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Nicholas Jones

Freedom through Focus

Posted by Nicholas Jones May 28, 2019

I was so excited by this month's blogging challenge - and now that the school year has ended, it feels like the right time for reflecting and cleaning up. Everyone has a few beliefs or assumptions as starting points for how they design, and those beliefs will color how we answer these questions. Here are some of mine:

  • The reason we design and plan courses is to create the best possible learning experience for students.
  • The best possible student learning has students consistently applying the concepts in a course with accountability.
  • Evidence-based decisions are critical to making effective design choices.
  • Every course subject has the potential to be relevant to the life of a student.


With that in mind, let me try to answer these questions!


Share how you approach course design. How do you organize content so it’s efficient for both instructors and students? What tips and/or tools can you share?


I approach course design with clarity for students first and foremost. Your course only exists so that students can take it and learn. To that end, I use Modules in Canvas heavily, and I like to think about it as you would a theater. The Modules area is like the stage. It's visible to everyone. It's where the set pieces and props come out at the right time to make the magic happen. Most other parts of Canvas are "backstage." You don't want your audience to see all the actors running around, props being shuffled, and the visible nails and paint splatters. Generally, I hide as much of the course navigation as possible. I want everyone's eyes on the stage.


I have a couple strategies that instructors have found helpful. One strategy is to have an "instructor notes" page in each module. It is always unpublished so students can't see it. This is a place where instructors can make notes for TA's, jot down ideas for what they want to change or what didn't work - pretty much anything related to to that module. That way they aren't trying at the end of the semester to remember months of ideas. Another strategy is to build as much as possible directly in Canvas. I have seen again and again instructors get overwhelmed with multiple copies and revisions of documents they build, only to upload them into Canvas once, twice, maybe three times. Most of the time, what you're building will translate directly to a content page or the instruction box of an assignment. Save your students the extra click of downloading a file, and save yourself the headache of redundant copies of your materials.


Explain how you structure course flow. How do you keep content and learning experiences “tidy”? Does it make a difference for learners? If so, how?


I try to structure course flow to have students applying concepts as quickly as possible. I take a constructivist approach to learning, which basically means that knowledge is something we create, not something we receive. I resist the usual format of starting with first principles in a discipline because I don't think that accurately reflects how we learn. As children, we learned whole words before we learned the alphabet. It can feel chaotic, but I think its ultimately more effective at creating lasting learning.


This has two implications for me. First, I use a weekly module format that I keep as consistent as possible. A predictable, highly consistent course structure can enable learners to be messy and courageous in their learning by giving them a solid foundation to fallback on. Second, I obsess over the course objectives and how they get translated into module objectives. I think objectives need to be tied to specific actions you expect learners to be able to perform. If learning is an active process, we need to conceptualize what they're learning as active, too. Building the course with a laser-like focus on your learning objectives helps ground the rest of the design process. 


When closing a course, do you have any rituals like reflection or reorganization? How do you make sure you only “keep what brings you joy”?


For me, it all comes back to course objectives. I don't believe you can make strategic decisions about what is or isn't working in your course unless you clearly define for yourself what students will learn (and by learn, I mean be able to do) by taking your course. There's a saying I've heard about screenwriting for film: No line is worth the scene. That means that there is no line you could write for an actor that justifies keeping a scene that doesn't benefit the film. It could be the most poetic, sublime, incisive look into the human experience condensed into a few sentences, but if the scene it's in detracts from the rest of the movie, you need to cut it.


We have a tendency to be precious about our work, and course design is no different. You may have designed an inventive activity or resource. But if you have to twist your course in knots to accommodate it, you need to cut it. And this is why spending time on your objectives is so important. Those objectives are your roadmap for what you should and shouldn't keep. What brings me joy in course design is when all the parts of the course are working harmoniously together toward the same goal.


But, hey — that's my take. I can't wait to read what other folks think!



You to the power of education

As the makers of Canvas, Instructure believes education is one of the world's most powerful forces for change.  This spring we're asking students, "How will a college education give you the power to achieve your dreams?"  We hope you'll answer with stories that share your dreams and ambitions.


What’s in it for you?

How about $10K in scholarships, the chance to see your story on stage in Long Beach, California, and—of course—the intangible greatness of bragging rights?


