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2 Posts authored by: Ken Black Champion

Blueprint Courses were introduced with the June 24, 2017 release and are one of the coolest features introduced by Canvas, in this writer's humble opinion.  As an administrator, I thought it was a no-brainer to turn it on immediately on our campus. (It must be enabled by your Canvas administrator first.) When I enthusiastically outlined the features and functionality shortly afterwards to our entire faculty via email, the response can pretty much be summarized by this sound. Of course, it was in the middle of summer. So I must begin with this....


Full disclosure: Everything below has been checked while I tested out blueprint courses on our production server, but not (yet) by users during an academic term.


November 2017 update.  Community member Linda J. Lee is currently writing blog posts with some outstanding "real world" experience in launching Blueprint Courses, which mine below--writing when it was just getting up and running--lacks.  Anyone wishing to use Blueprint Courses and to gain some expertise in their use would do well to read Linda's posts.  Here is what has been done so far:

Also, be sure to check out her contribution on this topic in the Fall Community Showcase 2017 .  And finally, now that InstructureCon 2017 videos have been posted, check out Matt Goodwin's Magical Blueprint Courses- Matt Goodwin .


I'm rather anal about testing out new releases that I think will benefit my institution, as most Canvas administrators likely are, so I tested and re-tested things every way I could, courtesy of my ability (as an administrator) to create a few sample course sites and play around with varying faculty logins. Even if my own faculty may not yet be taking advantage of blueprint courses, I figured I could at least share some of what I discovered with the Community. I share the concern expressed here by Susan Hicks (UCF-CDL) regarding a good way to sell this feature to faculty, especially when compared to Canvas Commons. But the ability to "push out" material to an assortment of classes is awesome, especially to help those people who are not good about importing Commons material on their own.  


Virtually everything I mention below IS dutifully noted somewhere in the documentation, so the best place to start is with links to the official Canvas documentation guides.


For instructors of blueprint courses (the templates, as it were, not the associated courses), these pages from the guides are exclusively on blueprint courses, though blueprint courses come up in other places, as well:


For instructors of the courses associated with blueprint courses (the "destination" courses) your primary point of reference is How do I manage a course associated with a blueprint course as an instructor?


And finally, administrators can benefit from all of the above plus these:


Plan, plan, plan

Blueprint courses are well-named, because--like a house or anything designed with a blueprint--planning is critical, as is communication. Blueprint course instructors/designers wield a bit of extra power in their ability to "push" things out to other course sites, and virtually unannounced. Any issues that arise could likely have been nipped in the bud immediately with proper planning or communication. Therefore, everyone involved in the process should be sure to update their notification settings to ensure they are receiving timely updates, given that the Blueprint Sync notification setting became a newly-listed arrival on the notification screen.


While a few of the scenarios outlined below may cause one to shy away from blueprint courses altogether--don't!  This is truly an amazing addition to Canvas. It will be good, for example, for ensuring any sub-account outcomes get embedded in courses so that the individual faculty do not have to add them in on their own. (Yes, I tested this.) While it's true embedded rubrics cannot be locked, as several pointed out early on when this feature was released, just being able to get them out to instructors is a plus. 


But like a real architect you hire to design something, you will want to make sure you have the right person as the instructor of a blueprint course. As they say, "with great power comes great responsibility."1 And that power, as it were, comes in the hands of the architect...the blueprint course instructor/designer. This blog entry is designed primarily for them, but really for anyone ready to take full advantage of this great feature.


Timing is everything

This is noted in the documentation as the very first item on this page. Any blueprint course that already has content in it when associated courses are added will be synced immediately. So if you have a department that already has a super-great existing course that they want to use as a blueprint, that's fine. The course can be imported into a newly-created blueprint course shell just like any other course import. But for heaven's sake, have the instructor of that blueprint course check things over before your administrator adds in any associated courses, otherwise those associated courses will receive that material immediately…..existing warts and all.  


