Canvas is Coming

In 2012, I wrote that

The LMS is dangerous for good teachers that aren’t also good pedagogues. It determines too much in advance by presenting an interface that asks the user to approach it in very particular ways. What’s on the upper left when you enter an LMS determines what you do first, what you do second, and what you don’t do … No matter how hard we try for creativity, randomness, or chaos (all of which drive classroom-based teaching), we are repeatedly lured in by the carefully-controlled design of the standard LMS.

I wrote this sitting in the comfortable hotel suite provided me by Instructure while attending their annual InstructureCon conference. The LMS provider had asked me and my colleague, Jesse Stommel, to attend the conference and let them know what we thought of Canvas. We arrived as grateful skeptics, and we left as hopeful advocates. What Canvas did when it entered the edtech market was offer an interface that—as much as possible for a learning management system—made unique approaches to pedagogy possible.

Starting in Fall 2016, Middlebury will adopt Canvas for use across the institution—the undergraduate College, the Institute in Monterey, the summer Language Schools, the Bread Loaf School of English, and the Schools Abroad. For most people accustomed to using Moodle, the institution’s previous LMS, the change may come with a few hard turns. And even for those new to using any learning management system, the affordances of Canvas may go undetected. Additionally, the speed at which teachers and students must become familiar with a new platform can mean we don’t take full advantage of what a new digital tool offers.

According to David Johnson, “Students working in collaborative learning environments score as well as or better than 75% of students in competitive and individualistic learning environments in exams.” Canvas can be, if we let it, a student-centered, cooperative learning platform. It provides tools not only for organizing content, but also for allowing learners to communicate with each other, collaborate on projects, and even create their own “course-within-a-course”. Canvas has built-in audio and video options for discussions, assignments, content pages, feedback in the gradebook, and more. The LMS makes communication with and between students direct, personal, and simple.

Because of this, Canvas encourages us away from using the LMS as simply a gradebook or repository for content. With the right approach, a classroom community can thrive, building knowledge together, solving problems, and sustaining dialogue well past the point of a discussion forum. Here are just a few of the unique tools inside Canvas to watch for:


The Collaborations tool utilizes Google Docs to allow students to brainstorm, compose, edit, and otherwise cooperate on any assignment digitally. It’s also a place where you can post lecture notes for learners to annotate through comments, or to create a text-based white board where the whole class can work together for problem-based learning.


Canvas Groups are collaborative workspaces that form a kind of course-within-a-course in your learning environment. Within a Group, students are able to create their own wiki pages, set up Collaborations, start discussions, and more. As the instructor, you can design as much or as little of the collaborative workspace as you wish, giving students specific projects within their Group pages to work on, or allowing them to utilize the space in the way they feel most productive.


The Middlebury instance of Canvas includes a course-wide Chat function which allows you and your students to chat synchronously with anyone else currently signed into the course. Chat can be used for virtual office hours, for encouraging communication between student groups, or for appointment-only discussions with students who may need more guidance from you.


If you dread grading, you’ll love Speedgrader. This third-party integration provides an all-in-one interactive grading environment where you can view a student submission, offer feedback, and enter a grade without changing tabs or windows in your browser. With Speedgrader, you can offer written, audio, or video feedback. Plus, students can reply to your feedback, which is great for reviewing in-process assignments, or assignments with iterative components (like a rough draft and a final draft).

I have said that the invention of the LMS was a mistake, that “The LMS was not a creative decision, it was not pushing the capabilities of the Internet, it was settling for the least innovative classroom practice and repositioning that digitally.” But what Canvas allows us to do is to bring our best teaching techniques to bear in a new digital environment. We can, yes, let the LMS be a dusty repository for handouts, or the place students go once in a while to check their grades; or we can dive a little deeper and let it become an open community of practice between and with our students, one where dialogue becomes content and community becomes curriculum.

find your canvas image by Charlie Wollborg, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Sean Morris

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  • Canvas is here | MIIS Digital Learning Commons :

    […] training opportunities hosted by the DLC will be based on this resource. Also, check out this blogpost for tips on using Canvas as a critical, pedagogical […]

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