New in Canvas for 2015-2016

Canvas has been undergoing some dramatic development and improvements since we were last together on campus. What follows is a non-comprehensive run-down of the major changes to be aware of.

Grading Windows

This is really the headliner: Canvas now supports Grading Windows (of course, they think they should be called “Grading Periods”). They’re already set up for you, so all you have to do is use them. Some key things to know:

  • The menu to change which grading period you’re looking at is on the right, right over the list of student names. It will remember the last setting that you used, and tends to default to “intelligent” settings (i.e. the current grading window).
  • If you view a particular grading period, Canvas will calculate averages for your assignment groups (a.k.a “categories”) and totals within that grading period. If you change the view to All Grading Periods, assignment groups and totals will be averaged over the whole year.
  • More details about the Gradebook and grading periods is available in the Canvas Guides.

Letter Grades (and Templates)

There was some discussion last spring about how we use letter grades in Canvas — and the general consensus was that it wasn’t great. To make that a bit easier for us, I have added a templating system to our courses. It’s main purpose is to make it easy for you to create assignments that have letter grades that are aligned to the usual St. Mark’s letter grade breakpoints. However, it provides some additional, handy features. Some key things to know:

  • You can create a letter-graded assignment on the front page of your course by clicking the Go button next to the SM Letter Assignment drop-down menu.
  • If you would like to modify the settings on your letter-graded assignments, just edit the assignment called SM Letter Assignment [TEMPLATE] in your assignments list. (It’s unpublished so that your students don’t get confused.)
  • You can create templates for multiple different kinds of assignments, wiki pages or discussion topics (quizzes, papers, presentations, etc.) if you would like — any assignment whose name ends in [TEMPLATE] gets included in the drop-down menu. (Not all features are well-supported yet — it’s a simple templating tool.)
  • There’s more information and a tutorial on how to use this tool at the Help Desk.
  • This is something that we built in-house, so if you would like to see improvements or changes, talk with Seth about your vision.

Differentiated Assignments

This seemingly complex name just means: “you can have assignments that are assigned to only one student, or just to one section — without impacting the other students”. Maybe that wasn’t shorter, but hopefully it conjures up a vision of how it might be used:

  • A course with many sections (and teachers) could be pulled together into one umbrella course so that the teaching team can share and re-use common assignments.
  • A teacher could develop individualized assignments for different students (or groups of students) to meet their specific needs.
  • A teacher could create an alternate pathway through a unit for a student in need of either additional support or enrichment.

The Canvas Guides explain how to create these differentiated assignments. Some key things to be aware of:

  • Students can only see assignments that have been assigned to them (either individually or as a section). They can’t see assignments that have not been assigned to them.
  • Teachers can see all assignments (for, one presumes, obvious reasons). In a course with many teachers and many different assignments, it may be undesirable to bring all of the sections together under a single umbrella for that reason (imagine what your gradebook could look like). However, if most of the assignments are shared across all sections, it may be simply wiser to enforce a naming scheme (e.g. all assignments that start “Battis-Red” are for my Red Block section).

Student Feedback Improvements

By the end of this calendar year, Canvas is planning to change over how students see the feedback on their assignments to mirror very closely (an improved) version of the Speed Grader. This is awesome. However, in the meantime, we’re still stuck with the cramped and not entirely intuitive layout that exists now. But, we have rolled out some tweaks:

  • If students have uploaded a Word document for this assignment and you’ve marked it up in Speed Grader, those annotations will now automatically open up for a student when they get to the assignment feedback page.
  • If you have used a rubric to assess the assignment, that rubric will automatically open for a student when they get to the assignment feedback page.
  • If you would like directions for students about how to find this feedback, it’s available online in the Canvas Guides.

VoiceThread Integration

For those of you intrigued by the possibilities of video annotation, it’s worth considering using VoiceThread as a fairly intuitive way for both students and teachers to build this annotation. The Patterson Blended Learning Group experimented with it quite a bit last year, and it is now available for all of us to use, integrated with Canvas.