If your administrator is associating courses that already have had material added to them, the content will get added in like any other course import. Therefore, an associated course could conceivably have two assignments named the same thing if the associated course-building has already been started by a few well-intentioned faculty who like to get a head start on things. As an example, here is a course that had an assignment already created, but before associated courses were added in to the blueprint course. End result once the association was made? Two near-duplicate items:

[Coming up with assignments names has never been my strong point.] So both administrator and blueprint course designer alike should first make sure the associated courses have not been worked on too much. To be fair, Canvas does warn about this when the first associated course sites get added by the administrator:

Instructors of associated courses can recognize any new items courtesy of the new blueprint icon that appears next to an item that has been added, as pointed to in the arrow above. So again....planning and communication. You probably do not want to be the one telling a colleague: "That stuff you just added your own? Oh, you can remove them all now."


Don't publish. (Or you might perish.)

If the term has already begun, I cannot think of too many things that would make the instructor of a blueprint course less popular among colleagues than publishing an item before syncing it, since (as the documentation points out) the publishing state remains intact. Be aware that it can be unpublished by an associated course instructor, but by then students may have seen it . . . or been notified of its existence, depending on their own notification settings. Every institution will be different, of course, but I imagine most in the higher education field (where I'm from) would prefer to be able to choose the time to publish an item on their own after receiving it.


"I should lock this item. Well, maybe not. But maybe I should. Then again...."

This is critical, folks, and again gets back to the general blueprint mantra: planning and communication. (Neither of which is always in great supply in higher education...or elsewhere.) First, let's make clear that the new Blueprint button seen in a blueprint course site can just easily be labelled Lock me! and is dependent upon the site/sub-account administrator's setting of what items will be "eligible" for locking, as covered here.


An "unlocked" item that is synced can be edited by the instructor of an associated course like any other item.  This is pointed our early on in both the blueprint instructor's documentation page as well as the associated course instructor's page:

Objects that are unlocked can be managed by a course instructor in the associated course like any other Canvas object. If the blueprint course is synced and the instructor has modified unlocked content in the associated course, unlocked content is not overwritten with the synced changes.

But is it truly "like any other Canvas object"? Not quite. As an example, below is an assignment that was created in a blueprint course and synced to an associated course. In this case, the instructor in the associated course made a slight title change, adding in -Biography and and even adding in her own file attachment in the description:

Unlocked assignment in an associated course

But in this case, let's say the blueprint course instructor realized that perhaps that assignment should have been locked, and locks it after the original sync and then syncs it again. The result is locking it in the associated courses and overwriting any editing done by instructors on their own:

Same assignment then locked

So, the addition the instructor made to the title in the first example, as well as her instructions get overwritten. It is important to realize that although an unlocked assigned can be modified, if that same assignment later becomes locked the modifications are overwritten. (The file the associated course instructor attached remains in the associated course's Files area, though. The issue is the instructor can no longer edit the description, since the content is now locked.)


What the heck is an "exception"?

Before you think locking items in a blueprint course is just a bad idea altogether, here is another side to the editing coin. A screen capture on this page (under the "View Sync History" heading) displays an item in the sync history that shows "1 exception." Just what the heck triggers an exception? Let's say an assignment was pushed out from a blueprint course without any instructions/description and only the title.  (NOT locked--simply synced with no clicking of the Blueprint button.) The instructor decides to add in her own description in the rich content editor, which is shown below:

Assignment with some added instructions

But after that assignment was sent out (synced), the blueprint course instructor realizes that an attachment was not included. Horrors! So the blueprint instructor modifies the assignment and adds in an attachment, as seen below:

Same assignment but with changed instructions and a file attachment added is still NOT locked, only synced. This is what triggers an exception, as seen below:

Example of sync history with an exception

The file goes through, but not the assignment. Why? Because the instructor of the associated course has already edited it.  Once an assignment pushed out to associated courses is edited by the instructor of that associated course, Canvas will treat that assignment as the instructor's creation and will not touch it, so long as it was not locked on the blueprint course site when synced. Had the original assignment been locked in the blueprint course in the first place, this would not have caused the same issue.


Oh, and speaking of file attachments. . . .


Create a locked assignment with a file attached in a blueprint course? Don't forget to lock the file, too!

