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!

ID and Course Reflections

CECS 5210 has been an enlightening journey. Working with a real client to solve a real problem through instructional design has enabled me to learn the following things:

  1. Things rarely go as planned. I had set some lofty goals for myself during the first meeting with my client. What first began as an online course with different modules for front desk training (scheduling appointments, answering phones, verifying insurance), clinical training (taking case history, performing a visual field, applying insurance benefits to contact lens purchases), and optical training (frame styling, lens options, applying insurance benefits to glasses purchases) quickly turned into an online course for just lens options alone. What first began as an online course in SmartBuilder quickly turned into a built-from-scratch website with Captivate presentations and activities.
  2. It’s important to be flexible. With things rarely going as planned, it’s important to be flexible. I had originally decided to build a SmartBuilder course because it was a free authoring tool that also offered free hosting. But after spending an entire day trying to learn how to use SmartBuilder (and not getting very far), I realized that I should probably invest this time learning an authoring tool that a large majority of companies like to use: Adobe Captivate. The $299 price tag for the student edition was money well spent. I was able to learn the program much more quickly since I was already proficient in other Adobe products, and I was able to quickly produce presentations and activities. (Being able to add Adobe Captivate to my resume was another bonus, too, of course.)
  3. If a topic of instruction is new to a designer, he or she must perform a great deal of research to create effective instruction. Due to my inexperience, I greatly underestimated the time it would take me to create an online course on lens options because it took me a lot longer than I anticipated to learn about all of the different lens options. The more I learned the more I realized that there was a lot left to learn. As I learned about the purpose of each lens option, I realized that the optometric assistants also had to understand the availability of lens options; how to select them based on a patient’s prescription, preferences, hobbies, and daily activities; how to properly communicate the lens options based on the patient’s personality type; and how to calculate the pricing. I could not create meaningful practice activities without learning about each of these aspects first.
  4. The client often takes longer than you like to respond. Regardless of who the client is, it is likely that he or she has many urgent priorities and that answering your email for a training project isn’t one of them. My subject matter expert for this project, for example, is an office manager for a busy optometric practice. Being the omniscient one of the office, she’s constantly having to put out fires, addressing employee and patient issues and managing vendors. Even though she would love an online training course for lens options as soon as possible, answering one of my emails just isn’t at the top of her priority list. Who has the time to answer an email when a disgruntled patient is standing right in front of her? They’ve lived without the training for years already; how could putting it off a little longer hurt? Fortunately, the instructor of our class is very understanding. She warned us from the very beginning that we should try to accommodate the client’s schedule as much as possible, and that she would work with us to iron out any kinks. One meeting with my subject matter expert helped me see exactly how busy she (and the office) really was. With her working well over forty hours a week, I did not want to add to her stress at all. In the end, we agreed that quick meetings and phone calls instead of emails worked best, and the plethora of information available online helped reduce the number of questions I had to ask her.

Armed with the lessons learned from this class’s two instructional design projects, I’m ready for more. What does CECS 5211 (Instructional Systems Design II) have in store for me? I’ll keep you posted.

Designing Instruction

Designing instruction is a lot like writing. You must take into account a topic, an audience, and a purpose to construct a work of art with the right language. When the elements are orchestrated well, the audience walks away changed. Such a task requires empathy, foresight, resourcefulness, organization, a passion for learning, and a strong understanding of how people learn.

In order to meet the needs of a learner, you must understand the learner and see where the learner is coming from. Empathy allows you to place yourself in the learner’s shoes, so that you can reduce the chances of boredom or miscommunication. Instruction with forced audio and no skip button, for example, may frustrate learners who already know the material and want to skip forward to a more unfamiliar section. Multiple-choice questions are too often written with no empathy. Take this example provided by Vanderbilt University. The writer considers answer choice D to be correct, but answer choices A, B, and C could also be considered correct by some since a cell with 46 chromosomes also contains 12, 18, and 32 chromosomes.

Foresight is required to prepare for the unexpected. Technology may fail during a lesson, or an activity may be too simple for a particular audience. Having the foresight to incorporate flexibility can prevent wasted time and money. Resourcefulness is another time and money saver. With projects commonly having tight deadlines and budgets, instructional designers must be able to use what they are given to create the maximum effect.

Although pictures, audio, and videos can enliven a piece of instruction, they can be distracting and nonsensical as well. An organized approach to designing instruction ensures that all of the necessary elements (e.g., the content, the practice activities, and the feedback) are there and aligned with the goal(s).

A passion for learning enables instructional designers to gain the knowledge and skill themselves, and a strong understanding of how people learn enables them to pass them on.  I have worked with writers and instructional designers who do not take the time to learn the process themselves, and the result is an inaccurate product of no use that can only be resolved with several more rounds of feedback and revisions (and several more rounds of frustration and waste).  As Herbert A. Milliken states in his paper on “The State Certification of Music-Teachers,” “one cannot teach without knowledge, but many cannot teach who have it.”

Let us salute all of the instructional designers out there who manage to constantly learn new things and create effective learning with empathy, foresight, resourcefulness, and organization. Corporate America needs you!


The second half of CECS 5210 has been a bit less structured. Although the class schedule lists tasks for each week, no major assignments are due each week to ensure that my classmates and I are on track for having the final project finished by the end of the semester. As a result, we are having to self-regulate more.

Online graduate courses, in general, require self-regulated learning. There is no instructor (and no parent) checking in with you every day or even every week to ensure that you are doing what you are supposed to be doing. That job is yours alone. You are paying a hefty sum to take a course and learn, and if you do not want to waste the money, you must plan your own learning schedule, monitor your learning, and evaluate whether learning is taking place. If learning isn’t taking place, it is up to you to change your strategy and seek help when necessary. Only then can goals and objectives be met.

Communication is essential during self-regulated learning. You must communicate with yourself and really think about where you are, where you need to be, and how to get there. You must convince yourself to sit down at a computer after work to make progress on a class project, even though you would like nothing more than to plop down on a couch and watch television. You have to convince yourself to curl up with an article for class instead of a fictional novel. And if an assignment doesn’t make sense, self-regulated learners need to communicate with peers and instructors to get clarification. Open communication lines (e.g., checking and responding to email regularly and in a timely manner, taking time to reflect) and an organized approach facilitate communication, whereas unavailability and inconsistent, unorganized, incoherent directions impede communication and cause frustration.

As instructional designers and educators, we likely have a knack for self-regulated learning. We know what it takes to make something stick and we have the motivation to do what it takes. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be where we are today.  As Daniel Pink so eloquently summarizes in his talk at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), “there are three factors that the science shows lead to the better performance, not to mention personal satisfaction: autonomy, mastery and purpose.” CECS 5210 is giving us the autonomy and purpose to solve the real-life problem of a real-life client so that we can gain the mastery to solve instructional problems more efficiently and effectively.  I’m loving it!