Rethinking Canvas Online Discussions

On Thursday, 11/12/15, Kate Tirabassi (English) and Karen Haas (Education) led a discussion on strategies for designing online discussions that engage students in the learning process. Also discussed were qualitative and quantitative ways to assess posts without making it an overwhelming task for instructors.

Kate has used online discussions for a number of years but recently found that assigning students to online peer writing groups provided students an opportunity to begin a writing assignment in advance of the deadline, offer feedback to writing-in-progress, respond to feedback from peers and to revise their writing. The benefits to her were notable as well and include build drafting/revision into an assignment or course and to ask students to provide substantive feedback to drafts, even in a larger class.  Click on the thumbnails below to see Kate’s presentation and handout.

Rethinking Canvas Discussions – presentation (PDF)

Kate Tirabassi Handout for Rethinking Canvas Discussion
Online Peer Writing Groups: Canvas Discussions as a Space for Feedback – handout (PDF)

Karen has a lot of experience designing discussions questions and over the years has fine-tuned her assessment strategies that always keep her students at the center of every decision she makes. Karen designs discussions based on the best practices culled from experience teaching fully online classes and web-enhanced face-to-face classes. Her advice? Before you post a discussion question, think about the following:

  • What do I want students to be able to do?
  • In what ways do I want students to understand this material?
  • What is the purpose of the discussion?
  • Does the prompt foster dialogue?
  • Does the prompt make students think?

If you were able to answer the questions above, you are ready move forward but before you do, you need to think about your strategies for facilitation. Here are some suggestions:

  • Give students clear expectations about online discussions requirements, deadlines and grading procedures.
  • Assess the quality and quantity of posts.
  • Provide a schedule for student’s upcoming discussion deadlines.
  • Provide a structure for students to post to threads. A good structure lessons the frustration of what to write.
  • Make yourself visible in the discussion. Students will be more likely to engage in the discussion if they see you as being a part of it.
  • Don’t allow domination of the discussion. If students are dominating the discussion, privately ask them to slow down a little.
  • Have students moderate. This can take some of the pressure off of the instructor and encourage participation. Sometimes students respond better to each other than they do to the instructor.
  • Give students choices. Have more threads then required for student to post to and give them some freedom to respond where they like.
  • Consider a rubric to help clarify discussion expectations.

One common complaint of instructors is that the number of posts can quickly become overwhelming for both students and instructors. Rather than instructors bearing the brunt of reading all of the discussion posts, Karen suggests a distribution of labor strategy. For example:

  • Small group conferences. Students conduct web conferences and discuss a question or topic, and then report to the instructor of the whole class a summary or consensus of their discussion
  • Students are divided into groups and one or two per group are assigned to facilitate the discussion within their group for a week with the option to rotate over multiple weeks.
  • Students take on the role of an expert, research an area and report back to the group.

Providing feedback can take a lot of time but Karen suggests trying some techniques such as audio feedback as a way to save time while also providing an opportunity to provide encouragement and direction. Audio feedback, a feature within Canvas, is valuable to students in the following ways:

  • Improved ability to understand nuance. Students indicated they were better able to understand the instructor’s intent. Students also indicated that instructor encouragement and emphasis were clearer.
  • Increased involvement. Students felt less isolated in the online environment and were more motivated to participate when hearing their instructor’s voice.
  • Increased content retention. Students reported that they retained audio feedback better than text feedback. Interestingly, they also reported that they retained course content to which the feedback was related better that with text feedback. These self-reported findings were supported by the fact that students incorporated into their final projects three times as much audio feedback as text feedback.
  • Increased instructor caring. Students interpreted the instructor as caring about them and their work more when they received audio feedback over text feedback. This difference was due to audio feedback coming across as more personal than text feedback.