This is easy to overlook, though it is noted in the documentation. Files are locked separately. Using the above example, let's say our hapless blueprint course instructor now decides to lock the above assignment via the Blueprint button. (Which, as we have already seen, will overwrite the instructor's previously-edited version).

Locked assignment with file attachment

Again, this is now LOCKED in the associated course. The equally hapless instructor of the associated course goes to the Files area and decides to—you guessed it—delete the file from the Files area, perhaps not realizing that the now-locked Assignment Six has an attachment that relies on it:


Deleting a file in an associated course

Note on the screen capture above that while the file is clearly identified with the new blueprint icon, it is NOT locked, because the blueprint course instructor never locked it. Just the assignment was locked. If this file gets deleted, you can guess what will happen: student goes to the assignment, clicks on the file to download or preview it and…nothing's there. And all because the instructor deleted a file attached to an otherwise-locked assignment. The moral of this story is to lock the files, too, if you're locking the assignment. 


Actually, the moral to all of the above scenarios is this:  inform all associated course instructors to be extremely cautious of anything with a blueprint icon, locked or not. Better yet, the instructor of any blueprint course should be aware that it is not a good idea to change one's mind about the locked/unlocked state of an item after it is synced the first time.


Options not locked: Discussions and Quizzes

Let's say a discussion is created and is set to be graded with points in a blueprint course.  Even if points is an otherwise locked item, as the screen capture below shows, Discussion options can be changed—which means the instructor of an associated course can unclick that Graded checkbox, as seen below:

Locked content on a discussion topic

Basically, the above discussion will no longer be graded, even though, in theory, content and points should be locked. Quiz options can be added to this mix, as well, for a quiz that is otherwise locked. (This is probably just as well, given the many ways faculty may choose to administer a quiz.)  But here's a different quiz exception . . . 


Points get locked on quizzes if content is locked

Let's look at the opposite issue, where points are not locked in the blueprint course settings but wind up being locked, anyway. Here's the view from an associated course for a quiz that was synced from the blueprint course:

Locked content on quiz

Note the only thing locked is content...not content and points, as some earlier examples have shown. In the case of quizzes, however, the points will NOT be editable by the instructor in the associated course. As the screen capture below shows, there is no pencil icon in the question to edit the points:

Example of quiz question now allowing points to be edited

November 2018 Update:  Thanks to a question in the Community from Nancy LaChance, it was revealed that if there is no pencil icon in circumstances when content is locked, this also means that instructors cannot see the correct answers on a quiz if it is over 25 questions!  (See the discussion here:  Blueprint Dilemma .)  I overlooked this rather obvious fact when this was originally written. The reason for this is that on the legacy version of quizzes, when a quiz is over 25 questions long this disables the usual Show Question Details checkbox that instructors can check that will ordinarily show all questions and their answers.  With the editing pencil disabled, this effectively means they cannot see any answers at all. Fortunately, Nancy informed the Community that Instructure indicated this is resolved for any institution using Quizzes.Next.  


Deleting items from a blueprint course

Locked items will get removed from the associated courses if it is deleted from the blueprint course (followed by a sync, of course).  NON-blueprinted, a.k.a. unlocked items will also be removed, but not if it was edited in any way by the instructor of an associated course site. This is in keeping with the idea that once an instructor edits a non-locked item, it is essentially treated as their own in the course and the sync operation will not touch it, even if it has that a blueprint icon next to it.  (That's another thing that will register as an "exception" in sync history, by the way.)


Course settings

Course settings will never be locked, though they can be included as part of the syncing process, as the documentation on syncing a course shows. This is one way that courses can all share a specific grading scheme if the sub-account does not otherwise have its own.


Final random thought on how to remember what can be locked

What items can be locked? They are listed on the settings page, and are: Assignments, Discussions, Pages, Files, and Quizzes. I remember them this way:  PDQ-AF. Syncing is pretty darn quick (PDQ), and A-F is our usual letter grade scale. (If you're a hard grader, then it may be PDQ-FA!)


I hope some of this is useful to the Community as we all embark on this exciting new feature. I'd love to hear about any other interesting tidbits you discover as our academic terms begin in the northern hemisphere!

