experience. Do students get called? What support exists for students? Is that left to the school to support? (Turnitin, I’m looking at you. I have seen your student support and I know it isn’t about the students as much as you are trying to slowly become an LMS).

In fact, Ashley gave a really positive review of Canvas. I can see from the perspective she takes that Canvas does have a lot to offer. A checklist to help instructors new to setting up courses with what they should include is probably really nice (I am used to being the checklist when I work with instructors but that might be a useful thing for my coworkers to look at). But that’s still very much about how it is to use as a teacher.

This experience unfortunately just reinforced how I feel about the LMS as a type of edtech and I stand by my original picture above. I want other ways to do this, even though for my project I’ll be using an LMS and I work with one ever day. I still want to do this differently so I can give students control of their data, make it easy to have students create and share and take control. I love students being central and not programmed.


break up flickr photo by LNePrZ shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Sorry Canvas, I don’t even want to see other LMSs. It’s not me, it’s you. (Had to get a little retro with this one)

10 thoughts on “Sorry Canvas, It’s Not Me…”

  1. Hahaha! I love the videos in your post.

    I agree with your stance on Canvas’ marketing. I can’t believe you received a phone call. I don’t mind an email, asking me if I have any questions, and then LEAVE ME ALONE when I don’t reply. Haha.

    I have used Moodle for a lot of my blended classes, but I’ve decided to try out Google Classroom and a blog for something more open (and to challenge myself). I hope this way students can permanently keep some of their data, as Audrey Watter’s argument struck a chord with me.

  2. Hahaha! I love the videos in your post.

    I agree with your stance on Canvas’ marketing. I can’t believe you received a phone call. I don’t mind an email, asking me if I have any questions, and then LEAVE ME ALONE when I don’t reply. Haha.

    I have used Moodle for a lot of my blended classes, but I’ve decided to try out Google Classroom and a blog for something more open (and to challenge myself). I hope this way students can permanently keep some of their data, as Audrey Watter’s argument struck a chord with me.

    1. That is awesome, Katherine! I wish I had a little more freedom with doing things more openly for the course I’m working on. Definitely will be talking with students about taking their data with them though.

  3. Oh goodness I was just as irritated as you when Canvas called me, at work! It mad me not want to use it just because the bugged me haha.

    1. I felt exactly the same, Benita. It would be smarter of them to give an option of “contact me” so those who would appreciate it can get that and the rest of us aren’t bugged by them.

  4. I love that you question who Canvas is looking to for business. I was so irritated by their multiple phone calls that I couldn’t even think beyond how mad I was. It’s great that you could reflect on it.

    1. It’s one of my pet things, to consider the target audience, etc. I had this happen with a conference site I signed up on. I had to give my info to see the program, realized it wasn’t for me. Then got phone calls and pointed out I am actually not the target audience. I still get emails from their “partner” conferences. Ugh.

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