Blackboard vs. Canvas

This semester has allowed me to learn more about learning management systems. In transferring two courses from Canvas to Blackboard, I was able to experience firsthand how courses are built and learn more about the pros and cons of each learning management system.

Both Canvas and Blackboard have an intuitive user interface, making it simple for an instructional designer to figure out how to build a course on the platform. Combining my knowledge of working in Blackboard as a student with other real-world experiences and standard user interface conventions, I was able to quickly figure out how to set up the course in Blackboard and transfer course content from Canvas to Blackboard.

Now that I’ve finished and know a little more about each LMS, however, I’m a bit surprised that the assignment was to transfer the courses from Canvas to Blackboard, as I would much rather build/experience the course in Canvas. Like Microsoft Word, Blackboard tends to create HTML that is more complex than it needs to be:


So I found it necessary to go into Canvas’ HTML Editor to grab the simpler HTML and copy that into Blackboard’s HTML Editor:


In addition, Canvas offers the ability to link directly to another page in the course.


For example, you can reference an assignment drop box and link directly to that drop box. (Blackboard does not have that capability.)

Another thing I like about Canvas is that it automatically makes hyperlinks open in a new window.  Blackboard requires you to select that option for every link.


Small useful functions like this add up.

Looking at some news articles, it looks like I’m not alone in my thinking. Although Blackboard is still the market leader, its share of the market continues to decrease, and according to this article, the University of Texas is one of the institutions phasing out Blackboard in favor of Canvas.

There is always room for improvement, however. Neither LMS offered the ability to search course content or the ability to view all text in the course at once. In editing the course content, I had to make the same fix in several different modules, and clicking through each module to get to each point was tedious. There were also times when I could not remember the exact locale of a certain link or resource. The ability to search all course content would have saved me a great deal of time.

For more information on the differences and similarities between Blackboard and Canvas, check out this page.


The Importance of Consistency


One attribute that instructional designers must consider in the design of a course is consistency. A course should be consistent in its use of background elements (e.g., format, writing style, and visual design elements). This reduces cognitive load and allows users to focus on what they need to learn.

Habituation and Learning

Imagine an Internet browser that changed its appearance every time you opened it up. The vertical scroll bar might appear on the left one day and on the right the next. The address bar might appear at the bottom instead of the top. What if Google decided to change its search rules, requiring your search to have proper spelling and capitalization in order for results to display? Such changes would be annoying and meaningless, right? You would probably stop using the browser and Google altogether and move on to a better tool.  Typical users want to open up the browser and quickly find what they want on the Internet. It may have taken some time when they were younger to learn how a browser and Google worked, but nowadays, the task can be performed by only thinking about what they want to find.  Because of habituation, you no longer think about where the address bar and scroll bar are. The same thing happens when a learner interacts with an online course. It may take some time for the learner to grow accustomed to the course’s look and feel, but the more the same look and feel is presented, the faster habituation will occur, freeing up space in working memory and allowing the more important stuff (the content) to take the stage.

In her book Design for How People Learn, Julie Dirksen (2012) makes three points:

  1. Consistency can be useful.
  2. Too much consistency is bad.
  3. Annoying variability is bad, too (p. 87).

The trick is to take advantage of the brain’s tendency for habituation: use consistency for background elements (e.g., format, writing style, and visual design elements), and variability for capturing attention and keeping the learner focused on important, meaningful material.

Examples for Consistency vs. Variability

Instead of using “the same type of feedback in the same location every single time” or having a feedback box “randomly pop up in different areas of the screen,” Dirksen (2012) recommends having different types of feedback “appropriate to the different types of content you are presenting, or to use a variety of different learning activities to keep things interesting” (p. 87).

Don’t clutter the language of the course with inconsistent usage of terms. If you name a section “Glossary,” refer to it as “Glossary.” Calling it “Terms and Definitions” later on may confuse readers and cause a loss of focus. Using language that follows standard punctuation and grammar rules prevents distraction as well. Misspellings and atypical usage can cause users to question the professionalism and trustworthiness of the course contents.

Tom Kuhlmann (2009) offers some tips for maintaining consistency in visual design elements in his Rapid E-Learning Blog. He recommends considering the impact of the visual design, using a uniform visual design related to the central theme, using matching meaningful graphics, guiding attention appropriately with contrast, and using appropriate fonts.