I generally like the idea of the Setup Checklist that is part of every unpublished Canvas course site, especially the sense of humor that Instructure uses throughout the page. While some are, admittedly, rather glaringly obvious--like having to add assignments ("Gee…I need to add Assignments? In a college class?!? Who knew?!?")--others are useful for the first-time Canvas user, such as the information covering the Home Page. One thing I've always appreciated about Instructure is their sense of humor.  Some earlier documentation (on the ePortfolios, I think it was) had as sample entries putting together the Death Star plans. Others had Harry Potter-related items. Alas, those pages are gone--no doubt thanks to a few lawyers without that same sense of humor--but the general spirit lives on.


It is with that same spirit that I present to faculty members things that should be included on that Setup Checklist, but would take too long to spell out. The Setup Checklist is nice and brief in its recommendations. The ones below are not so brief. Nevertheless, I hope this helps a few faculty members out there as you are preparing your Canvas course sites for the new academic term. And remember—have a sense of humor about this!  You'll need it by November.


Caveat:  Not all items discussed below may be editable by you, depending on your installation's administrative settings or added features.  Yes, that means:  "Your mileage may vary."


1. Don't even THINK of clicking that Publish button for your course before checking your course in Student View


Some faculty are under the mistaken impression that the Student View will not work on an unpublished course site.  Absolutely incorrect!  You do not have to publish a course site in order to use the Student View to get a pretty good idea of what your students will (or will not, as the case may be) see upon first looking at your course site. It is very easy to get wrapped up in creating assignments, adding files, and otherwise getting your course site together in somewhat reasonable order before the term begins. But looking at your course site in Student View before you click that Publish button may help you realize that students do not always see things the way you do.


Check every menu item you see while in Student View; yes, every menu item. If you're not going to use it--or do not even know what it does--consider hiding the menu item.


Many faculty are especially surprised to see that all of the assignment groups that they so lovingly carved out on their Assignments page are NOT seen by students by default when students see it. A check in Student View will tell you that when students click on the Assignments menu item, they see them in the order that is most important to them: by due date, along with the grade earned (if any). Oh, they can view your groups—if they click on the Type button on the upper right—but (news flash) they likely won't unless you mention that to them.


After the class begins, before you call your support center or email your friendly neighborhood Canvas expert with a statement that begins with these four words "My students say that…." STOP!!  Ask yourself: "Have I checked the Student View?"  It is not perfect, but it's close enough to avoid potential embarrassment before the first day of class.  Use it early; use it often.


2. You DO plan on using the Gradebook, right?!?


While you're in the Student View, assuming you published an assignment or two (you can publish assignments ahead of time, even before publishing the class site, as I assume you know), introduce yourself to one of the coolest things in all of Canvas-dom: "What If" grades. I personally guarantee that your "What do I need to get an A?" questions will be dramatically reduced courtesy of this feature. Trust me. (Full disclosure: Though I work full-time, I am not currently teaching at my institution due to a few health issues.  But two years ago, when I was, as students were gathering in the computer lab before class I overheard one of my students say to another: "This testing grades thing is the coolest thing about Canvas!")


I have heard many arguments why faculty choose to not use the Gradebook, and many deal with the fact that certain methods of their grade weighting cannot be done in Canvas.  Yes, the way Canvas does weighted grades is not without certain limitations. So if you are among those who drop the first quiz if the student both scores more than 90% on the final exam and successfully completes the team project with a passing grade of 70%, Canvas' weighting will not help you. But we were all students once, and I can tell you that I sure appreciated knowing what my grade was at any point in time.


By the way, you may want to bookmark this page on what the various icons mean in the Gradebook:  How do I use the icons and colors in the Gradebook? (And if anyone at Instructure is reading this, that would be a valuable link to appear on everyone's Grades page.  I may have to think about making that a feature idea.)


And speaking of the Gradebook...


3. The default settings in Canvas include the ability for students to see the high, mean, and low scores for each assignment.  Be sure to check that setting if you do not like this.


"Aha!" you are thinking, "I knew there was a good reason not to use grades in Canvas!"  Yes, this catches some faculty off guard. Personally, when I taught a class, I never had an issue with letting students see these numbers for each assignment. But you may, and if you do, check here: There is a checkbox that you must enable in your Course Details screen. (And while you're reading that, check the link for how students view the grades page referenced on that screen.)


