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Community Contributor

One page (design) to rule them all...? A question of presenting learning content


My colleagues and I were talking about how we could make life easier for teachers/make the experience better for students in their Canvas courses (we're Learning Technologists). We got to discussing how introducing a degree of automated standardisation could assist this. At our university we expect teachers to include a lot of existing information in their Canvas courses: what are the learning outcomes? what is the assessment strategy? Who's teaching and when are they available to see students? The list goes on.... but all that info already exists, just in systems outside of Canvas.

Seems mad that we ask teachers to go and retrieve this from various places, just to then copy and paste it into their course. That’s work a machine should be doing – not a teacher!

So, we should get the systems to talk to Canvas and push all this info into courses for them. Take away the laborious “cut and paste this from here and that from there” and teachers will be grateful for having less mind-numbing clicking to do. Instead, they can just get on with the stuff that can’t be done by anyone but them: creating, compiling and sharing the actual learning resources for students.

But why stop there when you’re trying to form a Utopian vision?! Can’t we help teachers with some smart ‘n’ easy method for presenting their learning resources in Canvas too?? Now things start to get more difficult… we agree that the intended/best way to use Canvas (generally speaking) is to organise content into Modules, and that these Modules contain Pages that will contain the learning resources/links to the learning resources. Modules can of course house lots of content types… but we champion Pages because these let teachers add context to the resources. For us, Pages really make it a learning environment for students, not just an organised (but unguided) repository. In short, Pages rock!

We’d love to pre-build modules and pages for teachers… even put in a standard design for the pages so the structure/presentation is already there. Just think - a teacher would arrive at their new course and literally just do the academic bit of the job!! Those teachers with fantastic digital capabilities may decide to hack it up and make it exactly how they want it, and that’s their prerogative of course, but those at the other end of the capabilities scale… well they’d get well-structured and presented courses, and students would get a user-familiar experience across many of their courses.

At this point we think we’ve found the boundary wall of our utopia – we’ve seen lots of great Canvas courses where Modules are used – generally organised as either topics or by chronology (i.e. “week 1”, “week 2” etc). And we’ve seen so many different approaches to structuring content in pages!


The Actual Discussion

When there’s so much variety evident, is there really one approach to structuring page content for learning resources that we as an institution can advocate, let alone push into new courses, in an attempt to help teachers (and by extension, students)? For example, here’s an idea for a simple standard template design of a learning resource page (for a HE face to face course):

  • Banner stating “About this topic/session:”

[space below for teacher to add text/imagery/video – expectation is for them to present a short synopsis of this topic/session]

  • Banner stating “Learning Resources & Activities”

[space below for teacher to add links/embed all these here – expectation is for them to also describe/explain what the resource/activity is and (if necessary) what students should do with it]

  • Banner stating “Required Reading”

[space below for teacher to add links to any journal articles, websites, etc]

  • (we’d make it all nice with icons, colours, use divs, make the design responsive, and make it accessible of course!)

How do you think teaching staff at your institution would react to this (maybe think back to not long after you adopted Canvas)?

Would some from a particular subject group be shouting “this just doesn’t work for us!”?

And fundamentally, can there ever really be ‘one page (design) to rule them all’...?

11 Replies
Community Coach
Community Coach

Hello  @a_craik ...

Interesting discussion!  At our Technical College, I am one of a couple people that actually builds the content into the LMS for our full-time and adjunct faculty so that it's ready for them to teach.  Instructors work with people in our Curriculum department to first develop a course curriculum in WIDS.  Once the curriculum has been developed and  approved, it is then sent our way, and we take care of the building process for the instructors.  We have a simple template that we use to build courses from WIDS into Canvas (mainly cut/paste, linking to files, embedding videos, etc.)  Where some schools might have "Weeks" or "Chapters" or "Units", we have "Learning Plans".  Each Learning Plan begins with an "Overview" page that describe what students will be learning in that Learning Plan.  This page also lists the competencies, criteria a student will be graded on, conditions by which the competency will be met, and learning objectives for the Learning Plan.  Then, after that, come the Learning Activities.  These are typically (but not always) ungraded activities such as reading assignments, discussion posts, watching videos, etc. ... different types of activities to prepare students for the graded assignments.  After the Learning Activities for the Learning Plan, then it's the Performance Assessment Tasks (graded assignments).  Rinse and repeat for each additional Learning Plan in the course.

In the past, we had better retention rates because students know what to expect when taking a course in Canvas (or previously Pearson eCollege's LearningStudio).  Students and instructors know, generally, where to locate things because there is some consistency from course to course...even if the subject matter is completely different.

So, for us, we've had a simple template design that we've used for many years, but now we are in the process of making some changes.  We're looking to design some new course templates for instructors, for example, that they will be able to use in their own courses as a way to get started if they want to build their own course content.

