Communication is key with learning technologies in Canvas

The decision to use Canvas as Iowa State's learning management system (LMS) three years ago expanded the tools available for teaching in and out of the classroom. New learning technologies have made access to information easier -- and in some cases less expensive -- for students.

"It is not our intent to limit what the instructor can use," said Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) learning technologies coordinator Amy Ward. "We want to support them with the tools they want to use, but we want to make sure they are secure, accessible and affordable."


At last month's Faculty Senate meeting, a student government representative raised a question about the cost and effectiveness of the online discussion platform Packback used in a couple of courses this semester. The subscription-based ($25) app is designed to enhance students' communication and critical thinking skills.

Packback came into use in Canvas through immediate access, which allows instructors to provide course materials at a lower cost.

"Instructors often talk to the company to learn about the app and then communicate with the ISU Book Store to add it to their book package," Ward said.

Issues can arise from something as simple as having access to the technology. Ward said keeping communication going throughout a semester can be helpful in evaluating a new technology.

"Whenever there are issues we try to encourage students to talk to the instructor if they feel a tool used in the course is not effective," she said. "It may be the instructor is trying something new to see if it is productive and won't know there is an issue unless someone speaks up."


Currently, 34 apps are approved for use in Canvas. Some have a fee, while others are free. One of the most often used is RedShelf.

"It combines online course materials from several publishers. Students don't have to buy a physical book," Ward said. "Materials are available through Canvas on the first day of class."

Immediate access is part of the affordable course content initiatives that decrease costs for students. English faculty saved students $179,000 in one semester by using electronic materials for their courses.

Open educational resources, or free educational materials, continue to grow in use across campus. The University Library also offers course reserves, which provide textbooks or other materials at no cost. Direct links to the course reserves recently were added into Canvas.

In-class apps

There are several apps in Canvas instructors use in classes. Some popular ones include:

  • Top Hat, an in-class feedback system that lets the instructor administer quizzes and see student results in real time. Each semester, Top Hat representatives come to campus to meet with instructors to make sure it is set up correctly, Ward said.
  • WebEx, a video collaboration tool that can record class meetings. Instructors also are able to hold virtual office hours to fit their schedules.
  • Grammarly, which provides grammar and spell-check options and plagiarism detection. It is one of the newest additions, added this semester.


CELT has open labs three days a week where instructors can learn more about technology they want to add to their courses.

"We just want to help them get the most out of it," Ward said. "They can try it on us before they use it in a class and make sure it does what they want."

Whenever an instructor wants to add a new learning technology to a class, the LMS enterprise team -- a group of people from CELT and information technology services -- tests it before it is approved. It is a process that can take two to three months.

"We look at pedagogy, security, accessibility, support, and cost for the university and students," Ward said.