In fact, if I still have your attention, assuming you found your way to the Student View and (therefore) saw the Course Settings screen on the way, it's not a bad idea to look at some of the other default settings in the Course Details tab, especially.  All sorts of cool features (or not so cool, depending on your viewpoint) are there.


4. If you weighted your Assignments, be sure they add up to 100%


So I extol the virtues of using grades under number 2, and now I'm giving you yet another reason to do the opposite. Before you angrily click on another topic thinking "This moron doesn't think that I know how to add up to 100%!" I realize that this sounds silly, but many an email/call has been received by yours truly from faculty who say that the grades students are seeing are out of whack, and it often comes down to this very issue. Unlike some other learning management systems I have worked with, Canvas will merrily allow you to have your weighted assignment groups add up to more than (or less than) 100% with nary an error message appearing on the screen. And while the military or NASA would be proud of an exceptional effort of more than 100%, your students may not be as amused. Head to the Assignments page again and double check your weights by clicking the Assignment Settings icon.


5.  Run the Link Validator


Even if you have but one link in a class (but you can't quite remember where….) you should still run the Link Validator. Yes, "false positives" will pop up from time to time, but the Link Validator makes it easy by providing you with a link to the page that turns up the issue so you do not have to guess where it was.  And then you can check the Student View (there are those two words again) to double-check.  The link validator is definitely one of the nicer new additions to Canvas over the past year, in my opinion, and any early bugs have largely been fixed, but DO read the documentation on what it will not find.


6. Publishing a course does not always mean students can see it right away


I realize that the Next Steps guide states "Publishing will allow the users to begin participating in the course" but have you checked first with the support people at your institution? Many courses are tied to term dates and all sorts of other variables that I won't bore you with here.


At some institutions, publishing a course is but the first step and you must adjust the "Start" date on your course settings  screen if you want to give students access to the course before the term begins. This is one place where Student View will absolutely not help you. But if your students claim that they can't see your course even though you said you published it, they may be telling the truth.


NOW (i.e., before the term begins) is the time to look through those all those emails or documents that your support people sent to you. Look for keywords like the following: Canvas, start date, registration, SIS, enrollment. Every school does this differently; some enrollments in Canvas are automatic through your student registration system, while others are not. Check to see what is activated and when.


7. If you create online quizzes, are thinking of creating online quizzes, or flat-out do not trust online quizzes because you fear something can go wrong, you must read this document


The great Kona Jones has created the definitive guide to security settings in quizzes. While the quiz engine is due to be revamped soon and things may change, at the time of this writing it is the best documentation you can read about quiz settings other than what you read in the Instructor's online guide on Quizzes in general.  (Which, by the way, is here.)



Those 7 items are my personal recommended additions to Setup Checklist.  But I would be remiss to not mention that after the first week of the semester is over (aka "Hell Week" to many of us in the support service areas—if not faculty themselves), here's another tip:


Use the Canvas Community

Speaking of the great Kona Jones under number 7 above, she is but one of many people who are in the Canvas Community. Check things out; ask a question.  As we often tell our own students after we foolishly ask "Does anyone have a question?" odds are if one person has it, others do (or had it), as well. If you cannot figure something out, it may have already been answered. If you still cannot figure something out, ask the Community.


Suggested Readings (Feel free to ignore; after all, our students ignore our suggested readings!)

While the Community has been responsible for many "must read" documents, I would personally recommend checking on the following, but only after you have used Canvas for a while and start wondering why certain things "tick" the way they do:


Your ideas of Canvas' best kept secrets

A wonderful example of how the Canvas Community members all help each other out.  (Full disclose number 2:  I was not among them!)  While some of the issues may have been fixed by some updates, it is still worth checking out.


And for the student side of things of a similar nature, this one:


Best Kept Secrets - for Students!

Again, the Canvas Community--and I again was not among them--helping one another out.  Some items may have since been addressed, but it remains a valuable discussion.


Thank you for reading this far--if indeed you did!  Enjoy the term.  And please, remember these two words:  Student View.

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