Two Canvas Projects and Some Fun Summer Learning

Demanding More from Their Learning Management Systems

Requests to help more and more education agencies make full use of their LMS (Canvas or otherwise) to optimize online and blended course offerings seems to be in high gear lately. Universities, colleges, and districts are pushing to leverage their LMS investments as part of providing more learners online learning experiences, and to embrace a number of textbook free course initiatives ramping up across many states. And now that robust Learning Management Systems have become standard fare at almost every postsecondary institution across the country, high schools are the first tier of the K-12 system quickly following suit.

While most K-12 districts are at the early stages of assessing LMS needs, other districts, having crossed that bridge years ago, have joined their postsecondary peers in moving beyond basic implementation to expose more advanced needs for extended tools, features, and resources.

This was reflected in two recent projects this summer that immersed us in some of our favorite work: digital content development and creating tools that help teachers better blend their instructional creativity with OER.

With both clients using Canvas as their principal LMS, we found ourselves deeply engaged in Canvas’ features, tools and architecture while designing methods to help teachers create robust, blended coursework. In the process, we spent considerable time building extensions to the system and some LTI integrations to help better manage teachers’ use of their own selected OER with combined access to expansive and diverse external OER repositories and district curated collections.

This work comes after a previous year of our extensive deployment of Canvas Open Source for a number of agencies, so we thought it made for a good excuse to attend Instructure’s annual get-together in Keystone, Colorado to meet with Canvas enthusiasts, examine other projects and efforts, and share a bit of what we’ve learned too. We presented on the work we are doing to finalize a custom OER repository and integration tool to help educators source and embed OER into their Canvas content pages and assessments. We also outlined our methods and strategies used to draw out and publish some exceptional coursework from teams of California teachers authoring new, online courses in Canvas for state piloting.

Jodi Halligan prior to NavNorth presentation.

Learning and Sharing at Instructure’s Carnival

So first let’s just get this out of the way, we had way too much fun at InstructureCon! But, as stated, we were there to learn and share, so we still considered it officially work, just really fun work. We found that lots of people were interested in learning strategies and models to guide teacher teams in creating rich, online course content, and what tools we found critical in helping districts manage the selection and use of OER to supplant textbooks and traditional materials. You can review our full presentation slide deck here, but below are 3 big ideas that seemed to resonate with those attending our session, along with what we’ve observed and learned from others while there.

1. Assembling Balanced Teams – 

What we presented Teams, not individuals, should be involved in collaboratively developing coursework in common. The heavy lift of content development on those teams should be conducted by a balance of teachers with deep content knowledge, and also teachers who posses specific creative instructional thinking and strategies particularly suited for engaging learners via online environments and tools. Lending the core content team some expertise with online learning design, accessibility, and advanced use of the platform itself should be the domain of instructional designers who can put that “last-mile” effort into getting the content optimized for direct use by learners and distribution across the campus or district.

What we found At the postsecondary level, many faculty work independently (not in teams) on creating coursework to support a course they have ample experience teaching with some guidance afforded by a campus or district instructional design team who are adept with the platform, accessibility issues, etc. At the secondary level, there seems to be far more instances of teachers organized into grade level and subject area cohorts by the site or district, but they regularly lack any specialized, online instructional designers lending direct support to the process, and are typically working with a district lead staff who is also just getting familiar with operations of the LMS.

2. Don’t Completely Abandon Analog Supports/Processes –

Simple course template with guiding content for teacher cohorts.

What we presented Sometimes when dealing with online learning design, and new digital environments, agencies might tend to abandon a number of simple analog processes. For instance, if time is not built in to adequately orient teachers to the finer operations of the LMS, consider allowing them to use common tools they are already competent with for content development. In our pilot programs, we did not have access to the budget required to gather our teacher cohorts together even once, let alone for a sustained period of 1-2 weeks with follow-ups to go deep with the LMS and then with how to use it to ensure a specific learning design structure. Because of this we opted to lean on Google Docs with simple templates that guided the design we were looking to achieve. This easily allowed each of them their own workspace, with access to see and reflect upon each other’s work and progress for norming of content, voice, instructional congruencies, pacing, etc. It simply removed the burden of learning the platform as a precedent to building the content, and got us up and moving quickly.

