Skip navigation
All Places > Canvas Mobile Users Group > Blog > 2017 > November

Parent and Student checking Canvas

In May of 2017, a small group of families from DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota was invited to provide feedback and to talk about the Canvas Parent App. During these meetings, Canvas administrators were able to gather great user-stories and adjust the way in which Canvas Parent was supported. Additionally, a list of "best practices" was compiled and shared with teaching faculty.




During this interview, Greg Mattson, parent of a freshman at DelaSalle, explained how the app is a window into the academic balancing act his freshman student has to maintain. Calvin is a great student who is also invested in many school-sponsored activities. Canvas Parent has made it possible for Greg stay connected and to receive communications with Calvin's teachers more efficiently.


“Canvas Parent provides perspective, even when teachers don’t directly communicate about classroom progress.”


Before Canvas, Greg could ask Calvin about his day, but he would get short answers. Greg shared, “now that I have ‘the answers’ at my fingertips, I really do look for them. I’m able to look for changes in course grades, in one quick glance, and then I can initiate a bigger conversation with my son.”


Most students won’t necessarily bring up their grades to parents, but parents deserve to know what’s happening at school. One feature, in particular, simplifies this task for Greg. “The week at a glance allows me to encourage and remind Calvin to set aside the appropriate time for studying and to set goals with him rather than waiting until there is an issue.” Greg feels involved without feeling he’s overbearing.


“The term ‘mobile’ is about getting information quickly. The app does just that. It’s convenient, and it allows me to be proactive with Calvin’s schoolwork.”


Greg likes how conversations about school work can be more casual There's not a specific time that these conversations take place because he and Calvin always have their smartphones on them. Greg likes that these conversations can happen anywhere and that they don’t have to huddle around a desktop or a pile of textbooks. They can talk about a specific assignment, and share varying perspectives based on their apps. He does, however, hope that submission details and teacher feedback will make it to Canvas Parent soon so he can gain more context to Calvin’s assignment scores.


Greg also shared how he appreciated it when coaches for sports and activities utilized Canvas for communication and organizational purposes. Students and parents are already in Canvas, so it makes a lot of sense to meet them where they already are. The consistency allows families to plan ahead and maximize time at home for activities, studying, and other commitments.


I am creating this blog post with full the expectation of disagreement posts. My goal is to create a discussion that explores the best way to design a complex project like Canvas for use on many types of devices, screens, and operating systems.


My History with Mobile Apps

  • I initially tried using Speedgrader mobile when we first started using Canvas and did not find it any more convenient than using the web version.
  • I have explored Canvas Student and Teacher a few times, including today.  I find that the apps are quite convenient for certain tasks and that I miss being able to quickly accomplish others.
  • My students use Canvas Student all the time, even in class, so I know they are using it to keep track of assignments.  This is actually a problem when students ONLY look at the To-Do list and miss other pages in the modules.
  • I teach exclusively using iPad, and very often do grading and even course creation on iPad.  The only task I have attempted that did not work was scrolling quizzes when in speedgrader,  but using quiz moderating it works fine.
  • I have designed web-apps and am a 'hack' coder.  Meaning I do a lot of coding, but was not formally trained so I am always researching the best way to accomplish coding problems.  However I know just enough to be dangerous. 


My Question in a Nutshell

Why do we need to create mobile apps when virtually all devices have web browsers and we can create responsive websites that provide the same functionality via responsive Graphical User Interfaces (GUI's) based on the screen and Operating System (OS).


More Explanation

Responsive web design is considered one of the most important features of a well-designed website.  The goal of responsive web design is to provide the same information and functionality, but formatted in the most accessible and navigable and easy-to-read manner specific for the user's device.


We have all seen websites that look one way on a desktop (large) screen, but then reformat with content flowing in a different order when the screen is smaller.   You can test this by changing the size of your desktop screen to see how the content layout changes as the screen gets smaller.  With the page you are currently viewing, for example, when you make the screen smaller than a certain width the top navigation bar collapses in to a drop-down menu, and the buttons at the bottom which are side-by-side on the larger screen become stacked top-to-bottom.  


This is done via Cascading Style Sheets (CSS).  The basic idea behind CSS is the importance of separating content from formatting, thus allowing the same content to be presented in a variety of manners.  A different style sheet can be applied to the same content making it accessible by smaller screens, visual-assistive devices, hearing-assistive devices, etc.


Because much of what the mobile apps accomplish is this same reformatting of content, I'm not sure why we need separate mobile apps when we could just use CSS and create the various versions of Canvas in the web version.


As for OS, this is where things can get much more complicated because different OS's and different browsers can have completely different application programming interfaces (API's).  Even CSS can be interpreted differently.  This is why there are different versions of many apps on say, the iOS and Android platforms.   HOWEVER, as web designers and programmers, we have many tools available to us to make that process easier.    


For example, JQuery is a cross-browser javascript library that handles all of the various browser differences, allowing a designer to simply use the JQuery API and be assured that everything will work on most browsers.  I say "most" because as older versions of browsers age, they become unsupported. Bootstrap is another popular cross-browser framework.   jQuery is in use by Canvas, which is why we have access to things like collapsible menus.  There is also an extension library for jQuery called jQuery Mobile, which adds a lot of functionality for mobile devices.


