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Canvas User Engagement

7 Posts authored by: Gregory Beyrer

Wow, what a busy summer it has been as I wrap up my Summer of Canvas. It has been so busy that I have not fulfilled my plan to write a blog entry each week as my campus proceeds through this summer en route from another LMS to Canvas. I normally do not work during the summers but this summer the college decided to put additional resources into helping us make the transition, so my department got an extra pair of hands this summer. That meant I could not attend InstructureCon 2017 so I had to use one of my photos from InstructureCon 2016 for my banner.


I learned a couple of things the hard way this summer. First, bake in plenty of downtime around all my training workshops, meetings, and one-on-one training appointments so that I could take time to reply to emails and stay caught up with the awesomeness in the Canvas Community (and write blog posts!). And I learned not to take on too many additional projects. I am still working on moving our online student orientation into Canvas. Necessity will make a virtue out of a shorter process. ("What's that? You want a progress report? Er, posting fewer links and less content means our new students will matriculate more quickly and start enrolling sooner."


Another bridge too far was the class I taught, my first distance education history class in the hybrid mode (two weekly meetings in person instead of four with the other time online). My passion is for teaching and history is my field, and since my full-time job is not teaching history I seize any opportunities I can to teach. The benefit to my full-time job is all the LMS experience I get from teaching, though my poor students have to suffer through all of my LMS experiments on them. And boy did I experiment. I squeezed sixteen weeks of teaching into six, over-assigned work for the time that was being moved from in-person to online, and agreed to teach (nay, requested!) an oversize class so I ended up with 87 instead of 40 or so students. I'm glad I'm comfortable designing and (am working on) assessing group assignments.


When I return to campus in August after a short break and begin my regular academic year schedule, I will have just a few months left of helping faculty move into using this new system. With more wisdom that I had for this summer I turned down a history class, so I will have more time to respond professionally to emails like one I received earlier today:

Hey Greg,


Can you send me the links to the Canvas tutorials (if there are any) so I can get a head start? I'm hoping I can figure this out by myself...



The ellipsis is in the original message, which makes me wonder what was omitted. 


The best part of the week before our fall semester begins will be the Can•Innovate '17 conference. In prior years the colleges in my district have hosted a showcase for the creative use of technology to support instruction, and this year we are happy to have the support of Instructure, the Online Education Initiative, and the Los Rios College Federation of Teachers. It will be a Canvas-focused event and will be a great capstone to end the Summer of Canvas. It won't be as majestic as Colorado and I'll miss crossing the Continental Divide on my way from Denver, but I'll still get to spend time with fellow Canvas users exploring the best ways to support teaching and learning success.

Equity is among those topics that I want to include in my Canvas training but is not like including a session on "Discussion" or "Quizzes." I guess I could include a section called "Equity" but would rather integrate this topic within the other sessions. I figure that I am modeling instructional design, presentation skills, and an acceptance for the quirks and vicissitudes of teaching in a technology-mediated environment, so I might as well model equity as well. Culturally sensitive U.S. history is my academic field and from where I speak when demonstrating how to teach with technology, so I hope that equity is thereby infused. (Of course my participants are likely thinking of their own fields when imagining and practicing how to teach with technology and little note or care how awesome history is! )


For Canvas I did not expect to find equity explicitly mentioned in materials or in the Canvas Community, and I was not surprised to find that the equity tag popped up as "would you like to create this tag?" when I tagged this blog entry. However, I was also pleasantly surprised to find culturally sensitive instruction on the program at my first InstructureCon last year. I attended Marc Lentini's session Culturally Responsive Canvas Courses, and it was the highlight of the conference. I sing the praises of the Canvas Community every chance I get, as it so nice to be associated with a software vendor that encourages its users to share our experiences and the creative ways we use its tools.


The Online Education Initiative has equity as part of its plan, and our Online Student Equity workgroup is focused on the twin meanings of "equity" in a distance education environment. One meaning is how the students who are traditionally the focus of equity attention fare when they take online classes, and this is where the bulk of our attention is as we infuse equity principles in the other areas of the initiative. We also have been talking about online students as a whole. After all, online students usually have lower success and persistence rates than face-to-face students, and a discrepancy in success and persistence rates is how groups of students are identified to receive equity support. For the time being our efforts are on infusing traditional equity practices in all areas of the initiative. 


