by: Kelley Hirsch | Learning Designer
At the Teaching and Learning Lab (TLL), we spend a lot of time thinking about how we can help faculty members get the most out of Canvas. As we moved from 100% online instruction last year to this year’s mix of in-person, online, and flexible courses, it was important for us to think about how the faculty might be using Canvas and what TLL can do to support their course design process. We know, both from the research and from our own Master’s students, that a good, easy-to-use Canvas site can have real impacts on student outcomes (Darby 2019, Dunlap and Lowenthal 2018, Long 2021). And we also know how time consuming and overwhelming it can be for faculty members with less familiarity with Canvas to tackle their course design from scratch. So we decided to develop Canvas module templates to make it quick and (we hope!) relatively painless to build visually pleasing, well-organized weekly course content.
The three template options we have created were designed for flexibility, keeping in mind the three course structure options of online, in person, and flexible. Online course design best practices and feedback from last year’s online Master’s students was also crucial in informing our design decisions for these templates. (Note: A Harvard Key login is needed to view the templates.)
Benefits of Using a Template
We think that the greatest benefit of using a Canvas template is that it can help faculty members spend less time in Canvas. Allison Pingree, TLL Senior Instructional Coach, explains: “Starting with a template frees up your time to focus on what you do best: engaging with students, helping them connect with course content and make it their own, and sharing your own perspectives and expertise.”
In addition to the time savings, Senior Coordinator for Faculty Support Wendy Angus adds that the templates “make our Canvas sites look professional, well-organized, and easier for our faculty and their students to navigate through the information they need to access quickly.”
Here are some of the benefits that we think faculty members could see from working with the templates over building course content from scratch:
- It will take less time for you or your Faculty Assistant to add your content and set up your course site.
- Your course pages will be consistent from week to week so students will know what to expect and where to find what they need.
- Your course will have a polished, designed look without you actually needing to come up with a design from scratch or know how to use the coding languages of the design tools themselves.
- Your course pages will have accessible formatting that helps students, especially those with disabilities, navigate your Canvas site.
Drawing on the Research and Student Feedback
One idea from the research that has guided our thinking about Canvas site design is that part of what makes a “good” online learning experience is organization (Darby 2019, Dunlap and Lowenthal 2018, “Quality Matters Higher Education Rubric, Sixth Edition”). When course sites are intentionally and intuitively organized, students report higher satisfaction with the course and they can focus more of their attention on course material rather than on Canvas navigation (Joosten, Cusatis, and Harness 2019). Canvas sites with intentional organization often have a predictable layout and flow that students can expect to see each week. This helps them learn where to find what they need, whether it's the readings for each week or the Zoom link for the class session.
Breaking content into smaller components, also known as segmenting, is another way to promote learning (Clark and Mayer 2016, Dunlap and Lowenthal 2018). Depending on how much content is on your Canvas pages, segmenting could mean breaking content into clearly labeled sections on a single page or separating content across multiple pages.
The literature also emphasizes the importance of ensuring that all materials are accessible (Darby 2019, Dunlap and Lowenthal 2018, Quality Matters). Fortunately, there are some Canvas accessibility features that are easy to incorporate into a template like providing headers for each section, and ensuring text is big enough and has enough color contrast to be legible. (For more information about digital accessibility, see Digital Accessibility Services’ 10 Essentials.)
The wisdom from the research was also backed up by feedback from last year’s Midyear Student Experience Survey (Long, 2021). A common theme that emerged was that predictable navigation and clear organization improved students’ experience and lowered their cognitive load while navigating a course site. Based on the research findings and this feedback from students, we knew we needed to help faculty members create well-organized and clearly laid out Canvas pages.
Designing for Flexibility
We know that HGSE courses are incredibly diverse, so we had to consider the following variables to ensure that the templates were flexible:
- HGSE is offering courses in three different structures this year: fully in-person on campus, fully online via Zoom, and flexible (a mix of Zoom and on-campus sessions).
