Experiences with new learning management system Canvas vary among students, faculty

As Duke begins to make the switch to Canvas as its learning management system, faculty and students have had varying experiences with the platform.

The Duke Canvas page presents benefits of the new LMS with descriptors like “intuitive,” “user-friendly” and “nicer to use.” But some students and professors are struggling to adjust, as Duke simultaneously hosts the majority of course websites on Sakai. 

For sophomore Grady Purcell, the partial switch can be confusing.

“I think it’s just confusing how [Duke] did it. Only half of your classes are on Sakai; the other half are on Canvas,” she said. “You have to use two platforms, which is more confusing than just using one.” 

It’s not just different courses being hosted on separate platforms. One of Purcell’s friends has a main lecture on Sakai, while the lab section is on Canvas. 

First-year Julia Healey-Parera, who has been using Canvas since her sophomore year of high school, echoed this sentiment. Currently, she has two classes on Canvas and two on Sakai. One of her classes also uses a third site for course management, GitHub. 

According to Duke’s LMS Transition website, the partial shift was determined in order to “support a smooth adoption of Canvas at Duke” before all instructors switch in spring 2024. A few faculty members volunteered to test out the platform early and have migrated from Sakai to Canvas for this semester.

Nick Carnes, professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy, volunteered to switch early to “rebuild [his] teaching work” after a year of research leave. Currently, he teaches both a 150-student lecture class and a 16-student seminar class. While he uses Canvas features more for his lecture class — his seminars primarily involve offline discussions — Carnes says that Canvas has proven useful and accommodating for both his classes. 

“The transition process has been really easy for me. The LMS transition team did a really good job,” Carnes said. “They basically imported my classes into Canvas. And from there, it was pretty painless for me to make sure everything was working where I wanted it to work.” 

Carnes added that there was plenty of support provided by the LMS transition team, including “hands-on real-time training” during the summer through Zoom and a monitored email account for faculty. He says that the transition team responds “lightning fast” and has been “really helpful.”

Owen Astrachan, professor of the practice of computer science, opted to transition to Canvas for the fall semester because he “didn’t see any reason to delay starting.” He noted, however, that the system still has several shortcomings.

One issue with Canvas, according to Astrachan, is the lack of student identification information in the system. Canvas only links students to students’ Duke Unique ID and not to their email or NetID. This makes it challenging to identify who has been registered on the Canvas site, especially in large classes like Astrachan’s computer science lecture course, which enrolls more than 350 students. 

The lack of NetID integration makes it difficult for Astrachan and other professors to identify and assign respective grades to students. 

“Now, there’s no NetID [and] students don't have all the grades they’d like to have,” he said. “That makes it cumbersome for big classes.” 

Another challenge, he says, is learning to navigate a new platform after so many years with Sakai. 

“I want to give a quiz. I want to make an announcement. I want to have my assignments there. I want to integrate it with something. And now we have to reinvent that knowledge,” he said.  

For other professors, he added, the change is not necessarily a positive modification but rather a required task.

“The people I talked to are more, ‘Okay, whatever, I have to make the change. It’s not like I have a choice,’” he said. “[It’s] not ‘Oh goody, another new system that we can get used to.’”

Carnes is receiving guidance from fellow faculty members, including those within his own school.

Both students and instructors have also highlighted the capacity Canvas has to improve learning — specifically, by increasing the efficiency of grading practices. 

A key feature present in Canvas is the SpeedGrader tool, which the LMS Team describes as “easy-to-use and glitch free.” 

Carnes hopes that “it’s going to reduce the time it takes us to give grades back to students, [which is] really crucial.” He anticipates the SpeedGrader tool working to remove human error from the grading equation. 

“That might sound trivial, but when you’re talking about a class of 150 students, we can reduce human error by 1%-2%. That’s three or four students that have a better experience,” Carnes said.

“We’re getting that information back to the students faster, [and] we’re going to have less opportunity for just normal human error,” he said. “That’s what makes me really hopeful about Canvas. Anything we can do to give students more time to focus on learning and less time to focus on software.” 

Healey-Parera also highlighted how Canvas’ grading system functionalities can help students get an accurate picture of where they stand in a course.

“You can test out one grade and see how it affects everything else … given the weighting and everything that the instructor has already inputted,” she said. “So Canvas has [given] us a lot of little features like that that I really think are cool.” 

Healey-Parera also notes that Canvas is more intuitive, customizable and visually appealing than Sakai, which she describes as “slightly drab.” However, she noted that the platform may be overwhelming for new users. 

Whether they prefer Canvas or Sakai, students will continue to use both LMS platforms this semester.  

Carnes holds an optimistic outlook. 

“There’s a lot of great resources that are just out there on the web. There are so many people using Canvas in so many different types of institutions that, if I have a question, the answer is usually already out there,” he said.

Madera Longstreet-Lipson profile
Madera Longstreet-Lipson

Madera Longstreet-Lipson is a Trinity first-year and a staff reporter for the news department.      


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