The Importance of Design in the Learning Experience

Sergei Kalugin evaluates the physical properties of the Madshus ski (with his teeth)

Sergei Kalugin evaluates the physical properties of the Madshus ski.

This January, the MMLC welcomed Sergei Kalugin to join the department as a full-time Web application developer and designer after three months of working as a contracted consultant. Graduating with Masters Degrees in Economics and Business from Baltic State Technical University in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2008, Sergei has since held a number of web design and e-Commerce positions both in Russia and the USA, before turning his focus to the educational sector. Fluent in three world languages (Russian, English, and Finnish) and equally comfortable in the languages of design and programing, Sergei brings a valuable blend of talents to the MMLC’s courseware and research development initiatives.

While many of our faculty and student patrons may not have met him yet, they have most likely seen his design and/or programming work: whether on of our recent special event postcards, or in one of our most recent courseware projects. For this article, I asked Sergei about design and its role in the learning experience. Full Post

Questions for Todd Murphey: an NU MOOC Pioneer

Todd Murphey

Todd Murphey

At our January World Wine Web event, we had the pleasure to welcome Todd Murphey, Associate Professor in Mechanical Engineering at McCormick. Todd taught one of the first NU MOOCs this past fall on the Coursera platform: “Everything is the Same: Modeling Engineered Systems.” For those of you who weren’t able to hear Todd talk about his new teaching experience, you can still benefit from Todd’s insights because he was kind enough to answer some follow-up questions.

1) What motivated you to develop and teach “Everything is the Same: Modeling Engineered Systems,” one of NU’s first Coursera courses?

One of the things I noticed early in the MOOC debate was that people teaching MOOCs were almost unconditionally in favor of them.  My concern was that there would be a fundamental bias as a result—that the only people who had any personal knowledge about teaching and learning using MOOCs would be people who bought into them ahead of time.  So I decided I would like to create a great MOOC while fundamentally being objective about the impact on our students and the online students.  I also thought it was exciting to take material we have had in our undergraduate curriculum and translate it into a medium many of our undergraduates find much more intuitive than traditional books. Full Post

Technology for n00bs: Video Accessories for Smartphones

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that everyone has at least one fairly strange obsession. And if you’ve ever looked at my hands, then you know that mine is nail art. Yes, much like a 10-year-old girl, my heart gets all twitter-pated thinking about creating itty-bitty intricate designs on those 10 little canvases. I scour nail art blogs like it’s going out of style, looking for inspiration and tips for transforming my talons. Most of these nail bloggers create wonderfully helpful tutorial videos for people like me, and I’m always left thinking, “Hey, I should make one of those someday!”  Well folks, “someday” has arrived, thanks to the MMLC’s latest purchase for students in our supported classes – the smartphone rig kit.

What treasures await me in this sleek black case?

What treasures await me in this sleek black case?

Nowadays, almost everyone has a phone with a built-in camera, so who wants to lug around a separate camera to film videos and whatnot? A silly person, that’s who! (No offense to silly people – I, myself, am one)  Of course, the phone’s video functions are rather limited when it comes to things like lighting, audio, and stabilization, but this is the 21st century!  There are now a multitude of options available for the novice filmmaker, and Cecile has tapped into her vast wealth of knowledge to compile a complete smartphone rig kit for video. I must say, this thing is pretty awesome. Full Post

The Anatomy of a 1 Hour iPad Activity

iPad cart workshop

As promised, the MMLC unveiled a new iPad Cart that I talked about last month. To get people up to speed, the MMLC hosted a workshop for interested faculty on October 12, 2013. Since many of you are aware of the basic functions of iPads, the workshop focused on why you would want to use an iPad in class and how to design lesson plans for short one-off activities.

Why use an iPad in a classroom setting?

