Canvas: So Far, an Improvement

Gearing up for a new eight-week session of English 235, the magazine-writing course. The course is 100 percent online; in the past Blackboard has proven to be such a headache that I created my own CMS (“course management system,” ô ye mercifully uninitiated) on WordPress.com, which does everything my students need, is easy and intuitive for webmaster and student alike, and never goes down. Heavenly Gardens Community College, however, has dropped Blackboard in favor of a newer, less bloated system called Canvas, the product of a five-year-old enterprise called Instructure. At this point I have the entire course online, and it took only two evenings to get it there — a huge improvement over days of wrestling with Blackboard!

Apparently it’s pretty easy to export a semester’s course to a new shell for a subsequent semester, and so if the organization I’ve designed works for the students, it should take significantly less time to set up future sections.

At the outset, several conveniences rolled into one impressed the hell out of me. Videlicet: in the “Assignments” function, you can enter a full description, due date, and point value for each of the tasks with which you intend to belabor your students.

When you do that, you accomplish not one, not two, but THREE tasks, any one of which is time-consuming and tedious in Blackboard:

1. You establish a chronological list of the course’s assignments, visible to classmates.

2. You automatically enter the assignments and point values in the gradebook(!!), in chronological order(!).

3. You enter assignments on their due dates in a nice calendar, organized in a normal, conventional calendar format.

Holy freaking mackerel.

Building the gradebook in BB is such torture. All of that misery — sometimes several hours of misery, we might add — disappears with Canvas.

Fall on the ground and worship at the feet of Instructure’s young entrepreneurs!

The calendar function allows you to enter assignments from within the calendar, too, but more to the point, you can enter other “events.” This allowed me to post reminders, a week or so before unusual or particularly difficult tasks are due, to let students know they need to get started early or that they should already be addressing a specific phase of the job.

It was very easy to replicate the series of weekly announcements I’d posted in WordPress. All I had to do was copy from the “Visual” view and paste to Canvas — links in the copy came over unmolested, formatting converted nicely to Canvas’s standard, and all that remained to do was update a few details and then schedule posting at the desired dates. I kind of thought I would have to copy the HTML out of WP’s “text” view into the equivalent view in Canvas, but nay…all went smoothly with exactly zero extra hassle.

Burn incense to Instructure’s young entrepreneurs.

Entering hypertext is intuitive and easy with the traditional link-shaped icon, and magically, typing a URL into your text automatically makes it go live, relieving you of the task of highlighting it and copying it into the insert/edit link command. This is one of those many small tasks that, when repeated ad infinitum (as they will be when mounting any online course) consume an inordinate amount of unpaid time.

Light a candle to Instructure’s investors.

There are a few things I have yet to learn.

In the faculty training seminar, we built a bio; I can’t find a way to edit that.

Our instructor showed us how to embed YouTube videos, but I couldn’t replicate her trick, which as I recall entailed having to use the old YouTube embed code. Even if I could remember exactly how she did it, the old code doesn’t appear with my video lectures.

There’s got to be a way to create a page of links or a list of links in a sidebar, but I’ll be darned if I can find it. I had to type links into Word docs and upload them into a function called “Files.” It’s a clumsy workaround that I’ll have to change whenever I figure out how to do that job right.

These are pretty minor issues, though, compared with the ease of building the grade book, the automation of the calendar, and the sheer consistency, across functions, of the operations. So far, no two functions require different coding or different actions. They all work the same way. None of them are provided by outside vendors, and none of them are quirky, annoying, or weird. Hallelujah!

Thank you, Gods of Instructure!

Fixing these small matters will require a trip to the campus during one of the open lab sessions, which I’ll need to do some time over the next couple of weeks — the course starts March 3, and I want it to go live a few days before then.

Now, if the thing just stays up all term and doesn’t crash at the psychological moment, I’ll be converted to a true believer. For the time being, I’m keeping the WordPress course as a back-up, just in case. That means double the free labor, of course, but it’ll be worth it if the new system goes down, as Blackboard could always be relied upon to do. And for the same reason, I’m asking students to e-mail their completed work to me, rather than posting it on the site, having been burned one time too many by BB.

Canvas looks good now. We’ll see how it holds up when every campus of the largest community college district in the nation plugs in. Last fall we had over 265,000 students; that could be a challenge for a young enterprise with only 200 employees and some 300 client institutions. If they can just keep it simple, though, and not gum up the works with unnecessary functions and bloatware, maybe they’ll have a shot at success.

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