Community Champion

Some thoughts from a teaching perspective about distributed design v. distributed content:

Some of your teachers may be excited about design (in which case they probably already have design ideas of their own that they want to use and they are not going to be keen on changing their design approach), while other teachers may not be excited about design at all, in which case they are probably not going to be excited about design templates.

My suggestion is that time is better spent on developed SHARED content, SHARED resources, etc. Yes, teachers should be spending their time creating, compiling and SHARING the actual learning resources for students, and what technologists can really help with is offering teachers more/better ways to share content so that people are not reinventing the wheel.

With tools like Google Docs, Padlet, and other systems for distributed content that plugs into Canvas, you could have instructors (and other resource people at your school, like librarians) creating SHARED content that would be used across multiple classes. That could be content related to students' digital literacy, study skills, time management, etc.

My experience is that the biggest barrier most of my students face in school success is not actually related to the content of my course, but to the meta-content: their own self-perceptions and goal-setting, time management, mindset, sleep habits, physical and mental health, etc.

If you deploy support materials in your Canvas installation using things like built-in LTIs for content (our Writing Center has a fantastic item people can add to their courses with just a single click in the Settings page), shared resources like Padlets and blogs that can be deployed with the Redirect Tool, I think you would get more real impact on student success than by developing design templates.

That's where I focus my efforts with students, but not all teachers have the time to develop materials like that.

For an example of distributed content of which I am a huge fan: javascripts and Twitter. If you promote a "student success" Twitter feed for your school, for example, any teacher could embed that in Canvas, and maybe they would have Twitter items to contribute to the feed.

Twitter: Twitter4Canvas 

Javascripts (I built for myself, but they are distributable!): Laura's Widget Warehouse

Community Contributor

Hi  @chofer 

Community Contributor

Ha sorry about the above - I hit a "post" keyboard shortcut by mistake!

Anyway, it's really interesting to hear what approach you've taken and where you're going now - it sounds like we're headed in the same direction, just coming from different places. At our university (in the UK) we have a curriculum design/approval process that validates what courses a certain type of student will take, and that will define the learning outcomes and assessment strategies... but the actual granular material that students will be presented with - that's just the domain of the teacher of the course, and for them to build. As long as they cover the learning outcomes they're supposed to and assess via the published strategy (i.e. 40% coursework, 60% exam), well the rest is up to them, and Canvas is literally a blank Canvas (I hope you can't lose community points for peddling a bad joke). I can imagine the model you've got with the Curriculum design team output progressing to your LMS architect team is a pretty efficient one. We try to cover a bit of both sides, but haven't as yet started adding content into courses for staff per se.

It's heartening to hear that a simple template has proved effective for staff and students to navigate, and especially that it works across multiple subject matters. If you're going for a version 2 of your template design, what lessons have you learned and what are the new additions?

Community Contributor

Hi laurakgibbs

It's great that I get to hear a teacher's perspective on this, thanks!

I completely get where you're coming from with the values of distributed content, and I'm happy to say we're further along with that than distributed design - ultimately, we want both working for us in tandem! Our librarians were the first to leverage the distribution potential of Canvas for the exact sort of competencies you mention, and our student services teams have now developed similar for the support they can offer students. I do love Padlet, but some things are tricky to deploy in the UK nowadays (e.g. Google, Piazza) because of our relatively new data protection law.

We're 3 years into Canvas now (I love it, of course), but as you'd imagine the change of platform didn't magically raise the digital capabilities of our less technically-inclined teachers. More to the point, it didn't magically make many of our teachers change their mind about how much time and effort to put into building their Canvas courses, or engage with my team for lots of training and support. I do believe in magic, but I'm a realist - our teachers have a lot of pressure put upon them between teaching, assessing, research and various admin roles and responsibilities... unless there is recognised time to do it then Canvas course design is, for many, seen as an added-value activity.

And this is what draws me towards a standard page design - this page could be ignored by those teachers that have put the work in on their own design approach, but for those that don't really care that much about this or don't have time... well they could still just put links into a page, but without any extra effort on their part the links would at least be given to students with a context (e.g. links to journal articles would be put in the predefined section of the page under "Required Reading"). 

Community Champion

I hear you  @a_craik ‌! And I can relate in terms of working with my students on THEIR blog designs and site designs. They usually just start out with the Blogger default template and Google Sites default template, and then slowly but surely, with nudges, tips in the daily announcements, etc., they take control of those spaces and start customizing them, some much more so than others. (And some start customizing immediately, like your teachers who leap into the design dimensions of Canvas unprompted).

