Dutton Institute Blog

Pizza? No, Piazza!

slice of pizza

Credit: CC0 Public Domain


You may have heard recently that Penn State signed an agreement that officially allows for the use of the Piazza classroom discussion platform. Full integration with Canvas is in the works. Until then, faculty and learning designers can add a Piazza URL to a Canvas course to facilitate student access.

So, why would you want to use Piazza when you have Canvas?

Piazza can be a great enhancement to your course. Many instructors have found that it is a better way to manage class discussions. Posts are tagged for easy searching. Piazza can be set up to allow students to collaborate on a post wiki-style. It will even accommodate varying levels of anonymity. The interface also makes it easy for instructor and students to observe, interact and manage conversations. These are all functions that either are not available or are challenging to navigate in Canvas discussions.

In addition, there is a mobile app available as well as multimedia embedding capabilities. Many instructors also like the in-class polls and the robust LaTex equation editor.

Visit the Piazza website for more information, or contact the Dutton Institute Learning Design team!


A simple and easy way to provide feedback to students in Canvas

It is well documented that providing feedback to students is a powerful influence on student achievement.  Feedback:

  • Is most helpful when it is specific and immediate
  • Contributes to learning
  • Contributes even more to learning when the learner reflects on the lesson for next time

Canvas allows us to provide feedback to students with tools such as email, announcements, discussion forums, chats, conferences and assignment feedback through SpeedGrader (such as using rubrics, or comment boxes).

However, did you know you can quickly send a message to students directly from the gradebook

Remind students who have not submitted an assignment that a due date is coming up. Communicate to students that an emergency has come up and you will be longer than anticipated returning their grades.  Praise students who have scored well on an assessment. Encourage students who didn’t score as well as you had hoped and potentially clear up misconceptions or provide additional resources.

You can message students who fall into the following categories:

Haven’t submitted yet - these are students who have not submitted to an assignment or assessment. Note: if you manually assigned a grade for these students, Canvas will treat them as having submitted.
Haven’t been graded - these are students who have either submitted or not submitted an assignment and have not been graded yet
Scored less than [point value] - these are students who have been graded and their assignments are scored with less than X number of points
Scored more than [point value] - these are students who have been graded and their assignments are scored with more than x number of points.

Each student will receive an individual message and not see other students who might have received the same email. 

To send feedback by category:

1.  Open the Gradebook -  click on Grades in the Course Navigation:

Grades from menu

2.  Select “Message Student Who…” by hovering over the assignment and clicking the drop-down menu. Choose “Message Students Who…

Message students who

3.  Modify To and Subject lines if desired - After you select a message category, the students that fit that category will appear automatically in the “To” line.  You can remove anyone you wish to remove from the list. The subject will automatically fill with your category description and assignment name, but you are able to change that if you choose.

4.  Write message -

Ideas for feedback:

  • Comment on the process of learning rather than outcome - help students build knowledge to next concept or outcome (ex “You have demonstrated your understanding of _______, and in upcoming lessons, we will be using this knowledge to help us analyze ________.)
  • Ask students to look backward and ask them to reflect on what they have learned
  • Praise students on what they did well
  • Provide students with strategies for improvement of errors or misconceptions
  • Encourage supplemental learning opportunities and resources
  • Share your passion for their learning

5. Send Message - press the ‘Send Message’ button to send your message. Students will receive individual messages and not a group message.


Additional Resources:

Canvas Instructure guide on sending messages to students using the gradebook

Using assessment to support learning by Graham Gibbs (2010)

Influences on Student Learning by John Hattie (1999)


The Power of Feedback by John Hattie and Helen Timperley (2007)


It’s not just about the Nutella: Building a partnership between learning designer and instructor

One of my favorite parts of being a learning designer is working with instructors. It’s not only a chance to create a new course with ideas, but it’s an opportunity for a new work partnership. The idea-sharing, the collaborative work, and even the thrill of reaching a goal too close to a deadline are enriching.

