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Large course management: Sections/Groups

Community Advocate
Community Advocate
57 35 6,053

2020! Can you believe it is now 2020?  

As such, I have updated the topic below. 

As we move into our final stages of implementing Canvas in a large University, every day we are faced with more and more challenges when it comes to managing large courses, specifically around Sections and Groups. 

We are trying everything, and I wanted to share this experience with you, along with reach out for any feedback/ trials and errors you may have also faced. 

Firstly, I mention large course management - but most of what I mention affects our smaller courses too, it is just that users tend to be more willing to find their own workaround for these issues in smaller courses - and we tend to only see the pain points raised when teachers are managing over 1,000 students in a single Canvas shell. 

Secondly, I will also mention that large course management is a Khaki 2017 focus area - Though, the only delivered outcomes of this focus group are:

- Section Specific Announcements: Canvas Production Release Notes (2018-03-10)

- Section Specific non-graded Discussion: Canvas Production Release Notes (2018-06-23) 

- Section Specific Graded Discussion: How do I assign a graded discussion to a course section?  

Khaki 2018 delivered the following outcomes for large courses:

Large Course: Sections/Groups 

- Section-Specific Announcements 

- Section-Specific Discussions

I will also mention Ideas‌ where some items I mention below are pegged for future development. 

So, at our institution, we, like most, have large courses, and within those courses, we use Sections to manage student classes/ break these courses up. These classes are representative of their face-to-face class, and students will move around these classes up till (and sometimes post) timetabling closing/ census date.

Large courses, along with section movement (students moving between sections) has seen us face multiple problems - some of which I have noted below!

ProblemOptions for management
Group Limitations -
  • Can only have 200 automatically created groups in a group-set and no ability to 'appendage' Group Sets (or create sub- groupsets). (in the UI)
  • No search function making it difficult to find students (if needed to make a change) 
  • No ability for batch group management for course roles. (in the UI)
  • Students cannot be assigned to more than one group in a Groupset. 
  • Difficult to know when in a group area/ or a course area (solved by creating a UI change to include a visual indicator - but not solved by Canvas). 

The University of Michigan has kindly shared a Course Manager tool (allowing teachers to create and edit sections across courses they are enrolled in, and batch group management) - GitHub - tl-its-umich-edu/canvas_course_manager Though this requires serious development for our environment (its current capabilities do not align with our policies). 

UPDATE: dittor@wharton.upenn.edu‌ has kindly shared a workaround for searching users in a group in the comments below. "Canvas does have a limited way (a workaround, perhaps) to search for students in groups through the UI: go into Student View first, then visit People > Groups. Typing part or all a student's name in the Search Groups or People box will have the effect of "filtering" the list of groups to show just the ones that students belong to."

UPDATE: m.e.m.dejong@eur.nl‌ has kindly shared a workaround for the limitation of being able to create only 200 groups automatically in a Group Set (in the UI). "First create 200 groups automatically, then add more groups manually." 
Additionally, Matthew created a feature idea for this - https://community.canvaslms.com/ideas/11355-increase-the-limit-of-automatically-created-groups-withi...

2019 UPDATE: "Groups" and "Group Membership" is an SIS import option that allows a higher creation than 200 groups. Though, there look to be some issues as noted in the conversation here: https://community.canvaslms.com/thread/17410-creating-course-groups-through-sis-import

Course role management of sections is bound by too broad permissions. 

Idea document: Canvas Permissions and Granularity Feature Ideas 

More granular permissions are needed in order to open up limited section management to course roles. This is in Ideas‌ but has been talked about for years. 

We have a conflict between the use of integrated data and course functionality that uses sections, and we need a way to assist course roles to have limited section management so as not to interrupt the integration but allow for full use of the section specific course functionality. 

As mentioned in the previous problem item, the University of Michigan has kindly shared a Course Manager tool (allowing teachers to create and edit sections across courses they are enrolled in, and batch group management) - GitHub - tl-its-umich-edu/canvas_course_manager - Though this requires serious development for our environment (its current capabilities do not align with our policies).

