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New Member

Need: Robust discussion with multiple threads/topics per week with grading across topics, not per topic

I am converting courses to Canvas and cannot seem to figure out how to make things happen the way that I need them to happen in the discussion. My sense it that it will require substantial workarounds for tasks like grading (things that take 2 clicks in Blackboard), but perhaps someone else has figured this out already.

My classes (to help explain what I'm trying to do): I teach online graduate level classes. They are highly interactive. In a typical week, I propose 4-7 discussion topics (each as a thread in the forum), and my students will often add a few more of their own. They do not have to answer each of my prompts, which are merely discussion starters, nor do they have to participate in each thread. I encourage my adult learners to self-regulate and participate in the discussion in the ways that are most meaningful and relevant to their own learning processes. I have minimum discussion posting requirements, but my students tend to far exceed these requirements. Our robust learning discussions may get threaded 10 levels deep at points, with students changing the message subject lines to provide meaningful cues to the direction the discussion is taking. I grade my students via the Blackboard grading tool, which allows me to see all of a student's contributions for the week at a glance.

I understand that forums are not possible in Canvas, that each thread must become its own separate discussion. This makes grading overall participation in a given week a potentially cumbersome process (I do not want to engage in point-per-post grading and my students are not required to participate in each topic). I also understand that we cannot modify the subject lines within a discussion. It appears to me that the Canvas discussion tool is really designed for courses that use discussion tools to support instructor-centered message posting (e.g., all students must write a mini-essay in response to my discussion question) over truly discursive, social constructivist learning experiences such as one would expect in a graduate-level seminar. I feel like I'm trying to do something the tool just isn't set up to do.

The only workarounds to achieve my goals that I can see right now involve:

  • Give up altogether on the ability to have subject lines changed to reflect the direction the discussion is taking
  • Set up a discussion for each topic I would like to propose each week, using titles like "Week 1: Exploration of epistemological orientations" and "Week 1: Debunking the learning styles myth" to cue my students to the correct week and give a sense of the topic to be found within.
  • Link these discussions in to the weekly module so they can be found easily.
  • Set the discussions to be ungraded.
  • Give up on having students start their own discussion topics (if not linked in to the weekly module how would they be found by anyone?)
  • Create a new assignment with no submission so I have a space to enter the grades for discussion participation. Hide that assignment from the assignment list to avoid student confusion. 
  • For grading: Use a spreadsheet (so, do it the old school/offline method) to track participation across the 4-7 topics each week to ensure that each student has participated at the minimum required level and in the manner that meets my basic parameters (across the body of messages for the week, I expect them to be responsive to the readings, responsive to peers, posting across multiple days in a discursive manner, etc.)
  • Enter the grades and feedback into the dummy assignment so students can access them.

Beyond this, all I can think of is to seek a third party discussion tool. That said, if anyone has dealt with this issue and solved this problem, I would truly love and appreciate your input! Locally I've just been told that what I want to do cannot be done.

74 Replies

Example debate with deep multithreaded discussions

In my online class debates, I create a forum with two threads/topics "Supporting arguments", and "Opposing arguments" for posting premises to support and oppose a given proposition, respectively, and the purpose of the debate is to foster higher levels of critical thinking in my class discussions. My students typically identify 6 - 12 major premises to either threads to defend their position (support, oppose) and once they post a major premise, they discuss/debate over the veracity, validity, relevance, and accuracy of each premise going as many as 6 to 10 indentations or thread levels deep. I instruct students to post a descriptive subject heading that clearly describes the main idea and/or purpose of the reply using a given set of tags (ARG, BUT, EXPL, EVID, RETRACT, DEMOTE) so that one can easily follow how the debate is proceeding at a global level (the more characters allowed and displayed in the subject heading, the better!). On any given day, I log into Blackboard to view the debate forum in tree-view with postings collapsed, to identify new responses, and to do the following using a process that I am not able to replicate in Canvas forums:

  1. Review rebuttals and counter-rebuttals to premises - Let's say I have a new posting in message 15 (the last of 7 direct replies to +ARG#1 posting). What I do is right mouse click on the message ARG#1 to review the premise in a new browser window. I then close that browser window to immediately return to the forum index. While I have the premise fresh in my mind, I right-mouse click on message 14 to open that posting in a new browser window to read and evaluate the rebuttal to ARG#1.