Here are a few tips I’ve gathered over the years on building partnerships among designers and instructors:

  • At the beginning of the work relationship, hold a kickoff meeting to get to know each other. Discuss goals. Talk about communication preferences. Define expectations. This sets the stage for working together as a team.
  • Define roles. Decide how involved each will be in the technology aspects of development.
  • Find the tool that works best for your collaboration. Is it Google Docs? Slack? Trello? Another tool? Keep each other accountable for your checklists as you progress.
  • Decide how often you will check in with each other. Keep in good communication by asking how things are going, following up on tasks, asking how “XYZ suggestion” worked for a particular situation, sending short articles or ideas that you’ve found that relate to the course or to course design.
  • Designers - teach instructors to fish. Realize that there are different kinds of fishing - some enjoy deep sea fishing, where others like to stay closer to the shore. Instructors - be clear in letting your designer know what it is you need when it comes to learning the technologies and processes.
  • Be flexible-ish. Build some space (but not too much) for fluidity in your timelines knowing that research, work, and personal lives come up during the development process. On the flip side, it’s important for instructors to realize that the designer shouldn’t be expected to work burning the midnight oil when repeated deadlines are missed. (This goes back to expectation management.)
  • There should be a mutual respect between instructor and designer. The course belongs to the instructor. Feedback for the course is based on expertise and experience. Working as a team, appreciate each others strengths and weaknesses.
  • When all else fails, I’ve been told that occasional gifts of Nutella or cookies can sweeten the working partnership.

Giving Extra Time or additional tries in Canvas

Every now and again, faculty receive letters from students who have some type of disability. Not all disabilities are physical, some are neurological and require that students be given extra time on quizzes, exams or any other assignment that is timed. The student works with the Office of Disability Services and is given a letter to share with their instructors to receive the accommodation outlined in the letter. Sometimes, you may need to give a student another attempt at an assignment for any number of reasons.

In ANGEL, you'd have to set up a group, put the student in the group, and then make adjustments to the group settings. Canvas makes it easier than that. “Moderating Quizzes” is the term that Canvas uses for accomplishing these types of tasks. One thing that is important to know about moderating quizzes is that you can only moderate a quiz, exam, assignment etc. if it has been published. The button just isn't there to moderate if the item is unpublished. So if you prefer to publish items as you go instead of publishing everything before class starts and un-hiding as you go, you will need to moderate to add the extra time at the time when you publish. If you don't, the student who needs the extra time won't get it. Then you would have to give him, or her, a full second attempt. Instructions for moderating a quiz are below with a link to the full instructions in the Canvas Guide.

1. Open the exam, quiz or lab submission assignment to which you need to add the time extension. If it is published, you will see a number of actions you can choose on the upper right side of the page including “Quiz Statistics,” “SpeedGrader” and “Moderate this Quiz.” To add time for a student who needs it, click “Moderate This Quiz.” (All items that students submit answers for are called quizzes in Canvas.) Please note again that unpublished items do not have these options.
2. Scroll down until you see the student's name.
3. Click the Edit icon (tiny pencil all the way to the right in the row with her name) to open the Student Extensions box.
4. In the entry box beside “Extra Time on Every Attempt,” add whatever additional time is listed in the letter (This is not the total time the student gets. Canvas does the math, so just add the additional time. For example, if the student gets time and a half and the exam is 60 minutes, add 30 minutes in the box. Canvas will calculate and give the student 90 minutes.)
5. Click Save.
6. Move onto the next quiz, exam, assignment, etc.

This process is so much easier than it was in ANGEL. No Group is needed. This is also how you would give students additional attempts if needed, too.
Here are the complete instructions as shown in the Canvas Instructor Guide.

Author: April Millet, Learning Designer, Dutton Institute

Adding Events to Your Canvas Calendar

Compared to ANGEL, the Canvas Calendar has so much more utility. Highlights of some of the features in the Canvas Calendar include:

  • A global view across all of your courses. Simply toggle on or off the courses you want to see
  • Integration of assignment due dates. Whenever you add a due date to any assignment in your course, it is automatically added to the calendar
  • Drag and drop editing
  • The option to adjust calendar dates when importing into a new semester. Remember how in ANGEL, you had to manually move the calendar entries? This is no longer needed -- you can select the start date of the existing section and the start date of the new section, and everything gets moved for you!

With all of these new features, it might be pretty overwhelming to set up your course calendar. I've received a few questions regarding how to add items the calendar, so I made the following recording: Adding Events to Your Course Calendar

The focus is on adding "events." I want to make this distinction because Canvas categorizes calendar items as either events or assignments. Events are primarily used as reminders for students -- for example, "Start Lesson 1" or "Quiz 1 Opens." Assignments, on the other hand, are centered on deliverable items with due dates. These typically are automatically added to your calendar if you have a due date set up in your assignment settings.

For more information about calendars, visit the Canvas Instructor Calendar Guide



Considering Vygotsky in Relation to Course Design

Many of our online courses feature discussion activities and group work, but could they be designed to be more beneficial to students? Yep. Try adding a little Vygotskian theory to your diet.