Dirksen, J. (2012). Design for how people learn. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

Kuhlmann, T. (2009). 5 Common Visual Design Mistakes. Retrieved March 29, 2015, from

LTCA Theory

As I’m porting over CECS 6020 from Canvas to Blackboard, I’m learning more about the Learning and Teaching as Communicative Actions (LTCA) theory, the theory based upon which the course was built. It argues that learning and teaching cannot take place without communication, and that different perspectives are necessary to draw accurate and valid conclusions and shared understanding. The theory builds upon Jürgen Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action, which identifies four types of communicative actions: strategic action, normative action, constative action, and dramaturgical action; “in LTCA theory, each of these actions underpins how teaching and learning are constructed” (Warren & Wakefield, 2012, p. 101).

Normative communicative action involves the negotiation of norms and classroom rules to support learning. Strategic communicative action involves sharing knowledge and facts that have already been challenged and validated by society. Constative communicative action involves providing opportunities for critical discussions in order for learners to share perspectives, challenge claims, and construct knowledge, and last but not least, dramaturgical communicative action involves providing opportunities for students to express their understanding of a subject in their own unique way in a form that can be critiqued (Wakefield, Warren, & Alsobrook, 2011, p. 24).

The LTCA theory was first defined by Scott Warren and Richard Stein in a chapter titled “Simulating Teaching Experience with Role-Play” in the book Digital Simulations for Improving Education (Wakefield, Warren, & Alsobrook, 2011, p. 22). Dr. Warren is actually the designer and instructor of CECS 6020. As a result, it is helpful for me to understand the instructional design principles of LTCA theory.

Each week’s module includes goals, objectives, and directions with parenthetical information specifying the type of communicative action (and thus the intent). For example, in week one, one of the class discussions focuses on what the “class norms for behavior, group interactions, classroom interactions (including set synchronous meetings), grading, and feedback will be for the semester.” “Normative” and “constative” appear in parentheses to relay the instructional design principles behind the assignment. Weekly blog assignments appear with “dramaturgical” in parentheses. My having a basic understanding of the LTCA theory allows me to recognize the purpose behind each component of the course so that I can better serve my client in making improvements. Otherwise, I might erroneously make a recommendation that does not align with the instructional goals.


Wakefield, J.  S., Warren, S. J., & Alsobrook, M. (2011). Learning and teaching as communicative actions: A mixed-methods Twitter study. Knowledge Management & E-Learning: An International Journal, 3(4), 17–39.

Warren, S. J., & Wakefield, J. S. (2012). Learning and teaching as communicative actions: Social media as educational tool. In Seo, K. (Ed.), Using social media effectively in the classroom: Blogs, wikis, Twitter, and more (pp. 98–113). Routledge/Taylor & Francis.

An Introduction to CECS 5211

This semester is off to an interesting start. I am enrolled in CECS 5211 (Instructional Systems Design II), but I am the only student in the course. This resulted in my being grouped with CECS 5210 (Instructional Systems Design I), the course that I completed last semester. I wasn’t sure what to expect at first, and I was worried that I would have to complete the same assignments again. But fortunately, my instructor has reassured me that this will not be the case. In fact, she has a special project in store for me.

The Learning Technologies Department would like my assistance in converting a doctoral level online course from Canvas to Blackboard and making improvements to the course along the way. I’ll be able to interview instructors who have taught the class in Canvas and analyze the course in order to suggest and design improvements and then develop those improvements in the conversion to Blackboard.

My being the only CECS 5211 student tasked with this project is a bit daunting. Unlike the other classes I’ve taken in this program, this class provides no assignment overview, no learning modules, or no fellow colleagues for me to work with. I wonder what CECS 5211 has typically been like for other students, whether the format for the course is like this simply because I’m the only one taking the class this semester or whether it is always like this. I’m actually very surprised that CECS 5211 isn’t a more popular course, considering that it’s one of the required courses for UNT’s Instructional Systems Design Certificate.

Regardless, the challenge of improving a doctoral level online course excites me. In fact, the hardest part of the task is what I think I’ll enjoy the most: going through the doctoral level content and learning the content myself. Becoming familiar with the content so that I could better understand how best to teach the content will likely be the most time consuming part, and I hope the content won’t be too far over my head, considering that I’m only a master’s student at the moment.

I am also looking forward to broadening my toolset by learning more about Canvas and Blackboard. I have not had the opportunity to view instruction in Canvas or create instruction in Blackboard before, and seeing Blackboard and its capabilities from an instructor’s viewpoint will be enlightening. I’m delighted that I have this opportunity to improve the learning experience of doctoral level students. I’ll do my best not to disappoint!