 

If a student is present in more than one section in a single Canvas shell, and moves around sections (made inactive in one section/ active in another) it is difficult to know what participation was made in which section. It is also difficult to know which section is inactive via the 'People' pageYou need to navigate to the individual user profile to view which section is active/ inactive. 

Attendance - fails to load with large cohorts

Submitted by jennifer.burn@sydney.edu.au

Quiz statistics - limited to 1000 quiz attempts or quizzes with less than 200 questions. You can still download the raw data but the nifty graphs don't work at all.

Submitted by jennifer.burn@sydney.edu.au

SOLUTION IN PRODUCTION! Speedgrader fails to load in large courses - Speedgrader thresholds are set at 1,500 submissions will cause loading delays and 2,500 will result in failure to load. there is additionally a 60-second time-out. 

Vote for https://community.canvaslms.com/ideas/10890-speedgrader-should-allow-grading-of-large-classes?sr=sea... submitted by canhelp

Ensure you are well versed in the Speedgrader guide and are aware of these thresholds How do I use SpeedGrader? 

Update: Speedgrader will now load in large courses if you filer by section! 

Update: Large Course setting group filter has been released: How do I enable SpeedGrader to launch filtered by student group? 

Update 2020: You can now filter the grade book by section in a course that has a large volume of submissions, and then launch Speedgrader and Speedgrader will only load the requested submissions and not attempt to load all. This means we are not facing the 'load' time or failure to load errors. 


I understand we can submit feature ideas, and push for votes, though this is no guarantee or indication of what will be developed. We have had https://community.canvaslms.com/ideas/9304-batch-group-management?sr=search&searchId=febbf324-552f-4..., for example, sitting at over 200  400! votes for some time now. 

I wanted to reach out to this group and ask what are you doing now? While we wait for these items to improve...

How are you managing large courses?

How are you managing sections on a large scale?

How are you handling groups on a large scale?

How can we all raise this, and champion to Instructure, that we need more work in this area, we need more focus on large courses and section management! 
Do you have any tips/ tricks? 

Are there any external tools (limited development needed) that help?

I appreciate you making it this far in this post, and look forward to learning from all of you! 

35 Comments
Surveyor

Thanks Jayde for this detailed and fantastic post. I'm very much looking forward to hearing any other responses to this.

Community Member

Difficult to manage if a student is deleted from a section when attempting to manage sections and assignment data is then lost from view.... intrigued to see a GOOD solution... great work explaining it all Jayde

Community Coach
Community Coach

Howdy jayde.colquhoun@rmit.edu.au,

I will admit the maximum size of our classes are only in the 400 (ish) at the moment. However, you have raised some very intriguing points that would be great to discuss in greater detail.

I thought I might share these out with the Higher Education and Canvas Admins groups as I know there are some great minds in there that may also be able to contribute and give you some insights.

*bookmarks this discussion as *intensely curious*

Cheers,
Stuart

Navigator

jayde.colquhoun@rmit.edu.au, thanks for this. Since I'm at a business school, your compilation of issues and needs resonates with me tremendously.

Canvas does have a limited way (a workaround, perhaps) to search for students in groups through the UI: go into Student View first, then visit People > Groups. Typing part or all a student's name in the Search Groups or People box will have the effect of "filtering" the list of groups to show just the ones that students belongs to. If only this were in the default view of a group set for teachers...

Community Advocate
Community Advocate

Hi Rob! 

This is a great tip and one that could be really helpful for our teachers now. Thank you for sharing. I'll pass along to our support/ training team right now. Agreed - if only it was where we need it - in the default teacher view!!

Surveyor

Great points Jayde. We are suffering the same problems at our institution. We implemented bulk section and group handling using our custom middle-ware system that integrates between the enrolment system and the LMS. colin.lowe@sydney.edu.au‌ may be able to shed some light.

Other issues we have found are:

Attendance - fails to load with large cohorts

Quiz statistics - limited to 1000 quiz attempts or quizzes with less than 200 questions. You can still download the raw data but the nifty graphs don't work at all.

Community Advocate
Community Advocate

Hi Jen, 

Thanks for your reply and additional concerns!

I have added these to the post. 