- Some faculty members developed a significant amount of asynchronous content last year, from mini-lecture videos to checks for understanding, and plan to reuse that content. Other courses took a minimalist approach and only needed a place for the weekly readings.
- Some faculty members like to break up their Canvas content onto multiple pages, while others prefer to streamline everything on one page.
- HGSE is offering 301 courses this fall! They range in enrollment size, content, and pedagogy, so it’s to be expected that different courses may need their Canvas pages to do different things.
Instead of creating a new template for each scenario, we thought about the needs and requirements that different types of courses have in common. We focused on making a small number of templates that are flexible enough to work for a variety of courses.
The Three Template Options
Below we’ll review the features of the three templates, along with some design considerations and recommended use cases. HGSE faculty members can find the templates on this Canvas site along with an example week of each one. (Note: A Harvard Key login is needed to view the templates.)
Template #1 is the “All in One Place” template. We think it will work best for:
- in-person courses,
- courses with a small amount of Canvas content,
- or those faculty members who like a syllabus-like structure where everything for the week is in one place.
This template puts all content for a single week of class onto one page. Students can find everything they need, from a brief “to do list” of pre-class preparation to lecture slides, all on the same page.
Caption: To Do List in Template #1
- online courses,
- courses with moderate to high amounts of Canvas content,
- or those faculty members who like content for different parts of the course (preparation, class sessions, TF-led sections) segmented into different Canvas pages.
This template includes one page for all the content related to students’ pre-class preparation, a page for the weekly class session(s), and placeholders for a discussion board post and weekly assignment. It breaks up the content into shorter, easier to navigate pages, which works especially well in courses with larger amounts of asynchronous content. Mini-lecture videos, framing text describing the weekly reading, or guiding questions can go on one page. And links, resources, in-class activities, or discussion questions can go on another.
Caption: Sections from the pre-class preparation page in Template #2
Template #3 is the “Mix of Modalities” template. We think it will work best for:
- flexible courses,
- courses with moderate to high amounts of Canvas content,
- or courses with multiple sessions in a week (multiple whole class sessions or TF-led sections, project teams, discussion groups, etc.)
Like Template #1, this template has all its content on a single page. But it was designed to accommodate flexible courses or other types of courses with multiple sessions by using expanders to hold content for the various in-person and online sessions. This also makes it easy to include larger amounts of asynchronous content while still keeping the page relatively short and easy for students to scroll.
While the expanders are a fun interactive element to include in a course, they do require some more work to edit. Expanders are an advanced feature of the Cidi Labs design tool, so faculty members who are less experienced with that tool should contact their Faculty Assistant or the TLL (contact email@example.com) for help.
Caption: To-Dos from Template #3 using expanders
We hope that the templates and the guidelines described here will be a resource to save you time as you plan and build your Canvas sites. Since we have also incorporated past student feedback and research from the literature about online learning, we hope this is a resource that will ultimately benefit students by helping them feel more positive and confident while navigating your course sites.
Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). E-learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Wiley.
Darby, F. (2019). How to be a better online teacher. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/advice-online-teaching
Dunlap, J. C. & Lowenthal, P. R. (2018). Online educators’ recommendations for teaching online: Crowdsourcing in action. Open Praxis, 10 (1), 79–89. Retrieved from https://openpraxis.org/articles/10.5944/openpraxis.10.1.721/
Joosten, T., Cusatis, R., & Harness, L. (2019). A cross-institutional study of instructional characteristics and student outcomes: Are quality indicators of online courses able to predict student success? Online Learning Journal, 23(4). Retrieved from https://olj.onlinelearningconsortium.org/index.php/olj/article/view/1432
Long, B. (2021, March 3). Results from the Midyear Student Experience Survey. Harvard Graduate School of Education. Retrieved from https://www.gse.harvard.edu/about/messages/results-midyear-student-experience-survey.
Specific Review Standards from the QM Higher Education Rubric, Sixth Edition. (2020). Quality Matters. Retrieved from https://www.qualitymatters.org/sites/default/files/PDFs/StandardsfromtheQMHigherEducationRubric.pdf