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Community Member

Threaded Discussions advice

So, Canvas discussions are a train wreck. 

  • There's no message list view. 
  • There no inbox.
  • There's no usable threading. I mean, there "sort of" is, in that you can reply to discussions in a threaded way, but you can't collapse or expand those threads.
  • The interface is nearly unusable. What is the "Mark as Read" button -- four pixels across? And frequently actually reading the message doesn't mark it as read, and sometimes it does.
  • There's no "subscribe to replies" metaphor -- or if there is, it appears that instructors can turn it off.
  • It appears that instructors also have the power to turn off the Discussions tab.

What a slog. Every time I go to a Canvas class as a student, I have to hunt through every module (which, for some reason, still shows the completed modules on the top -- very unhelpful) to find the discussion thread I need, then filter for Unread messages, then click on each reply and click again to view it in the context of the discussion, then review all the parent messages to the reply.

I'm new to Canvas, so I'm willing to accept that some of this might be my misunderstanding the interface. I really, really hope that's true. 

Please -- tell me what I'm doing wrong.


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Thanks, but these are not helpful. I am able to use the system as designed -- the system was just designed extremely poorly.

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Community Coach
Community Coach

Hello @grahamcharles ...

Sorry to hear that you are having some difficulties with discussion topics in Canvas.  Let's see if we can address some of your concerns.

  1. Can you tell us more about "no message list view"?  What would this look like as it relates to discussion topics?
  2. Can you tell us more about an "inbox" as it relates to discussion topics?
  3. As it relates to expanding/collapsing replies in a discussion topic, I think that parts of this Guide will be helpful to you: How do I view and sort discussion replies as a student?.  Under the "View Discussion" heading, you'll notice that there are a couple icons to expand and collapse all the replies at one time.  Further, if you scroll down this Guide a little bit more, look at under the heading "View Threaded Discussions".  You'll see that there is a little upward pointing triangle if you can click on if you hover over that area of a reply to just expand or collapse that particular reply.  As it relates to threaded discussions, instructors do have the ability to specify if they want their topic threaded or not.  This is covered in the Instructor Guide: How do I create a discussion as an instructor?.
  4. This Guide will help you with subscriptions: How do I subscribe to a discussion as a student?.
  5. Yes, instructors can hide the "Discussions" course navigation button from students.  One of the reasons for this is because many instructors design the bulk of their course using the "Modules" design their lesson plans for students.  On the "Modules" page, instructors can organize the course and add pages, discussion topics, quizzes, assignments, files, and links to other website in an organized way.  So, if you are currently able to see the "Discussions" course navigation button, all the topics on that page can be organized in any way the instructor wants on the "Modules" page ... even if the "Discussions" page is hidden from students.

I hope that I have helped to answer some of your questions.  Sing out if you have any other questions about this...thanks!  Take care, and be well.

1) A "message list" is just what it sounds like -- a list of messages. Look at your GMail inbox (assuming you use threading). You'll see a list of messages with their subject lines and the first line of text. Any messages that have new replies at the end of the thread -- or new threads -- are in boldface and clearly indicate they have not been read. If you click on one, you'll see unread, new replies at the top, with the old thread continuing below.

2) An "inbox" would list the new messages in threads (not discussions) that I'm following.

3) Thank you. Collapsing does make things (only) slightly better. The spacing is still ridiculous -- am I supposed to have to page down through four screens of whitespace?

4) Subscribing to a Discussion board is not helpful. Subscriptions should be at the individual reply level or they're useless. 

5) Instructors should be able to organize as they want, but why are they allowed to remove tools?


Really, this stuff isn't that hard. Look at Disqus, Reddit, Gmail, Slack -- I can knock off my new messages in seconds, which in Canvas can take up to an hour a day, with very little value added. Finding what I want is ridiculously hard.


Here's my Canvas workflow: 

1) Go to Dashboard. 

2) Scroll down the modules, past the ones that closed weeks ago but are still for some reason appearing on your Home page, to the module you want. From within the 20 activities in that module, find the discussion you want, which hopefully has some distinct name (although usually, it's just "Discussion #2"). 

3) Click the little Red/White "unread replies" indicator. Whoops! That was a trick! That's not a functional button, even though it's got button UI!

4) Scroll down the four screens of white space under the Discussion prompt. (Is that on every discussion, or is that just an idiosyncrasy of my instructor?)

5) Click Unread. You'll now get a list, out of context, of all the new replies -- not their thread context, mind you, just disjointed replies. 

6) Pick a reply. Maybe this would be a good one to subscribe to! Whoops! Another trick! You *can't* subscribe to individual reply threads, only to the whole message board. 

7) Okay, pick a reply and click "View in Discussion." The reply scrolls past the top of the screen and you have to scroll back up to see the discussion you just asked for. But at least you can read and potentially reply to that one.

😎 I want to go back to where I was in the unread list now. So I click Unread, but for some reason I'm scrolled down to the *end* of the Unread list. So, scroll back up, and repeat from step 6.


Repeat this process a hundred times for all the discussion replies -- and again for every discussion board, for every class. 


So -- thanks for teaching me about threading. But unless you tell me that I'm missing another entire toolset, I will remain of the opinion that Canvas discussions are not usable. 



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New Member

After selecting your specific course, there will be a tab on the lefthand side of your screen that will give you the option to filter only the discussion boards for the entire course. It should say 'Discussions'. This will prevent you from having to search through all modules to find the board you are looking for.

Additionally, I agree that the 'unread replies' feature is not as helpful as it could be, however, I have found it easier to view the new posts in context by simply viewing the board in its entirety. New posts are marked with a blue dot, so it is fairly easy to scroll through the whole board and quickly see where new posts and replies are, while seeing them in context.

Certainly does not address all of your issues, but hope it helps some.

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Nope, as I already mentioned, there is no Discussions tab. Apparently, instructors can turn it off.

I found one of the bugs. The extra 6000px of whitespace after the post but before the replies is caused by this CSS line:


.user_content, .mceContentBody  { overflow-x: auto; }


If someone would take care of that, it would be a huge help. Is this one of those "unmonitored-by-the-company" discussion groups?


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@haliepyla  "Viewing the board in its entirety" is not workable advice, either. 

Here's my workflow:

  1. I hunt for the discussion and collapsed all the replies, using the bizarre but at least functional collapse icon.
  2. Then I look at the (tiny!) new replies indicator to find a reply with new material, scrolling through all the replies. I could filter for unread replies, but as I mentioned above, that would give me out of context snippets. What I really want is a filter for all the replies with new responses. But there isn't one.
  3. Okay, I found a reply I want to expand. Unfortunately, the "expand" icon is hidden. So I hunt around until I find it. Thank goodness someone told me it was there!
  4. The new reply is now four screens down from me, so I scroll, scroll, scroll until I get there.
  5. I read the new response, then scroll, scroll, scroll back up to get the hidden collapse button.
  6. I look through some more of the response listings and... wait, there's another reply! I thought I'd read that one! So, expand, scroll-scroll-scroll, and... yes, I did read this one! It turns out that reading a message doesn't actually mark it as read -- the tiny red "unread replies" number is still at 1.

This is ridiculous -- Canvas is supposed to be state of the art. Fortunately, as I am a teacher, I am occasionally in the position to recommend (or not) LMSes to others. 

The only thing worse than the Canvas discussion board experience is the same experience on Canvas's iOS app. Just so, so bad.

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