Instructions & Rules

  • Create a 30–60-second video explaining how a college education will give you the power you need to achieve your dreams and how Canvas will help on your journey. Be creative. Feel free to involve others in your video, and then use your wizard-like editing skills to polish it off!
  • Submit the video by posting it publicly to Twitter and/or Instagram using the hashtag #powerofedu and by tagging @CanvasLMS.
  • All entries must be submitted by 11:59 p.m. MDT on June 21, 2019 or until 1,000 submissions are received.
  • All videos will be reviewed, some will be reposted by the Canvas team online, and three winners will be announced at InstructureCon 2019 in Long Beach, California, July 9–11.
  • Winners will be chosen based on creativity and vision as judged by a team at Instructure, the makers of Canvas.
  • Awards will be granted for 1st ($5K), 2nd ($3K), and 3rd ($2K) place.
  • Winners will have scholarship funds deposited into a 529 College Savings Plan education account. Students and parents/guardians must register for account.
  • Winner and one parent/guardian will be flown to Long Beach, CA for InstructureCon 2019, July 9–11.
    Official rules can be found at


Read the Official Contest Rules

Share how you approach course design. How do you organize content so it’s efficient for both instructors and students? What tips and/or tools can you share?

Assignments are the fundamental building blocks in a Canvas course. They are the milestones that students can achieve.

Assignments can be big

Assignments that are placed at the end of a module, can be used to check if the student has achieved the intended learning outcomes.

Assignments can be small

Every time you ask your students to do something, you are giving them an assignment.

  • You can ask your student to read a few lines of text, and to underline some keywords.
  • You can ask your students to come up with an idea for a project.
  • You can ask your students to take a picture of their work.
  • You can ask your students to work on some exercises in a document.
  • You can ask your students to summarise what they saw in a video.

A course could in theory only contain assignments. The course would be like an online exercise workbook. An assignment could, in that case, contain one or more exercises that the students have to complete.


Explain how you structure course flow. How do you keep content and learning experiences “tidy”? Does it make a difference for learners? If so, how?

It's important to clearly present the content in every assignment, and to organise the different assignments in your modules, your assignment groups, your gradebook, etc.

Present the content in your assignments

An assignment should have:

  • A title: The title should be short and concise. Add an abbreviation if the assignment is part of a module (f.e. LO1)
  • Settings: Submission date, grade, submission type, etc.
  • A short description: The description should explain what the assignment is about.
  • A list with steps the student has to undertake: This could be as simple as: 1. Download a document. 2. Answer the questions in the document. 3. Submit the document.
  • Links to additional information: Frequently asked questions, agreements the student must comply with, etc.
  • A rubric: To communicate the intended learning outcomes.


Organise the assignment in modules

Add your assignments to modules to provide context. Adding other resources to your modules, helps your students with finding all the necessary information in one place. (more information about this is in my other blog post: Providing structure with modules.)

An alternative to adding activities (worked examples, video's,...) to modules, is to add the links to activities to the assignments description. This can be useful when you are working with a lot of smaller assignments. An extra advantage is that you can digitally handout these assignments to individual students with the 'assign to' function in Canvas. Adding all the information that students need, to the assignment itself, makes it much easier to do this, and to differentiate.


Gradebook 2.0 has some great functions to filter assignments by modules, sections and students. It can become a dashboard that shows you which assignments are assigned to which students, and where you have to give feedback.


Bobby Pedersen


Posted by Bobby Pedersen Champion May 10, 2019

Two years have flown by as a member of this versatile community. I can’t let this anniversary go by without taking stock on what has happened in that time for me.


One of the main reasons for joining the community was to learn how to drive Canvas. I’ve learned so much. But more importantly I’ve learned that I don’t need to know it all at once at the beginning. Instead I need to know where to find things out when I need them. Joining groups, reading blogs, joining discussions, asking questions, using the guides has helped me to slowly build my knowledge with purposeful reasons each time. 

Horse Before the Cart. Purpose first, Canvas second. 

Even though I can’t attend the many Canvas conferences that occur the learning from these is still available to everyone. Watching videos of sessions and even being able to attend remotely has been amazing.

Get Ready to Binge-Watch InstructureCarn! 


Another reason for joining was to meet other Canvas users and swap ideas. Initially I thought that would just be in Australia! APAC I’ve been so impressed with the global sharing and support available and the camaraderie amongst Canvas users. There is so much wisdom in the collective genius of the community and people are so willing to share it. Blows me away every day.

It's Better Together 


The support given so freely in the community has encouraged me to try new things, ponder the purpose then in turn support others.

 What does Community mean to me? 

What's on your plate? 