The purely logistical reason for integrating iPads is that there are specific apps you want your students to use but your students don’t have access to their own iPads or the MMLC’s term loan ones. Or you have an activity that can’t be done with just a computer. Perhaps more importantly, you have a creative activity that you want your students to do in class for the immediacy of it. You want your students to experience real-time pressure, work in groups, and ideally maximize engagement – which is what we had in the back of our minds when we presented the participants of the workshop with the activity we were going to have them do. Full Post

Language Instructors Study the Impact of iPads in their Language Classes

When I approached the Hewlett Fund for Curricular Innovation in the summer 2011 for funds to purchase iPads for my advanced German conversation class, I had no idea where this project would take me. The only thing I was certain of was that the way I had taught my advanced conversation class was not providing my students with the language input or the language practice they needed to significantly improve their oral proficiency.

This initial request to the Hewlett Fund morphed, with their help, into something much bigger: a two-year study involving twelve instructors who agreed to incorporate iPads into their language class in an effort to experiment with new teaching paradigms. The efforts were supported by the MMLC. To be frank, we could not have done it without their assistance: from worrying about Wi-Fi connections in the classroom, to updating and preparing iPads, answering student questions, and offering workshop for instructors unfamiliar with the technology, they made sure the only thing we had to be concerned about was searching for answers to critical questions. How can we integrate this technology into our classes? What are the benefits and challenges? Can an iPad provide a more flexible learning environment and a richer contextualization of the material being learned? How can it promote engagement, genuine interest, collaboration and sharing among our students? Full Post

Beyond Clickers: Student Response Systems Evolve

clicker_cropAt a recent World.Wine.Web. event, the MMLC invited Psychology professors Benjamin Gorvine and David Smith to talk about their use of TopHat, a type of software known as a Student Response System, or “clicker.” Speaking to a crowd of fellow faculty and staff, they presented an overview of TopHat as well as a statistical analysis of the largely favorable opinions their students held towards the software. In this article, we’ll cover a bit about the purpose and history behind student response systems (SRS), present what’s in use at Northwestern today, and provide some suggestions on how to get started.

Many instructors regularly seek to better engage students in the class, whether it is to make them a more active participant in the learning, or simply to be able to better assess what students are grasping. Greater audience participation is a frequent pursuit, particularly when inherent classroom dynamics can present significant challenges. For example, students in large classes may acquiesce into a large tranquil sea of anonymity, leaving instructors little feedback, until a quiz or test, on how “tuned in” the students really are.  Even in smaller discussion courses which are typically highly interactive, some students may feel shy to ask questions or present opinion, leaving critical feedback unvoiced.

One way of increasing audience participation, particularly large audiences, was long-ago solved by popular televised game shows: audience voting. I can remember the 1980’s show Love Connection, where audience members would vote for the best romantic match for the show’s contestants. More recently, there’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, where the audience, by poll, helps the contestant answer a multiple-choice question. And then, there are plenty of other shows, such American Idol, that have opened voting beyond the studio audience, allowing at-home viewers to vote via telephone, via internet, and now even via a smartphone app.

Although the classroom is not usually a game show, it is hard to disagree that being able to perform simple types of electronic voting in a class lecture offers significant opportunities. Consequently, through the years, there have been many implementations of classroom response systems based on varying combinations of hardware and software, with each generation seeming to offer greater flexibility and lower cost. Full Post

New iPad Resource Site Launches

The MMLC has launched a new iPad resource site for faculty hoping to learn more about incorporating iPads in language and literature classes. Aiming to both inform and inspire, the site presents case studies, and usage recommendations that draw from a two-year investigation of iPads across a wide variety of language courses.

The Face-Time Continuum

Video chat is growing in use by leaps and bounds. Skype, FaceTime, OoVoo, Google Hangouts, Facebook…

Mark Schaefer conducts a video chat

Mark Schaefer “chats” with his phone, using USB lighting connected to his laptop.

When Apple released the FaceTime software for iPhones and iPads it brought video chat to the forefront of long-distance communication.  It’s as simple as opening an app and tapping on an email address. And its ease of use is a selling point for Apple.

The MMLC has a video conferencing camera available for checkout, and Northwestern’s upcoming CMS pilot-program for Canvas uses “video remediation” for feedback with students. Video chat – it’s coming.  Grading could soon be done with a video recording sent to the student as feedback.

