Learning Management Systems (LMS) are a valuable tool to support courses in higher education, and are utilized to support face-to-face, hybrid, and fully online instruction. As a college instructor, I have integrated Canvas into my courses for many years now, but my increased reliance on this platform has become evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. With no face-to-face interactions, it became essential to take a deep dive into the various features offered by this LMS in an effort to create an inviting, straight-forward and navigable platform to support learner variability.
My quest to evaluate how Canvas supports learner variability is based on the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Standard 5 For Educators, with a focus on Standard 5a:
Educators design authentic, learner-driven activities and environments that recognize and accommodate learner variability.
5a. Use technology to create, adapt and personalize learning experiences that foster independent learning and accommodate learner differences and needs.
What is learner variability?
Learner variability is a term used to describe students who are struggling as well as students who are succeeding. Learner variability encompasses many student characteristics, including learning difficulties, giftedness,variations in processing information, socio-economics, language abilities, and socio-emotional health. Learner variability can be supported when the instructor differentiates instruction, such as by allowing extra time for a student to complete a quiz or an assignment, individualization in the way students are assessed to demonstrate competency, and structuring the learning environment in a way that is suited to support success of all students (Pape; Vuchic & Pape, 2018).
“One reason we are stuck in outdated classrooms is that too many school systems are frozen in sameness – the same books, the same lessons, the same pace, the same treatment of each learner. Yet, if there is one takeaway from the burgeoning learning sciences research, it is that no two of us learn in exactly the same way” (Pape).
Personalizing learning addresses learner variability and considers the whole person as a student and accepts the notion that a one size fits all approach to learning is not a good recipe for success (Vuchic & Pape, 2018). Further, The American Disabilities Act requires that all learning environments, including digital spaces, are designed to accommodate all types of learners, including those with disabilities (www.teachingtools.umsystem.edu).
With the increased integration of digital technology into higher education courses, professors have many tools at their fingertips that can be used to support learner variability. My research focuses on the tools that Canvas provides to support divergent learners and how this learning management system aligns with the Universal Design for Learning Framework.
What features does Canvas offer to support learner variability?
Course layout/navigation: (community.canvaslms.com)
- Modules can be used to keep readings, lecture materials, assignments, quizzes and other learner support materials housed by topic or date range. Modules enhance the navigation of Canvas, enabling students to locate all materials they will need within a particular time frame, such as by implementing weekly learning modules. It is recommended to clearly label modules as well as each document contained with the modules for enhanced usability.
- Canvas includes a list of default template course links that may not be used by an instructor. Instructors should hide links that are not relevant to a particular course to enhance platform usability and navigation.
Adjustable timeframes, due dates and assignments: (community.canvaslms.com; Hainline, 2016)
- Canvas offers easy adjustments for variable time frames and due dates on quizzes and assignments. Extra time, extended due dates, and multiple attempts can be programmed into the platform to support students who may need accommodations.
- Additionally, personalization of assignments can be supported by designating specific assignments to be completed by certain students.
Accessibility (community.canvaslms.com; Gorannson, 2019):
- Canvas includes the Rich content editor feature, which “supports multiple accessibility features for easy creation of accessibility content,” including closed captioning and “alt text when embedding external images” (community.canvaslms.com).
- When the Chat Tool function is accessed, students can use the audio feature that is built into the tool.
- Font size: The Rem sizing feature enables the reader to increase the font size on Canvas due to its Zoom feature. A default font size can also be set for Canvas if a pre-established font size has been selected in the students’ browser.
- High contrast user interface: This feature provide high color contrast of tabs and text.
- Canvas works in conjunction with several screen reader/browser combinations to enable students to either hear text content audibly or to access content in Braille.
- Canvas has an accessibility checker option that provides an evaluation of how well the instructor sets up their site for overall accessibility. It also provides tips on how to improve the site.
Asynchronous learning experiences (Olad, 2020; Poorvucenter.yale.edu):
- There are many benefits to student learning through asynchronous tools. Students have some flexibility to decide when they will work on a project or contribute their ideas into a group forum.
- Some students may need to complete academic work early in the morning or over the weekend. Or if a personal issue surfaces that could get in the way of completing a synchronous assignment with a limited time frame, offering a broader time frame to complete asynchronous tasks will support learner variability in terms of personal schedules and multiple demands on students’ time.
- Additionally, some students who have shy, reserved personalities may be better able to express their ideas and knowledge in asynchronous learning formats.
- Some students may need more time to process content before applying it to an assignment. Asynchronous learning may be a relief to students who want to think through new content or take a deeper dive into newly-presented information before contributing their thoughts and ideas.
- Canvas offers several asynchronous learning tools, including:
- Discussion board
- Collaborations, which can connect with Google docs for group work
- Piazza, a forum students can utilize to ask anonymous questions that they may not want to ask in a synchronous class session
- Groups, which connects students to work together asynchronously in smaller groups
Universal Design for Learning Framework
When an instructor thinks through their learning management system course design for learner variability, they are aligning their focus with the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework. “UDL aims to change the design of the environment rather than to change the learner. When environments are intentionally designed to reduce barriers, all learners can engage in rigorous, meaningful learning” (www.udlguidelines.cast.org). This document provides examples of how an instructor can structure their Canvas platform to reflect UDL principles. Additionally, the graphic below provides examples of how to structure a course to represent UDL principles.
In conclusion, my deep dive into Canvas as a learning management system has revealed tremendous thought and effort put forth in the design and functionality of this platform to support learner variability.
Author unknown. Make your Canvas course accessible to all learners. Teaching tools. https://teachingtools.umsystem.edu/
Author unknown. (2021). Inclusive use of Canvas features and apps. Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning. https://poorvucenter.yale.edu/InclusiveUseofCanvas
Author unknown. The UDL guidelines. https://udlguidelines.cast.org/
Goransson, D. (2019). What is a screen reader? Axess lab. https://axesslab.com/what-is-a-screen-reader/
Hainline, A. (2016). Differentiating assignments (k-12) in Canvas: Helping all learners be successful. Canvas. https://community.canvaslms.com/t5/K12-Users/Differentiating-Assignments-k-12-in-Canvas-Helping-All-Learners/ba-p/275224
Olad, A. (2020). Accessibility awareness: Quick steps for enabling accessibility in your Canvas course. https://www.instructure.com/canvas/resources/k12/accessibility-awareness-quick-steps-for-enabling-accessibility-in-your-canvas-course-2
Pape, B. Learner variability is the rule, not the exception. Digital Promise. https://digitalpromise.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Learner-Variability-Is-The-Rule.pdf
Vuchic, V, Pape, B. 2018. Understanding learner variability to personalize learning. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2018-10-07-understanding-learner-variability-to-personalize-learning