What’s up in Canvas (Fall 2016 Edition)

As always, the advent of a new school year brings with it lots of other new — including new software updates in our LMS. What follows is a run-down of the most notable changes  and updates in Canvas since the end of the 2015-2016 school year.

  1. New UI
  2. Gradebook
  3. Training Options
  4. Advisor Dashboard
  5. Useful Tools to Explore
  6. Services from Academic Technology

New UI

Canvas has a new user interface. It’s hard to miss when you log in. They changed it around to give it a more “modern” appearance (cosmetically) but also — and far more importantly — to restructure the underlying web page to make it more friendly to different devices (iPads, iPhones, etc.) and to assistive readers for the blind, and so forth.

The big things to notice in this change are:

Menus lion

new-canvas-menus-2016The main navigation menu is now a series of icons down the left side of the screen (formerly across the top of the screen). Course and group navigation menus (formerly down the left side of the screen) are now “inside” the main navigation, and can be hidden with the “hamburger button” at the top. Note that the Resources menu now has a friendly Lion icon!

Course Cards

From the August 27, 2016 Canvas Production release notes

From the August 27, 2016 Canvas Production release notes

The Canvas dashboard (the first page you land on when you log in) is now populated with Course Cards. These course cards collect all of the important information from each “favorite” course in the icons along the bottom (Canvas Guides have more information on using the dashboard). By default, courses are set to match the color of their color block, but they can be customized and nicknamed to suit individual needs. Additionally, teachers can add an image to fill the top half of the card — a handy way to make your course visually identifiable.


color-schedule-calendarCanvas has made a few useful tweaks to the calendar, some of which are so obvious that you may not notice them. For example, long event and assignment names now wrap on to a second line, rather than getting cut off (woo hoo!). Also, you can now switch which course calendar an event is attached to in the Calendar view (rather than having to delete and recreate an event — double woo hoo!). Additionally, you should note that you can toggle calendars on and off by clicking the color boxes next to their names on the right side of the screen. You have some handy calendars by default, including Color Schedule (synced from Google Calendar) and, depending on what user you are, either a Faculty Calendar (also synced) or an appropriate Form-level Calendar to overlay on your courses.


The short version, and the one thing you should take away from this, if you read nothing else is this:

Do not use assignment groups to make your own grading periods. Let assignments fall into grading periods (by date) automatically.

Canvas is investing serious work in their gradebook (and have been for the last 18 months or so). They have projected out some very, very nice updates over the next 18 months, but a few things that we already have, that we should enjoy are:


speedgrader-2016Canvas is working to “kill the rainbow” (contrary to Skittles) — that is, they’re working to bring all the things that you click on frequently into the same corner of the screen. So you’ll notice that a number of buttons have moved over to the right, near where you make comments and enter grades on assignment.

Grading Periods

grading-periods-vs-assignment-groupsThe back-end code that supports grading periods is “in flux” right now, but is headed to a good place. It’s worth reviewing what grading periods do for you. Assignment groups are great for creating weighted categories, but last year, a lot of people ran into a lot of confusion in their gradebooks when they tried to have grading periods as both the built-in, date-based windows and assignment groups. Use assignment groups to weight categories and use grading periods to calculate window grades (this represents a change in advice over the last couple of years — because the system has itself changed over the last couple of years).

Truth-in-advertising caveat: One symptom of the “flux” around grading periods is that we may run into a repeat of the end of Window 1 again this year (when the only way to edit grades in W1, after W2 started, was through SpeedGrader). I have been assured by a number of folks at Canvas this this “shouldn’t” happen again. And I have conveyed the severe displeasure that was shared with me the last time that happened in no uncertain terms.

Training Options

In general, the folks in Academic Technology — Seth Battis, Brian Lester, Jeniene Matthews — are always delighted to sit and work with people one-on-one to help folks master whatever skills they need to do what they need to do. However, we also have some very handy training tools available that allow folks to self-service their training online:

Canvas Training

This is really training aimed at faculty users of Canvas. Canvas Training is a series of webinars that are offered every day that you can sign up for online. The full catalog is available here. You need to sign up (with your school email) and then you can browse available training sessions.

If you’re a first-time Canvas user, you might find these sessions to be helpful as a way of orienting you to the system. We don’t anticipate that everyone will need to use these — or that anyone will need to use all of them. But they are available for as much use as people need!


Lynda.com is the premier provider of online video tutorials in using software applications. To use Lynda.com. you’ll need to start on campus, by creating a profile — but, once created, you can access Lynda.com from anywhere.

One recommended use of Lynda.com is to link to particular chapters of video tutorials that might support or enhance a student’s use of a particular application that you’re using in class. For example, rather than recording your own lesson working with equations in Excel, you could drop right into Lynda.com’s chapter for your students (or review it yourself!).

Advisor Dashboard

course-level-dashboardThis is really just a placeholder (Seth still has a bunch of follow-up work to do). But this is a reminder that, in your Advisory course, you have a link in the sidebar to the Advisor Dashboard. This provides three useful tools:

  1. A visual comparision of your advisee’s performance in each course relative to his or her peers in the class.
  2. Access to the logins to “observe” your advisees — you can see everything that they see in Canvas! And turn on notifications about things that happen in their Canvas (e.g. grades posting).
  3. Access to the faculty journal for all of your advisees.

As we discussed in the spring, this is an under-utilized resource and, if you have thoughts on what would make it more useful, you should not hesitate to discuss them with Seth Battis.

