New template simplifies course construction in Canvas

The instructional design team at the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) had been talking about developing a simple template for faculty to create a course in Canvas, the learning management system that launched at Iowa State in fall 2017.

Then came the coronavirus, which forced all spring semester classes online after spring break -- 6,100 courses shifting from in-person to virtual instruction in less than two weeks, a transition that relied heavily on Canvas as its usage spiked from 63% to 86%.

"The need became so very vivid," said CELT's Lesya Hassall, who creates and implements programming for online course design and development.

"The rapid changes made it rather apparent that we needed to build something soon," said Gretchen Anderson, who leads technical and pedagogical support of audience response technology for CELT.

The template is now available on Canvas, and CELT has launched individual and departmental workshops on how to use the template and a course-planning worksheet collectively called online course essentials (ONCE). CELT staff, in consultation with others across campus, constructed the easy-to-use process, which is meant to keep instructors focused on creating meaningful learning experiences instead of hashing out technical details.

"Talking to faculty and peers, listening to what they needed right now, it became obvious that we need to get the mechanics of creating an online course out of the way," Hassall said.

It doesn’t take any advanced expertise in Canvas to modify or customize the template, which is ideal for online courses but would be valuable for in-person classes as well. The simplicity and flexibility were intentional, Anderson said.

"That's something we really took into consideration as we built this," she said.

The template includes orientation and example modules to be replicated throughout the course. The modules use the standards identified as essential by Quality Matters, a nationally recognized faculty-driven organization that publishes a research-based review rubric for assessing the quality of an online course.

"Quality Matters served as a compass to make sure that we include all the must-haves," Hassall said.

Designs in the template meet digital accessibility requirements, adapt well on handheld mobile devices and include Iowa State branding -- not a necessity, but a nice touch that helps give online courses institutional identity.

"We want students to always know where they are when they're online," Anderson said.

The ONCE process includes a "plan your course" worksheet, designed to help instructors clearly connect learning objectives, activities and assessments in Canvas course modules and to demonstrate the philosophy behind the modular design, Hassall said.

"We wanted to explain exactly why it's built this way," she said.

To request a departmental or college-level workshop on the ONCE tools, submit a request online. Register via Webex for two upcoming individual workshops on June 1 and June 9. Additional workshops will be scheduled over the summer and fall and publicized on the CELT opcoming events webpage. For other questions, contact CELT at