Instructure does their very best to listen to us,the users, when we have ideas to improve the Canvas experience for our learners. How cool is that!

Shameless plug for an idea - Speech to Text in Rich Content Editor in Windows OS. Make it richer! 

Bonus Giggles

I have really enjoyed the banter in discussion and the shared laughs. What a fabulous group of people. 

Dad Jokes.Succeeding 


Thanks Team Canvas!

Share how you approach course design. How do you organize content so it’s efficient for both instructors and students? What tips and/or tools can you share?

Designing an effective course in Canvas isn't easy. There are many choices that can be made. After two years of working with teachers and support staff in our institution, I finally came up with a template that's good for most teachers.

  1. Turn modules into your home page.
  2. Hide everything in navigation except Home, Announcements, Grades and People.
  3. Add the last announcement to the top of the home page.
  4. Add an 'introductory module' with course information.

introduction module

The introductory module looks like a numbered list. This makes it easy to communicate to students where they can find the necessary information. Another advantage is that the numbered items appear at the top when you navigate to pages.


Add requirements (view the item, or mark the item as read) to every page of the ''introductory module''.


Explain how you structure course flow. How do you keep content and learning experiences “tidy”? Does it make a difference for learners? If so, how?

Add a module underneath the ''introductory module'' for every every lesson you teach. 


  1. Give these modules a name and a three letter abbreviation (f.e. LO1). Use this abbreviation for every item in the module. This makes it easy to find out to which lesson a quiz, assignment or page belongs to.
  2. Start with an introductory page. This page can contain learning outcomes, a short introduction, a video,...
  3. Add a page with learning activities. Add files to this page (slides, articles,...) and explain why students need them.
  4. Add interactive elements to your module (quizzes, discussions,...)
  5. End your module with an assignment so you can check if the learning outcomes are achieved. (more information about this is in my other blog post: Assignments as fundamental building blocks.)


Add requirements if necessary: f.e. view the page, submit the assignment, etc.

By adding requirements you tell your people what you expect. You can make content available after they completed some requirements, but this is often not necessary. Just adding the requirements, makes sure your students know what to do, and it becomes very easy for you as a teacher to track students progress.




Here in Australia we are four months into the school year, the weather is getting colder and the days are getting shorter. Courses are now settled and hitting that nice mid-year flow, the perfect time to sit back and review where our course is at. For Canvas users in the northern hemisphere days are getting longer, the blossoms are out and the spring cleaning bug is hitting. So let’s take a breath to ‘Marie Kondo’ our Canvas courses. Here is a checklist of some of the key things you can do to review, declutter and freshen up your course:

  • Check your course structure - Take a step back and re-evaluate your navigation and course structure. Is key information easy to find? What can you change to make your course more user friendly? Some tips include:
    • Use modules to organise your content. Two successful ways I have structured course content are:
      • Grouping content by topics/units of work. This makes it easy to share resources between teachers in Commons by sharing complete modules that cover a particular topic.
      • Grouping content by terms/semesters. In Australia we have 4 terms of 10 weeks each so by grouping content in term and lesson order it is easy for students to know where they are up to and review content from missed lessons.
    • Once you are using modules, use the requirements settings on modules so students can easily track where they are up to and what they have missed.
    • Review your home page to make sure the most important information is easy to find (see tips below)
  • Review your Home Page – Do your students know where to go after they land on your home page? Some home page design tips:
    • Use your homepage as the base for accessing course content. Avoid putting everything the user needs to know on the homepage. Let them navigate to the information they require by using buttons to additional pages. 
    • Keep the layout of your homepage simple, clean and uncluttered. Simplicity and clarity = good design. I always live by the motto less is more.
    • Use ‘Call to action’ icons and buttons that stand out. If you are unable to design your own icons a site like has the potential to become your best friend.
    • Limit scrolling where possible.
    • Leave plenty of white space for easy viewing.
    • Chunk content into small amounts, this allows users to scan content easily, 
  • Check for broken links - like cleaning the oven it's best to do this more than once a year as links, especially to external sites, break all the time. How do I validate links in a course?
  • Check your media - Do your images convey meaning or are they just there to look pretty? Be careful not to overload your pages with unnecessary images. Users scan a page to quickly find the information they require. Images can distract from the main message they need. On the other hand, using ‘call to action’ icons on your assignments can help students scan and easily identify what they need to do. Also, links aren’t the only thing that can break or go missing. Check that your images, videos and other embedded content are still working.
  • Give it a proofread - Give your course a good proofread to check for errors and consistency. Believe me, if there’s an error in your course your students will take great joy in picking it up.
  • Check your course on the Canvas App - While instructors may spend the majority of their time viewing their course on computer or laptop monitors, students are a mobile generation who want content at their fingertips, that means using the Canvas App. Check your course on the app to make sure content responds to the small screen and is readable.
  • Do a content and file audit - When was the last time you went through your course files and pages? Some audit tips:
    • Use a folder structure that replicates your course structure. This makes finding files a lot easier.
    • Check that files are in the correct folders. When in a hurry it’s easy to just upload files and forget to allocate them to a folder. It’s a good idea to regularly check your files section to stay on top of your file management.
    • Delete any unwanted or unused files and content items (pages, assignments etc)
  • Review your course analytics and statistics to pinpoint any issues - Analytics can give you a glimpse into what’s engaging students and what might be improved in the future. It will also help you detect which students are not participating and who is falling behind. How do I view Course Analytics?, How do I view course statistics?
  • Identify areas to promote community and engagement in your course
    • Provide a help discussion where students can help answer other student’s questions. This makes students feel like they have 24/7 support and an added bonus it reduces your load if students can help each other out.
    • Add some weekly discussions on current topics to promote class chat and peer collaboration.
    • Create a Community Points Rewards system (just like this community). Give some incentive to contribute to discussions by allocating bonus points to students for each post they contribute which can tally up to receive a certain badge or other reward.
  • Lastly, view the course in student view – It will help identify unpublished content and give you a feel for the student user experience.


