Working with Canvas: Getting started

Canvas is coming soon to your classroom and I want to address the first few questions you may have as you get started.

  1. Am I going to be overwhelmed by a new interface?

When you sign in to Canvas for the first time, you will notice that it has far less information cluttering the page than Blackboard. You’ll see a navigation bar with seven buttons and the Dashboard which shows your current active courses, a To Do list and things coming up. That’s it.

You can customize your dashboard in two ways.

  1. View: You can switch the Dashboard from the Card view (showing one card for each course, for easy access) to Recent Activity view (which is a feed of recent messages, submissions and more). Make this change using the gear icon in the top right-hand corner of the dashboard. Check them both out and see which you prefer!
  2. Image: You can add an image to the course card which is shared with the students and stands out better than some of the unwieldy course titles.
Canvas Dashboard
Canvas Dashboard Page
  1. How difficult is it to move my class from Blackboard?

In all honesty, importing a course is pretty easy. As a Canvas tester, I had to move my courses myself. Luckily, our LMS administrators are working to bring your courses over from Blackboard right now, so you will have a head start.

If you do have to move a course, the first thing you’ll do is click on the course in your Dashboard. This will take you to your course’s home page, which jumps you right into the tool to import data from an old Blackboard course (this is also where you get started if you’re building a new course from scratch).

Canvas First Homepage for Course
Canvas’s initial home page for a course

If you look at the photo above, you’ll notice Add Existing Content is one of the two choices in the center of the screen. Click this button to easily import the .zip file from a course in Blackboard (you will have to export the course first). On the next page (below) you will choose Blackboard 6/7/8/9 export .zip file from the drop down and follow the instructions. It’s that simple.

  1. How do I get my syllabus uploaded?

This is where Canvas truly shines. Your syllabus is key to helping your students succeed and it is the first thing they want when they get access to a course.

Like most, I previously created my syllabus in Microsoft Word. Then I would take that syllabus, save it as a PDF and upload it to Blackboard. Yes, you can still do this in Canvas, but there is an easier and even more informative way to do it in the new LMS.

As you open the syllabus area, the first thing you’ll do is click the Edit button (NOTE: Canvas uses the term edit even when you are first creating). You’ll immediately be taken to what is known as the Rich Text Editor, an area where you can type that has toolbars similar to any word processor, blogging tool or CMS. Here you can either type in your syllabus (for the daring ones out there) or paste information that you have already written in Word or another word processer.

Canvas's Syllabus Editor
Canvas’s Syllabus Page

 

You’ll notice that there is an area below your syllabus description called Course Summary. This is where the Canvas Course Syllabus tool really outdoes Blackboard. Course Summary shows an outline of all your assignments, topics, tests, etc. This information can be populated in several ways:

  • Every assignment that you make shows up in this summary on its due date.
  • Every quiz will show up on its due date (NOTE: All tests given via Canvas are called quizzes).
  • Any event you add to the calendar will show up.

As someone who teaches studio courses, I chose to go into the calendar and add an event on the first day of every week that shows what we will be studying that week. ­This can be done simply by clicking on the day of the month, which prompts an Edit Event box to create an event (NOTE: When you view the calendar that it is composed of layers for each one of your courses). If you’ve ever used Google Calendars or Outlook calendars online, it will feel really familiar.

Calendar Editor
Create/Edit an Event in Calendar

Calendar List
Canvas’s Calendar List

You’ll need to make certain that the layer is turned on for the course in which you want to place the event. Do this by clicking on the colored box to the left of the course name in the calendar list on the left of your screen (Above).

Adding every assignment, test and event into this calendar has a huge impact on student success rates. Not only will they receive notifications when assignments are added to the calendar, they will receive reminders as due dates approach.

  1. How hard is it going to be to know every step of setting up a course? It took me forever to learn it when I first started using Blackboard.

As with any new tool, it will take time to learn the ins and outs of Canvas. That being said, there are a few tools that can help get your course exactly how you want it.

  • Wayne State’s LMS team has created a Canvas and Blackboard Feature Comparison. This shows all the Blackboard features you’re accustomed to and their equals in Canvas. Check it out at canvasproject.wayne.edu/features.
  • Canvas has its own invaluable tool to help you get setup. Once you have entered a course from your Dashboard, you will notice a Navigation Bar along the left side — this is a constant while working in Canvas. It shows you a To Do area, things that are coming up, and has a few helpful buttons. One of these buttons is the Course Setup Checklist which is all the steps you need to take to get your course up and running, including: importing content, creating assignments, adding students, adding files, selecting the navigation links you want the students to see in the course, adding calendar events, adding TAs, and publishing the course.

Between these two tools, I’m confident you can become a Canvas pro in no time at all.

I hope that I’m giving you a sense of Canvas’s simplified layout that will make things much more accessible— not only for your students, but also for you.

Instructure (the company that built Canvas) says that they build software that makes smarter people. I can honestly say that they are doing their best to achieve that goal. My fellow Canvas testers and I have all noted that this transition has inspired us to examine the way in which we can use the LMS to better serve our students. Rather than holding us to very set functions, Canvas gives us the flexibility to test new ways of teaching our students.