26 June 2013

Why I Intend to Switch to Canvas (with Bonus Gamification Ideas!)

One of my summer goals was to find the ultimate Learning Management System (LMS). Last year I used Edmodo for the fourth term, but I knew there had to be something better.

Before I move on, let me explain why I want an LMS so badly:
  • I need an easier way to grade. Since nearly everything I teach is computer-based, and our district grading system is about as bad as it could possibly be, I needed a more streamlined way to look through digital work and give grades, as well as keep student work organized.
  • My lessons are already short because I believe work time is the most important. An LMS can offer a portal for video lessons as well as comprehensive assignment descriptions and resources. It takes students a lot less time to follow a video than if we all worked through things together, not to mention the benefit of being able to go back through the video for missed things, and for absent students to easily catch up.
  • As cliché as it might sound, I'm interested in real learning, not memorizing facts and getting letter grades. Real learning is more exploratory, and harder to measure. If I set up the LMS just right, I can turn over some of the power to the students to choose what and how to learn next.
  • That being said, the true job of a teacher isn't to teach, it's to motivate and guide. An LMS can make the guidance almost invisible and I have a few ideas on how to tweak the system to motivate.
  • I don't like the idea of 'timed' learning, where every student must be on the same timetable to learn the same amount of content, and then we grade their performance over that time period. Learning is learning, whether it takes two days or two months, and that should be rewarded. (The trick, then, is to turn it into a letter each term...)
Now that I've soapboxed to my heart's content, let's talk about how Canvas by Instructure is how I'm going to accomplish all that and more. (My school district considered purchasing it, but I think the superintendent needed to give himself another bonus instead. Luckily, it's free for individual teachers.)

SpeedGrader. Notice the rubric, the annotations, and the dialogue.
The SpeedGrader
As the name implies, this tool is intended to make grading much faster. With any online submission, whether it be a URL, a document, an image, a video or audio recording, or just plain text, you can look at their submission and give a grade on the same screen, then click an arrow to move to the next student. Beyond that, you can add rubrics, so you just click on each criterion and Canvas adds it all up. You can also add comments on the assignment for the student to see, which turns the grades into a learning experience for the students.

There's even an iPad app. The way it's all set up really makes grading better all around.

For my 3D Modeling unit, I have a welcome page, a URL to visit, and I'll be adding a quiz or two. You can see I set up requirements for finishing the module, and that students must move through it sequentially.
If you don't dig very deep, a module just looks like a unit, simply a way to digitally organize your curriculum. You can add URL's, rich text pages (see the very last image to see what those look like), assignments, quizzes, etc. But if you look closer, there's a lot more to it.

Let me explain the features by how I intend to use them. My multimedia class rotates through units. This usually means that there are seven different groups, each working on a different unit. The first time I rotated like this, it was a logistical nightmare. I was frantically running from group to group explaining what they needed to do next. Later I created handouts that explained what students were supposed to do, but it was still troublesome. So anyway, with a module, I can make it so the students must move sequentially through it all, and even prevent them from moving to the next step until they pass a quiz, submit an assignment, and/or more.

Pardon me while I pat myself on the back, but here's where I think I'm really creative with modules. You can set up prerequisites for modules, meaning students must complete one before moving on to another. This is how I plan on adding a layer of gamification. I'll split up my 3D Modeling unit, for example, into three parts: basic, intermediate, and advanced. Naturally, you must complete the basic before moving to intermediate, but the very first thing they see in the intermediate module is an animated screen saying, "Level Up! You are now a 3D Modeling Novice, and you have unlocked new challenges!"
Yeah, something like this, only more attractive, and doesn't repeat.

When I create these animations, be they GIF's or HTML5, I'll share them here on this blog.

One more thing about modules, prerequisites, and gamification. I'm considering adding special modules that are unlocked when students have completed certain 'advanced' modules, that merely contain a 'level up' animation, and a link to a web game they get to play for a day.

Assignment Groups
Like modules, assignment groups may appear to be a simple way to organize your digital assignments. However, you can add "Grading Rules" in order to give students more choice in what work they do. For example, you could create 10 assignment options, and tell students they must choose 5 of them. Simply have it drop the lowest 5 scores and you're set. Better yet, the quicker students can complete more than the minimum to be safe. If there are certain assignments in that group that they must complete, add the rule to never drop it.

