Following up to last week’s post, ASSESStivus 2020: Key Takeaway, our focus today is on two of the six Canvas features assisting with retention. Coinciding perfectly with our series on designing an inclusive syllabus, this post highlights Canvas as a syllabus tool in our discussion of contact information and communication.
Canvas as a Syllabus Tool
The syllabus is an introduction of your course to your learners and can be used to set a tone for the class. As such, it is important that your syllabus sets the tone you intend. There is often a propensity to think of the syllabus as a “contract” between professor and the student and include extensive lists of “thou shalt nots” throughout the lengthy document. Thinking of one’s syllabus in such transactional terms can limit our ability to reach our students from the beginning. However, when we think of the syllabus as a communication tool intended to provide our learners the resources necessary to be successful we can begin to identify means by which Canvas can enhance the likelihood that students not only view the material but engage with it.
While Geneseo stands by a requirement of a making a printable version of your syllabus readily available within your course shell, Canvas can be used to add nuance to how you highlight the details. One way of ensuring that learners are familiar with the contents of your syllabus is to make its content a living part of your learners’ everyday experience. Canvas provides a number pathways to do this. Additionally, by leveraging Canvas to highlight expectations laid out in the syllabus, you can increase learner agency over their education while reducing the amount of time you spend revisiting material clearly laid out in the syllabus.
What follows is a brief introduction to how one might leverage some of the staple elements of Canvas to break-out and communicate key elements of one’s syllabus:
“Week Zero” or Resource Module
Modules essentially create a linear flow of what students should do within a course. Each module can contain files, discussions, assignments, quizzes, and other learning materials; any material you like. Bundling key syllabus related materials into one module can be very impactful. Furthermore, such a module can be set as a prerequisite for the rest of the course ensuring that students do not proceed until they have interacted with this required information and allowing you to track the progress of students through it.
One of Canvas’ most powerful tools are “Pages.” Pages are analogous to wiki or webpages and allow for the embedding of all manner of rich media, text, or links. Individual pages usually consist of relatively small amounts of information pertaining to the same topic. Pages (as well as other materials) of similar topics are usually grouped into Modules. The use of such tools to deliver content within one’s field of expertise may come naturally, but, using these pages to clarify the meta of the course itself is often overlooked. Below are two types of Pages one can add to their course to expand upon material found in the syllabus and provide context for the class:
“About this Course” page
This is a great place to include the course description from the College Bulletin with an explanation as to how your course will meet that description in less abstract terms. Include links to the materials and resources the course will be using to create an easy reference for students- and yes, this information should already be in your printable syllabus. This page is also a great place to explain how you will be using such materials and tools (including Canvas!) and explain the expectations you have about how students will communicate both with you and their classmates. By providing transparency into your teaching process you can reduce some of your learners’ anxiety; By highlighting it in a bite sized page, independent of your increasingly mammoth syllabus, you can increase the likelihood of students actually reading it.
Life Pro Tip: this is an opportunity to contextualize in real life terms how a learner will benefit from taking this course.
“About the Professor” page
Presumably you are a human. Let your students know that. A short bit of biography can go a long way in establishing a connection with the other (presumably) humans in the class. By explaining to your learners that you will be grading papers in the early morning/late evening because that is when your three year old is most likely to be sleeping, or that if they require office hours after five PM you’ll need to know in advance so arrangements can be made to feed your puppy/elderly dog they are more likely to understand and value odd grade submission times or your desire to hold office hours earlier in the day. Additionally, providing insight into your educational experience- knowing about hard earned certifications in your field as well as your captaining of the fencing squad not only lends credibility to your instruction but humanity to your lessons.
By sharing small insights into your life, both personally and professionally, you can make a connection with your students that will allow you to more easily guide them through the material you are sharing and reduce friction that may come form conflicts of interest. Furthermore, it helps students to make positive assumptions about your decisions. It makes it easier for students to trust you because of the trust you’ve shown them by sharing yourself with them.
Life Pro Tip: the About the Professor page is an excellent place to provide links to contact information and perhaps your Google Calendar where you can establish office hour appointment slots.
Announcements allow instructors to communicate with students about course activities and post interesting course-related topics. Announcements are designed to allow instructors to broadcast information out to all members of a course or to all members of sections within a course. Regular application of announcements can be used to reenforce milestones established in one’s syllabus and can be used to tie information back to learning objectives.
Life Pro Tip: Announcements have a “Delay Posting” option which can be used to schedule posts in advance, allowing you to set reminders and other information well in advance of a time that you might otherwise forget.
Generating all of this communication can (and should!) lead to feedback from learners and the beginning of new conversations. As such, it is important to establish expectations as to both how students are to interact with you (email, text, phone, or other) and when to expect a response. It’s infeasible to expect a professor to be on the clock 24/7, however learners often lead very diverse schedules that likely don’t sync closely with your. By not only clearly informing students as to how you prefer to be contacted, but when you will be responding to such contact you will reduce frustration on their part as well as your own. This management of expectations should be supplemented with some information on the content of communications as well.
Whether communicating with you or their classmates we should always encourage our students to interact with members of the class with respect and the understanding that electronic communications are often limited by their inability to transmit many non-verbal cues. Establishing an understanding in regards to class netiquette should bear in mind a few points that can go along way in keeping communications civil:
- Approach each conversation with respect. It can sometimes be easy to forget that there is an individual associated with the text we are reading. Be mindful of that individual’s thoughts, feelings, and rights.
- Assume best intentions. Knowing that electronic communication often lacks subtly it is usually best practice to assume no harm on the part of the author of the communication.
- Act with best intentions. Keeping in mind said limitations approach your communications without malice. This may require a delay in response while one regains composure.
- Be clear. Ambiguity in electronic communication with individuals we may not know well can leave area to read into it more or less than was intended.
Between your syllabus, the correct mindset, and the appropriate application of Canvas tools, hopefully your learners will have the appropriate entrance into your course and feel confident in their interaction with you and the course materials.