Happy spring cleaning



Learn more about the May 2019 Blogging Challenge

Read more "It's Time to Kondo" stories



The Meta Community received some outstanding blogs in the Reflect and Celebrate and Share the Joy Blogging Challenges. It’s exciting that we get to collaborate once again. This is the final of the three blogging challenges currently planned for 2019. Share your stories and best practices while also learning from others!




Marie Kondo has sparked a decluttering obsession. ( While Konmari focuses on the tidying of our living spaces, it’s very likely that some of Kondo’s philosophies can also be applied to our virtual learning environments. After all, for the amount of time that some of us spend in our Canvas courses, it can begin to feel like a “home” of sorts.


Books, Shelf, Shelving, Education



Here are a few questions to inspire you as you begin to write. You do not need to answer all of the prompts; just pick what inspires you!

  • Share how you approach instructional or course design. How do you organize content so it’s efficient for both instructors and students? What tips and/or tools can you share?
  • Explain how you structure course flow. How do you keep content and learning experiences “tidy”? Does it make a difference for learners? If so, how?
  • At the start of a new term, how do you determine what is clutter and what has been hoarded? Do you have a process that works as you sift and sort through your courses’ content?
  • When closing a course, do you have any rituals like reflection or reorganization? How do you make sure you only “keep what brings you joy”?


Between now and May 31st, set aside some time for some reflection and writing. To begin sharing your story, you will need to find the Meta Community Group. (If you aren’t already a member of this group, you will need to join this group in order to publish your blog post.) At the bottom of this introductory blog, you will see a button that says “Write a Blog”. After clicking, a template will be copied for you to use as you write your blog!


Please leave the May19 and Blogging Challenge tags intact when you publish your blog. These tags make it possible for all of the contributions for this particular blogging challenge to be found in one place, and for the blogs to be connected to one another. Also, if the tags are missing, you may not get the recognition you deserve or qualify for the rewards.





All authors who submit a blog post before May 31st will receive 250 Community points and receive an exclusive badge added to their profile in the Canvas Community.  Please be patient as this badge and reward points will be awarded manually.


Additional point prizes will also be rewarded:

  • 250 additional points = Top 10 posts based on likes, views, bookmarks, shares, quality of comments, and the opinions of the Canvas Community Managers + Coaches
  • 500 additional points = #1 Winner (from the Top 5) will be determined by the Community in a poll




  • May 31, 2019: All posts must be published in the Meta Community Group using the template linked to the “Write a Blog” button below to be considered for the Top 5. Posts published after the deadline will be welcomed, but they will not be considered for this contest.
  • June 3, 2019: The top 5 blog posts will be announced in a poll and will be eligible for voting. Authors will have two weeks to increase the visibility and ranking of their blog. Share it, Tweet it, get people to read and rate it, comment on it, etc. to help surface your story to the top!
  • June 17, 2019: The overall winner will be announced.




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