Lev Vygotsky was a Russian cognitive theorist who began developing some big ideas (socio-cultural theory) but then died young. Still, educators highly value his ideas about the ways social surroundings within learning environments help us learn, particularly when those environments include skilled partners -- which may mean the instructor, but which may also be peers. The key is that guided, or social, learning can lead to better understanding and performance than can working alone. Also important is a consideration of the role of the instructor: source of knowledge or role model? Or both?

Consider the following, from Sociocultural Approaches to Learning and Development: A Vygotskian Framework by Vera John-Steiner ad Holbrook Mahn of the Univeristy of New Mexico:

“Divergent classrooms can become learning communities -- communities in which each participant makes significant contributions to the emergent understandings of all members, despite having unequal knowledge concerning the topic under study" (Palincsar, Brown, & Campione, 1993, p. 43). [Brown and her colleagues] examine the role of "reciprocal teaching," an approach in which "students and teachers take turns leading discussions about shared text" (p. 43), to see whether structured dialogues foster a learning community. The teachers in these studies have a changing role. They share with the students the well-defined tasks of questioning, clarifying, summarizing, and predicting in order to construct text-based knowledge. These studies exemplify two themes in sociocultural approaches to … learning and teaching -- (1) the implementation of an educational program that allows for or encourages the co-construction of knowledge and (2) the analysis of this learning that contributes to our understanding of … learning from a sociocultural perspective. Collaborative learning plays an increasing role in these as well as many other innovative [learning environments].

To learn more, check out these links and articles:

Simply Psychology’s page about Lev Vygotsky

Vygotsky and the Virtual Classroom

Towards a Neo-Vygotskian Approach to 21st Century Learning


Beach Reading: Best Blogs for Online Learning

woman reading on beach
Credit: Michael Mol via Flickr

The sound of waves crashing onto the shore…

The feeling of wind blowing through your hair…

The crisp taste of a refreshing beverage as you sit in the hot sun…

And a list of e-learning blogs to add to your news feed….

Summer is here! For many of us, summer is an opportunity to make more time to explore our passions. At the Dutton Institute, one of our passions is creating high-quality educational opportunities for Penn State students. We are often motivated and inspired in this pursuit by connecting with resources that highlight current trends and best practices in online education. The curated list below is meant to provide you with a jumping-off point (a diving board, if you will) for finding helpful online resources to inspire your online teaching. Read on!

The Web 2.0 Connected Classroom. Steven W. Anderson provides many insights into ways that technology and social media can be integrated into meaningful learning experiences for students. For those of you on Twitter, he is also a prolific tweeter.

The Innovative Educator. Lisa Nielsen is a public school educator who has an excellent perspective on ways to use technology to enhance students’ classroom experiences (both online and in-person). A recurring post is The Hottest Posts Everyone's Reading, in which she shares links to high-traffic ed-tech blog posts from around the web.

E-Learning Acupuncture. Eric Tremblay is an educational developer in Ontario. His blog is full of helpful information about a variety of topics, including active learning in an online environment and current trends in ed-tech.

E-learning by Tracy Parrish. Tracy Parrish has curated this enormous list of e-learning tools, most of which are free. They are listed by category for easy navigation. Very helpful!

For those bookworms out there, here are some recent releases that we have read and that you may want to check out as well:

Show Your Work by Jane Bozarth

Jane recently presented a workshop on showing your work at the Elements Web Conference at Penn State. She inspired Dutton learning designers to rethink how we share our work with others.

Design for How People Learn by Julie Dirksen

Julie participated in a Q&A this spring with PSU learning designers who had read her book. Her book does a great job of reminding us how the brain works, and how we can maximize learning by making some important adjustments to our instruction and online presentation.

If you are interested in checking out a more extensive list of resources, including YouTube Channels and Twitter accounts, you can check out this collaborative document created by two of our Dutton Institute learning designers. 

Happy reading!

Canvas Assignments and Rubrics

In Canvas, assignments include quizzes, graded discussions, and online submissions (i.e. files, images, text, URLs, etc.). Assignments in Canvas can be used to challenge students' understanding and help assess competency by using a variety of media. Rubrics can play a big part in assessing a student's competency. There are many different definitions for rubric, but we have settled on one by Susan M. Brookhart from her 2013 book How to Create and Use Rubrics for Formative Assessment and Grading. A rubric is “a coherent set of criteria for students' work that includes descriptions of levels of performance quality on the criteria” .  One of the nicer aspects of Canvas is that it make using rubrics easy. Canvas's rubric tool is integrated right into the assignment page which makes  the rubric very visible to students. As soon as the student clicks the assignment to learn what it is they need to do, they see the full rubric for that assignment. 

