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The Study Hall

Course Home Pages with Purpose

Life can be confusing. Or, at least things that happen in life can be confusing. According to a recent survey, algebra is second on the list of the 50 most confusing things in the world. Other noteworthy areas of bewilderment include Stephen Hawking's theories, packaging on kids toys, Twitter, and people who crack their knuckles. Most surprising, and contrary to popular belief, was that men are more confusing than women (by 5%).

I've heard the state of confusion it not a
bad place to live.

Here at Canvas we seek to make the world a less confusing place. At the same time, we want to empower teachers to design courses that fit their style of teaching. The Canvas home page is a perfect example of how we combine simplicity and flexibility. With few exceptions, the course home page is the first thing students see. It’s also the thing they'll see every single time they enter a course, so choosing the best format and the right information is crucial to avoiding confusion that leads to student frustrations and false-starts.

Canvas allows teachers and designers to choose from a number of home page layouts, some dynamic, some static. Here are a few tips, tricks, and ideas for finding the best one for a particular teaching style.

The Activity Stream is the default home page layout, which makes sense in courses without much online teacher-designed activity. It’s nonetheless well-suited to courses that are extremely dynamic (e.g., with assignments and events created on the fly), or where new discussion posts are the most important thing for students to see first, so they can get right into the action.

Activity Stream home page
Here's an example of an Activity Stream home page.

Modules provides an organized, sequenced “map” of the entire course. It's not the prettiest home page option, but it provides a sleek, efficient, and easy-to-understand view that helps students quickly engage with online learning activities and stay on track. This is great for pre-organized courses where students can rely on the module sequence to both contextualize learning activities and help them pick up where they left off.

Modules home page
Here's an example of Modules home page.

A Page I’ll Design Myself is a custom home page that’s designed by “you know who.” It's like a blank canvas, giving teachers the power to share whatever material or links they want. Teachers can create a table with graphical icons that link directly to individual Modules, or use custom icons for "buckets" of learning activities.

A Page I'll Design Myself home page
Here's an example of a Page I'll Design Myself home page for K-12.
A Page I'll Design Myself home page - Higher Education
Here's an example of a Page I'll Design Myself home page for Higher Ed.

As we all know, with great power comes great responsibility. So, when using this option, keep in mind that students will have to click through it every time they visit the course. Avoid posting content that is for one-time view (like a “welcome to the class” message). After students have read this once, they don’t need to see it again. If you want to make syllabus information obvious on the home page, maybe a link to the syllabus will be sufficient because students won't need to read it each time they visit. Also, avoid including too much information or too many links on this page, so it’s easy for students to get where they need to go without much searching.

The Syllabus and Assignments option is perhaps my favorite all-around home page layout. It provides an area at the top for content and hyperlinks, and space at the bottom for a dynamic, chronological list of assignments. Any assignment or event that has been created in a course—whether through the Assignments, Quizzes, or Discussions area or via the Calendar—will appear in the Syllabus and Assignments activity table.

Syllabus and Assignments home page
Here's an example of an Syllabus and Assignments home page.

Otherwise, the Syllabus and Assignments layout is much like A Page I'll Design Myself. So, make sure any content on the home page is always relevant. I do like to have an image or banner that “brands” the course. I may post a hyperlinked list of tasks that students should be reminded of each time they visit the course, like a static To Do list. Alternatively, this option can serve as a simply-designed portal linking to critical areas of the course, like this week's Module.

Home pages matter.

Finally, as teachers consider home page layout options and which work best for a particular type of course or teaching style, remember that Canvas is built to support learning in the 21st century—learning that reaches out to teachers and students where they live and work. The old LMS paradigms encourage business-as-usual or shovelware that often disconnect learning activities from a real-world context. Canvas allows users to engage with important activities and interactions as they happen, not just through a Canvas course web site, but through their mobile devices and via notifications. As students' online habits and behaviors change, so will the idea of a course home page as the one true gateway to learning.

And heck, if students don’t have to worry about course organization, maybe they’ll have some extra time to partner up with Stephen Hawking and figure out how the universe works.

Keep learning,