In Fall 2014, Purdue started a pilot of the Canvas LMS to assess the usability of Canvas at Purdue University. With Purdue’s contract with Blackboard expiring in September of 2017, it is important to look at alternatives to see if Purdue is best served by Blackboard, or if a different learning management system would be better for faculty and students.
When it comes to Canvas, I’ve considered the things I like, and the things I’m not quite a fan of. Let’s start off with the three things I really like about Canvas:
- Customizable Notifications
One of the terrific options in Canvas is that users can customize how they are notified of course changes, announcements, and other alerts. By default, all users have their Purdue email address listed for notifications. Canvas allows for users to add additional email accounts, as well as their cell phone numbers for SMS messages. Notifications can also be sent to a user’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.Additionally, when users are notified of alerts can be changed. A user can be alerted to a change when it happens, once daily, or even weekly. Notifications can be turned off, too. By allowing faculty and students to customize how and when they are notified of course changes, in-course communication can become more effective.
- Uploading Files
Adding files to a Canvas course is simple – click on a file on your computer, and drag it into Canvas. Need three files? Highlight all three files on your computer, and drag them all into Canvas. Canvas features a file manager that can also allow for the creation of folders for better organization of files. Instructors may also lock files to limit access to them and course TA’s, which is useful if the course must include private files (such as homework solutions).
- Canvas Mobile Application
For me, this is a big deal. First, the Canvas Mobile Application while still developing, has a number of features that I think users will find very useful immediately. The mobile application allows for sending messages to instructors and students, as well as checking grades and viewing all course notifications sorted by date. Also, the mobile application is free and is available for iOS and Android. Plus, students can submit assignments through the mobile app!
So, I’ve listed the things I like. Here’s the three things that I’ve found that I’m not thrilled about just yet…
- Test and Quiz Creation
This is something where Canvas does not necessarily have an advantage over Blackboard, unless you’re creating equations (where Canvas does have an advantage). Creating a test or a quiz in Canvas is just as complicated as it is in Blackboard. Also, one must be careful to not scramble answer options if answers such as “all of the above” or “A and B only” are used in questions. However, adding images and multimedia to question answer options is fairly simple in comparison to Blackboard. Overall, it’s still a time-consuming process to build a quiz in Canvas.
- Limited Course Menu Alteration Options
Canvas has designed its course menu to where there is not a lot of customization that can be done with the menu itself. Sure, menu items can be removed or made unavailable to students, but for arranging content, instructors cannot add new content areas like Blackboard. Canvas provides a Modules area, where content can be arranged by week, unit, chapter, and more. But there can only be one Modules area, not more, and the names of the links cannot be altered. For instructors who like to place a link to individual content areas set up by week or objective, this could be a concern.
- Automatic Updates
Instructure updates Canvas usually once every three weeks with anything from bug fixes to the addition of new options. While for bug fixes this is welcome, when it comes to look and feel alterations, should things really change during a semester? If look, feel, and feature updates could be delayed on an institution-by-institution basis this wouldn’t be a concern.
So, that are some of my likes and concerns about Canvas. If you would like more information about the Canvas pilot, visit our Canvas Pilot Site at http://www.itap.purdue.edu/learning/innovate/projects/canvas.html. Faculty members who would like to try out Canvas are invited to request a test account by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recently, a faculty member commented to one of my colleagues and I that Blackboard was simply “too much” for things he wanted to do within his course. That got me thinking as to why someone might consider Blackboard Learn to be a tool that might be excessive for specific needs.
Blackboard Learn offers to faculty a rich set of tools – but what happens when a faculty member does not want to use the clear majority of those tools? What if a faculty member only wants a place to place their syllabus and course schedule, content for students to read, upload an occasional video, and so forth? Does a faculty member have an option for a simpler way to get course content to students at Purdue?
The answer is yes – the Confluence Wiki.
While it might seem odd that a wiki could be an alterative to Blackboard, the Confluence Wiki can perform many of the same functions for faculty that a traditional LMS would be able to provide. Confluence offers the following for faculty:
- On-Demand Course Creation: Unlike Blackboard, where course sites are created automatically, faculty may create their course’s space (site) in Confluence on demand by using the Space Creation application located at http://www.purdue.edu/apps/Confluence. This will automatically create a space on Confluence for the class and enroll all students and instructors in the class into the newly created Confluence space.
- Automatic Enrollment Management: When a space is created using our Space Creation application, as noted before all students and instructors will be added to the newly created space. In addition, as students add or drop the class, those changes are reflected in the Confluence space.
- Content Management: Faculty can easily upload documents and images to Confluence, and then quickly replace those documents with up-to-date versions. For example, if the course syllabus changes, a new syllabus can be uploaded and replace the existing file. Additionally, web links to other sites and to multimedia may also be included in Confluence.
