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Introduction to Canvas

Canvas extends the fundamental toolset of a full-featured learning management system (LMS) with advanced tools such as SpeedGrader, audio/video feedback, Auto-Dates, extensive Communication features, Collaboration with Google Docs, online web Conferences, and much more.

The videos below introduce you to the intuitive, easy-to-use Canvas interface and demonstrate a few frequently-used Canvas tools and activities.

Demonstration: Canvas overview


Demonstration: Profiles and Layout


Demonstration: Assignments and Grading


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.

Five Core Principles

Canvas has taken a new approach to the LMS. There are Five Core Principles that instructors should think about before they begin to design their courses.

1. Canvas as Communication Hub

Comm prefs3.png
Canvas is designed to facilitate communication, whether that’s student-to-student communication or student-to-instructor communication. We recognize that meaningful learning can occur in the conversations that we have with others, both formal and informal, and Canvas is designed to facilitate that.

We feel like the communication should be an automated function of the LMS. You create your course and Canvas takes it from there. No more manual emails or one off communications to individual students. What this means to teachers and students is that when a change is made within a course, notifications are automatically triggered to the appropriate users. Once messages are sent, the students and teachers can then receive them in the manner they choose. We offer texting, Facebook notifications, and email notifications to an address of their choosing. We also allow for RSS feeds if desired. The methods of communication can be configured in whatever arrangement the user desires.

Not only do we let users dictate how Canvas should contact them, as illustrated above, but we also allow them to select the frequency with which we send notifications. In their Notification Preferences, users can customize each notification type with a frequency setting of 'immediately,' 'weekly,' 'daily,' or 'never.'

When an instructor enters or updates a grade, for example, Canvas automatically sends a notification to their student via Facebook or Email or SMS, or all of the above, depending on her Notification Preferences. Then the student can come right back to the system to see exactly what has changed. Now let’s say you change something on the Calendar. The same thing will happen. Students will be immediately notified via the channels that work best for them.

Students can easily contact you, their instructor, whenever they have a question or need some help. Let’s say a student leaves a comment for you in a private discussion you are having about an assignment in SpeedGrader™. You are then notified via the channels that are most convenient for you.

Whenever you log in, the Dashboard and the Course Activity Stream provides you with an easy way to see a snap shot of all the latest communication going on in your course and any actions that you need to take as a result.

This communication methodology is interwoven into the fabric of Canvas and constitutes a significant industry shift in the LMS space.

2. Canvas as Extension of the Web

380px-Rich editor.png Canvas offers many rich features, and is designed in such a way that the simplicity of the user experience is maintained, but can be peeled back to reveal many advanced capabilities. One example of this is the Rich Content Editor, which provides a very simple text editing tool on the surface but can also be used for more complex activities, such as the embedding of HTML iFrames, Latek equations, Equella open educational course content, YouTube videos, and images.

Rich content can be added to assignments, discussion boards, announcements, assignment feedback, and student turned in assignment, and quiz questions. This is a dramatic departure from traditional systems and a much loved feature of Canvas.

Once an instructor has finished creating her course, and filled it with engaging, web-based multimedia, she can make that course public to the world wide web with one click of a button. Now all of her work is available as a Universally-accessible, read-only course for anyone on the Internet. Because Canvas is built on web standards, what instructors design can remain a valuable resource for more than just her immediate students.

3. Canvas as User-Centric Interface

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Canvas offers the same view to teachers and students with the simple difference being that teachers can edit. What this means is there is no need for logging out then back in as a demo student to see what they see... Instructors always see what students see and vice versa (minus a few administrative functions). While the interface is the same for all users, the data presented within that interface is tailored to the user. So each student will see announcements, assignments, activity streams, and feedback that is very specific and unique to them.

4. Canvas as Content 'Kaleidoscope'

Conventional course development says when building out a course to build a syllabus and then make assignments and try to fit them onto a calendar. Canvas is going to flip that model. In Canvas as instructors create courses, the tool automatically creates the related aspects in the course.

If you’ve ever used a Kaleidoscope before, you know that the little colored chips in a Kaleidoscope are the same but as you adjust the exterior tube, the mirrors inside change, resulting in a different image. Canvas works much the same way. The content you build inside your course is the same, but there are many different ways of viewing that data. You can view your course data through the gradebook, the calendar, the syllabus, or the assignment page. It’s all the same data, just viewed differently.

For example,

  • the grade book is a LENS that looks at the course and only shows the graded items and what the assignment is worth
  • the calendar is a LENS or FILTER that looks at the course and only shows you the things that have a date associated with them
  • the syllabus is another LENS or FILTER that looks at all the course material and shows items that are dated
  • the assignment page is a LENS or FILTER that reflects the internal model of the course

5. Canvas as Course Curator

We like to think of Canvas as a kind of curator that can "cherry pick" from existing resources only the things that you need when you first design your course or at any point in time while you are facilitating the course. 

The idea here is that we make it extremely easy for instructors to pull in resources and assemble courses, whether those resources come from a previous class you taught, a course that somebody else taught in Canvas, a course from your preexisting LMS, an ePack of quizzes from a textbook publisher, or some other content package.

Our developers work hard to build bridges to as many different content formats as they can and it’s the Course Import Tool in Canvas that makes this process as pain-free as possible.

Canvas uses this same tool for migrating content from other LMS’s or from existing Canvas Courses. So when it comes time to build a new course or move from one semester to the next, you can save yourself a lot of time and trouble by importing only the content you need into your course and building from there. In this way, every Canvas course serves as a "template" for any another course.

Related Topics

Some of this content has been provided courtesy of Utah Education Network Consortium and Utah Valley University