  • For more about what VoiceThread is, check out their website. (You don’t need to register — when you create VoiceThread assignments through Canvas, it will automatically connect you in to the St. Mark’s account).
  • For more about how to use VoiceThread within Canvas, check out this article on Help Desk.
  • If you would like to sit and think about how to use this (or any other blended or online pedagogic approach), chat with Jeniene or Seth.

Canvas Community and Guides

Last spring, Canvas rolled out a (massively-improved) support community which includes both discussion boards to seek help from both Canvas staff and users at other institutions, as well as extensive documentation about how to use Canvas (beyond the scope of the Canvas Training course).

  • I strongly encourage you to participate in this community — the feature voting alone may be enough of a draw. And we have already seen the impact of that feature voting in the Canvas Studio, where they track the development of new tools.
  • The Canvas Guides are a fantastic resource — and not just for us as users, but for us as teachers: we can simply share the directions for how to do something directly with our students (and help them to become more self-sufficient by pointing them towards further resources).
  • If you post something, go ahead and share it with me (Seth), so that I can help advocate for you!

Miscellaneous User Interface Tweaks

Canvas is in the process of rolling out a new, more mobile-friendly user interface. We plan to stick with the current interface through the end of this year, but bits and pieces of the new interface are starting to crop up, especially when using the Canvas app (as many of our students do). Some tweaks related to this that you might want to note include:

  • Calendar Color PickerYou can now customize your course colors. We are still working to make sure that everyone’s initial setting for their color blocks matches the color of the block (for, I presume, obvious reasons), but you are free to choose a custom color if you would prefer. It’s not (yet) well-documented, but you can change the color for a course by clicking the ellipsis next to the course name in your calendar and choosing a new color. And you may want a nice hex color picker (that’s what that #efefef is — a hex color).
  • The resource menu is in the process of being re-organized to better match both the proliferation of new information from the summer (yay to all of us for working so hard to provide so much new and improved documentation!) and how it was actually used this past year. It should get easier to use, rather than more extensive.
  • The Grading Analytics dashboard for individual courses continues to be updated, but there is also now a more general Grading Analytics dashboard for department chairs at the account level. Cruise over to your department in the Courses menu and look for Grading Analytics in the left-hand sidebar.

Coming in the First Window

Meanwhile, it turns out that the summer wasn’t quite enough time to get everything that I wanted done. Which means that I still have some active projects under development that should see the light of day in the next few weeks. Of particular note:

  • An improved Advisor Dashboard, accessible from within your Advisory course. By the end of the week, the dashboard will be showing up in Advisory courses, but the only information available will be the logins to observe your advisees. The hope (which springs eternal) is that this dashboard will provide a quick overview of your advisee’s progress relative to their various courses (i.e. the “how proud/worried should I be” visualization).
  • Improvements in the Grading Analytics displays to make them a little less overwhelming (and hopefully more aesthetically-pleasing), while simultaneously modernizing some of their technical underpinnings (that means nothing to you, but the world to me).
  • An individualized assessment calendar — the ability to look at when your students have assessments scheduled, so that you can schedule your own thoughtfully. This is about 30% complete, and will probably show up before the end of the first window and definitely before the end of semester crunch.

Known Issues

Delightfully, there are still some lingering issues to be hammered out. I’ll be adding them in this section as they come up:

  • Why can’t I see my course in Canvas? This is mostly about how your “favorites” are set up, but may also be a glitch — if you follow the directions at the link and it doesn’t work, you’re in glitch territory and should tell me right away (including specifics, like which course).
  • Not so much an issue as a recurring reminder: if you would like your sections merged into a single umbrella course, shoot me an email to let me know — it’s fast, but needs to be done by an account admin (me). And it works best if it happens before assignments start getting assigned and graded!

Resolved Issues

  • Why can’t I see the grades that I just entered? This was a known bug in Canvas that affected people who use differentiated assignments within grading periods (that is, assignments assigned to only a few of your students or a section, not “Everyone”). Turns out, when looking at these assignments in your gradebook you couldn’t see the grades that you just entered. Which induced some panic. But, if you switched to the “All Grading Periods” view (top left, over the list of students), all is revealed. Resolved October 17, 2015.

Mr. Battis has written 102 articles

Educator. Electronics. Esthetics. Easterner (who thinks he's a Westerner).

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