- Flexibility: A Confluence space can be very simple (one or two pages with all the content needed) to highly complex, depending on needs.
- Privacy: Academic spaces in Confluence are only accessible to those enrolled in the course; they are not accessible by the public.
There are a few features Confluence does not have that is important to note. First, Confluence does not offer integrated homework submission and quizzes/exams, like Blackboard. Faculty who want to offer online exams (such as pre- or post- assessments) would be able to use Qualtrics and survey panels within the Qualtrics tool to control assessment delivery.
Also, Confluence does not offer an electronic gradebook, which would require students to track their own grades. Additionally, while Confluence does offer the ability for students to comment on pages, there is no threaded discussion board available like what is available in Blackboard.
One other concern would be that if Confluence is used instead of Blackboard Learn, students will need to be directed to Confluence to access course content. In this case it is recommended that any instructor using Confluence provide directions to students in class on how to access the Confluence site and make the site a favorite, so the site is quickly accessible after login.
Although there are these concerns, the Confluence Wiki does provide a great amount of flexibility on how the online portion of a course can be set up. As much (or as little) information can be made available to students as desired.
While Blackboard Learn has many tools that faculty may wish to use in their teaching, there may be a desire for something that simply does not do everything that Blackboard can do, and that’s where Confluence can assist. An example “course” in Confluence has been created at https://wiki.itap.purdue.edu/display/confcourse/Confluence+for+Courses+Demonstration+Home to provide some ideas on how Confluence may be used as an alternative to Blackboard.
For more information about using Confluence as an alternative to Blackboard, or adding wikis to your course, please contact us at email@example.com.
Blackboard Learn offers the ability for instructors to create and deploy assessments that can be automatically graded (or even a mix of automatically graded questions plus instructor-reviewed essay questions). However, there are some pros and cons to consider if you’re considering adding Blackboard-based assessments to your course.
Pro: Assessments can be automatically graded and points added to the Grade Center.
Most question options in Blackboard Learn (with the exception of file upload and essay questions) are able to be automatically graded with the points immediately added to the Grade Center. This allows students to receive immediate feedback on the assessment, and removes the task of having to manually enter quiz grades into the Grade Center.
Con: Assessments can be automatically graded and points added to the Grade Center.
What can be a pro can also be a con. The automatic posting of scores can remove from the instructor the ability to review the assessment results before making the scores public to the students. Yes, it is possible to hide the results from the students and keep the scores from being added to the Grade Center, but that does require some additional work on the part of an instructor to go back later and turn back on options to show the results and include the scores in the Grade Center.
Pro: Short in-class quizzes can be moved to Blackboard and taken outside of class, freeing up time that is better used for instruction.
For instructors who want to provide short quizzes to assess student knowledge on a regular basis, moving the quizzes out of your class and into Blackboard can preserve instructional time. Time and date restrictions may be added to the quiz to ensure students are not able to start their quiz before or after a specific day/time. This also allows students who may have been unable to attend class to participate in the assessment of their knowledge.
Con: Quizzes provided outside of class removes instructor control of who can take the quiz.
While it is more convenient to give quizzes outside of class, it may be difficult (if not impossible) to make changes to the quiz to prevent students who didn’t attend class from taking the quiz. For those teaching a small class, it may be possible to release the exam to everyone but those students; however that changes for those who teach large lectures. If a student makes a decision to skip class, that’s their decision – so why should they get a chance to take a quiz on Blackboard that they would have missed if the quiz was given in class? The more students there are in your class could mean that it may be more difficult to control access to the assessment.
Pro: Quizzes and tests given in Blackboard allow students to take their assessment when they are ready.
Class time may not always be the right time for some students to take their assessments. Maybe they are not fully prepared, perhaps they’ve had several other tests or quizzes that day, or maybe their work schedule prevented them from being ready to take the assessment. By placing the quiz or test in Blackboard, students have the flexibility to start the assessment when they are ready, regardless of the time of day. If the student wants to take the quiz at 3:00 am, no problem!
Con: Allowing students to start their assessment when they are ready will only give them an excuse to wait until the last minute.
While not every student is a procrastinator, there are some definite issues with students being allowed to start their exam when they are ready. Students who choose to wait until the last minute to take the exam do run some additional risks. What happens if their computer or their Internet connection experiences technical problems? What if there’s a problem with Blackboard? In these cases the students who have waited may not be able to complete the exam before the deadline, and then a choice will have to be made if they can have another attempt at the assessment.
Pro: Blackboard Learn offers several settings to help make each assessment unique, and there are tools available to help reduce the chances of academic dishonesty.