Along with basic constructs like benchmarks and deadlines guiding the amount of content to be developed, teams were given precise time frames and development phases with models of sample content shaped by a lead instructor and the instructional designer to provide a beacon point for expected deliverables. Teams also had required online meetings every other week, and optional weekly drop-ins for those teachers needing more regular group face-to-face via Zoom videoconferencing and one-on-ones with the lead instructional designer. This helped keep everyone on track, responsive, and provided for quick re-calibrations and guidance on content specificity and rigor and if any fidelity-drift started to occur with the content or resources.

What we found In many instances, teams were by default, immersed in the LMS environment managing unfamiliar instructional framing terminology (modules, nodes, etc.), along with tools that force disconnects in the natural learning design flow that resonates with most instructors when developing instruction. This is standard question most LMS tools ask of educators when forcing them into unnatural segmentation decisions when authoring a page, an activity, a discussion, an external resource, or an assessment, instead of allowing for the ubiquitous blending of many of those as is a natural condition of learning design flow. Requiring teachers to wrestle with learning a new set of tools that also introduces this seemingly fractured parsing of instructional sequence adds unnecessary barriers to creating effective content.

3. Provide All Educators Some Role in Content and Resource Curation –

Sample content page from NavNorth project with embedded Smithsonian OER.

What we presented One element of research repeatedly confirmed in practice has to do with the relationship between an instructor’s familiarity with the content as it relates to their ability to deliver it to students. Instructors involved in the process of content design, development and curation of embedded open education resources (OER) report higher levels of understanding and comfort with content than peers who were merely trained on the use of content in which they had no role designing. As most would suspect, when teachers have a direct hand in the design thinking and development of course content, embedded resources, instructional activities, and assessments, they are much more adept at delivering the course with fidelity and guiding students in the full and effective use of the course to achieve targeted outcomes.

What we found In the case of postsecondary faculty who are often the sole designers and implementers of their own course, and also for secondary cohort teams that were selected to be directly involved in the development of shared coursework, these teams benefit from the process. However when the content is then handed off to non-cohort teachers, with no direct involvement in the content development, they struggle to implement coursework with the same level of competence as their peers who designed the content. To compound this issue, most districts lock down a master copy of the course developed by the cohort teams, and prohibit teachers from making modifications for their own classrooms. We urge districts to lock core segments of the content they deem non-negotiable for adaptation, but engage teachers in reviewing and making appropriate modifications to remaining elements such as the OER within the content, the formative assessments, and even extend or build upon the summative assessments with project-based activities reinforcing the primary objectives. Beyond just increased competence with content delivery, research shows that when teachers are engaged in reviewing, reflecting upon, and personalizing the content, they modify in ways that make it more accessible to the learners they are accustomed to supporting.

Teams That Inspired Us

So yes, we love to have fun and learn and meet new people. Whenever we get an opportunity to meet scores of other teams and people in our same line of work, we can readily admire cool, and technically sophisticated tools and resources on a certain level. But, we are more apt to be drawn to teams that also have conviction for teachers and students, and see their work in relation to making quality education more readily available to all communities. With that said, we want to give a shout-out to some people we met at InstructureCon that had some really cool tools, some cool ideas too, but also inspired us.

First, the Instructure staff themselves who created an atmosphere of reverence and respect for educators all wrapped up in lots of fun and positive energy. Second, the team from Knowbly Learning Systems, whose cool applications and resources were only surpassed by their really fun team-members’ who shared a collective desire to help make learning content more accessible and engaging for learners. Third the combined work of the Learnosity and Atomic Jolt teams for their understanding of engaging online assessments, and how to design tools to make LMS platforms work better for teachers. Next is Unicheck a team whose youth is matched by their passion to put together a solid application that is responsive to educators’ needs and is provided at a price point to keep it accessible to schools and districts. One of our favorite presentations was delivered by Dr. Chuck Severance who has been deeply involved in technology-enhanced teaching and learning and digital tool interoperability, but kept it simple and real when he included this statement, “Can we all agree that just putting up PDF’s in Canvas…this is NOT where teaching and learning happen?” And finally, the team from Beaverton School District showed the pragmatic steps it takes to actually move a K-12 district forward in the use of innovative tools and resources, and later showed what it takes to move it forward on the dance floor as well. It was a pleasure learning from you all!

Chris from Beaverton School District and Jodi Halligan @ InstructureCon Carnival Dance Party