Canvas makes using a rubric to grade an assignment so easy. You can add them to assignments, quizzes and discussions to make grading these item faster and easier. Rubrics that you’ve created in a Canvas course are available for you to use in all your Canvas courses. For example, if you use writing rubrics in multiple courses, you can just reuse one that you like and edit it to work for the different assignments. You can also search for rubrics that other instructors or designers have added to the Canvas Commons and use those in your course. Rubrics are quick and easy to set up and to use for grading in Speedgrader. Work out the specifics of your rubric somewhere else like in Word or a Google Doc and then paste the info into Canvas. It will save you tons of time once you are in Canvas.

Below are several links to resources that you may find useful if you want to lear more about rubrics in general and using rubrics in Canvas specifically. 

Useful Links on Rubrics

Adobe Connect recording of Coffee, Cookies and Canvas Assignments and Rubrics training session

Rubrics Box Folder contains a full presentation slides and rubric templates.
Download Presentation Hacking Canvas: Making the rubric tool in Canvas work for you


Canvas Resources (search "rubrics" in the Course Guides for a complete list)

Create an Assignment in Canvas

Add a Rubric to an Assignment

Add a rubric to a Graded Discussion

Add a rubric to a quiz

Grading using a rubric



Communication Tools in Canvas

Canvas has many options available for communication. Instructors can personalize their messages by posting audio and video messages in discussions, the SpeedGrader, and Conversations. Here is a list of the communication tools you can take advantage of in Canvas, and a brief description of the uses for each:

  1. Announcements are a great way for instructors to communicate to the class as a whole. The rich text editor allows numerous formatting options and the ability to add images and video. Instructors have the option to delay postings, allow liking, and add attachments.
  2. Conversations is the equivalent of email in Canvas. It's great to use for a quick email to an individual student or teams. Keep in mind that the text editor is very minimal, and does not allow much formatting like the editor does in Announcements.
  3. Discussions allow students to interact with the instructor and other classmates. Threaded discussions allow multiple posts and replies. New posts appear in the Course Activity Stream page, so students will know when something has been posted.
  4. Chat allows individuals in a course to interact in real time. Be aware that messages in the chat cannot be deleted and the chat history can be viewed by anyone in the course.
  5. Conferences allow instructors to host synchronous meetings online. Canvas integrates with BigBlueButton, a conferencing tool similar to Adobe Connect. Recordings made in BigBlueButton are available for a period of only two weeks after creation.

For more information on Canvas’s communication tools, visit the following sites:


What Do You See?

The probability of encountering a student with color deficiency (color blindness) in your online course is higher than you might think. By following accessibility best practices you can eliminate potential issues with image interpretation from the start. However, what about images from outside sources that you require the student to analyze? Are there strategies that you can employ to assist a student with color deficiency? The answer is “yes.”

Consider a case study from an online Meteorology course. Meteorology uses many different types of images, both color and grey scale. Often color is used to convey differing atmospheric properties and color distinction is key to an accurate analysis. In the image below, the student is asked to place the following radar scans in order from lowest altitude to highest altitude.

Radar Reflectivity

The variable being displayed is called radar reflectivity; you can think of it as rainfall intensity. In this image warm colors represent higher intensities. The key concept being assessed is that radar reflectivity decreases with increasing altitude in the cloud. You can see that the correct answer is (1, 3, 4, 2) because the overall intensity as well as the distribution of the high intensity region decreases when following this order.


But what about a student with a red/green color deficiency (Protanopia/ Deuteranopia)? They will see the above image like the one below. This image was created using the Colblinder Color Blindness Simulator in order to simulate what a student with deuteranopia (red-green color blindness) would see. Using this image, the answer isn’t so clear. The high levels of reflectivity (red) look almost identical to the low reflectivity (green) regions! A student trying to interpret this data would be at a distinct disadvantage. They could ask a friend or spouse to help them interpret the information but that may not always be practical and it doesn’t meeting the accessibility standard of providing perceivable content to all students, including those with color deficiency.

Radar Reflective as seen by a student with Deuteranopia (Red-Green colorblindness)


In this case, providing labels is a good solution. Below you will see the original image with labels and then the image as a color blind student would see it. This solution allows the student to perceive and interact with the content and perform the assessment independently.

Radar Reflective with labels

This is a fairly complex example, but one with a relatively simple solution. The first step to helping the student is to simulate what they are seeing. Then you will know how to proceed. You might use annotation, labels, symbols, an alternate image, or a text description. If you know that you have a student with a color deficiency, make sure you consider (and test) images that are time sensitive (such as those on a quiz) ahead of time in order to prevent issues from arising where the student is at a disadvantage.

Additional Resources

Colblinder Color Blindness Simulator

ColorBrewer Pallets