Many mobile apps we use today are basically web apps wrapped into packages and installed as separate applications.    


The Point

Since web application design has evolved so far and is so widely used, there are many advancements and tools available that make it efficient to create a web application that can provide all the functionality we have in Canvas across many devices.  A web app can be dynamically served depending on the device, OS, and screen, presented in a format most logical for that device.   So why not leverage that technology and put the time and resources of Canvas into developing each new advancement directly into the web application for various devices at the same time?   This is instead of creating advancements in the web app and then adding those same advancements to each of the mobile apps.  Why spread out our development into so many apps instead of focusing our efforts into one cross-browser, cross-platform web app?


I am tempted to continue, pointing out all of the feature requests that want a specific feature in this app or that app, or the PDF's I found of the feature lists of various apps on various devices and how those are prioritized for development.   Even polls could be added to Canvas within the current web application.  But I think I've written enough to get a conversation started.


I look forward to reading replies!



During the summer of 2017, a number of UCF faculty were able to preview the Canvas Teacher App and use it in their classes. In an effort to better understand the impact of this app and help communicate our experience to Instructure, my colleague Ashley Salter and I conducted a number of face-to-face interviews. In the first of a series of blog posts, here is the story of Rick Brunson. Rick is a beloved Journalism instructor in the Nicholson School of Communication at UCF. He is always willing to learn and bend new technologies if it will have a lasting impact on his students. In fact, he is one of just a few instructors that teachers a mobile journalism class to prepare his students for the workplace. 


His belief in the smartphone can be summed up in the following quote "The smartphone is very important to me because 90 percent of the content I capture for my classes is done on a mobile device. This includes photos, videos, and lecture notes - and quizzes too!"


“Grading is hypertension, the silent killer of faculty and this app is the prescription because grading is always waiting."


During the interview, Rick repeatedly praised having access to SpeedGrader on his iPhone as the most important feature. This will enable and empower him more with a mobile device to grade wherever. If he’s at a barber shop, a doctor’s office, or just waiting in line, he can grade assignments. All technology is a double-edged sword and it can help you make more of your time, but also be available when you shouldn’t be working, but that’s up to him, and not the tool. He doesn’t see the Teacher app providing more extensive feedback because the nature of mobile is “short” and quick, but thinks it will be great for short assignments on his iPhone. 


“The faculty members greatest enemy is time and this app empowers us more with our time.”


He tells his students on the first day of class to email him through Canvas because he gets a notification in the Canvas app and it’s likely to give them a speedy response. Rick believes that he might let communication bleed a little too much his personal life, but he sees it as a positive. He has relied on the Canvas Student app for years as a communication tool to stay in contact with his students. Even if it’s “I’m at dinner, I’ll get back to you in an hour.”  Students aren’t necessarily impatient, but technology has trained us to expect fairly rapid responses when we have questions. The app empowers him to do that and meet those expectations. Even though some faculty manage their communication in blocks of time and set expectations that they only answer in certain hours, which keep their lives organized, he doesn't do this. He tells a story about a student who contacted him about her first internship and she was really excited! Because of the Canvas app, he was able to immediately respond and give that virtual high-five. He doesn’t want to stick to a 24-hour policy because it’s important that he is not only responsive to concerns but celebrates their joys. It means something to his students. 


“The app helps me take care of the next task, lessen the load, and use time more effectively.”


The student context cards are going to be helpful in enhancing communication with students because he can verify messages from students when they have questions about grades and assignments. In particular, this will give him more information when a student asks "why did I get this grade?" or "how am I doing in class?" Before the Canvas Teacher app, he would have to run back to a computer, look at their progress and then reply. This can take time and hold up the process by hours or days. With the app, he can do that on the fly and communicate much faster to students. 


Rick mentioned that the "Message Students Who" feature inside each assignment will be useful for smaller classes, but still might be hard to use for larger class sizes (125+). This will take more time to explore how this feature can enhance communication and possibly increase student engagement. 


Every semester UCF conducts the Student Perception of Instruction (SPI) for each course. These are incredibly important to faculty and can be tied to many important performance factors. Rick consistently gets positive notes on how responsive he is when students have a question or concern. He mentioned a quote by the famous educational researcher Chuck Dzuiban; "Does my instructor care about my learning?" This is always the most important question asked by students. Communication style and responsiveness are important to show you “care” about their learning and the app enables you to do that. Rick believes the Canvas Teacher app will be a valuable tool as he continues to increase communication, engage with students, and be more efficient. 

Hi all,


I just finish the 'Mobile Series' quest videos, and I'm wondering if all of the information and functions presented in the videos are still accurate and valid... see below. Can anyone advise?

Quest Details - Mobile Series

Thank you!



Can I just say "thanks" for all the great documentation that Canvas puts out regarding the mobile applications? Just over the past week, I have had mutliple conversations with students about finding things on Canvas through the application. I have had multiple conversations with instructors about the differences between the student and the teacher app and when they should use either one. I've been able to help my own students while being out and about by just pulling up the various apps and making slight changes that would have required multiple minutes of squinting at my iPhone screen as I zoomed in an out on the mobile web version of Canvas.


So thanks, Canvas. Thanks for the helpful documentation. And thanks for making an application that makes my job easier.

Filter Blog

By date: By tag: