Community Champion

10. Searching for Search

You can see the embedded video here: Engineering Leadership

After getting off to a great start with the OER session on Wednesday, I then rushed off to the Engineering Ask-Me-Anything session. This was something I was excited about because there had been an opportunity to submit questions in advance both at the Community and at the InstCon Flipgrid. I shamelessly posted my question in both places: what's going to happen with global search? It was a big item from Khaki which was shelved without making any progress (details here), and I was really hoping to find out how the conversation was going to move forward and what we, as users, could do to help the engineering team sort through different use cases to rescope the project so that, if not global search, we could at least get improved search in different areas of Canvas and Canvas Commons.

So, the way the session worked was that there was a fantastic engineering team who was there to answer those questions plus other kinds of questions that regularly come up in these engineering encounters. I did take notes on the session (you can see my notes here), but this is not content I'm familiar with, so I don't trust myself to expand on my notes -- suffice to say, they covered a lot of really exciting topics, and the engineers are a very humorous bunch so it was a lot of fun too. Big focus on security and also on accessibility, which was great to hear about.

But here's the thing: as they worked their way through the questions, my question about Khaki and global search didn't get asked. And then they said they were all done with the questions from the Flipgrid and from the Community, but nobody had mentioned search. That felt weird: I made sure to ask my question in both places so that it would not get missed... but somehow it did.

So, I just went ahead and asked my question, and the answer was really disappointing: Deactivated user explained that it was just too difficult to make search work with all the different levels of permissions. He didn't indicate that it would be rescoped. He didn't indicate that they would pursue search for content that was CC-licensed without limiting permissions. He didn't indicate that there would be search for Canvas Commons where permissions are presumably not a problem. No forward progress of any kind.

From the other discussion about the deferral of global search (including several comments from me, especially here, and with a really good comment from  @joseph_allen  you can find here) , I learned about Atomic Jolt and how they do provide a search service, albeit for a very steep fee. If Atomic Jolt can get schools to pony up money for the search service, that proves in another way, beyond the Project Kahki vote, that this is something Canvas users find valuable. I strongly believe that if we are going to take Canvas seriously as a platform for developing and deploying content, we need to have search tools. Is anybody at Instructure listening? I hope they are...

Let's just take one example: Canvas Commons.  @jared  shared in his keynote numbers about Canvas Commons usage, which was very encouraging, but the poor search features of Commons dramatically limit its usefulness. It does not search content right now, only titles and tags (and perhaps also the brief descriptions people include? I'm not sure), and, even worse, there is something very broken about the search that it does of title and tags right now: for some reason it seems to be just searching only on the first three characters of a search term. Maybe someone can figure out what's up with that. This has to be a bug and NOT a feature, right? Examples:

I search for elephant 

and I get elephants and electricity and elections.

search for elephants

I search for calories 

and I get all the calculus materials:

search for calories

I search for ballet 

and I get ballet and ballots and ballistics. And also "balance," which is what makes me think it is searching on just the first three characters. But who knows? It's just ... weird.

search for ballet

I am a huge fan of open content, and I would love to see Canvas being a force for good in the world of open content development (see my post here about open Canvas courses) ... but it is really hard to take content development seriously when Instructure is not going to provide content search features. I really could not recommend to any faculty member that they invest time in developing content on a platform that makes it hard, or even impossible, to discover that content in order to share and re-use it. 

And since Chris said that the problem with search is permissions, then maybe global search could be rescoped ONLY for content items that have some kind of CC license so that permissions are NOT a problem. Then we could get real search, including content search, for the Commons, plus a search feature for anyone who opens up their course content with a CC license. That sure might be an incentive to get people to think about the advantages of open course content!

So, I really enjoyed the engineering presentation, and I am impressed by all the great work they are going on security and accessibility in particular (you can watch the video when it comes out to learn more about that). I definitely understand the big projects going on, and how important they are... but I am not going to stop asking about search. The vote at Khaki showed that users put a high priority on search, willing to dedicate serious resources to it compared to other ways of spending those resources. I will keep hoping for more/better conversations about content development generally in the Instructure ecosystem (it needs some love, people! learning requires more than just quizzes, gradebooks, and data tracking), and I will also keep hoping about more/better conversations about search in particular.

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Community Champion

Well said Laura.  Search has to be on the table if this is going to continue to be a competitive platform.  Its difficult to have answer questions from my institution's user base that end with "... there is no search in Canvas"  I also still go back to my question, if a handful of people at Atomic Jolt can get search to work, why can't a handful of people at Instructure get it to work?

I was really glad you reminded me about Atomic Jolt! I don't know how Atomic Jolt scoped the project but I am sure it is less ambitious than some of the things people had talked about at Khaki, which is fine (I'm really not sure we would get much use out of searching student assignment submissions, for example, which I think was one on the table as being part of a truly global search).

Anyway, that's what I would sure hope for at this point: rescope the project based on what the engineering team learned so that we can then move ahead. Meanwhile, I need to write up a blog post about how if people DO open their courses, they can use Google to do their searching for them. Google is happy to search an open Canvas course. Yet another good reason to open up course content whenever possible! 

You can search my Widget Warehouse for cats for example, and of course there are cats 🙂

cats site:

search of canvas site by google_ search results

Coach Emeritus

I appreciate your honest review laurakgibbs.

I guess that Canvas Commons has to start somewhere, it's when voices like yours speak up that changes slowly happen. I'm awfully grateful that Canvas have thought to have such a facility and it certainly makes people sit up when they know people are sharing resources. However, there is real frustration when searches yield not much and the quality is a bit off the mark. For some it is a great starting place though. 

The integration with Canvas is also excellent,  @Bobby2 ‌: when I have grabbed stuff from the Commons I have never had any trouble with how it displayed inside a course. But as an overall strategy for contributing to the world of OER, I think Canvas Commons is badly designed. I would vote that Instructure hire a full-time person to be their OER STRATEGIST. That's what they need in my opinion if they want to really move forward with the great project that is OER.

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Community Participant

Laura, your posts about InstructureCon are great! I appreciate your mention of Atomic Search in those posts and elsewhere on the Community. Each time you refer to it, you state that you think it is steeply priced. I'm wondering if you know what our current pricing is and if you still think that is a steep price? We currently charge $0.50/FTE/yr in higher ed and $0.30/student/yr in K-12. I totally understand that free is the best price of all, but I'm wondering what you think it should be priced at? Most schools that we talk with indicate that our pricing is very reasonable. If you want to kick the tires, the offer is always out there for you to install it into your courses to evaluate it. I've love to get your feedback on it even if you don't adopt it. You can reach me at

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Thanks,  @joel_duffin ‌! I appreciate the info about pricing, which I think I had also found at your website; not all ed tech services offer pricing information at their websites, so I'm glad that you do that.

At my school people are currently being laid off due to budget cuts (I've seen furloughs before, but never layoffs), so this is not a time when we would be adopting new products I imagine. I think we are all just hoping to keep our jobs! 🙂

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