Best Practices, Tips, and Tricks – St. Thomas E-Learning And Research
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Best Practices, Tips, and Tricks

Best Practices, Tips, and Tricks, Technology Tools

8 Tips for Launching Your Canvas Course

Each semester, consider these 8 tips for launching your Canvas course.   

  1. Hide unused buttons.  Eliminate confusion and streamline the student experience by hiding any unused left-navigation buttons. You can also reorder the items in the left navigation to suit your needs. 
  1. Post your Syllabus in Syllabus. In the Fall 2018 semester, more than 80% of St. Thomas students clicked on Syllabus in Canvas, expecting to find their course Syllabus. Make finding your Syllabus easy for students by posting your syllabus in Syllabus (found in the left navigation). You can upload a Word document or PDF or copy/paste the text directly into the page’s rich content editor. 
  1. Organize your course chronologically in Modules. Organizing your course chronologically in Modules creates a natural progression through course materials and activities each week and eases navigation. It also helps students manage their workload because the modules can be one-stop shop for everything they need—an overview page to provide context, a list of assigned readings, videos, or links, and assignments. 
  1. Stream course videos through Panopto. Uploading or recording new videos in Panopto (St. Thomas’ video streaming and management system) gives you the ability to embed/link that video directly in Canvas, so students won’t need to download the video to view it, and you won’t need to worry about running out of space with large video files. 
  1. Send course updates via Announcements. The best way to send a message to the whole class is to post an Announcement. Doing so triggers an email, a Canvas app push notification, and a text notification (depending on how students set up their notifications) all of which tell students a new announcement exists. All announcements are also saved in the Announcements tool for future reference. 
  1. Turn files into Pages. Using Canvas Pages instead of files makes your content easily accessible on any device or operating system. Instead of presenting a series of files (handouts, documents, and PDFs) to students, you can use Canvas Pages to present the same information. The power of Pages is that you can present short instructions, long articles, hyperlink to websites, as well as link to multiple documents, all on a single page. You can also increase the visual appeal of your content with page headings, images, color, and much more. 
  1. Publish, publish, publish.  Courses, by default, are not available to students until you publish them. For students to see your course content, you must publish the course, the modules, and the items. Use Student View to make sure that the content you choose to share with students is available. (The Syllabus is automatically available as soon as the course is published.) 
  1. Check your dates. Check your start and end dates in Settings to make sure your course is scheduled to open and close when you want. Remember, students won’t have access to the course (even if it is published) until the start date occurs. Also make sure the dates in your Syllabus match the dates built into your modules, assignment descriptions, Canvas calendar, and announcements.  

This post includes contributions from Katherine M. Nelson, St. Thomas Innovation & Technology Services Communications and Training Manager, and was slightly modified from a Dec 4, 2018, blog (Point Tune-Up) first contributed by STELAR Instructional Designer Darcy Turner. To learn more about the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn, visit STELAR’s website or email us at

Accessibility, Best Practices, Tips, and Tricks

Making Your Canvas Site More Accessible

Canvas as a Hub for Accessibility

Glori Hinck and Jo Montie

Glori Hinck and Jo Montie of STELAR recently presented at the InstructureCon 2019 (Canvas) conference on the topic of accessibility in Canvas courses.  It wasn’t that long ago that disability activists were fighting for physically accessible public spaces.  As educators, we need to advocate to make digital spaces, including our online course content, accessible to everyone.  What’s more, all students will benefit from a proactive approach to accessibility, not only those with documented disabilities.  For example, students may have an undiagnosed learning disability or English may be their second language.  Take a few moments to experience web accessibility from the perspective of a student with a vision or hearing impairment or loss of mobility.  Can you zoom your Canvas site to 200% without loss of content or functionality?  Navigate without a mouse?  Understand the content with the volume turned down?  Not sure how to get started?  Review the sites below for more information about accessibility.

Accessibility Resources

Accessible U

The University of Minnesota’s Accessible U website provides a wealth of information on how to make your course content more accessible.  They recommend starting with 6 core accessibility skills:

  1. Headings and Document Structure
  2. Hyperlinks
  3. Video Captions
  4. Bullets and Numbered Lists
  5. Color and Contrast
  6. Image Alt Text

STELAR Accessibility Course Site

STELAR has created a course site for sharing information and resources around accessibility.  Contact us via email at if you would like to be added to this site.

Center for Faculty Development

You can also learn more about your role in creating an accessible, inclusive classroom at the Center for Faculty Development’s Accessibility page.

