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Canvas template helps instructors organize—and students find—course materials

When research with UW students revealed that they have trouble finding the information they need in Canvas courses, UW-IT began working to find a solution.

Collaborating with UW instructors, reviewing best practices in online course creation and studying existing templates in use around campus, members of UW-IT’s Academic Experience Design & Delivery (AXDD) and Learning Technologies units created a basic template that instructors can use to organize and manage course content. “The template, based on modules, is intentionally ‘opinionated’ about how to present content so that students can find what they need to do and when throughout the quarter. It takes a definite position—rather than just letting instructors find their own way—about how to set up a course in Canvas,” said Karin Roberts, Service Manager for Canvas. The design of the template was guided by two priorities: to ease and simplify course creation, and to help students find the information they need.

In reflecting on the goals of the template, Robyn Foshee, Instructional Designer with Learning Technologies, said, “We want the template to be a source of empowerment to instructors, to help them feel organized and confident that they are creating a course that students will find easy to use.”

Instructor feedback

Once the team built an initial template, a small group of UW instructors from a variety of disciplines and course types tested it. Several instructors appreciated the inclusion of module headers that explicitly tell students what action to take (e.g., “to read”) and the guidance for instructors on how to organize each module. Instructors said:

“Course prep will be faster.”

“I am pleased with the rapid progress I have been able to make … setting up the course.”

“This will make it much easier for students to find things, and cut down on the ‘I looked everywhere and didn’t see it’ claim.”

Others liked the inclusion of resources for students and instructors right in the template.

Why modules?

“We understand that instructors may prefer tools other than modules for course organization and structure when setting up their courses,” said Dave Coffey, Instructional Designer with Learning Technologies. “However, a modular organization provides several benefits, particularly for students, who expressed frustration about navigating Canvas courses.” In addition to simplifying course creation, the template makes it clear to students how to get started and where to find various course components. Students can easily identify necessary materials and due dates. Consistent, readable naming conventions for each module benefit instructors and students. Course navigation is streamlined.

With a focus on clean, consistent presentation of content, the modular template is designed to accommodate a range of disciplines and teaching approaches. “We designed the template to support the most commonly used features in Canvas,” noted Abi Evans, AXDD researcher. Students report that their top five uses of Canvas are accessing announcements, checking due dates, accessing assignment feedback, taking a quiz, and accessing or reviewing course materials. Plans for future templates include supporting specific pedagogical approaches that make use of specialized Canvas features.

Even if instructors prefer to bypass the template, the team strongly recommends that instructors take some time to look it over. In addition to the module layout, the template includes helpful content such as the student resource pages, information about accessibility and useful language you can add to your syllabus. The organization of content modeled in the template may be helpful, regardless of how instructors set up a Canvas course. See more guidelines for creating easy-to-use courses without the template, download the template and watch a video introduction to the template