Canvas gets high marks in first year

A year after its campuswide launch, Canvas is being used by an estimated 75 percent of Iowa State instructors.

The learning management system (LMS) replaced Blackboard and largely has been embraced by faculty and students. Access to Blackboard ended in January 2018. The contract expired a year earlier and drove the need to either renew or find a new LMS.

"[Implementing Canvas] was a really thoughtful process that we went through to try to help the faculty, staff and students," said Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) director Sara Marcketti. "Throughout the process, the CELT team had instructional designers, faculty, students come in and use things and give their feedback."

The desire is to get as many instructors using Canvas as possible, but some may not have the need if they teach classes like independent studies or graduate courses.

"The entire goal of moving to Canvas was to have instructors build a course and students spend more time on the content of the course, not trying to figure out how to use the tool," said learning technologies coordinator Amy Ward.

Starting early

Marcketti believes early adopters to Canvas helped drive its success in the first year. Although Canvas did not become the lone LMS on campus until the 2018 spring semester, instructors began working with it in the fall of 2017.

"Canvas recommends having 10 to 15 people as early adopters, and we had 300 faculty early adopters," Marcketti said. "They were critical in finding any issues. When you are teaching an actual LMS course you realize things you otherwise don't."

Student early adopters also gave Canvas a strong endorsement.

"We did a survey, and one of the most important things we learned was that student satisfaction was so high," said Marcketti, who noted the mid-fall 2017 survey reported 90 percent satisfaction. "They found the navigability so much easier than Blackboard, the look was so much cleaner, and the mobile features allowed them to take quizzes or look at their syllabus online."

Student comfort was higher because some had previous experience with the LMS at their high school or middle school.

"All of the big schools in Iowa -- Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City -- are on Canvas," said Ward.

Putting it to use

College of Liberal Arts and Sciences associate dean Arne Hallam teaches three courses -- two on campus and one online. Announcements in Canvas are one of the biggest ways he communicates with his students. Announcements allow him to post readings for the entire semester while remaining flexible.

"The readings are posted, the blogs are posted for the online class, we post the lectures either before the lecture or after depending on what is appropriate," he said. "It allows the students to log in and see the slides, and they like doing that."

The move to Canvas provided an impetus for some departments to use the same LMS as others on campus.

"Most of the English classes at Iowa State were not on Blackboard, they were using Moodle, … and they were able to move all the freshman and sophomore English to Canvas," Hallam said. "It has gone extremely smoothly, and the people that moved are happy."

Hallam said the move to Canvas was smooth when it came to posting readings and slides. Issues arose more often when instructors tried to transfer quizzes or tests from one LMS to the other.

Always able to improve

To respond to issues, CELT created a teaching technology advisory committee. The committee of about 20 people from across campus meets monthly.

"Anything that has been in the Canvas environment that we need to make a decision on -- or even other technologies that impact teaching -- we use this advisory committee to help us build a better system," Ward said.

With the addition of Canvas came 24/7 technical support (294-4000) through representatives based in Utah.

"They are absolutely amazing," Hallam said. "If they don’t know, they are willing to work with you and you figure it out together."

Communication was the top priority of CELT and information technology services, which offer classes on a wide range of topics within Canvas. In open labs, instructors could try a task and ask questions if they encountered issues.

Marcketti said that between classes and open labs, CELT staff dedicated approximately 400 hours to helping instructors learn the system in the past year.

Giving instructors and students more

The ability to add more apps securely to Canvas comes through learning tools interoperability. Here are some being used:

  • Top Hat is an in-class feedback system that lets the instructor administer quizzes and see student results in real time.
  • RedShelf offers digital delivery of course materials. When students gain access to the course, the book already is there for them. Ward said a $250 textbook might cost closer to $60 for the digital option, with physical books still available if students prefer them.
  • Canvas allows instructors to ensure a similar student experience in a multisection course through Blueprint. Once a course is created, multiple instructors are able to teach different sections.
  • Arc is an online platform that allows instructors and students to interact and collaborate through video and audio media.

Continuing to learn

Introductory courses will continue to be offered by CELT staff, all of whom now are located at 3024 Morrill Hall. Track 2 workshops offer instruction on more advanced options.

The Course Design Institute, launched last year, is a four-day program that features classes in the morning and afternoons dedicated to helping instructors build courses. It is set to be offered in May, with applications available in March.