Pandemic drives up use of instruction apps in Canvas

The pandemic changed the way instructors structured and presented courses to students. Whether they already used Canvas, the university's learning management system (LMS), or started during the transition, it is now a requirement that all courses have a Canvas presence.

To make the most of online learning, Canvas allows instructors to introduce a variety of external tools, content and activities through learning tools interoperability (LTI) or apps. 

"We are seeing a dramatic increase in the number of apps that instructors would like to use," said Gretchen Anderson, a Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) instructional technology specialist. "Because we are still in a pandemic, there is that need for flexibility and to pivot quickly. Canvas and its connected apps facilitate that ability."

Connecting Canvas with an LTI ensures the secure transfer of information and improves workflow for tasks like grading assignments. It also ensures students have access to information and course materials.

"Prior to having LTIs, if students had to sign up for content outside of Canvas, inevitably there would be issues with a wrong spelling of a name or another problem," said Angi Beau-Karthik, CELT instructional technology specialist. "Having the LTI makes integration with Canvas seamless, making it easier for the student and instructor."

The apps

Iowa State currently has more than 70 approved LTIs categorized into 18 groups, ranging from collaboration to video recording.

For example, web conferencing tools like WebEx and Microsoft Teams were vital during virtual instruction. Engagement tools like Top Hat allow instructors to present information in different ways, and Respondus LockDown Browser ensures academic integrity during assessments.

Instructors can use improved workflows for  course management and grading, and students can obtain course materials numerous ways, including through a Parks Library course reserves LTI. Study tools and writing assistance apps also are available for students.

"Instructors are pleased that they are able to integrate their different learning materials so students don't have to go and search for everything," Anderson said.

Most LTIs are free, but often the content comes with a cost, which is a key consideration when adopting a new LTI.

New LTIs

Publisher-based apps have been heavily requested and reviewed at ISU. Textbook publishers see the benefits of building integrations and have delivered better and easier access to course materials and content students have already published, Anderson said.

Five new apps were added in January, four of which connect to publisher content:

  • ALEKS: A research-based, online learning program that offers course materials and assessments
  • MyBusinessCourse: Offers print and digital textbooks, instructor supplements and test prep materials.
  • MyEducator: Helps track student engagement and course progress.
  • GreatRiverLearning: Provides customizable publishing for educators available to students.

The fifth, H5P, is an interactive content application, providing a variety of engaging question types used across the university. It requires a license that has to be purchased.

Looking for an LTI?

Instructors can submit requests for a new LTI to be reviewed via an online form. Each request is reviewed by the LMS enterprise team with representatives from CELT, IT security, university counsel, procurement services and ISU Book Store.

"They are looking for things like security compliance, fit of technology with academic vision, cost and number of students impacted," said Anderson. "The timing of the process varies greatly. It can go as quickly as a week. There is one we have been waiting more than two years because the product was purchased by another vendor and requires updates to be compatible within our system."

As part of the review process, the LTI is installed in Canvas for a test run by the enterprise team and the requester before it is approved. Anderson said many vendors are switching to the newest technology -- LTI Advantage -- which provides better security and options within the LMS.

LTIs are approved for a range of audiences from universitywide down to a single course. New LTIs typically are added at the beginning of a semester to provide students and instructors a consistent environment in Canvas. They are reviewed periodically and can be removed. 

If an instructor wants to integrate an LTI, the CELT instructional design team can assist in determining the appropriate one. For help, email