Anyway, I definitely appreciate a template-supported environment like that. I wish Canvas offered something like that. I really appreciate the way my students can explore and build on the Blogger templates (design, layout, sidebar options) and the Google Sites templates (the image management is really cool!)... and I don't have to do anything; the students have all they need right there. I just nudge! 🙂

If you are curious, you can see the current state of their projects here; I update the slideshow images weekly if/when people have tried a new design on their homepage -- I take a new screenshot and replace the image in the slide. They are most inspired by seeing what other students do. Maybe if you can persuade your Canvas teachers to OPEN their courses, they can learn from each other in the same way.

Showcasing Student Work in Canvas with Google Slides 

I put the slideshow in Canvas! 🙂

Projects: Myth-Folklore section 995 - Fall 2018 

It's open; you can click and see too!

screenshot of slideshow in Canvas

Community Coach
Community Coach

If you're going for a version 2 of your template design, what lessons have you learned and what are the new additions?

Hi  @a_craik ...

We are really in the early stages of designing new templates.  In fact, there's really not much designed at all right now.  I've been spending some time looking through Community posts trying to get some ideas of what we might be able to come up with, but part of me feels a bit "empty" in the "Creativity Department" these days.  I know there's lots of good stuff out there such as Creating an inviting course home page and Example Home/Front Page Template (just to name a couple).  And, I know there's some good designs out in Canvas Commons, too.  But to view those, you currently have to download/import those into your own course (or a "sandbox" course to see what they look like and to determine if something like that might be good for you).

Also, as I was talking with my supervisor this week, I thought it would be good to somehow get feedback from our faculty on what kinds of elements they would like to see in course templates.  I'm an admin for our Canvas environment.  I don't teach.  So, I don't know exactly what instructors may want.  Sure, I could *assume* that something I build on my own is something that instructors will want, but do I really know for sure?  Probably not.  It would be great if we could get some input from our faculty...letting us know what works for them, what doesn't?  We could then design maybe a handful of templates for people to choose from.  We've been using a pretty similar design for so many years now, and I think some new design templates would be a welcome change for everyone.

Oh...and by the way, you'll never get negative points from me.  That's only something that Drew Carey distributed once in a while on "Whose Line Is It Anyway?"

Community Member

Hello! I was curious if you ever found a good solution for this - I know this thread is a bit old but we're wanting almost the exact same thing to be able to provide our teachers: a basic page template for new/hesitant users to be able to use that has the bare minimum of what our school is asking teachers to include, but also gives the freedom to more experienced Canvas instructors to fly solo and be more creative.

Community Contributor

Hi Kaci

Honestly, I had forgotten I ever wrote this discussion. It brought a wry smile to my face to see where my thinking was two years ago, and how things have changed.

The "preamble" bit about data integration from other systems to populate simple stuff for teachers - still chasing that dream. I do believe in that.

The "actual discussion" bit... well, that page design example was an imagining for a face to face HE course. I'm not sure it's so relevant now in the context of education during (and presumably after) the global pandemic. The F2F paradigm was an easy one for predicting 'typical' learning design requirements from the VLE (LMS). Particularly in a classic broad-stroke humanities style. If everyone is all "come to this lecture, then do this reading and prepare for this tutorial, then repeat all trimester", then it's easy to make a nice looking template page that satisfies everyone. I say "satisfies everyone" - I don't really mean that. I don't presume that all humanities are really taught like that. Or that when it is taught that way that it always satisfies everyone.

Where my head is right now is this - it would be an exercise in futility for me to attempt to design a template learning resource page that would satisfy even half of our teachers. And this is because we're asking our teachers to think about their learning design in a way that I don't think we have before, with a real focus on student activity and engagement via Canvas. So, "how to create and place a discussion in Modules" or the same for quizzes, or setting up group activities - helping teachers to get these items in Modules is now more important to me than standardised page design. When it comes to pages I want them to keep it simple, keep it accessible, use them when they need to use them.   

I do realise that this is not the sort of response you might have been hoping for. I will attempt to circle back to offer something of value on topic. Pre-COVID I was still trying to find that best-fit-for-everyone-in-a-face-2-face-mode template learning page. I made something pretty with icons pulling from Favicon, in a two column layout with the flexgrid code, all wrapped in a div with a nice block border colour and drop shadow. The icons had headings based on every type of learning content I could think of, with the teacher being required to delete the sections that they weren't using (no videos? Delete the "Videos" section). Not long after this was piloted (and still pre-COVID) I came to the conclusion that this was over-engineered, easy to break, not actually that helpful for teachers, and probably more based on my whims of "what can I make Canvas do that's neat in my eyes" than I would have liked to admit.

And maybe that's where I should close this pre-lunch stream of consciousness post. I pushed that standardised page design as far as I could... and now I don't think it's actually that important any more Smiley Happy