Rolling Out Social Features in Canvas LMS – A Step by Step Guide
By Jake Clapp, Academic Dean
A perpetual question that we face as designers of online instruction, in the era of rapidly evolving communications technologies and learning management systems is: what is the best way to roll out the social features of the learning management system during an online course? We want to orient students comfortably, not overwhelm them with technology, and ultimately leverage the video technologies that allow for tight social bonds to form. In this post, I present a step-wise idea for how teachers might go about purposefully cultivating a social environment, focusing on the specific features of Canvas, the LMS to which Global Online Academy has recently switched:
Step 1) Engage students in a text-only discussion . A simple prompt that invites students to share something safely personal, yet that does not demand, or even invite, high-level creativity. Perhaps “Write your name, and 1-2 sentences on why you chose to take this particular course.”
Step 2) Have a second, minimally intensive discussion, this time using notifications to confirm that students have established the crucial link between the LMS and their other communication channels and devices. Teachers should help students set their notification preferences so that direct messages within the LMS and new posts to active course discussions are forwarded to their primary email accounts. This is a good way help students envision how they might integrate their ‘school world’ with their ‘online world’. Canvas also allows for text message, and even Facebook, notifications.
Step 3) The teacher engages each student in a brief 1-1 exchange via Canvas’ internal messaging system . This helps students understand how Canvas’ Inbox is different from their primary email, how the two inboxes connect via notifications, and allows the student-teacher relationship to begin forming.
Step 4) The teacher engages each student in a second 1-1 exchange, via Canvas’ internal messaging system, this time with video messages . Using video at this stage, and not right off the bat, should reduce students’ sense of nervousness or shyness, as they’ll have already introduced themselves to their teacher and will be relatively familiar with the basic functions of the LMS. Ideally, the teacher can bring video technologies into the social landscape of the course by the second week.
Step 5) The students participate in a single-post, video discussion . In Canvas, discussion posts can be text, audio, or video with little hassle and technological wrangling, thanks to Canvas’ built-in audio/video recorder. Students must have a webcam to make this work. I advise for a single-post discussion (where students are asked to post only once), so as not to create an overwhelming thread of posts that becomes difficult to navigate. A prompt that might work well for this discussion is: “In a 30-60 second video post, tell us 5 things about yoursel. Make sure that we can see your face.” I would recommend customizing the discussion so that students cannot read each other’s’ posts until they themselves post. Breaking the class into groups is another option, but I like to keep the class whole for a while before creating grouped discussions (it is worth mentioning here that Global Online Academy classes have an average size of 16 students.)
Step 6) Have the students participate in a grouped discussion. In Canvas, Group Sets can be created for any discussion or assignment. This creates a new virtual breakout space in the LMS for the students to engage in more intimate, smaller, manageable discussions and collaborations. At this point, students will have seen each other’s’ faces, and gotten a much better sense of each other’s personalities. I predict that students will share more freely and go deeper with their thoughts if the social environment of the course is built up a bit before asking groups to work together on higher-level or creative tasks.
Step 7) Grouped synchronous video conference . Once students have had an opportunity to learn their peers’ names and faces in what I would consider ‘low stakes’ circumstances – asynchronous text and video discussions – teachers should then have their students participate in grouped or all-class synchronous video conferences, which are often regarded as the gold standard in online courses, as they most closely mimic traditional classrooms. We know from countless responses on student satisfaction surveys that this mode of communication is tremendously important. Although they can facilitate meaningful, fun, and spontaneous interactions, synchronous conferences require the most scaffolding, preparation, and social nurturing.
Step 8) Students collaborate on projects and/or wiki pages . At this stage, your students have a basic understanding of their peers, will have engaged in real-time conversation, and shared their intellectual and personal interests. With your help, they’ve oriented themselves to the LMS and its various functions. Now is a great time to put them together on a creative task, like a project or a wiki.
Have other ideas on how to systematically deploy the communications features of Canvas or another LMS? I’d love to hear them!