A blank Canvas

“It’s so fine and yet so terrible to stand in front of a blank canvas” Cezanne

There is pleasure and fear associated with a blank canvas. We’re free to do what we want, to start afresh and (one hopes) create a thing of beauty. Alternatively we fear a blank canvas – what if our efforts fail and we just end up with a big mess and a lot of wasted paint and effort? The fear and pleasure associated with newness is no doubt what many of us will experience in the coming months as we move over to Canvas, the new Learning Management System (LMS) which the University of Auckland has adopted. Plans and pilots for this LMS are already underway and it’s the University’s intention that all courses will move over from Cecil to Canvas by semester 1, 2016. Staff training, ‘Canvas Essentials’ will commence in October followed by ‘Canvas Plus’ later in the year.

So what will our experience of this canvas in UABS be? The joy of something fresh and the pleasure of new ideas or the frustration of different buttons to find and press and altered ways of doing things? Business Schools thrive on innovation and enterprise so how will we deal with this particular innovation?

To overcome some of the fears (spoiler alert!) the University has developed some initial structure for each Canvas course, so that students and staff can orient themselves in the new environment. This means every Canvas course will use its ‘Course Outline’ as a starting point, and to describe the course and provide key information and structure for students.

For me, in my learning and teaching role here in UABS, it’s the promise of the additional support Canvas can bring to our students’ learning and lecturers’ teaching that is, potentially, the really exciting thing. I previously taught in a university business school in the UK and was involved in learning and teaching projects nationally and internationally with the Higher Education Academy.  My observation over the years is that the significance and impact of new technology is not the technology itself – but rather how we use it.

Theories of learning have been a dominant feature of the international Higher Education discourse for the last couple of decades. These theories have focussed on how students learn and they provide real insights for us in terms of understanding good course design. A mainstay of most contemporary learning theories is the need for collaboration and interaction, with many theories suggesting that without the students’ active engagement, real learning does not actually take place.

Chickering and Gamson’s (1991) ‘seven principles of good practice’ identified that in order to significantly improve students’ chances of success, key features were needed, namely: student faculty contact, cooperation among students, active learning, prompt feedback (from faculty), time on task, high expectations, and respect for diverse talents and ways of learning.

So my question of Canvas is – does it support these seven principles? From a brief analysis, the communication tools that are available are impressive, from ‘Chat’, ‘Conversations’, ‘Discussions’ and ‘Poll app’, through to ‘Conferences’. These tools allow synchronous and asynchronous communication on a 1-2-1, 1-2-many and 1-2-all basis. They enable both student/faculty and student/student communication. The structures support text, audio and visual communication, as well as resources which recognize student diversity and ways of learning. These, along with the ‘calendar’ feature, help to drive ‘high expectations’ and ‘time on task’, supporting the students’ organization and workflow. Such a rich learning environment provides the material and structures needed for ‘active learning’. ‘Prompt feedback’ is facilitated through both formative, summative, self-, peer-, and tutor assessment mechanisms.

So – so far, so good. It seems that Canvas can indeed support effective pedagogical practice but whether it does or not will crucially depend upon how we use it. Initial training is essential and ongoing engagement with development events will provide the insights and exemplars from which we can all learn. This is an exciting blank canvas. Let’s use it!

If you’re interested to know more, please come along to Innovative Learning and Teaching’s half-day showcase, Learn Do Share 2015: Upgrading to Canvas 8.20am-2pm, Friday September 11, Room 260-221.

Structured Canvas training workshops will be available in September and October for Business School staff teaching in Semester 1.


Paul Cézanne. (2015). The Biography.com  website. Retrieved Aug 09, 2015, from http://www.biography.com/people/paul-czanne-9542036.

Chickering and Gamson’s (1991). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. In Applying the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, ed. A. W. Chickering and Z. F. Gamson, 63-69. Jossey-Bass. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 47.


Dr Tessa Owens is the Professional Teaching Fellow Learning & Teaching in Innovative Learning and Teaching. Tessa’s early career was in the Financial Services sector in the UK and latterly in academia as Principal Lecturer in Liverpool Hope University’s (LHU) Business School and as Director for the Centre of Pedagogy. Most recently Tessa held the role of Academic Director at Manukau Institute of Technology. She has published nationally and internationally in the field of Learning & Teaching.



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