This week I had an opportunity to create a lesson in Canvas and explored the benefits of using it for instruction from a theoretical perspective. Canvas, as do other Learning Management Systems, offers a variety of methods for presenting information to learners, whether that be in print, video, audio, or other medium. It offers several methods of interaction both synchronous and asynchronous, from threaded discussion boards and messaging to web-based video conferencing. The LMS also includes several means of assessing student knowledge such as tests and assignments. What the LMS is perhaps best at, though, is putting all these different tools for learning together in an organized fashion so you can present the material topically, by chapter, idea, concept, or unit. The LMS also makes it easy to provide feedback to the learner so the learner can track his or her own progress and move at a comfortable pace.
The LMS is really good at presenting information for those who subscribe to a direct instruction approach to teaching and learning. For those who ascribe to a more social constructivist approach to learning, there are some tools available which provide opportunities for learners to work together to construct knowledge such as discussion boards, collaborative document creation tools, and web conferencing tools. Unfortunately, for those who hold to a strictly constructivist viewpoint, I think that designing a web course utilizing a structured environment like Canvas would find themselves unduly constrained. While Canvas and other LMSs offer a wide range of tools to their users, they also have limitations on how things can be done. To be a purely constructivist environment, students need more freedom to explore on their own, and the LMS environment would restrict and hamper their efforts in my opinion.
Canvas and other systems like it are invaluable for the online educator looking for structure for their course. Many instructional design formulas would suggest that information is best presented to learners in an organized fashion, broken into manageable chunks surrounding a single idea or concept to maintain the learner’s attention, followed by formative assessment and immediate feedback to ensure understanding. Of course, this type of approach to learning also presumes a direct instruction view of learning or at least a cognitive approach. For those who hold a truer constructivist viewpoint, it may be better to design your own learning environment where you can allow the freedom of exploration necessary for your students to seek out the information they need to make connections to new knowledge.