Useful Tools to Explore

Not every one of these tools will be interesting or useful to every one of us, but some might hold an appeal for each of us:


chatEach course has its own chat room (via the unsurprisingly-named “Chat” link in the course navigation in the left sidebar). This could be used as a back channel, or as realtime discussion boards. Archives are kept of the chats, but the older they get, the less searchable they become. There is no integration with grading.

Commons canvas-commons

commonsCommons is a tool for sharing course content between courses and between schools. This meets a slightly different need than our own Templates (which allow us to duplicate template assignments in particular courses) — it is really focused on developing and providing a Canvas-friendly Open Educational Resource (OER). If you’re looking for the starting point for a particular module or assignment, commons might be well-worth exploring: the starting point is on the main navigation.

Canvas Arc (Beta) canvas-arc

canvas-arcCanvas’ built-in video tools are becoming increasingly dated. The pathway that they have chosen towards improving and/or replacing them is to develop a separate tool called Arc. We are part of the Arc Beta. Currently Canvas Arc allows you to build your own collection of media (mostly video) that you can then embed and insert in any course in which you are enrolled. Arc features a commenting system that connects to the video timeline (sort of like VoiceThread) and, for assignments submitted as Arc embeds, allows teachers to make comments in Speed Grader that are connected to specific moments in the video. Right now, completed video files are uploaded to Arc, but the long-term vision is to include webcam and screen capture capabilities, as well as interactive video quizzes, online editing, etc.

Nota bene: Arc is in beta and is not (yet) well-documented. In early versions of the install, it was a menu item on the main or global navigation menu. To access your Arc collection, please visit your Profile (Account > Profile > Arc).

Student Feedback

student-feedback-reviewThis tool was developed last year for a number of folks in the humanities who were teaching writing courses heavily driven by reflection and cumulative feedback on learning. Rather than seeing feedback siloed within individual assignments, this tool allows you to see all of the comments (not including the CrocoDoc comments in Speed Grader, unfortunately) on a student’s work as a continuing narrative through the year. If you’re interested in this tool, let Seth Battis know and he can install it in your course(s).


badgesDigital badges are one way of helping students both understand and share their mastery of particular competencies (the basic conceptual model is not unlike scouting badges, but now for mastering things like the Quadratic Formula or the Krebs Cycle). Badges can be used as part of a strategy to guide student-directed learning, or even to validate or demonstrate that learning. As a number of faculty experiment with this tool, we have enabled CanvaBadges (an implementation that is designed by one of Canvas’ developers to work well with Canvas). You will notice CanvaBadges as one possible “external tool” that you can add to Modules or as a submission option on assignments. Credly and Badgr are other interesting badging implementations under study. Stay tuned — and let the Academic Technology folks know if you’re interested in exploring this.

Learning Outcomes

learning-outcomesA number of faculty have been exploring ways to provide students with clearer, more directed feedback on their learning. One option that has been increasingly popular is standards-based grading, in which students are measured directly against defined outcomes for the course (which, clearly, requires a certain amount of prior setup). A number of us will be continuing this exploration using the Canvas Learning Outcomes

Calendar Sync

calendar-syncFor those of us whose lives depend on Google Calendar to maintain our tenuous grasp on sanity, the Canvas calendar interface is sometimes… lacking. It may be desirable to set up a Google Calendar to sync into your course, to populate the course schedule with events from that Google Calendar (this is how the Color Schedule and the Faculty Calendar work). If this is something you need in your course, consult with Seth Battis.

Grading Analytics

grading-analyticsRecall that there are two core expectations for faculty use of Canvas: that we post every assignment and that we post grades that affect at student’s final grade. Many people use Canvas for more than that, of course, but to get a sense of how you’re doing, relative to the rest of the faculty (or to get a sense of how your department is doing, if you’re a department chair), you can check out the Grading Analytics link in the course navigation on the left sidebar.

Services from Academic Technology

As you get ready for the year, please know that the Academic Technology Team –Seth Battis, Brian Lester and Jeniene Matthews — is here to help you! Drop us a line or stop by the Academic Technology office in the Library.

A (non-comprehensive) list of things we often help people do include:

Technology Prefects

We have a large group (~40) students who are Technology Prefects. Their primary role is to be a first port of call for students in the dorms, but they are also broadly available to support students working on technology projects. If you are planning on assigning a project with a major technology component, it would be great if you could give us a heads up about the who/what/when/where so that the Tech Prefects can be appropriately ready to provide support and guidance!

Gradebook Setup Consult

As you’re trying to figure out how to map the grading model in your head on to the tools in Canvas, don’t hesitate to check in with us. We’re always happy to work through planning your setup at the outset, so that you get the results that you’re hoping for in the end.

Merge Sections

By default, each class section is its own course. If you’d like to merge all of your sections of a particular course together into one shared Canvas course (you’d still be able to mark assignments due at different times for different sections — but would only need to post the assignment once!), we can merge them for you. All we need to know is which sections (just send us the URL of the course home pages) and which one should be the “master” (the one into which the others are merged). As always, it works way better to do this early on, rather than waiting — and it can always be undone.

Import Last Year’s Course Data

If you’ve built up an archive of awesome resources or projects or whatnot in old courses, you can totally import them into your courses this year. In fact, you can select just the parts you want and/or you can adjust dates (not for the faint of heart). And we’d be totally happy to sit with you as you’re doing it to make sure you’re getting what you need.

Archive Inbox

It seems like a trivial thing, but there’s no bulk archive tool in the Canvas Inbox. So, if you’ve accumulated a year’s-worth of messages and would like a clean slate for the coming year, just shoot Seth Battis a line, and he’ll trip the backdoor-archive-everything switch for you.

Mr. Battis has written 101 articles

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

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