Over the last two years working with the iPad Study I encountered a lot of resistance from faculty to engage in a video chat.  “Oh, I look terrible on camera!” and remarks similar to that. And I would tell them, it’s not you that looks terrible. It is the lighting in the room.

 The web is full of examples of bad looking video chats (this link will take you to “Let Me Google That For You“, a site which will then seemingly — and humorously  — take over your mouse pointer for a moment to search for examples of chat screen shots.)

Students use iPads in Japanese class.

Students studying Japanese use iPad video cameras during a class activity

You’ll find silhouetted outlines of people who thought the window behind them would look good in a chat, or did not realize the lamp across the room was too weak.

Simple, low-cost solutions

Let’s look at simple ways to improve the lighting, improve the camera’s angle, and how to communicate on video.

Mark Schaefer uses LED lights to improve a video chat.

Using two USB LED lights connected to my laptop makes a big difference in how I look on the other end of the chat…

If you use a laptop, you can get small LED lights that are plenty bright, stay cool to the touch, and are easy to use.  For this setup with my laptop, I bought two LED lights from Amazon. They plug into a USB port or into an AC charger for a smartphone.  The foldable one is a Samsung book light with four brightness levels and cost 28 dollars, but it has its own battery, and it can even charge another device from its battery.  The smaller flexible one has 28 LED lights — it cost a little over 3 dollars!  I bought two different ones just to demonstrate,  it would have been fine to by two of the three dollar LED lights.


Here is a before/after pic from my Mac’s webcam, with no retouching.  The lights are bright, but not annoying.  (I also turned down my monitor’s brightness on my laptop to minimize that “zombie blue” color so frequent in video chats.)

This is a "before lights" and "with lights" comparison. The LED lights connect to the laptops USB ports, or can be powered from a USB smartphone charger

This is a “before lights” and “with lights” comparison.

You can see I have made some physical changes, too.  My laptop’s camera is “eye-level” to minimize the “nostril” effect of a cam on my desk looking up at me.  A few hardback books can make a fine stand if you need it.

I chose to wear a dark, non-patterned color. (Black really is slimming!) And there is no distracting pattern or logo.  And whatever you do, avoid all white, it makes all kinds of people look less than their best in webcam video.

If you want, you can pay more money for more specialized lighting.  Some are made for tablets too.  The costs range from twenty dollars to two hundred dollars.

The ViewMe Lights work with a laptop and a desktop, and the quality of the light is good. If you will regularly appear in television interviews via Skype or some other method, it might be worth the $199 investment.


A company called ChatLight has two modestly priced models.  Each forms a ring around a computer monitor or tablet, like a makeup room in a theater. They give a very complimentary look, and make deep wrinkles appear less so. They cost twenty dollars for an iPad and twenty-five dollars for a laptop.


But two LED lights for about 7 bucks total from Amazon?  Not bad!  At least you can see my blue eyes… Though the look of the development area where I work looks less catchy than the Crowe cafe!




Sitting at my desk in the MMLC, it seems obvious that two LED lights, connected to USB ports on my laptop and aimed at my face during a chat, make a world of difference.


Additional Resources:

The Next Web: How to create a great video chat experience. (YouTube promotional video)

ViewMe lighting system (a more expensive, more elegant solution).

Inexpensive (under 4 dollars) LED USB lights from Amazon used in this article.

Samsung LED foldable book-light with battery and adjustable arm, $28.








iPad Carts: Activities in One Hour


So the big news around these parts lately is that the 2 year iPad study taken on by Franziska Lys has ended the research phase, so now we can take what we learned from supporting these classes and apply our iPad resources to what we at the MMLC feel would be most helpful.  So what exactly do we think will be helpful?  Having different ways of circulating our iPad inventory, that’s what:

