3 things to designing better (Canvas) courses


I created this guide to outline best practices for designing Canvas courses. The problem with writing about the features of a tool is that they can become obsolete, quick. Moreover, what we use now may not be what we use one, two years down the road. As I started thinking, it slowly devolved into writing about general concepts of user experience and design. I will sometimes reference a feature in Canvas, but in general I’ll talk about principles of design to help students.

Be flexible and open

As a hobbyist developer, I envision how a user views and interacts with the project I’m creating. How does a user access my app or website? How do I display user requests? What steps does a user take to request the information they seek? I try to imagine myself as a user to expect how they will interact with my project and I create methods to handle those scenarios. This is true in nearly any application or website — we try to imagine and handle every scenario that a user may have.

A problem emerges when the you, the user, have a specific use scenario and the program doesn’t support it. As you use tech tools, don’t assume the developer supports your way of doing things. Remain flexible, work through the limitations of the tool and focus on your goals rather than your process. For example, suppose you have a policy of printing weekly grading reports for students. At the time of writing, Canvas does not provide a way of printing weekly grading reports (in bulk), so to print reports, you could export a CSV file of grades, have a template ready, use a mail merge, and print the reports. It’s a waste of time and by the end of the process, you’ll feel like Canvas is not the tool for you.

If your goal is to generate greater transparency between your students and their work, maintain the online gradebook in Canvas and have the students periodically check their grade through the app. Not only do you save yourself time, but you open yourself to leveraging other tools offered through the Canvas gradebook without any extra work. Stop trying to emulate your process through the tool, reimagine it and save time!

Think (more generally) about accessibility

When people think about accessibility they think about screen readers, visual aides, or color combinations to help aide students who have impairments. But, I want you to consider accessibility in a more generic sense, by asking yourself the following questions:

Can my students access my classroom resources?

Every student has an iPad at New Trier, but not every student uses it exclusively to research or do work. In a study of tech usage

“…while 75 percent of high school students regularly use a smartphone, only 42 percent of high school students regularly use a tablet at home or school.”.

It goes to show you that the school-issued iPad does not have a monopoly over how students’ access content, and given the opportunity, they will use other devices. Does your course give your students the flexibility to access classroom resources from their phones as on their iPad? Remember that your course will look different on your computer, on an iPad, and on a phone. Instead of reworking your design, leverage to the power of the Canvas app to display valuable information, such as through modules. If you are organizing your content using pages, be weary of tables or other elements with fixed width or height proportions. Consider the following image:

This image may not seem large on your computer, but imagine reading this article on your phone. How much screen space do you imagine it would take on your phone?

This image is 400 x 300 pixels — it may not seem large on your computer, but it covers at least 39% of the available screen space on an iPad and 72% on an average phone! Students will find any way to access your classroom resources, make it easier and give them that flexibility.

Can I view and edit my files from any device?

Suppose you are doing a podcast project using iMovie and require students to add background music and sound effects. You have these samples in your Canvas course, and ask your students to import the files. But the iPad can’t save those files locally — a student that wants to import the file needs to jump over 3 or 4 hoops through apps to get the file saved on their tablet and imported in iMovie. It is not only bad practice, it’s not good design — bad design permeates through the practice, infecting it, and taking away from the outcomes you are trying to achieve. Designing better online courses means you have to take the entire experience into consideration. Be flexible in your approach, realistic in what is workable with the platform, and spare your students from a bad experience.

Can a student with limited or slow internet access my classroom resources without issues?

Make it easy for someone to access what they need quickly. If you have a lot of pictures or videos on a single page, consider having many pages and creating a table of contents. Be aware of your image sizes. It may not take long for a student access a page full of hi-resolution images, but it may take longer if you have an entire class doing it at the same time. You can have a student download a large video to view from Canvas, but if its an entire class, it may be easier to have it streaming from a third-party that offers buffering, like YouTube or Vimeo.

These questions are by no means exhaustive but they can drive your thinking as you consider ways of designing your course to be more accessible.

Simplicity goes a long way

I have yet to go in-depth about any features or strategies to leverage Canvas to design better courses and there’s a reason for it. Design principles are platform agnostic, and whether you use Canvas, Google Classroom, or have a simple blog, thinking generally about design and usability will help your students have a better experience. But to some, thinking about design is adding another layer of complexity and work — it requires time, a precious commodity that few can afford to spend. That’s why when thinking about designing a course, it’s often times easier to keep things simple.

Design doesn’t have to be about having beautifully assembled, responsive or colorful pages. Work with your tools to make sure the content is front and center. Use modules to create an organizational structure your entire content. If you use your course to disseminate files, make sure the repository is in a logical order so that students can refer to them. If you use pages to provide students with information, label them clearly to make it easy to find and reference information. Hide what you don’t need students to see right away, don’t use what you don’t need, and focus on the content.


Creating an online course is about more than uploading your coursework onto Canvas (or any other tool) and giving students access to it. Its about creating an experience that a student can reference quickly and effectively. Its about using this space to support you in generating better learning outcomes. It may be about spending a little extra time and thought, but its an investment worth making.