Would be great to hear more from colin.lowe@sydney.edu.au

Community Member

Hi Jayde, 

Awesome discussion topic! I think every large institution runs into the same kind of issues. I know a workaround for the limited number of groups (max. 200): First create 200 groups automatically, then add more groups manually. I created an idea suggestion to change this https://community.canvaslms.com/ideas/11355-increase-the-limit-of-automatically-created-groups-withi...  

Besides, why would this be a problem (under group limitations);

  • Students cannot be assigned to more than one group in a Groupset. 

I'm really interested how you perceive a groupset, because in my opinion a groupset is used for one project (containing multiple different groups). Every project or 'group assignment' has its own groupset. Then it makes kind of sense that students aren't able to be in two groups at the same time, right? 

Let me know what you think and thanks again for creating this discussion.

Cheers, 

Matthew 

Community Advocate
Community Advocate

Hi Matthew!


Thanks for your reply, and for the workaround and feature idea! I'll pop both into the original post, and share the idea with my team here also. 

Regarding Groupsets, I completely agree that in most cases, students would need to only be in one group for a project or 'group assignment'.

The requirement for students being in more than one group comes from user stories in our institution where some students in a class are required to sit across more than one group within a project (not necessarily for assignments). This doesn't seem like such a foreign idea, so to have the option to be able to do this, even if it was an opt-in feature would be well received! 

I've seen a couple of feature ideas for this here and there, it would be great to know if anyone else has this requirement!

Jayde 

Learner II

Hi Jayde. If the group is mostly for project work that may not be graded formally, you can turn on student groups that allow them to create their own groups. Within student groups, individuals can be a member of more than one group. If you need to grade the work, create a placeholder in the gradebook and do the grading manually using rubrics or some other type of requirement document. Just a thought.

Learner II

HI Jayde

This is a really good way to share issues. I am passing relevant parts on to our University for voting up etc...

Learner II
Community Coach
Community Coach

This is super helpful jayde.colquhoun@rmit.edu.au.

We are getting our new Canvas heads around this topic. Lots of food for thought here. 

Explorer III

Thank you jayde.colquhoun@rmit.edu.au‌ for the well-written and descriptive scenarios. Sorry I can't help you out. But I wanted to what is the maximum number of sections that you have in a Canvas course? Does Canvas have a limit? Is there a certain number of sections where it starts to get unmanageable for teachers?

Community Member

Swinburne is about to roll out its solution to Sections.

Basically we tie our timetable/calendar systems to our student information systems (SIS) to the creation of units and Sections in Canvas.

The end result is the automation of section creation and removal, as students choose where and how they want to study within a unit/shell.  

So as long as the SIS is up-to-date, teachers/tutors can filter the gradebook by class/tute/lab etc.

We leave the managment/creation of unit/shell Groups up to the teacher/tutors.

Surveyor

We've implemented a soft integration at Sydney, we have a home grown timetabling system that has a csv download of student id/class or tutorial etc.  We've made our middleware compatible with this format and enabled staff the ability to upload the single file to create sections/groups and enrol students.  We're looking at replacing the timetabling system so don't want to fully integrate just yet.

Surveyor

Great post jayde.colquhoun@rmit.edu.au

Does anyone have any issues with the visibility of Sections to students? - beyond the FERPA  / cross-listing requirements and solution - although many of the challenges are similar. Sections appear to be a fantastic way of organising students into administratively relevant groups (as per Canvas Documentation), but we're struggling to utilise all of these benefits in a single course?

When students are enrolled into a course, a Section is created (if one does not already exist) - let's call this course History 101.  We want all students in History 101 to be able to find each other, interact with each other, and learn from each other on their course (thus they should all be able to interact with History 101). They can do this because their peers are listed in the People Area and every Section they are enrolled into is shown, and Sections are available through other communication / collaboration features.

What we've also seen is that many assessment related features are also hung off of the Section container e.g.:

  • Instructors / TAs (and moderators where used) can be associated with Sections for grading,
  • Both Speedgarder and the Gradebook can be filtered by Section (e.g. so the Instructor can locate the group that they need to grade),
  • Section Due Dates can be used to manage differentiated due dates,
  • Section overrides can allow Due Dates to be extended beyond the term date etc.
  • Analytics is being developed to review grading performance/outcomes by Section - e.g. grader (particularly Analytics 2). 

Therefore it makes sense that we use Sections as containers to 'group' students for assessment - maybe splitting large cohorts into manageable grading quantities for Instructors (and administrating extensions, resubmissions after failure, mitigation, appeals etc.). However, amongst these administratively derived 'groupings' for assessment, there are some that hold or relate to sensitive information on the part of a student - where the current visibility to other students should not happen (e.g. other students should not know that a peer has a personal or health situation that has affected their ability to undertake an assessment task and that we've made reasonable adjustments for them).  But if we use the platform as it appears it was intended (e.g. set a new Due Date, use the Section override to ensure the student/Instructor has access, associate a new grader, who can then filter by Section), we would use a logical naming convention for that Section so it makes sense to the grader - but then that would be easy for anyone else to work out.

Why is this an issue? We have data protection rules (now called GDPR - a bit like FERPA but broader than education) which indicate that this a problem.  Ideally, students should not be able to see the groupings used for these purposes, and we can't see any other feature that does this in a way that ensures privacy?  Currently, our thoughts are that we need an additional feature to Sections - a checkbox that we can select (or set by API) which will hide these Sections from students anywhere in the UI. 

Any other thoughts / ideas?

cheers 

Community Member

Hi Jayde,

We have the same concerns here at Adelaide and last year had Instructure Professional Services develop an LTI tool (Group Management tool) to help us with Groups.  Basically it provides a CSV upload to organise groups and then also allows the management of people using drag and drop in sections.  Have a look at our help documentation to see if it might be useful, we would have no problems sharing.

Group Management Tool: MyUni Learning Centre 

Community Advocate
Community Advocate

Hi mark.wittervan@adelaide.edu.au‌ thank you for sharing that info! I will review the documentation on this, though sounds like it would solve some of the obvious issues we are facing here! 

Community Advocate
Community Advocate

Interesting! Thanks, Mark.

Have you considered how section enrolments affect group management for teachers? Specifically, if students are enrolled in more than one section? Or, are your students in a one to one section relationship?

Community Member

We take our class enrolments from the student system and create sections. Most students will be in multiple classes ie Lecture, Tutorial and Labs so will be in multiple section.  This is why the current Canvas functionality does not work as it was designed around the use case of a student only be in one section.

Community Advocate
Community Advocate

Exactly right, I meant this question for the other Mark mvandeveldeSmiley Happy 

But glad you responded here - you have the same issue we have with the design being around the use case of a student being in a single section. I did mean to ask you though, for the group management LTI, did you need to change any of your teacher permissions to have them upload the .csv? 

Community Member

Hi jayde.colquhoun@rmit.edu.au‌,

We have one section we call the Availability Section. This contains all the students in the course.

Then we have Class based Sections. These split the students into classes/tutes with data from our time table system Allocate+ that links into our Stuident Information System (SIS). Every section is created and automatically updated as the SIS updates.  This is all managed by our middleware STELLAR. So from my understanding the creation of our Sections looks something like this:
Allocate+ > SIS > STELLAR > CANVAS

We use a naming convention to easily identify each section for the teacher also:

    Class Activity Name-Class Number-Room Name-Day-Time 

    e.g. Class 1-1-BA 509-MON-08:30 

We are still working on how to best manage large online courses that we also want to create Section Classes for.

Adventurer

Hi jayde.colquhoun@rmit.edu.au‌, perhaps these free tools can be helpful:

Trying it first in your test or beta environment will prevent your students to receive new group membership notifications.

Community Advocate
Community Advocate

Hi, mark.wittervan@adelaide.edu.au‌ I have looked at this tool now, quick question - does the LTI allow for bulk group creation above 200 groups? (which the UI only allow 200, though SIS import allows more)? 

Community Member

Hi Jayde,

I will need to look not sure what the limits might be.  Ill see what I can do by the end of the week

Community Advocate
Community Advocate
Surveyor

Hi All 

Thanks for posting your experience with large class design here. I am working on a project with about 750 enrollment and have been looking for ideas. Then I found this great resources of tips and lesson! I am so very excited! I have a quick question regarding the functions of sections insides a canvas course. In the article of

"How do I limit a user to only interact with other users in the same course section?". it says "Limiting students to interact by section only affects Collaborations, People, and Conversations."  Discussion topics and Pages are not affected by section limitations and can be viewed by any student. These feature areas could be restricted by creating content in course groups.

Then in the release document from April 2018 about the section specific discussions, it says "Both the individual discussion and the Discussions page displays the section(s) that can view the discussion. Users will view discussions for the sections where they are enrolled. Note that they can also view the specific sections where the discussion was posted.

There seems to be some conflict there. 

My question is can student in sections access assignment, discussions and quizzes that are assigned to sections they are not enrolled? 

Thanks for your advice!

Qin 

Navigator
My question is can student in sections access assignment, discussions and quizzes that are assigned to sections they are not enrolled? 

 u0560079@utah.edu‌, in my experience the best tool for ensuring students only see the assignments, graded discussions, and quizzes (including Quizzes.Next) for their section will be differentiating through Assign to dates per section:

(jayde.colquhoun@rmit.edu.au linked some other references to differentiation features at the top of this page.)

In my experience, differentiation works completely separately from, and even without, "limit a user to interact only with other users in their course section".  Potential pitfalls with the technique:

  • If the assignment requires differentiation to specific groups, and a group in the associated group set contains members from two or more different sections, then some students may see the "wrong" group assignment. At our institution we mitigate that by using "Require group members to be in the same section" group set setting. (It works to turn on "self sign-up" briefly just to check "Require group...", and then turn it back off if needed.)
  • When students will be enrolled in more than one section, you can't be as certain that differentiation will show only what is wanted.
Surveyor

dittor@wharton.upenn.edu

Hi Rob, 

Thanks for sharing your insight! That's very helpful! I am planning to use the setting of limiting students stay in their assigned sections to avoid issues. The class I am working on has 750 students and will have around 8 TAs. I am thinking of creating 25 sections of 30 students. and have each of the TAs monitor 3 sections of student performance.  Don't know if this set up would be a good solution or would cause any unforseenable problems.

If you have any other thoughts, I would like hear about them.  Thanks!

Qin  

Navigator
creating 25 sections of 30 students. and have each of the TAs monitor 3 sections of student performance.  

We do things very similarly in our multi-section business courses. While differentiation is the technique of choice for tailoring what students see, section-limited TA enrollments work very well for filtering most places where student performance would be monitored.

Community Advocate
Community Advocate

Hi Qin,

This set up sounds good - we currently do this with some of our teaching staff (have them in multiple smaller sections). Works great! 

Surveyor

We have a large course (MOOC) with 19000 users and 2000 groups. The target group is all norwegian teachers and schools, approximately 100 000/8000. I have started a separate thread where I will tell you how it goes. Right now we are experiencinga problem where content pages uses 4-6 seconds to load, and we've asked Instructure for help to figure out why. Here is the thread: https://community.canvaslms.com/thread/35063-group-search-is-very-slow-when-having-large-number-of-g... 

Community Advocate
Community Advocate

Thank you erlend.thune@iktsenteret.no‌ for sharing, I will follow your thread

Explorer II

Hi jayde.colquhoun@rmit.edu.au‌--

For the Groups issue, yes, you can only create 200 groups in a set, but you can use the Live API to create more, in bulk, in that same set, 200 at a time. At my last institution, I needed to create a set with 360 groups, but didn't have .csv upload access and didn't know enough about API and scripting to automate the process. 

I managed to plunk my way through in the Live API to make it work. It wasn't perfect (the first 200 were called Best Life Blog 1-200, the next 160 were Best Life Blog A1-160...I needed a way to make them distinguishable, and it was the fastest way via batch), but it worked for someone with limited skills. 

You can, of course, use the API in general to do this, too, and much more efficiently. 

This is the call you want: 

PUT /v1/group_categories/{group_category_id} - Update a Group Category