  2. Review relationships between major and minor premises -  Let's say ARG#3 appears as a new unread message and what I typically do is to review the new argument to determine if: a) ARG#3 is unique/novel argument that is not a mere repetition of ARG#1 and ARG#2 (redundant arguments) to determine if ARG#3 should be "retracted"; and b) whether ARG#3 is actually a minor premise that should be presented and used to support/defend the major premise ARG#1 or ARG#2 (ARG#1 is true when ARG#3 is true, etc) and to determine whether ARG#3 should be "demoted" and subsumed under another posted premise.

So here's my problem - The primary intent of group discussions is to exchange diverse opposing viewpoints, and most importantly, to examine the inter-relationships between students' postings to identify areas of conflict that can serve to promote further and deeper inquiry. To this end, Canvas allows me to collapse the forum to view the postings in tree-view (just like the screen shot above) and it identifies the postings that have not yet been read. However, Canvas does not allow me to: 1) view all the messages in collapsed view mode (only first level responses to displayed in collapsed view); 2) selectively expand one and only one specific posting when viewing in forum in Collapse mode; and 3) right-mouse click on a specific posting to open it in a new browser tab or window to selectively target and view each individual premise and individual rebuttals threaded under a given premise (there is no unique URL assigned to each posting in Canvas). The only way I am able to read ARG#1, #2 and #3 to evaluate their relationships is to expand the Canvas forum and then tediously scroll and scan through the first 14 postings in the forum (perhaps 4 to 5 pages of scrolling). This gets far worse when reviewing all 10 to 12 arguments in all. Double the problem when scrolling further to read the 10-12 premises posted in the second thread "Opposing Arguments" (not in view in the illustration above).

So my question is what can be done to resolve the three problems/limitations noted above? For example, students can create their own topics to post each major premise. But will the premises appear in a chronological order to enable students to organize and sequentially assign a number to each argument (for easier reference when discussing the arguments and their inter-relationships)? If each premise is hosted in a new topic/forum, is there a way to get a screen to display all the premises and their rebuttals in one single screen like the one illustrated above?  Wouldn't displaying all the premises (one set of premises for supporting arguments and another set for the opposing arguments) in separate forums significantly inhibit and most of all discourage the process of examining the inter-relationships between major premises (posted in separate forums), and the relationships between premises and rebuttals (separated by numerous pages of scrolling)? How can we resolve the glaring absence of spatial and temporal contiguity in the way each message and the multiple responses to the message are displayed in Canvas discussion forums?


New Member

I have avidly looked through this discussion and as it is September 2018 now, I am wondering where on the development path the upgrade/redesign of Canvas Discussions is now up to?

Unfortunately, this thread says "Assumed Answered" at the top.  

While there are many interesting suggestions for formatting the posts in the threads, my experience shows that students in fully on-line classes do not take the time to read everything we want them to and they will not follow detailed formatting requirements.

I am very disappointed in Canvas for ignoring this whole thing.  And, one institution I teach at is switching from Blackboard to Canvas.  As such, I will lose the valuable Discussion Forum aspect of my class.

New Member

Hello All,

It is discouraging to note that this thread was begun almost a year and a half ago, and yet, the problem with the "discussion" feature has not been addressed.  It's a real problem and the solution isn't rocket science.  It's simply a bit of coding.  Canvas--make it happen already!  As someone whose institution has just switched from Moodle to Canvas, I am not wow-ed by Canvas. It doesn't fit the needs of my course. Rather than expand learning opportunities, it is constraining them--and that's a problem.  Additionally, I do not appreciate that the only way to give feedback or make suggestions is to be forced to login with your name to a forum that is publicly accessible to anyone who can Google. All of this tells me that Canvas isn't really interested in feedback.  

Gina, I share your frustration. I commented on this thread more than 2 years ago, and nothing has been done.

I stopped by the Canvas Community to check on the ability to grade a single question on an exam across multiple students at one time (so I can have all the short answers in front of me at a time to grade them). It looks like lots of folks want this to happen too, but nothing's been done. Grading exams in the way they have set up is super slow—in addition to wasting my time, it takes much longer for students to get their exam scores back. It's actually quicker to grade exams on paper. I'm hoping that Blackboard gets its act together so our campus can switch back.