Canvas is a Delightful Departure

As I’ve shared previously, I’m restless with the technology I use for teaching, especially the LMS. Rather than only complain about it, I choose to experiment with other tools in the hope that I’ll find a better fit for my style. This term I’m experimenting with Canvas, the latest darling of the educational tech scene, and I’ve found its excellent reputation to be mostly well-deserved.

For starters, the fact that I can use it to host an actual class is the result of the fact that Canvas is a cloud-based LMS that is free for individual faculty members. The only practical limitations that I’ve found include a cap on the storage space per class and the need to upload my own roster and ask students to create accounts. Neither of these have been big points of pain for me, but if you need to host many large presentation files you may run out of storage space or have to rotate files off throughout the semester.

In the big picture, these are low costs to pay for the chance to use an LMS with an elegant user interface and straightforward usability features. If you are of the opinion that “design” is just how something looks, I challenge you to compare Canvas to the other big LMS out there. You will conclude that design is how something works, it’s made that well.

That said, there are still unintuitive aspects to its design. For example, my class just completed peer reviews of a writing assignment. These reviews were a cinch to assign, and I assumed the students would see their assignment in their ‘Recent Activity’ stream. But to get their assignment, they had to go to the assignment page and look for it, something that never occurred to any of them. Thirteen email replies later and lots of links to the help section, the problem was solved, but still, it might be nice if they could add this to the activity stream.

I still don’t want to rely on an LMS completely, at least in part for philosophical reasons, I’ll admit. But Canvas has been great for what I’ve used it to do, and it’s made it dead simple to do paperless grading (their Speedgrader iPad app is excellent). I don’t feel like I have to feed it my whole course, to fill in all the spaces with content. It works for what I want it to do, and stays out of my face for the rest. That’s pretty good, I’d say.

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