Canvas Accessibility Checker

Did you know that Canvas has an Accessibility Checker?  Simply click on the accessibility icon on the right side of the text editor for an accessibility report on a Canvas page.






This post was written by Glori Hinck, EdD, an Instructional Designer for the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. To learn more about this topic, please visit our website at or email us at

Best Practices, Tips, and Tricks

More Ideas about How to Enhance Your Online Discussions

This post builds off another post I wrote in May 2018 titled Enhance Your Online Discussions. In that post, I spoke briefly about best practices for writing online discussion prompts and shared some ideas I learned about at a conference. If you haven’t read that article, I recommend you start there and come back here when you’re finished.

In this post, I will highlight a few more techniques I learned about at the April 2019 Online Learning Consortium (OLC) Conference that took place in Denver, CO.

Using Images

This method allows students to share an image either in lieu of or in addition to what they would normally post. For example, in a marketing course, you could ask students to visit a local store and take pictures of a marketing display. They would then share the picture(s), perhaps with a short description or analysis, in the discussion thread. This could apply to any course where pictures of things found in nature, workplaces, schools, museums, or factories would be relevant to the content. Pictures of different types of infrastructure might also be valuable in some disciplines. This method provides variety and allows both you and your students to bring some creativity into the course.

Bringing In Outside Discussions

This method gives students a prompt around a particular topic, and students then discuss a particular viewpoint or set of questions with someone in their life, like a friend, colleague, or family member. These discussions can happen either in-person or over the phone. After this conversation has taken place, students log in to their online discussion board, share a reflection, and consider the ways their views on the topic may have changed during the course of their conversation. This method is a great way to add an in-person element to online discussions and to switch things up.

Role Play

This method works well if you want students to discuss a thorny issue that has many different viewpoints and stakeholders. Before the discussion takes place, students will be assigned to play a certain role as they participate in the discussion. For example, if you want students to discuss vaccinations, they could respond from the viewpoint of a pediatrician, a parent who is morally opposed to vaccinations, a parent with a child too young to receive vaccinations, an unvaccinated college student living in the dorms, or any other relevant stakeholders. This gives students the opportunity to think about an issue from a perspective that may be different from their own or that they haven’t previously considered. It also reduces the likelihood of the “Great point, I agree!” responses that are regrettably common in online discussions.


In the fishbowl method, the class is split into two halves. One half participates in the online discussion as normal (inside the fishbowl) while the other half watches the discussion as an observer (outside the fishbowl). Once the discussion has closed, the students who did not participate consider what they learned by hearing and reflecting on what they saw their peers share and respond to several reflection questions. They then submit this response directly to the instructor as an assignment.


So there you have it! Four new ways to spice up your online discussions and create more variety in your online courses. Feel free to leave us a comment below if you try one of these methods in your course or have ideas other than those shared here.

This post was written by Karin Brown on behalf of the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. Please visit our website at or email us at

Best Practices, Tips, and Tricks

Selecting Images that Comply with Copyright Laws

Have you ever been building a course in Canvas or adding something to your personal website, realized you needed an image, and used an online search to find one? Did you then wonder if that image was copyrighted, but were unsure how to tell? If you answered “yes” to either of these questions, then this post is for you!

The vast majority of the images we find with a simple online search are copyrighted, which means it’s illegal to use them without written permission from the creator. If you use such images without permission, you can receive a cease and desist letter or, worst-case scenario, the university could get sued. Throughout my years of studying and working in the field of online education, I’ve heard the assumption that as long as the images are used for educational purposes, it’s complying with the laws. Unfortunately, this is not what copyright laws state and even in the field of education, we need to be careful about the images we choose to use. Next, I’ll give you a few tips and tricks about where to find images that are legal to use and how to tell if you need to provide attribution.

My favorite image databases are Pixabay and Unsplash. All images on these websites are free, non-copyrighted, and non-attribution, meaning you don’t need to cite your source. You can simply find an image, download it, and use it however you want. Couldn’t be easier!

However, the downside to Pixabay and Unsplash is that they are relatively limited databases and don’t have anywhere near the same number of images to choose from as Google or another large search engine. So if you can’t find an image you like on these two sites, you’ll likely find more options using a Creative Commons search. After clicking on the previous link, uncheck the box for “use for commercial purposes” (since that doesn’t apply to educational institutions), type in your search terms, and click on the “Google Images” box. Any image you find on the search results page is copyright-cleared, although it best practice to follow the link to be sure, and the image will likely require attribution. But be careful, any “related images” Google suggests may not be copyright-cleared, and even those that are will still likely require attribution.

