Learning from learning management systems: New ways to engage students through Canvas

This post is republished from Into Practice, a biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Arthur Applbaum, Adams Professor of Democratic Values, Quinton Mayne, Assistant Professor of Public Policy, and Christopher Robichaud, Lecturer in Ethics and Public Policy piloted the new University-wide learning management system, Canvas, in their spring 2015 courses at the Harvard Kennedy School.

HKS CanvasThe benefits: Digital teaching and learning tools enable new approaches and modernize existing techniques to engage students:  

Applbaum asked “three daily questions” in online discussion forums to give his students more immediate feedback and pre-seed classroom conversations.

Mayne built an integrated page for each class session to involve students in the vision, goals, and pre-work expectation of that meeting, to get them excited about the upcoming conversation, and to free up class time for in-person discussion and interaction

Robichaud captured outside-class conversations and interactions between students by creating online dialogue via blog posts, news items, chat functions, and “reflections” postings, which had the added benefit of encouraging participation by shy students.

The challenges: There is always a learning curve in the adoption of a new system, and thoughtful organization of the course site to support learning goals takes time. Some tools may not feel as intuitive as others, depending on prior experience.

Takeaways and best practices:

Working with a new system affords the opportunity to step back and review the organization of a course, and the chance to view the structure of other classes.

Involving course assistants in the process shares the workload and ensures distributed expertise.

The breadth of tools and features allows instructors to experiment with various ways to support their existing practices, and any tools that do not prove useful can be hidden in the site navigation. 

Bottom line: Instructors can start simple and build upon their first experiences in Canvas. In Robichaud’s experience, “as you become more familiar, you will discover the ways an LMS can handle the administration of learning and teaching, making posting syllabi, grades, and even managing and grading homework less onerous … so, well, you can focus more on the teaching.”