Back on my campus, I tried to use equity as I set my training lab for this summer's sessions. I had eleven laptops and wanted to give each a unique identifier to help with troubleshooting, etc. I could have given them numbers or letters or come up with some arbitrary code, but I wanted things to be a bit more creative. This was bubbling along on the back burner and then an equity solution came to mind. I found out from the U.S. Census Bureau what the top ten languages are that are spoken at home in my college's immediate area, and I gave each computer an Romanized number based on the order of that language's prevalence in our area. I have a total of eleven laptops and the eleventh is a bit different. Well, it was really the first as we received it to explore and make sure we liked the concept. So when I got to naming the eleventh I skipped the eleventh language in our area and instead called it "Spinal Tap." 

This week I am at the Online Teaching Conference 2017 and have the challenge of being away from campus and therefore unable to provide training in person. This conference is a highlight of each summer and one I like to attend every year, as I get to connect with people I have been working with across the state. Even though I normally do not work over the summer and therefore this conference would not be time away from campus, I do think about the balance between the intense learning potential that I experience at conferences like OTC and the gentler but more-immediate effect that happens when I spend time focused on helping my peers learn.


This year's conference initially was scheduled to begin on Father's Day, and while that was quickly corrected it still serves as a good example of how tough it can be to schedule conferences. Later this summer my district is hosting a conference in conjunction with Instructure and the Online Education Initiative, and we have already heard from other colleges in our area that the date conflicts with their events. Of course I run into that as well as I cannot attend all the conferences thanks to my schedule (I'll miss Instcon 2017 this year ).



At this year's conference I am presenting, and one of my sessions is being webcast (OTC17: What We Have Learned about Canvas). Perhaps some of my colleagues will be present remotely as the Summer of Canvas rolls on! But then as I was writing this blog entry during breakfast, a co-worker tapped my shoulder and told me I shouldn't be working on campus-related stuff while at a conference. The flexibility offered by online teaching (and working) cuts both ways, I guess.

This week I begin a second week-long workshop series on how to use Canvas. Throughout all of my local training, I think about the role we play as part of the broader system of community colleges in California. All (or almost all) of the system’s colleges offer online classes. many for a couple of decades, and mostly on our own. Over the past few years the system office and state legislature have given distance education special attention through the Online Education Initiative (OEI).


I am a member of the OEI Advisory Committee, and so I have the privilege of working on this project and its noble goal: increase the number of transfer degrees awarded in a timely manner by offering well-designed and well-supported online classes to well-prepared students. The OEI chose Canvas as the common learning management system, and we created a mechanism called the OEI Exchange so students can easily take classes at colleges other than where they are matriculated. Though every California community college will eventually be able to offer classes as part of the Exchange, the services offered by the OEI can be used by any California community college under various terms. The statewide license for Canvas is covered by the OEI, so colleges like mine can start using it without committing to the full Exchange.

Each college’s curriculum committee approves courses for distance education delivery and local managers retain right of assignment, but courses that are to be offered as part of the Exchange must meet the standards of the OEI's Course Design Rubric. The colleges can take advantage of the training programs offered by the @ONE program, which is a statewide project providing free or low-cost online professional development to employees of the system. Extensive resources are available from @ONE to help faculty create courses that are ready for the Exchange, including instructional design help and courses that teach faculty how to be effective online educators.


Of course a successful Exchange requires the participation of departments besides professional development and instructional areas, so the commitment must be across the institution. Counseling, tutoring, IT, financial aid— each of us already know that  myriad of departments work to support students, and the OEI has encouraged the development of productive relationships between the same departments at different institutions across the state. As the OEI approaches the end of its Exchange pilot phase, all involved are thinking and talking about how to include additional colleges.


I work at a small college that has islands of commitment to distance education. As we transition to Canvas, my college and others may test how relevant our online classes can be that are not part of the Exchange. We do not yet have commitment at the necessary level to participate in the Exchange, and it may be sad for our students until we do. There will be missed opportunities for our students to achieve their goals in a timely manner through the Exchange, and our faculty and staff will not soon have the chance to strengthen the connections between our islands of commitment and the broader archipelago of online courses on offer in California's community colleges.

