Catching up about Canvas Connect

Posted on: 25 September 2023 by Will Moindrot in General

Canvas Connect
(Canvas Connect)

Just over six months ago Canvas Connect was established to support colleagues making the transition to the University’s new virtual learning environment (VLE). Now boasting nearly 200 members collaborating and sharing all things Canvas, we caught up with the two colleagues driving this collaborative space, Dr Tya Asgari and Will Moindrot, from the Centre for Innovation in Education (CIE) to find out more.

This post explaining the origins of our ‘Canvas Connect’ community was originally featured in November 2020 on the ‘Canvas at Liverpool’ project (now offline). Canvas Connect is still going strong with approx. 700 members from the University of Liverpool. University of Liverpool staff can join the community through Microsoft Teams through this link: Join Canvas Connect.

Building a space for support

As lockdowns and working from home began creeping into our lives, teamwork and community seemed more important than ever, a fact not lost on Will. “We noticed the potential pretty quickly,” he explains. “Though they’re great resources, when relying on raising tickets with Tier 1 or CSD, or going to online training events, without any wider community space they can be kind of solitary – at best, you talk to one or two people. I believe people learn so much more from listening, talking and working with other people interested and engaged in the same things, and so we set about creating a space for that.”

The result was Canvas Connect. When setting it up, inspiration was taken from a similar venture, the Teams Champions community. “We were inspired by what Dr Monica Chavez and her colleagues had done with the Champions community, and we thought something like it could really work with our growing Canvas community,” explains Tya. Following in Monica’s footsteps, they felt Microsoft Teams was the ideal home for this new community.

Now Canvas Connect channel is the ‘go-to' place for problem-solving, collaboration and advice. It’s ‘General’ section fields anything from announcements to event invites. Then there is the Q+A section, where colleagues pose questions and receive solutions, advice or even just the reassuring acknowledgement that someone else is in the same boat. Finally, there is Canvas and Coffee, where much of Will and Tya’s time and effort is concentrated.

“We’re trying to facilitate inter-disciplinary discussions,” notes Tya. “There can be this perception that Faculties don’t collaborate, but by bringing people together, we acknowledge we are all using the same VLE. Teaching and learning is based on social constructivism – we do it for students, why shouldn’t staff also learn from discussion and conversation?”

So far so good

Six months in, the outlook on Canvas Connect is positive. Most importantly, colleagues are voting with their feet, with the number of members increasing steadily over the past half-year. “We have the regulars – those that are very engaged, asking questions and providing responses – but they don’t present themselves as experts or a definitive voice,” explains Will. “They’re as open as anybody to suggestions and advice, but are really engaged with the community aspects of this channel, which is great to see.”

Will continues: “In recent months, we’ve began to see colleagues of colleagues start to come in. With each new person comes new perspectives and so the fact it’s being recommended is a great show of confidence.”

Finding the right format to allow these ideas to flourish has been a case of trial and error. “When we first set up Canvas Connect, we locked down the ‘General Channel’ so people wouldn’t be getting notifications all the time, but gradually we’ve stripped back these rules,” explains Will. “That’s been a case of learning for us – if you want to build up an engaged community of practice, you have to give people the flexibility to develop and share information how they want.”

While only being in operation for relatively short period of time, the early results have been encouraging, as Tya explains: “People are very engaged. We had a session of Canvas and Coffee a few weeks ago and colleagues were contacting us after, offering to speak at future events and demonstrate what they have done in their own Courses.”

Will agrees: “After each session, we get lots of lovely comments about it being informative and helpful, or people will come back and say they tried something that improved their course.”

Canvas and Coffee

The Canvas and Coffee ‘live’ event takes place every Wednesday between 11am and 12noon, alternating each week between a themed topic, such as ‘Using Quizzes in Canvas’ or ‘Designing Courses’, and a more informal general troubleshooting event, where participants drive discussions.

The events are explicitly designed to be informal and welcoming. There is no obligation to attend, and even when colleagues do, they can dip in and out based on their own preferences. “We want it to be like having a chat to a colleague next to you,” explains Tya. “We like that informal aspect. We did debate for a time having different meeting times rather than just our regular 11am on a Wednesday slot, but we wanted that regular constant in people’s diary; there’s no sign-ups, just turn up and you’re welcome.”

“I think the fact they’re live is really key,” explains Will. “We could get people to watch videos, do training courses on Canvas skills and so on, and that is part of the support. But that’s just one way – when colleagues talk to us, or between one another, that’s when it becomes really effective.”

Will continues: “We had three speakers for an event recently and one didn’t even use any presentations or video – they just talked about their experiences – and yet they all worked perfectly. Colleagues want to hear from people in a similar boat to them.”

Using feedback to improve

While the first six months of Canvas Connect have been a hugely positive success, both Will and Tya recognise there are challenges ahead.

One of these is that, being connected to the project team, there is a risk that feedback about the frustrations of Canvas and improvements needed are not as forthcoming as some of the positive feedback. “We definitely try and get it across that we’re fine, even encouraging, of criticism of Canvas as a system. This will help us take a very good system and make it even better,” explains Will.

A prime example occurred earlier this month, when during a Canvas and Coffee session, it was suggested to Will and Tya that it would be useful if staff could batch-organise students into Groups via .csv into Canvas. “We found a ‘Product Idea Exchange’, basically an area on the Canvas website for idea suggestions, calling for this and so got our Liverpool community to upvote it. A few members did and within a week the idea got accepted and it’s now available in Canvas,” says Will. “This isn’t to say it was all down to our community, but it’s good to have these extra tools to bring these things to fruition.”

Going forward

Will and Tya can reflect on a job well done so far, but believe this is down as much to colleagues engaging with the Canvas Connect community as their hard work. “It has been a success, but that is down to the people that join every day that make it so,” notes Tya.

Both Will and Tya have also benefitted from the experience, with a wealth of new connections, experiences and insights to draw upon. “For me, I’ve learnt a lot not only about using Canvas, but about our colleagues – what their priorities are, their way of looking at things and so on,” Tya adds. “I’ve also expanded my network and it’s been really good for me to have it as a social outlet that I’d otherwise be missing.”

The ultimate aim, however, when first summed up by Tya, might sound a strange one: “We want to get to the point when Canvas Connect doesn’t need us anymore!”

Given the reasoning behind its creation – colleagues helping colleagues – it makes perfect sense. Tya concludes: “We want Canvas Connect to be fully self-sustaining, we want colleagues to be the ones leading the sessions for other members of staff, and I’m confident we’ll get there.”

Thoughts from Canvas Connect member Dr Ana Reimao:

The Canvas Connect Team have been an endless source of support throughout the summer while I was getting hands-on in Canvas and setting up my Modules – ahem, I mean Courses! - and well into the academic year. It has been great whenever I have suddenly needed help as either someone from CIE, the Canvas @ Liverpool Team or other academic colleagues will quickly share views, experiences and advice. Even simply reading other people’s posts and queries is helpful as it gives me a picture of the possibilities of Canvas that I may not have considered – and sometimes also what to avoid, which can be just as useful.