IST students see strong potential for Canvas to become Penn State’s next LMS

Emma Stuck
April 21, 2015

This semester at Penn State, 2,415 students, 63 faculty and 60 instructional design and support staff in 81 course sections from 16 Penn State campuses and 10 colleges have been participating in the pilot of Canvas. Canvas is a learning management system (LMS) that is being explored as a possible replacement for ANGEL.

Some of those students involved in the pilot are in IST 110 Introduction to Information, People and Technology. IST 110 is offered via World Campus and taught by a number of instructors, including Amy Garbrick, director of the Office of Learning Design and instructor in Information Sciences and Technology (IST) located at Penn State's University Park campus.

Joshua Smith

professional photo of Joshua Smith

Joshua Smith, undergraduate Penn State World Campus IST student

IMAGE: Penn State

One such student who enjoys the various features of Canvas is Joshua Smith. "I'm really looking forward to it hopefully rolling out very soon,” Smith said. “I love it; I hope it replaces ANGEL."

According to Smith, the key benefits of Canvas are its simplistic design, user friendliness, and its compatibility across all mobile and computer devices. He said he appreciates that he can download a mobile app of Canvas to his iPhone and iPad. With ANGEL, he was only able to view courses on his phone and tablet through his mobile web browser, which made it hard to view emails and review reports.

Canvas’s mobile app, which Smith accesses daily, has run very smoothly on his iPhone 6 Plus and has been fairly easy to navigate. Smith said he has made use of the email notifications through Canvas and likes how Canvas can be linked to a Google account, which syncs very well.

Smith’s favorite feature of Canvas is Big Blue Button, which is an open source web conferencing system. He said he loves how it acts as an alternative to Adobe Connect and works very well for team collaboration. According to Smith, the Big Blue Button interface reminds him of webinars, which he hosts for work, but it runs more smoothly than a typical webinar.

During the first week of the semester, Garbrick held a Canvas orientation meeting to introduce the different functions, which Smith said was very helpful, since he had never used Canvas before.

"I'd say there is a small learning curve, because it is a little bit different than ANGEL,” Smith said. “You just have to play around with it."

According to Smith, the main improvement that would be beneficial to Canvas is the ability to change two-step processes into one-step processes when it comes to certain functions. One such function is setting up a conference, where he has had to click separately on his team to set up a conference.

Rodney Santos

Rodney Santos command photo

Rodney Santos, undergraduate Penn State World Campus IST student and assistant professor of military science at Penn State Abington

IMAGE: Penn State

Rodney Santos is another student who is using Canvas for the first time this semester but has used ANGEL for two courses, along with the U.S. Army LMS, which is a web-based LMS that manages training information and career planning for soldiers.

"Comparatively, Canvas is leaps and bounds ahead [of ANGEL]," Santos said.

Santos said that he really appreciates how graphically pleasing Canvas is compared to other LMS platforms he has used. Like Smith, he said the Big Blue Button has proven to be very helpful with facilitating group meetings versus Google Hangouts and Skype.

Santos said the quiz vehicle in Canvas has been pretty good as well, with built-in functionality to easily mark and index each question so he is able to scroll back through and find the particular questions he was unsure about. The way the grades are presented to the student is very clean and he said he likes that he can see comments from the instructor with his grades.

Lack of proper email integration was a big issue Santos said he had, where the email between his Penn State account and Canvas did not sync after he read an email in his Penn State account then went back into Canvas to find that it was still marked as unread. He also found the sidebar in Canvas to have extraneous links, such as between the modules section and the lessons section, which duplicated information and presented it in a different format.

“I feel like there could be uses on the mobile device, but because they are not currently functional, I don't really have a use for them,” Santos said.

Santos said he would use the mobile Canvas app if the Big Blue Button feature were active. However, he can still access it from his mobile browser.

"A feature that could be developed going forward is it would be nice if this was linked to my course plan, so that in my profile, I could look at my actual course plan as dictated by my academic adviser,” Santos said. “I could see which course I've completed, I can see which courses I need to register for, and based on that, they should all link to those courses."

Lauren Mayer

Lauren Mayer in front of Nittany Lion shrine

Lauren Mayer, undergraduate Penn State World Campus IST student

IMAGE: Penn State

Another World Campus student who said she likes Canvas a lot is Lauren Mayer, who had only used ANGEL prior to this semester.

“The ability to work as a group with such ease through Canvas is so beneficial--anything to make group work easier and contained to one central location is a big plus in my book,” Mayer said.

Mayer previously studied at Penn State University Park, so upon switching to World Campus classes this semester, she was very worried that not meeting in person with her group members would make group work a challenge. Group work is a crucial element of IST classes, according to Mayer.

Another feature Mayer likes is the Big Blue Button. The conferencing function has proven very helpful for facilitating project meetings with her group. For the course, Mayer said she has been using the team feature, which allows students to access the team calendar, team announcements, and shared documents, in addition to conferencing abilities. The team feature has a separate area built into the course website that eliminates the need to host parts of the group project on external websites.

“My favorite part of Canvas is absolutely how much it facilitates successful group collaboration,” Mayer said.

According to Mayer, the email notification feature within Canvas comes in handy. She really likes the daily digest email, which features discussion posts and notifications each day. To stay on top of things, she uses the ASAP notification preference for grades and assignment changes. The one issue she has had with this feature is that sometimes it lets her reply to an email through her Gmail inbox within her Safari browser, but other times it does not.

Mayer said she has not noticed anything that needs to be improved within Canvas, and has found it fairly easy to use. “I think if I used Canvas for multiple courses, it would be easier to determine if there should be any improvements,” Mayer said. “It's the multi-course functionality that I am most curious about.”

Linda McConnell

profile picture of Linda McConnell

Linda McConnell, undergraduate Penn State World Campus IST student

IMAGE: Penn State

Linda McConnell is another student who has taken advantage of Canvas’s multi-platform functionality, where she accesses it on both Windows and iOS operating systems.

“I like that when I am away from my computer, at work or in the car for example, I can be notified of communication attempts from my group or the instructor,” McConnell said. “We have meetings that we coordinate every week, as well as constant email efforts that we've agreed to reply to by the end of the day, so it is nice to be able to quickly see if someone has replied or posted something new without all of the hassle of logging in from a computer.”

According to McConnell, the iOS mobile app for Canvas has been more user-friendly than the website version of Canvas that she accesses from her Firefox browser. She said she really appreciates that it is very self-explanatory and detailed, with an easy to navigate interface.

The only improvement McConnell said she would like to see to Canvas is the removal of the link clutter. This was an issue that Smith, Santos, and Mayer had as well.

“Canvas has way too much information, and it all circles around and around,” McConnell said. “It can be accessed from several different link paths, and so on. It isn’t necessary; it’s distracting and a little overwhelming.”

Overall, the main features beyond the mobile capabilities that McConnell said were beneficial to her as a student were the modern design of Canvas, where it feels more like social media with profile pictures and integrated text notifications, as well as the To Do list of assignments. The To Do list has proven to be very convenient to her, where she can see exactly what assignments are due each week, along with their due dates.

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Last Updated September 12, 2015