Some of the questioning techniques Karen has found successful include the following:

  • Convergent questions may require students to demonstrate an understanding of content by interpreting information in a new way. These questions utilize verbs such as: judge, explain, demonstrate, and support.
  • Divergent questions seek to stimulate creativity by asking for alternative outcomes or variations to a scenario.
  • Evaluative questions afford learners reflective opportunities through questions that call for justifying beliefs and gathering resources to defend and support one’s opinions.
  • Socratic-questions ask learners to examine reasons, assumptions, and perspectives and to provide justification and evidence for them (Walker 2005). Use of these questions types is most effective for promoting critical interaction when implementation in asynchronous online discussions.



Rubric for Asynchronous Discussion Participation

Mastering Online Discussion Board Facilitation (page 7)

Screencasting! Using Video to Guide Student Understanding

On Thursday, 10/1/15, Lisa Prospert (Dietetics) and Jason Pellettieri (Biology) gave a presentation on how they use videos to guide student learning. While Lisa and Jason have the same goal in mind, their approach to creating videos is different.

Screencasting approach:
(Screencasting is the capture of  the action on your computer screen while you are narrating)

Lisa was driven by a desire to stay on track with the Nutrition Science classes she teaches but the back-to-back, multiple snow days during the 2015 spring semester created a challenge for her and her students so she decided to try something new.

Presenting her lectures with a narrated PowerPoint would give her students the opportunity to learn the material and the addition of a playback option would provide a chance to review content multiple times. Topics that involved calculations such as how to calculate food exchanges for meal plans were especially helpful but she quickly learned that audio embedded in PowerPoint files are huge making it cumbersome for student to easily download, listen and review.

She’s learned that mimicking a full lecture wasn’t what she wanted nor what her students needed and has since adopted the 8-10 minute mini-lecture format using a combination of Quick Time or Explain Everything to create her screencasts, and YouTube and Canvas for delivery.

Lisa’s advice for faculty colleagues is as follows:

  • Invest in a good microphone;
  • Create an outline of what you want to say. Even though you teach and are used to lecturing, a video needs to be succinct and to the point;
  • Create your video in a quiet environment.

Example: Dietary Exchanges Creating a Meal Plan created by Lisa Prospert
Using Explain Everything

Video production approach:
Jason’s motivation came from a semester long lab project in his upper level Developmental Biology class where students spent a lot of class time conducting experiments which meant there was a lot less time to cover content. The logical solution was to flip the classroom and create online lectures so his students had more time honing their lab techniques. He began scouring the internet for high quality video lectures but what he found did not meet his standards. Undeterred he created his own lectures narrating his PowerPoints using Screen Flow screencasting software but he wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to create something he and others could use over and over again and so producing a high quality lecture became his primary motivation.

Jason received a small grant and built a home studio complete with a rear projection screen and a writable surface. He received permission to use drosophila videos from other sources and began his project. He created a lecture outline, learned how to edit with Final Cut Pro, and practiced. And practiced some more. He ended up producing a series of five videos with over 50,000 You Tube views!

Example: Online Developmental Biology: Introduction to Drosophila created by Jason Pellettieri
Using Final Cut Pro

Lisa and Jason have different approaches but the result is the same: their students can review material multiple times and are ready with questions when class time rolls around allowing for deeper in-class discussions and gives Jason’s students more time to do lab experiments.

Software mentioned during presentation

Software Best uses Pros and cons
Quick Time Image and screen capture;

Very basic editing

Best for Mac users and is simple to use
Explain Everything Freehand drawing or calculations on a tablet;

Similar to Khan academy presentations.

$4 app for iOS and Android
Canvas – My Media Create screencasts, webcam videos, or upload existing files to Canvas. Easy to embed in discussion boards, assignments, and pages. Embedded in Canvas so it’s easy to repurpose in any Canvas course.



ScreenFlow Mac only


Final Cut Pro High quality video editing;




Best Practices for Screencasting

NEW March 2017 – Kaltura CaptureSpace Overview


Do Screencasts Really Work? Assessing Student Learning through Instructional Screencasts