This past weekend I attended my wife's graduation ceremony for her second master's degree. That's why this week of my college's "Summer of Canvas" does not have a week-long workshop series this week and instead is filled with one-on-one appointments and drop-in training. I'm very proud, of course, but wouldn't otherwise mention it except that she earned her degree entirely online. A mother, spouse, and working professional, she yet managed to make the time to become a scholar again.


While at the ceremony I met a couple of her fellow graduates. Both live in New York and flew out to California just for the graduation. (Well, they made a vacation out of it just as we did. ) I asked them about their experiences, both with instruction and as students. What my wife's experienced taught me and their testimony validated is the benefit to students of a consistent structure across classes. They knew that each class had the same rhythm when it comes to reading, research, writing, and response; and that pattern held the same from week to week. Add a couple of summative assignments to each class, and students know exactly what to expect. Topics and instructors differ, but these online students benefited from the known structure of their educational commitment.


All this makes a lot of sense for graduate school, which was a focused academic environment long before the World Wide Web. What about the undergrads? I was fortunate to live on campus for most of my undergrad years and be heavily involved for all of them, so I did not have the all-distance education experience. One of the graduates received her B.S., and she had transferred from a community college. She did feel disconnected from campus life but did feel like part of a learning community (except for those classes where she was the only student!).


How does this connect to Canvas? I begin each Canvas training sequence by encouraging faculty to reevaluate and renew their decision to use a learning management system and to ask how will it make them better instructors and help their students succeed. I tell them, "Figure out how Canvas can do that, and after that worry about how to move stuff over from our soon-to-be-former system." I encourage them to pay more attention to course design at the same time, including a consistent structure, whether they are teaching web-enhanced or fully online classes. After meeting my wife's fellow celebrants, I come back to continue the "Summer of Canvas" with renewed confidence in making that recommendation and thereby give my coworkers less reason to miss my time away.

As I was planning for how to schedule time this summer, I had to decide how to schedule each week. Like lots of other places we slow down and have little activity on Fridays during the summer. We don't schedule classes that meet on Fridays and many of our classified staff have the option to work a 4/10 schedule instead of a 5/8 schedule. So I felt limited to Mondays through Thursdays each week.


The next question was how to set up the introductory workshop series. During the academic year I ran several once-a-week sessions that were one hour long and lasted six weeks. But getting people who are otherwise not coming to campus to be here one day a week for six straight weeks would likely be tough. Fortunately the topics are chunkable so that I could split them into four sessions instead of six.


For those weeks without four days I was able to set up a Google Calendar with appointment slots. We are a Google Suite for Education customer, which allows this. I discovered through some testing that *any* Google account can be used when signing up for appointment slots, and that helps my co-workers who are more likely to use a personal Google account. Ah, if only our students and employees were better able to use their district-provided Google accounts. That's a story for another day.

My college is in the middle of a yearlong transition to Canvas. Our faculty get to choose when they start using it, with this past spring semester being the time for our "Canvas trailblazers" and this upcoming fall being the final semester our soon-to-be-former LMS will be an option. Only about 13% of the faculty who used an LMS in the spring chose Canvas, so we are anticipating a lot of demand for training and transition support over the next few months. Hence the summer of Canvas.


As a full-time faculty member I do not usually work over the summer, but our management dedicated some resources to help with this transition. We have a great team in our department and my twelve-month coworkers provide excellent service, but in most years the demand for help is much lighter during the summer. So the first question I have for this upcoming summer is how many of my fellow employees will attend my trainings, visit my department's drop-in hours, or otherwise be in touch as they make the transition.


There are several options for dedicated training time:

  • Week-long, hands-on workshops on campus in our Center for Instructional Innovation
  • Scheduled one-on-one training, either on campus or online via video conferencing
  • Drop-in hours


In addition, there are some opportunities for online training:

  • Self-paced online training
  • Moderated online training through the @ONE Project, which is a statewide resource for professional development for California's community colleges
  • Webinars by Instructure, which our district agreed to support through this transition year


I have a nice room, cloud books for those who do not bring laptops, and some fruit and other goodies. Tomorrow morning my first week-long series for the summer begins, and I am excited to have a large group signed up. Based on those signups I have some lonely weeks ahead this summer, but the first week looks to be filled with people ready to start learning about this new system.