Blackboard Learn does offer settings for assessments that can help reduce dishonesty. First, question answer options can be displayed randomly via a setting that is turned on when the question is created. Second, questions can be displayed in random order through a setting on the test options. There is also the option to display one question at a time instead of all at once. Additionally, Purdue provides Respondus LockDown Browser as an alternative browser for test taking. Students can download the LockDown Browser, and instructors can force students to use the LockDown Browser for the exam instead of their preferred web browser. (LockDown Browser only allows students to take the exam; it shuts down access to instant messaging and other resources). Feedback on exams can also be restricted so students can’t print the questions and answers on their exams to share with other students.
Con: It’s great there are all these settings and tools to try to reduce dishonesty, but instructors have to use them, and there can still be cheating.
Some students are going to attempt to cheat on their online exams no matter what bumps or barrier that are put in their way. Even if an online exam is proctored, does that completely dissuade a student who intends on being dishonest from attempting to sneak in a crib sheet? It probably won’t stop someone determined to cheat on an exam. It does take some effort and planning to ensure all steps are taken to reduce the chances students will try to cheat, but it’s not foolproof. If a student is taking a test at home using the LockDown browser, what stops them from getting out their smartphone or to get access to another computer?
Pro: Using Blackboard to provide my students with their quizzes and assessments reduces the amount of copies that have to be made of the questions, and eliminates using separate answer sheets, helping to drive down costs.
Think about how many paper copies of exams are made. How much is spent on photocopying a large exam alone? How much do special scanned answer sheets cost? By using Blackboard for assessments, the amount of paper copies that are made can be reduced and potentially eliminated in some cases. This can not just save money due to the reduced number of copies made, but it can also
Con: While it’s great to be able to reduce the number of copies made in some cases, it may not be the best idea to move all assessments to Blackboard only.
While it may be worthwhile considering making a move of some quizzes and other assessments to Learn instead of providing those in class, it might be best to reserve these moves to low-risk/low-impact assessments. Unless the class is taught exclusively online, keeping high-value assessments in a monitored, controlled atmosphere (such as the classroom) allows students to seek assistance when needed, and for faculty to observe and address any issues that might arise during that time. In some subjects, using paper may actually benefit the student as the student can demonstrate their work to the instructor
These pros and cons are not the only issues surrounding online assessments. As an instructor, you should make the decision as to how best assess your students’ knowledge of the material you are teaching. Hopefully these pros and cons have given you something to think about. If you would like to know more about possibly adding Blackboard based assessments to your course, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of the new tools introduced with Purdue’s recent upgrade to Blackboard Learn Service Pack 14 is inline grading. This new tool will change the way many faculty who accept student assignments via Blackboard Learn provide feedback to students on their assignments.
Previously, when students uploaded assignments to Blackboard, course instructors would have to download any files the students uploaded to Blackboard. Instructors downloading assignments would potentially face several issues:
- File incompatibility: If a student used a word processing program that saved the file in a format that the instructor’s computer could not read, the student’s work would be inaccessible to the instructor for grading purposes.
- Viruses/malware: Downloading student files could be dangerous if the student’s computer was infected with a computer virus. However, the reverse was also true if the instructor added comments to the paper and returned it to the student electronically, and the instructor’s computer was infected with a virus.
- Limited feedback: Removing the student’s work from Blackboard and having to grade the papers externally could be seen as tedious, and could impact the amount of feedback given on the paper, especially if there is a tight turn-around time for student work to be returned.
So how does inline grading address the three points above? First, while inline grading does require students to submit work in Microsoft Word, Excel, or PowerPoint, most free office productivity suites will save files in older Word, Excel, or PowerPoint formats (*.doc, *.xls, or *.ppt). Additionally, inline grading will accept PDF files as well. The files that are uploaded in compatible formats are converted to an HTML5 document that can be manipulated within Blackboard.
Files that are uploaded in one of the compatible formats do not have to be downloaded to be viewed (although this option is available). Grading of submitted work can take place completely within Blackboard – student work can be reviewed, annotations added, and comments embedded within the document. Being able to add comments and annotations within the document inside of Blackboard reduces the time it would take to download the file, make those comments in a word processing program, then upload the altered file back to Blackboard.
As an instructor who used inline grading during the Spring 2014 term, I found myself giving my students much richer feedback on their work than I had in the past. I no longer had to download papers to add annotations and re-upload the papers to Blackboard, or give long explanations in the feedback area about areas I wanted to comment on. I was able to provide positive and constructive feedback exactly where it was needed, and then use the feedback area to provide general feedback to my students.
For faculty looking for a way to accept papers electronically, inline grading provides a new option for accepting, grading, and returning student work. If you are interested in learning more about inline grading or need assistance using this feature in Blackboard, please contact us at email@example.com. For instructions on how to use Inline Grading in your course, download our instructional handout.