Stephen Gilbert

Interface Sins

Discussion created by Stephen Gilbert on Aug 5, 2019
Latest reply on Aug 6, 2019 by

It's Monday. I'm preparing for my Fall programming classes. There are three weeks left before the semester starts, so I'm still somewhat optimistic. As Fred Brooks wrote a half-century ago in The Mythical Man Month, “All programmers are optimists”. However, I've always found Charles Shultz' cartoons a cautionary brake on my enthusiasm.

Cover of Charles Shultz Book "Kick the Football Charlie Brown" on Amazon.

What I want to do with Canvas is to try and apply the best practices of active learning and pedagogical research to my course. I would like to do what ZyBooks, Cay Horstmann's Interactive Ebooks, or the Runestone books do, but inside my Canvas course so I could keep track of their program and not have to maintain two grade books.


My first attempt was to put the content into a quiz so students could answer questions during the reading, not in a quiz afterwards. It is actually not terrible on a 30-inch monitor. However, on the student's computers (typically a laptop), it turned out to be unusable for them. Here's a picture with notes.



As you can see:

  1. The Questions window a) does not show all the questions, b) does not show the titles or even a fraction of them, and c) uses an inordinate amount of space with no option for the student to collapse it. For those of you designing the Canvas interface, just take a look at what Blackboard does. There is absolutely NO reason to repeat the work Question; it doesn't provide any information. And, using Spacer is just silly.
  2. One one quiz (just a regular quiz) I made the mistake of adding quiz instructions. They were extensive. They showed up above every question and students had to scroll down to even see the question. Needless to say, I never did that again. In any event, you designers are taking 150 vertical pixels that I could sorely use.


As our overlords in the Instructional Innovation Center on our campus are fond of saying: " My first rule I have for everyone is when learning Canvas, forget the others. Canvas is VERY different. YOU MUST KEEP an open mind.". OK, so maybe I can't have embedded evaluations. I'll try the Canvas way and put everything into Pages and modules with shorter quizzes added to the module between the pages. It seems like a lot of stuff; there are 25 chapters each semester and each chapter has at least 20 pages. I want to have at least two exercises or quiz questions on each page.


But, I'll worry about that later. Let's just try out the first chapter and see how that goes. Here's what I found.



As you can see:

  1. At least it doesn't say Quiz Instructions but it still steals 150 pixels from my usable space.
  2. The breadcrumbs which are supposed to be an aid to navigation are completely useless for the students. They click the highlighted link to go back. Canvas shows them an error message saying "This page has been disabled for this course" and they are dropped on the home page. How cruel. (BTW, I have read the discussions about path-based versus location-based breadcrumbs and realize that the designers of Canvas have a yen for location-based. What I'm trying to point out is how destructive this is to the student's user experience.)
  3. The sidebar menu can be collapsed using the hamburger icon at the top of the screen. Unfortunately, it is not persistent. As soon a the student navigates to another page, it pops back open again. Crazy.
  4. Since at least 2014 (5, soon 6, years) instructors have asked to have the previous and next buttons moved to the top of the screen, but no joy. Neither are there any keyboard navigation for next-previous. Contrast this with any other software that our students are likely to use. Google Photos, Google Docs, Facebook, Instagram. I cannot imagine any modern application (by that, I mean one created after 2015) where I cannot go next-previous using the left-right arrow keys or some swipe. And if you are going to force students to use the mouse, at least put the buttons where they can be found.


It seems like all of these items are minor fixes. I cannot believe that there is a constituency of users (either instructors or students) who are happy with the way things are now. If you are one of those who likes the features the way they work now, then please chime in. Usually I tend to hear from those who say that it's too difficult to do.