Providing image attribution is similar to citing a source in a research paper; it is a way to communicate to readers the origin of the artifact. What’s more, there is specific information that must be included when providing attribution, the same way that there is for APA or MLA citations. The required information includes (1) the title of the work, (2) the author’s name, (3) a link to the source, and (4) a link to the license. As an example, I used Creative Commons (linked above) to search for images of kittens and I found the following gem:

Three gray kittens with black stripes laying on a blue blanket






Here’s how I would properly provide attribution for this image: “kittens” by Mathias Erhart is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

As you can see, the title of the work (“kittens”) is also a link to the webpage where I found the image, which takes care of criteria for both (1) and (3) above. (Quick tip- you can create a hyperlink using CMD+K on a Mac or CTRL+K on a PC.) I also included the author’s name, taking care of requirement (2). You may notice that I made the author’s name into a link to their profile. This is optional, but it’s a nice way to encourage readers to check out more of the author’s work. Finally, I found the type of license and the link on the image’s source webpage by clicking on “Some rights reserved” under the right side of the image, which satisfies requirement (4). Depending on the website where you find your image, you may have to hunt a little harder for this information, the same way that you might have to do for some sources cited in a research paper. Just remember, all four criteria must be included in order to comply with the attribution requirements of copyright laws.

And one final bonus… here are some other databases you might choose to use:

Most, if not all, of the images found in these databases will require attribution. You will need to check each individual image to make sure.

And there you have it! Now you know how to find images that are legal to use in addition to knowing when and how to provide attribution. If you have any questions about this process, feel free to let us know.

This post was written by Karin Brown, an Instructional Designer for the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. To learn more about this topic, please visit our website at or email us at

Best Practices, Tips, and Tricks

Starting a New Semester in Canvas?

So, you’re getting ready for the spring semester and you want to make sure all the plans and content that were there last semester, (or last year!) are showing up in Canvas just the way you’d expect so you’re ready for a new batch of students.

The good news is that you can transfer the content and assignments you had in Canvas a previous term to your spring section of the same course – you just have to take a few important steps first. We call it “Refreshing Your Canvas Course” so it’s ready for the new term and new students. Doing certain tasks ahead of time will ensure you and your new students are off to a good start in the new semester.  You’ll want to take some time over the next few days to review and refresh your course site.

If you’re copying your course from a previous term, most of the content and activities will transfer over just fine, but other apps, like Panopto and Library Resource Lists, may need to be reconnected so they work with a specific course term and section number. STELAR provides the following checklist to help you think through some of the obvious (and not-so-obvious) course refresh tasks.

  1. Import course content from a previous term or from a Canvas template.  Find many STELAR provided templates in the Canvas Commons (Filter on the University of St. Thomas).
  2. Confirm the course start and end dates under “Settings.”
  3. Refresh and update Assignment due dates. For quick due date changes, use the Calendar feature, accessed by clicking Calendar in the purple navigation menu on the left.
  4. Verify Panopto videos are linked and properly closed captioned (if used).
  5. Use the “Validate Links in Content” tool under “Settings” to check all internal and external links since the source of the online content may have changed since last linked.
  6. Verify links to eReserves and Library Resource Lists (if used). Contact your Library liaison to re-associate your Resource List to your new course term.
  7. Copy (without student comments) and re-connect any VoiceThreads (if used).
  8. Un-publish any Modules you don’t want students to see yet.
  9. Refresh Announcements using the “delay posting” feature and adding a future date for when you’d like them to be made visible.
  10. When everything checks out and you’re satisfied with how your site looks and functions, be sure to click on the “Publish” button at the top of the home page.

To learn more about how to do many of these course refresh tasks, check out the Canvas Instructor Guides. There, you’ll find tutorials and step-by-step instructions for every task in Canvas. And don’t forget about the 24/7 Help Line. Canvas Support is ready to help you with any Canvas related issues via phone call, chat, or email.  Simply click the Help button at the bottom of the purple Canvas menu.

Taking a few pro-active steps to refresh your Canvas course site will go a long way in getting you and your students off to a good start in the new semester.

This post was written by Michael Wilder, an Instructional Designer for the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. To learn more about this topic, please visit our website at or email us at