I first learnt about Virtual Learning Environments almost twenty years ago. As a high school teacher I attended a training session on a ‘platform’ designed to record students’ homework tasks which would one day remove the need for planners (the spiral-bound diaries all students were issued) and liberate the five minutes of lesson time used for setting the task and getting each and every child to note down the instructions and due date. Opinions in that session were varied and broad but what we could agree on was that this was a game-changer; we were witnessing a new dawn in education.
VLEs evolved and spread across the sector. Tech companies launched their own and Becta (or the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency) proclaimed that all schools would have to have one by 2010. Becta has long been disbanded and it wasn’t until something happened in March 2020 that many turned their attention back to their digital provision. Time had moved on, and what we needed these tools to do had changed.
At Sussex we use Canvas as our VLE, and have done since 2018. Strictly speaking a LMS (Learning Management System), Canvas offers much of the interactivity we expect from a VLE. There are many routes to generating this interactivity and engagement and for the past few weeks I have been paying particular attention to the user experience of our Canvas sites. Here’s a quick overview of what I’ve been doing and why.
Background and Brief
Recently, feedback reached the Educational Enhancement (EE) team that some students were finding their Canvas sites difficult to navigate, especially when using handheld devices such as phones and small tablets. Canvas has a mobile app but ultimately intends its product to be accessed on desktops and laptops. However, we felt that as our students had taken the time to share their preference for mobiles (one that is rather global), we needed to bring the mountain to them.
Dashboard and Landing Pages
The Student app for Canvas opens to the user’s dashboard, with module buttons which they can choose between organising as a list or as tiles. So far pretty simple. As we currently have our template set up, once the module is opened the user is presented with an image related to their topic and a long list of formatted links, which on a desktop is the menu to the left of the screen. A click away is the actual homepage which hosts another long list of formatted links, including to key information and then course content week by week. The page is tidy and legible but does call for a dreaded scroll, which we know is hardly desirable in mobile design.
We will be reviewing the amount of content on the module homepages so it fits on one screen.
Canvas makes good use of ‘previous’ and ‘next’ buttons to direct students through the weekly content (set up as ‘units’) and on a larger screen it is quite easy for most users to move around the site. On mobile devices though, it can be tricky to locate particular pages. We know that students like to double-check things like assignment details as and when the idea comes to them so we really need it to be more straightforward to do this on the move.
We will be reviewing how many separate pages we need for each week and what key links should appear throughout any module.
All of the HTML formatting we have currently built into our module pages makes for a tidy and well-organised interface. Realistically though it is all-too-easy for the code to become corrupted as content is edited as part of anyone’s reflective practice.
While we’d be sorry to see some of the more eye-catching graphics go, usability is paramount so we will be stripping out some of the HTML in favour of a more robust template.
It’s important to share that the work on this project is not finished and no decisions are being taken without consultation. Our goal, as always, is to find the solution that works for as many people as possible and disenfranchises no one.