  1. The status quo: 2-3 classes per quarter (depending on enrollment numbers) where the students get to keep the iPad all the way through finals week and personalize their iPads just as if they bought them straight from Apple.  Some of these will also be set aside for Faculty teaching these classes in case they do not already own an iPad.
  2. For faculty who want to play around with the iPad/get to know how to use it: We’ll have one iPad for faculty to check out for a week, and also given with Factory Settings so professors can set it up as they like.  Another will be set up in the lab, built with apps and loaded with media so Instructors can get to know apps that the MMLC have found to work well in the classroom.
  3. The exciting one: An iPad cart meant to be used for classes with enrollments up to 15 students and 1 instructor!  This cart will be treated like all of the MMLC’s other reservable equipment, and can be reserved/checked out for 3 hours up to the end of the day.  The iPads on the cart are meant to be used for activities that are short term and require no personalization or set up.  These iPads will be given out to Faculty to be distributed and then collected at the end of the class period, and since we know that 50 minutes goes quickly, the iPads will be set up with a specific apps that the MMLC has found to be useful.  Each will be set up with sequential pre-made accounts, so ideally an instructor would wheel the cart into the class, hand them out, and start iPadding [not an actual word].

I want to focus on the exciting one, of course.  I’ll take you through the process of reserving the cart, what kind of questions you as an instructor should ask yourself, and most importantly, exactly what kind of activities you can do with the cart.  The key to using the cart, as with many things in life, is to plan ahead.




Since this cart will be all about immediate usage, we need to make sure that both the cart and you as the professor are prepped and ready for the class, which is why making the reservation in advance is so important.  You can make a reservation for the cart in one of 3 ways:

A) email us at

B) call us at 847-491-4167

C) our favorite way, stop by the lab desk in Kresge 1-335



When you make a reservation, you should already know the answers to the following questions:

  1. What activities do I want to do with the students?  If you don’t have a clue about this, this blog might help you come up with some ideas.  If you really don’t know what you want to do with your students – perhaps just schedule a consult with someone at the MMLC.  It’s perfectly acceptable to just want to explore your options before diving in.
  2. What apps will you be using to do these activities?  Are they already on the iPad, or will the MMLC need to add them to the iPad ahead of time?  Though we don’t have one at the moment, we’ll be publishing a list of apps that will be included on the iPads on the cart.
  3. Do you need to distribute any material to your class (from a Collaborative app such as DropBox or GoogleDrive)?  Do you have this set up on your own computer yet [hint: you will need to set this up on your computer, and we can help you do it so long as it’s planned ahead of time].
  4. Do you have any specific language or dictionary settings you need activated on the iPad?

On to the activities.  After reviewing all of the rubrics for the classes that participated in the iPad study, it seems that at least for language professors, the main goal of the class was to make students better at

  • Writing
  • Reading
  • Listening comprehension
  • Being more comfortable with speaking.

At the same time, the MMLC has identified categories of activities that the iPad is well-suited for, each of which can address one ore more of those goals.  Keep these in mind, I’ll refer to these categories periodically.

A) Communication – being able to talk with others, back-channeling
B) Collaboration – sharing files, working together on things
C) Media Consumption – reading, surfing the web, watching videos, listening to audio, annotating
D) Content Creation  – drawing, writing, making videos
E) Presentation — more than just making the usual slide shows, having an iPad for presentation can sometimes promote interactivity with your students.

Now that you know what kind of parameters we’re working with, let’s talk about things in terms of a Professor’s goals. The best way of improving is that age old thing – practice.  So what are things you can have students do in an hour?   What are things that one can do on the iPad that are self contained?  For activities that do not require personalizing the device with a student’s information, the iPad is especially powerful in terms of Media Consumption, Content Creation and Presentation – all of which are helpful for honing reading, writing, listening and speaking skills.

iPad as an Interactive and Extremely Current Textbook

Reading and listening comprehension, here it is.  Taking advantage of the dictionaries on the iPads is a major help as it allows students to read quicker.  Even more than that though, with the internet in the palm of their hands, your students have access to limitless articles, some of which are hot off the presses.  An example of an activity one could do is something that Noriko Taira Yasohama did with her Japanese students – the students were tasked to find an article online, speed read it, and within 10 minutes present a verbal summary of the reading to a partner who would record their speaking.  Instead of presenting their findings, you may just want your students to annotate whatever they read or make a written summary, and there are several note-taking apps available in order for your students to do so (e.g. Noteability, Neu Notes, Good Reader).  In addition to news articles or scholarly journals, access to the web also includes blogs or forums that students can interact with.  And this sort of media consumption followed by summation is not limited to the written word – with the iPad, students can also access videos to improve listening comprehension – they can watch them and comment on them with little fuss.

