Engaging Students in Online Courses

Community Champion

We just had our opening day activities today and the focus was on promoting the student experience. We had a panel discussion with current and past Lake Land College students and they share their experiences taking classes at Lake Land College. During the panel discussion online learning came up which was interesting to me of course. In their discussions they all felt online courses were very impersonal. I thought I would share some very simple ways you can make your online course more personable.

Download and Use the Canvas App

We know students have that phone in the palm of their hand at all times. Mobile learning is increasingly an important aspect of online learning. Download the Canvas app and take a look at your course in the app.

Mobile Guides - Canvas by Instructure

It’s a Mobile World, Join Us!​ - This was one of the sessions from  InstructureCon 2016. There is a great conversation going on on the event page and watch for the video of the session to be posted on the session page soon. The presenter,  @rseilham ​ facilitates the Canvas Mobile group here in the Canvas Community so be sure to join the group as well. There are lots of great resources in the group.

Add a Profile Picture

This is super simple to do in Canvas. The profile picture of students will display when you view the people list, grades. When you post discussions, inbox messages and announcements your profile picture will display as well. All the students commented on how important this simple step was for them. Encourage your students to add a profile picture as well.

How do I add a profile picture in my user account?

Create an Ice Breaker Discussion

The students also pointed out in many courses there wasn't anywhere in the course where they could interact with other students. This is quick and easy fix just by creating an ice breaker discussion and make it fun. Have students share experiences, images, and videos. Canvas makes it easy to add video and images in discussions.

How do I embed an image in a discussion reply as a student?

How do I upload a video using the Rich Content Editor?

The great thing is you don't have to reinvent the wheel with ice breakers. Several ice breakers have been shared on the Canvas Commons and in the community so be sure to check them out.

How do I import and view a Commons resource in Canvas?

Re: Does anyone have any experience/suggestions for interactive icebreakers in Canvas for an online ...

Have an Open Line of Communication

One student mentioned it would be great if instructors allowed students to text them. I have to admit the reaction to this suggestion was mixed but there are several ways in Canvas you can encourage communication between you and the your students without giving out your personal number.


When you create a new announcement in a course a notification will be sent to the student. The speed of the notification will vary  depending on how students setup their Canvas notifications. Students can add a mobile number as a way of contact and you encourage students to adjust their notifications so they receive new notifications about announcements on their phone or preferred email. You can also create announcements in the Canvas app.

How do I make an announcement in a course?

How do I create an Announcement in the Canvas app on my iOS device?

How do I create an Announcement in the Canvas app on my Android device?

How do I add contact methods to receive Canvas notifications?

How do I set my Canvas notification preferences?

Inbox Messages

The private messages are routed through email in the ways of contact on the Canvas profile so this make a great way communicate privately with students. Students can also view and send message from the Canvas app on their phone.

What is Conversations?

How do I use Conversations?

Offer Some Synchronous Communication Options

Offer online office hours and host some meetings online to give students the face-to-face interaction. This can be achieved in Canvas using Conferences. In conferences instructors can allow students to share web cams video with each other and talk about the course in an informal way much the same way you would in a traditional face-to-face course.

What are Conferences for instructors?


Discussions are a great way to encourage communication you and other students in the course. You can make discussions graded so students earn points for their participation. Students learn best by doing so make the discussion interactive and challenging. I love to point to this great session by @Carrie Saarinen that was offered at the 2012 InstructureCon. She offers some great tips on how to setup discussions.

Use Video

All students mentioned that they learn better if the content was presented in several different ways. Video was mentioned frequently. This can be overwhelming to think about as an instructor because creating video can be time consuming and may require you to use technology you are not familiar with using. So view this as challenge that you will work on with short term and long term goals. Break down your long term goals into short term goals so adding video don't seem like an overwhelming task to achieve. Start small like adding an introductory video on the course home page. Canvas makes this task easy by allowing instructors to customize the home page. One of the options is a page you customize yourself. Canvas makes it easy to record your webcam video with the media comment tool in the rich content editor toolbar.  You can also add video comments in the SpeedGrader as well.

What are Pages for instructors?

How do I set a Front Page in a course?

How do I change the Course Home Page?

How do I upload a video using the Rich Content Editor?

Make Your Content Accessible!

One of the students on the panel was blind and he pointed out how important this step is with course content. When you make sure your content is accessible it also improve the experience for students who use the Canvas app or who download course content in ePub format.

General Accessibility Design Guidelines

Join the Accessibility group in the Canvas Community

Join the Canvas Community!

The Canvas Community is a super great place to get the help you need to accomplish many of the things students were asking for in the panel discussion. If you are Lake Land College Instructor,  I urge you to join the Canvas Community and participate. There are many great people from many different institutions who also support student learning online. I guarantee the time you spend in the community is well worth it!

How do I log into the Community with my Canvas Account?