Design overview

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The Canvas Paradigm

Canvas can be used as a traditional learning management system, one that simply hosts materials, sequences activities, and automates assessments. Such highly structured courses may be dependable and controlled, but at the expense of learner autonomy and dialogue. If we limit ourselves to what we've done in the past, we may be missing the potential of modern, web-based collaboration and communication tools to enrich learning, engage learners, and amplify outcomes.

My current view of the Canvas paradigm is that the focus is on facilitating frequent, meaningful, and convenient interactions, whether those are learner-instructor, learner-learner, or learner-content.


We expect a lot of learner-instructor interaction to occur in any course, and there are standard tools in Canvas for messaging (mail), asynchronous discussions, and even live, synchronous presentations. But Canvas also provides users with the ability to determine not only the means but also the frequency of notifications from the system, ensuring that instructor actions in the course are heard by the students, and thus become interactions.

Canvas also embeds new and convenient means of learner-instructor throughout the course. Announcements can include external RSS feeds--from the instructor's blog, for instance; Assignment feedback is no longer one-way, but supports learner-instructor dialogue that encourages understanding. And instructors are no longer limited to simple text for communicating with their class--quick and easy video recording is available from web cams or other sources.


Social learning has gained considerable importance in the 21st century, and learner-learner interaction has become an increasingly powerful tool for learning. Why should the tools for learner-learner interaction be any less powerful or convenient than those that the instructor has access to?

Canvas supports learner-learner interactions with the same tools that are available for learner-instructor interaction. It also provides for peer-review of assignments using the same assessment criteria and tools that the instructor would use. It allows students to link their own digital identities with course notifications. It supports use of real-world, learner-owned spaces such as blogs as a place to host assignments, and Google Docs to host collaborative work spaces. It supports groups, and live online conferences which any member of the course can set up. All of these can lead students to learn and work beyond the boundaries of the traditional classroom, creating bridges to continuing relationships with their classmates, and habits and tools for lifelong learning.


Learner-content interaction, traditionally speaking, may not seem like interaction, but new web technologies can amplify the potential of content for learning.

One of the cool things that Canvas offers is the opportunity for learners to edit any of the course content pages. Canvas's Pages tool is essentially a wiki, with permissions set by the instructor. This allows learners to invest in the maintenance and currency of course materials.

The Canvas Interface

The Canvas interface is fairly simple and usable, though at the cost of a certain degree of instructor control. Instructors and designers are able to determine the layout of the course homepage, choosing from several perhaps unfamiliar options:

  • The Communication Stream shows all recent activity by users in the course
  • The Assignments view simply lists groups of assignments and their due dates
  • The Modules view shows a complete linear sequence of all course materials, activities, and assessments
  • The Page I'll Design Myself gives designers great liberty to compose a portal into important course work. It can be adjusted at any time.




Canvas course Pages are created using a graphical user interface or HTML. These are wiki-like web pages that can also be edited by students, if desired. Multiple pages can easily be linked together, and can include links to other Canvas tools such as Assignments, Quizzes, Discussions, etc.

All course Pages are listed in the Pages tool found in the left-hand navigation bar. You can create "Pages" on the fly using the Pages tool. This generates a simple HTML page that can be edited by the instructor or can be configured to be edited by the student.


Often you'll want to simply upload files that you've created on your own computer into Canvas. This is done through the Files tool. Such files can be linked to from virtually any place in Canvas: from an Assignment, Discussion, or Page (see above), or as an item in a Module.

Standard types of files, including more complex HTML files that are not supported in the Pages tool, can be supported through Canvas.

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