iPad as a Readily-Available Web Browser

Similarly, the browser (Safari) allows the students to be online and therefore have access for research.  You can do something like Rami Nair did with her Hindi class – when students were given a word or a term, they had to research and present to their peers a definition of the term (for example “a knight”), complete with pictures and/or videos.  Another possible activity could be something that Chungsheng Yang had his Chinese students do, which is have his students find images to represent idioms.  The portability of the iPad in a sense makes whatever classroom you are in into a computer lab.

iPad as a Self-Contained Learning tool

The great thing about the iPad is the number of apps available to you and your students.  There are thousands of apps that are geared toward education, many of them to suit your needs (you just need to find them).  There are specific vocabulary games, such as Word Tracer, which many Chinese classes used for students to remember the correct order of strokes when writing characters.  There are Flashcard and Quizzing apps, which were employed by Judith Wilks’ Turkish class to help with memorization of the vocabulary lists for each unit.  There are even apps to use real world data in the classroom, such as one used to track the Euro in Katrin Voelkner’s Business German Class.  Or a Meme Generator that was used in Benay Stein’s Business Spanish class.  These apps seem like games to the students (and indeed they are!), but they can easily and quickly be done in a classroom setting.

iPad as a Creative tool

Even without recording, just having students speak via presenting to you or their peers is good practice.  There are several presentation apps that allow students to make something more than just a powerpoint presentation.  With web access they can use Prezi, but also there is Slide Shark, Keynote or Doceri (which allows for real time annotation of the presentation).  Students can make their presentations interactive with immediate feedback using an app like Top Hat (which acts like a mobile device version of ‘Clickers’).  What’s great about all of these apps though, is that it’s possible for students to put together a presentation in less than an hour if they have all of their content readily available (which they do!  Either you can provide pictures or videos or articles, or the entire internet is at their fingers – just as Rami Nair’s class did as mentioned above).  Sometimes a student presentation does not even have to be long – it could be a single image either drawn (like Margaret Dempster’s French class did using the Doodlecast Pro app) or a collage in the style of a Comic Book, which is something that Marie Hicks, a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) does with her students.  The ease of the tools coupled with access to content on the internet can allow your students to be creative.

Taking presentation further to recording however is incredibly powerful because it gives the option for students to review how they’re doing.  One thing that is agreed upon across the board is that it’s helpful for students to be able to watch and listen to themselves speaking – what they hear in their heads while speaking is not necessarily what everyone else hears. They can listen to their pronunciations, right or wrong, and then make adjustments in the future.  To this end, the iPad is one stop shopping for this – the iPad has a camera, it can record audio, and it has editing tools that are easy to use (such as iMovie).   One activity that Ana Williams and Raquel Amorim have been doing in their Portuguese classes (without the use of an iPad) is have the students produce a commercial.  They do this in class with a regular camera, and the commercial is a single shot.  They then have to wait for the videos to be processed before the students can review it.  In January of 2013, the MMLC hosted a workshop for faculty and we based one of our exercises on this – we had faculty split into groups, choose one of the products we provided, write a commercial collaboratively (in English, using Google Docs) and then shoot the commercial.  The MMLC then spent 10 minutes showing the faculty how to edit, and the entire commercial was completed in 50 minutes.  The results were quite good, especially considering that typically students are quicker than faculty when it comes to picking up how to use technology.

These are by no means all of the ways you could use the iPad with your students in an hour, but hopefully it will get you thinking.  Having one device that is capable of all these things is fun, but preparation is key on the part of the instructor.  While everything is fairly intuitive, our interviews with the students made it clear that the more thought-out the assignment and the more established a projects’ parameters, the better the students responded to it.

Don’t like Blackboard? You can ‘Canvas’ for change!

