Moses Wolfenstein

Canvas Discussions Overhaul

Discussion created by Moses Wolfenstein on Sep 16, 2019
Latest reply on May 5, 2020 by Heather Walder

I think we can all agree that Canvas discussions are absolutely lacking in a number of key areas, and that they are sorely in need of an overhaul. In this post, I'm going to pull together some of the ideas that are up for a vote, and supplement it with a few thoughts about key features for discussions in general. I didn't look in Cold Storage, but I'm sure some of these features can be found there. Hopefully this post can be a jumping off point for discussing discussions. I would like to emphasize that although I've titled this "Overhaul", I think prioritizing discussion features in terms of the lowest development cost and highest quality of life improvements is probably a better strategy than asking for an overhaul. 

Note: This post is a product of my ongoing irritation with the shortcomings of discussions, but also keys off of Aaron PeeksMease comment in SUBJECT Line in Discussion and Improved Threading.

Threaded Discussions

There are a lot of aspects of discussions that are sorely in need of some serious help. This is probably one of the most heinous examples of how this essential feature is extraordinarily under developed and out of synch. with expectations for what a discussion board should be and how it should work. In addition to Michelle Pilati Corselli's post referenced above, I searched through ideas and found Add more distinction between discussion forum posts to distinguish them from each other. This is a start, and of course it can be accomplished by tweaking the CSS, but it's fair to say that it's a bit insane that a core feature like this should require customization. Here's a list of features that would make threaded discussions real and usable in Canvas:

  • Visually Distinct Posts and Responses - This isn't even just about threaded discussions as even regular posts could use more contrast, but it's absolutely essential for threaded discussions. Improve Threaded Discussions with CSS is certainly the kind of visual signification I'm looking for, but there's no reason for it not to be a default in Canvas with a cleaner look.
  • Thread Titles - Top posts should be able to have titles. That's really it. It's simple, and a bit insane that they're missing. This is basically what's up for discussion atSUBJECT Line in Discussion and Improved Threading.
  • Expand/CollapseThreads - This is one of the very few tools Canvas has for actually managing what you're looking at in discussions. There's also a fairly well hidden arrow that appears on individual posts that allows you to expand or collapse a top post's responses. The important fix here is relatively small. The mechanism and indicator for expanding and collapsing individual threads absolutely needs to be more obvious and persistent.

Discussion Notifications

Let's face it, notifications are currently not terribly useful in discussions. You get a list of truncated posts which doesn't tell you much. There are a couple of ways this could be greatly improved:

  • @ Notifications in Discussions: This is the feature I've heard people talk about the most. Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and all of the other commercial forums and forum like tools all provide this functionality. It's up for a vote under @ mentions in Discussion forums.
  • Response Notifications: This one probably exists in cold storage. Getting an individual notification when someone responds to your discussion post would be huge at pushing student:student engagement (a key OEI rubric criteria). It's definitely also covered underDiscussion Notification: Activity that involves you.
  • Respond by Email or...: I don't believe this is currently up for a vote. If receiving a notification that isn't a discussion summary, but an individual notification of either of the types mentioned above, it should be possible to respond by email or potentially other messaging modality (e.g. LTI chat app or SMS).

Viewing, Posting, and Managing Discussions

Canvas is currently lacking in the most basic tools for managing your view of a discussion and participating in them efficiently. Here are the key tools I believe are necessary to bring it up to snuff:

  • Respond in Search Results: At the moment when you search a discussion you have to click the "View in discussion" link to get to the actual post. It should be possible to respond directly to a post from search.
  • Respond when Filtering Unread: Same issue as with search results (functionally the same feature).
  • Sorting by Date: The bare minimum here is being able to reverse the order you're viewing posts. It would be even better if it was possible to create a date range to view. There's an idea up at Order Discussion Posts from Newest to Oldest which is close, but not quite the optimal feature here.
  • Sort by Likes as a Filter: Currently sort by likes is a discussion set-up option. There are obvious reasons this is not a good idea.
  • Show Deleted Users: In DISCUSSIONS, mark users “inactive” if their enrollment was Deleted is currently up for voting. This one is exactly what the title suggests. Students who have been removed from a course should have the inactive tag displayed in a discussion.
  • Block & Moderate Users: Allow instructor to block/moderate student from discussion board is up for a vote and is focused on the age old forum moderation tool. You'll notice that discussion on that idea includes -
  • Blacklist Words & Phrases: Another key moderation tool that could theoretically be implemented at the discussion, class, or school level.
  • View Other Posts while Responding: This is currently being voted on as Split Screen for Discussions. I have suggested in that thread that I would personally rather see a fixed div to compose in that scrolls with you, but there are a variety of possible solutions. The main thing here is being able to re-read other responses while actively composing your post/response.
  • Include First Instructor Response when Importing: This one is currently up for voting Include Instructor Starter Posts on Discussion Board when Importing from another Canvas Course. It's probably less essential for everyone, but being able to include a model post response is often really important, and this would be a pretty nice feature.

Incidentally, there's an archived list that seems to resemble this one in some respects: Sorting Options in Discussions


Obviously this isn't just a question for discussions. Auto Save in Rich Content Editor is currently open for voting. It appears to have been created on April 22, 2015. This one is huge for quality of life for all users, but I'm pretty sure it's a large lift for Instructure.

Grading Discussions

There are a handful of features related to grading discussions that are either already being voted on or worthy of some consideration:

  • Display Rubrics in Discussions: Display Discussion Rubrics by Default is the feature that we all want so that we don't have to tell our students to click the kebab icon every time we've attached a rubric to a discussion. The solution might not be exactly as described, but the pain is real.
  • Grading while in a Discussion or Responding While Grading: Grading Discussion in the Discussion Stream is up for a vote and it's exactly what it sounds like. This need could also be satisfied by being able to publicly comment on a post while grading.
  • Notifications when Posts Are Added to a Graded Discussion: This idea has been posted asDiscussions - Notify Needs Grade Update. Basically, on a graded discussion, the request is to create a to-do for the assignment (for speedgrader) for the student that there is new content on that forum so you can revisit it and potentially re/grade.
  • Plagiarism Checkers for Discussions: Currently there is an idea up for a vote that is phrased as Enable Turnitin for Discussion Posts. Obviously this feature would need to accommodate other plagiarism checking tools and might open out the door for a broader topic of enabling LTI in discussions.
  • Grading Individual Discussion Posts: The idea of Discussions - Grade individual posts S/U is currently up for voting. The idea is in a sense to be able to give students formative assessment in an ongoing discussion.

Other Features

There are a handful of other features I came across that didn't fit in any of the above categories particularly well.