I had the opportunity to check out Canvas LMS in a real, live university course context a few weeks ago. I don’t teach courses, so I was glad to have a chance to see how it worked in a real situation where a professor was trying to accomplish real-life tasks. Overall impression? Mostly, it’s great! But there are some significant issues with quizzes and notifications that would have to be addressed before I’d want to use it at scale.

Notifications

Making changes to announcements, quizzes, assignments, etc all generate notifications. Often the first time you publish an assignment you are just testing it, but that first publish sends out a notification that you cannot turn off. Subsequent changes of certain types of content can be done without notification by unchecking the notification box, but not always.

Oddly, students have incredibly detailed control over how they choose to receive notifications, to a degree that reminds me of Facebook’s security settings, with equal likelihood of being done correctly, and probably won’t be touched at all by most students. If you create a test student and check the email notifications they are getting you will realize their default settings are not sufficient – you will probably want them to turn on additional Notifications. I sent these out as an example to the pilot class I was involved with.

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The instructor has no real control over notifications but the students do, but are unlikely to know how to use it. Students are often quite jittery about getting notifications they don’t understand, and I could easily imagine some communications disasters caused by the way this feature works. ┬áSome Canvas forum posts suggest building the entire course, then publishing to avoid getting notifications of draft pieces of your course. We all know that not every professor is completely ready with the entire course on opening day, so I think notifications needs to be adjusted to allow more control for the professor who does not want to work the way Canvas wants them to work.

Quizzes

Question pools in all the quizzing applications I’ve ever looked at function like this: you put a bunch of questions into a pool, then various quizzes can access those questions at runtime. Changes to questions in the pool result in changes to all quizzes that subscribe to those pools.

This is not the way Canvas works. Canvas quizzes COPY questions from the question pool when you build the quiz. The state of the questions at that time is the state they will remain in for the lifetime of that quiz unless you delete the questions from the quiz and pull them in again. This means that you will not correct existing quizzes when you correct bad questions in the pool. They must somehow be found in every quiz wherever they exist, and corrected there, an impossible task if you have multiple instructors working from the same pool. I suppose there is a use-case in favor of this workflow: editing questions will not disrupt existing quizzes, but I suspect most groups could deal with that better than the difficulty of correcting questions across quizzes.

There are workarounds for these problems, once you understand how they work. In general, I like Canvas quite a bit – it is upping the bar for course-centered LMS’s.

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