What will be the future Learning Management System (LMS) at NU? Several options are being considered including: Blackboard, Canvas, and Desire2Learn

What will be the future Learning Management System (LMS) at NU? Several options are being considered including: Blackboard, Canvas, and Desire2Learn

This year, faculty across the University will have a capital opportunity to shape the selection of Northwestern’s next generation of learning management tools. In addition to upgrading the Blackboard software this summer, NUIT has begun taking a more critical look at the current system and has launched a broader exploration of alternatives. First, everyone will be invited to respond to a comprehensive survey about the course management system. Then, perhaps most excitingly, there will be a chance to observe or participate in pilot evaluations of alternative systems. The first of these alternatives, Canvas, is readying for testing in select courses this fall, winter and spring. It boasts a clean, uncluttered approach and unparalleled integration with mobile devices and services. In October, the MMLC will offer a closer look at the Canvas system in a faculty information session.

Blackboard: Familiarity and Frustration

In the nearly 15 years since its arrival, faculty and students have developed a crucial relationship with Northwestern’s course management system (CMS), based on Blackboard. As the backbone of most classes, its widespread use offers the comfort of a consistent interface and content organization from one class to another. With the trial of time, numerous bugs have been ironed out and best practices have been formalized: Blackboard is well integrated with CAESAR, there are ways of best migrating content from course to course, and there are provisions for managing the intricacies of multi-sectioned courses. Within the CMS, syllabi, announcements, discussions, quizzes, drop-box submissions, and document distribution are all heavily-used core features. Going beyond these basics, Northwestern has even authored incredibly useful custom features like Bboogle, which bridges a Blackboard course to Google Docs and Sites.  What could possibly be missing?

“My students don’t like Blackboard” is something that we occasionally hear in consultation with faculty. The underlying reasons seem to include both the aesthetic and the functional: despite recent changes, the site design is dated, some say; features are not well optimized or available for use on mobile devices and tablets; and, in general, the site is unnecessarily difficult to use, requiring navigation through many menus and clicking many checkboxes and buttons. Students also grumble at paying for a mobile application that seems to have too limited functionality.

Many are also looking for better ways to captivate and retain student attention in an increasingly competitive environment of various communication streams.  Since Blackboard’s launch on campus, a communicative explosion has occurred (email, mobile phones, text messaging, Facebook, Twitter, blogging, smartphones, Google apps, and other “cloud computing” services). Blackboard continues to remain relatively challenged in these areas.

Finally, faculty have begun to take a greater interest in learning analytics, or the ability to meaningfully analyze a wealth of data about student interaction with online course content. Such analysis can answer questions such as “Are students reading the materials?,”  “When?,”  “How much time do they spend on activities?,” “Are they performing well on quizzes?,” “Which questions/contents are misleading?” and “Which students are meeting learning outcomes?

This past summer, NUIT performed a significant upgrade to Blackboard from version “SP5” to version “SP10,”  The update brings the platform more than a year and half forward with enhancements to grading, improved navigation, and the introduction of a new drop-down notification panel. While these improvements should improve the overall experience of using Blackboard, some may find that their specific needs are still not met.

Over the past three years, a growing number of braver faculty have branched out to embrace alternative systems and/or non-conventional course tools. In Weinberg, the MMLC has supported faculty requests to use MoodleWordPress, and Facebook to simplify students’ access to materials, to streamline communication, or to bring class discussion into the realm of social media. While these systems provide some unique features, they typically incur a higher administrative commitment because they do not fully integrate with every centralized system, like CAESAR, the same way that Blackboard does. Enforcement of security and privacy concerns can also be more challenging using these  tools.

Can the primary campus-wide learning management system be improved or replaced to reduce or obviate the need for these other tools? Or, at the very least, can it better integrate with them?

Ongoing Search for Alternatives

To spearhead an investigation of alternatives to Blackboard (including, simply, a newer and better Blackboard), NUIT and the Educational Technology Advisory Committee formed a special team called the Learning Management System Investigation Committee (LMSIC). The group, which includes members from each school and from the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching, will scan the trends at peer institutions, survey student and faculty needs, select candidate systems to try out, and develop an evaluation rubric by which to gauge the success of each platform.

