Improving the student experience in an LMS

In the online pedagogy reading group (or online-pedagogy reading group) I facilitate, we have been talking a lot about our learning management system (LMS), Canvas. This is a topic that gets EduTwitter quite impassioned. Here’s one I saw just now:

We are somewhat more sanguine, and I personally am much less tidy.

We established early in the shift to remote learning that every course would have a Canvas site and that we would use two main organizational tools: Modules to collate pages, links, activities, and assessments, with roughly one module per week; and daily Announcements with the upcoming class- and homework. By using templates, including a standard home page, we have created a consistent look and feel for both students and teachers alike.

It’s not “brutal.” It’s clear and predictable, which is good because we teach English learners of all levels who are not only learning language but also new kinds of digital literacy. We use consistency to make sure students don’t get lost, confused, frustrated, and disengaged. And frankly we need it for our own sanity: We teach 8-week sessions, so we’re finishing up our 5th fully online teaching session now, and some teachers have cycled through several different courses in that time. But every class has a “coursepack” we’ve created to import into the new Canvas site so we don’t reinvent the ball every two months.

In my role as Online Program Manager, I work with colleagues on their Canvas sites for both new and revised courses as we try to figure out how and why to use the affordances of the LMS in our teaching. Tressie McMillan Cottom’s words resonate with me:

It doesn’t matter whether or not a tool can do something; it matters whether or not students can make sense of what the tool is doing.

Rethinking the context of Ed Tech

Here are some of the issues we look at to help us make sites that students can make sense of:

  1. Modules can be repositories as well as learning pathways. Canvas was originally designed for asynchronous or blended courses; it works differently for synchronous courses. For example, we wouldn’t recommend adding files and links directly to an asynchronous module; instead, the link or file should be linked from a page, discussion board, or assignment that clearly explains the purpose and directions of the task. However, if the link or handout is just waiting to be used in a synchronous class, then it could just be dropped into the module.
  2. We have generally followed the advice of our ed-tech colleagues at the university to create one module per week. However, our classes meet 10 hours a week, so that can create very long and unwieldy modules. Perhaps modules could instead be organized as resources, with separate modules for synchro and asynchro learning (I discussed our strategic approach to blending instructional modes earlier on the blog)? Or maybe modules could be separated by theme, skill area, or assignment? There’s plenty of flexibility within the template.
  3. Why do we even use Canvas for fully synchronous courses? That’s question we need to ask! Well, for a start, it means students always look in the same place for their teacher’s contact info, Zoom room, textbook links, syllabi, and grades. But if the course is fully synchronous, maybe we don’t always need modules. For example, in one course at the beginner level, the teacher uses Pages and Announcements to send students the agenda, links, and handouts they need for each class and the homework for the next class. The modules are still there to organize the materials for teachers, but they’re hidden from the students.

As we approach the anniversary of the Great Shift Online, I am very aware of the limitations of Canvas. We should be concerned about the ways that our LMS, like any platform, shapes the way we teach. But I also believe–because I’ve seen it–that we can make the technology conform to the ways we want to teach. Those are not always the default settings, and we should certainly question what the defaults are pushing us towards. But with a bit of creativity, a lot of support, and some frantic Googling, we can take back control.

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor of ESL, the Online Program Manager for the University of Delaware English Language Institution, and a textbook author, consultant, and speaker. He lives in Delaware in the United States.

2 thoughts on “Improving the student experience in an LMS”

  1. Absolutely, Nigel. The one module per week should be a suggestion, not a requirement. In your case, the idea would be that the organization of the course should follow the sequence and structure of the course, and that superfluous things you don’t use should be hidden.

    For instance, even in my graduate courses, I hide the assignments and the grade book at the beginning of the semester to funnel the students to the modules. They can’t miss something if there is only one way to navigate and that what they have to to is layed out sequentially. Ieventually reveal these tools later in the semester when students know what’s what and good habits have been formed. It’s based on good user experience design (UX) principles, such as the ones in presented by John Maeda in the Laws of Simplicity. https://medium.theuxblog.com/the-laws-of-simplicity-ed6fa92c7bc6

    1. Thanks, Matthieu! It’s interesting to think about the ways that the default settings of Canvas (or any ed tech) shape the ways we experience the technology.

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