Lots of features. I love it.
My favorite part about the assignments feature is that you can choose exactly what sorts of submissions a student can utilize, even down to restricting certain file types. I don't know how many people will take advantage of that last part, but in my graphic design and multimedia classes, no matter how often, how sternly, or through how many means that I told students what kind of file to turn in, there were still several assignment submissions that were the wrong file type. But now I can simply type jpg,png,jpeg into that little box and voila, students are not allowed to submit anything else. I guarantee there will be many students who ask why it's not letting them turn something in, but they will quickly learn.

Your class, your way.
Custom Course Home Page
You can determine exactly where a student lands when he/she enters a course. Since I'll be taking advantage of modules, mostly, that's where I'll send them. The next best option, in my opinion, is "the Assignments with Syllabus," because it shows students what assignments are happening when. It also gives you rich text space (see image below) where you can put images and links for whatever you want.

The editor you'll see in almost everything. "Switch Views" will show HTML plain text, allowing you to embed anything that can be embedded. Other than that, the HTML is pretty limited.
I don't intend to quiz much, but I'm going to use the quiz tool to make sure students are getting things. For example, in an Illustrator module, I'll put a question that says, "Click and hold on the rectangle tool. What other tools are there?" This forces students to actually do it, which helps them retain it and use the tool better. Other questions might be about tutorial videos they watch, which will be inside the quiz. I'm not trying to catch them not paying attention. I'll let them retake quizzes as much as they need to.

Discussions, like almost everything else, give you the HTML editor. You can embed a video, post a simple quote, or simply ask a question to lead to a discussion. I plan on checking the box that says students can't view other comments until they've commented, so they don't feel the need to say something totally original.

Hiding Buttons
Canvas is powerful and full of options. This can be daunting for the little ones. They log in and see a myriad of buttons and feel immediately lost. But when you set up the course, you can decide which buttons they see and which buttons they don't see. It auto-hides buttons that have no content, but I don't need my students seeing every quiz available. I want them taking the quizzes in context, in a module. So I hide the button.

But Canvas, Where Are the Badges?
As you can see, Canvas has made a convert out of me. However, the number one lacking feature is badges. I mentioned a few ways I intend to gamify my class using Canvas, and using modules with prerequisites, I sort of jimmy-rigged my own badges/achievements, but it would be nice if they were integrated. Automatic badges would be best. "Earn a total of X points in this module/assignment group and earn this badge." Random, unexpected, but earned surprises can be incredibly motivating to students. Maybe I'll write an entirely separate blog about how I would take advantage of auto-badges.

But Canvas is constantly upgrading. It can't be too much longer, can it?


  1. Soooooo glad to have found this post. I'm a Canvas by Instructure employee - we do have some badge options you may not have come across yet. Please email me michael at instructure dot com.

  2. This was a brilliant post. I'm so happy to find teachers like you out there experimenting with education, pushing the boundaries, focusing on the learning experience, and determined to find the best tools for the job. Thank you for being an amazing teacher, and so dedicated to your job. Thank you even more for being willing to share what you learn with the world. You remind me of a favorite quote by Frank Zappa: "Without deviation from the norm, progress would be impossible."

    Keep learning.

  3. @Michael: Great feedback! I've set up CanvaBadges and I'm in the process of setting it all up. It's not perfect but it's pretty great so far. I'll keep an eye on the other options.

    @Rusty: I'm blown away by your comment. Thank you. Sometimes I feel bad making my students my guinea pigs for my educational ideas (and occasional delusions), but they're pretty resilient.

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  5. Hi,
    I'm also trying to use gamification in Canvas. I'm testing one of the external tools, Canvabadges. As Robbie has mentioned above it's not perfect but it's a good place to start. I'm planning to test all of them and see if combining them could be a good solution.

  6. This is a great post. Love it! I'm working on designing a higher ed web design course in Canvas that I want to gamify, and this your samples have sparked some great ideas on how I can make it happen. Thanks!