Information, Technology & Consulting

Teaching with Technology: Blackboard, Canvas Options for Learning Management

Learning management systems (LMS) have become a critical teaching and learning tool on most university campuses, and draw much publicity in the higher education sector. Dartmouth is no different—we have been using Blackboard for well over a decade; by now most courses have a Blackboard presence.

In July 2012, a project, dubbed "Learning 21" or "L21" was launched to evaluate whether Blackboard is still the right choice for Dartmouth going forward. The project's steering committee examined several LMS products in addition to Blackboard, and quickly narrowed the choice down to the most current version of Blackboard and Canvas. We launched a number of pilot courses in both systems for the Spring 2013 term.

So far, faculty are encouraged by their experiences on both systems.

Four courses and approximately 130 students tested an updated version of Blackboard during Spring 2013 term. Some instructors sampled their usual activities of private Journals, Announcements, and posting files to see how the newer system compares to Dartmouth's current version of Blackboard. Others took advantage of the improved tools and investigated the various ways a learning management system can help facilitate student-student interaction and better enable student-generated content. Through discussions and blogs, professors could increase collaborative learning, student engagement, and feedback among students and instructors.

When Professor of Biology Bob Gross utilized the new version of Blackboard while teaching BIO 4, Genes and Society, he thought it would be interesting to explore the usefulness of the system's discussion forums for students' term projects. "My hope was that the students would help each other during the term by providing feedback on other students' term project progress," says Gross. "This succeeded beyond anything I had imagined. Not only did the students provide thoughtful and insightful feedback (including references to the material we covered in class!), but there developed a sense of community with students contributing their different perspectives and wanting to see each project succeed."

Gross reports that this has produced a great deal of enthusiasm and has led students to ask to see all of the final projects at the end of the term. "I will arrange to have them all available through the Bb site," Gross says. "I already have plans on how to fine tune the experience next year. This whole process is not something I would have tried without an LMS system to make it work."

Meanwhile, Professor of Engineering Petra Taylor piloted the Canvas LMS with ENGS20, Introduction to Scientific Computing, and found it an ideal tool to implement her vision of teaching ENGS20 in a blended learning style. "I created short recorded lectures for students to watch at home and interspersed the lecture segments with formative quiz questions that students must answer before advancing," Taylor says. "Canvas has a convenient quizzing environment that makes it possible to group these lecture segments along with quiz questions into an easy-to-use unit."

Taylor cites several advantages to the approach of moving some lecture materials outside of the classroom and into an LMS: "Students can watch the lectures at their own pace, pausing and rewinding whenever necessary, and furthermore, they can go back to re-watch lectures as needed." She explains that in class, students still have short lecture segments, but they now also have time to practice the concepts they have studied.

"By letting students write programs in class they get the opportunity for immediate feedback to their work and answers to their questions," Taylor says. "Students support each other and learn from each other in these group-based, in-class activities."Taylor also employs Canvas' discussion forum and asks students to post their questions on the forum so all classmates can benefit from each question (and corresponding answer) that is asked.

The course materials are organized in modules on Taylor's Canvas site: lecture notes, video quizzes and homework assignments are organized and grouped by topic. In class, Taylor employs group-authoring tools that allow each of the more than 50 students to be actively engaged with the material and with each other. All activities are easily accessible from one location: her course website on Canvas. "Students seem to especially like the interactive classes," Taylor says, "and it is my impression (though this would of course need to be studied further) that student understanding, comfort level and confidence in their programming skills have deepened compared to learning in a more traditional approach."

The project committee is currently compiling a final report based on all of the pilot and other testing experiences. The steering committee is expected to move forward with a recommendation for either Blackboard or Canvas by the end of June. Stay tuned!

Information, Technology & Consulting