It turns out Northwestern is not alone in wondering if a better system is out there. Last year, Michigan State University chose to replace its venerable Angel software with Desire2Learn, joining Ohio State University, University of Wisconsin, and Penn State University as Big10 schools already using the software.  Locally, Loyola University recently switched to an open-source learning management system based on Sakai. Ironically, while Loyola views the new system as a step forward, Northwestern, who had previously piloted Sakai and even contributed to its development, backed away from further consideration of the platform a few years ago.

Evaluating what makes one learning management system superior to another is a difficult undertaking. On a first pass, basic functionality is easily compared in a marketing-style feature matrix.  However, on subsequent passes, judgments of aesthetics, usability, engagement, and that too-elusive quality of “fun” can really only be determined by using each product in carefully studied trials, which the University is eager to undertake. Yet, in order to not overextend the campus’s support resources, each trial must start small, and with the success of a proof-of-concept, gradually ramp up to include a wider variety of test courses.

Last year, NUIT supported the first official pilot study of LoudCloud in an undergraduate economics course. However, due to scalability problems, trial use of LoudCloud is not expected to expand beyond a few more courses this year.  Instead, support resources will be devoted to evaluating other systems.

Canvas – A Quick Look

Of all the anticipated LMS pilot systems, one of the most exciting is also one of the newest on the market. Canvas was first developed in 2008 by two graduates of Brigham Young University in response to the frustrations they faced using another system while still in school. Backed by a significant venture capital investment, Instructure (Canvas’s maker) now aggressively competes with Blackboard and other market leaders.

The home screen for the Canvas mobile app quickly shows all the action items needing attention.

The home screen for the Canvas mobile app quickly shows all the action items needing attention.

In terms of basic functionality, Canvas is a lot like Blackboard. Within a course, information is organized logically according to announcements, syllabi, pages, content modules, quizzes, grades, discussions, and assignments. However, Canvas takes the lead over Blackboard in a few interesting ways:

First, Canvas is very well integrated with Google Docs, Skype, and Facebook. The integration between Canvas and these services uses a technology called OAuth which allows information (including permissions) to pass freely between them.  For example, an instructor could create a Google Drive word processing document and easily share it with the Google accounts of enrolled students.

Canvas uses Facebook not primarily as a chat or social platform but instead as a notification tool for students who prefer to aggregate the notices they receive. If students are frequent users of Facebook, updates to homework deadlines, or notices about feedback to assignments can be sent right to the information stream they use most.

Second, Canvas is a cloud-based service, meaning that, like Google, or Yahoo, the software is provided as a “commoditized” service. Consequently, most universities using Canvas do not have maintain to their own on-campus servers in a server room, which permits cost savings or the ability to devote more resources to end-user support, rather than hardware support.

Third, Canvas has one of the most well developed mobile applications for smart tablets and phones using Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android operating system. The application is free and permits access to many of the core features.

This fall, the University will begin testing the Canvas software with a handful of courses to further expand the evaluation rubric of learning management systems, and to prove the platform’s readiness for testing with additional courses in the Winter and Spring.  From Weinberg, fall participants are expected to include two language classes, a freshman seminar, a biology course, and a larger, physics lecture course.

Getting involved

Shortly after the start of the fall quarter, the LMSIC team will send a comprehensive questionnaire to all faculty to solicit feedback about the current course management system and to poll opinions about future learning management system features and priorities. All faculty should be sure to exercise this opportunity to make their voices heard.

As a participant on the investigating team, the MMLC remains a dedicated partner to ensure Weinberg faculty needs are met. To open communication and expand awareness of the investigation and its pilot programs, the MMLC will organize an information session later this fall to showcase the Canvas pilot system and collect feedback about ongoing impressions of course management tools. Details of the session will be announced in the MMLC’s September communications.

Though there are a limited number of openings to accommodate pilot courses, the investigating committee is working hard to test each candidate system with a diversity of course types: varying subjects, class sizes, and working dynamics. The data these pilot courses provide is invaluable, even if teaching with a brand new system can be both exciting and daunting. The MMLC is working with NUIT to provide some additional support for Weinberg instructors.

Weinberg faculty who are interested in testing Canvas or any future are encouraged to contact the MMLC <> to learn more about the opportunities available.