A good practice baseline for Canvas sites

These ten practices guide staff to design Canvas sites that are welcoming, easy to navigate and help to engage students in their learning. They are the essentials that provide a baseline from which staff can further develop their use of Canvas to enhance their teaching and students’ learning. The baseline is informed by evidence about what constitutes good practice in learning and teaching. 

1. Structure

Is my site structured clearly to help students navigate quickly, understand the sequence of activities, access information and easily understand the layout of unfamiliar courses? 

The organisation of course content, learning tasks and activities (e.g. discussion forums, quizzes and blogs) should present learners with a meaningful ‘map’ of suggested activity, within the course as a whole and within individual weeks or topics. Presenting information in a clear, accessible way and providing straightforward navigation between content and activity spaces supports efficient and effective learning. Ensure that the structure of your site clearly aligns with the face-to-face learning experience. 

Key considerations:

Your Canvas site should convey a sense of the structure of your papercourse. Clarity of the structure is important to help users find what they are looking for. Use clear headings, provide section overviews, number sections and sub-sections. 

Consistency is key. Implement consistent use of headings within sections and consistent labelling of resources and activities. 

Think about the intended pattern of activity within the online learning environment and how you intend students to use it. Consider whether the structure supports this pattern of activity. 

Make sure the navigation pathways are clear and the information is up to date. 

The site should give an impression of organisation, clarity and manageability. Ensure that the most frequently accessed materials are prominent. 

Use a Department or School template if there is one. If it does not, consider whether core papercourses can have a common structure, so that students using these sites will know where they should look for activities and resources. 

Some examples can be found when you log onto your Canvas account.

2. Orientation

Does my site help learners to orientate themselves, especially outlining how they are expected to learn and engage and how they may contact key staff members to get help when they need it? 

Orientation information is important in every course because learners have differing levels of experience with online learning environments. This allows for each course to communicate important differences about which even experienced learners need to be aware. While courses sites will ideally be consistent from one course to another (see ‘Practice 1, above), orientation cues direct users to the most important information; give them a way to establish their understanding of course structure and operation and help them get off to a good start in the course. Ensure that the site is consistent with expectations set up in the face-to-face experience, for example you could use the site to provide your students with information prior to the first class.  

Key considerations:

Put yourself in the place of learners, consider those who have studied online before and those who have not. For inexperienced online learners, identify the key information they will need before they start. This might be as simple as making sure staff contact details and the Course Booklet are prominent. 

Make sure you explain what is unique and/or different about this course compared to others and how it relates to other courses that students are taking. 

Consider how you are signposting your learners – any orientation should outline the learning outcomes for the course, set out your expectations and the expectations you have of the learners. 

You could create a simple text-based welcome/orientation message at the start of your Canvas site. This will create a sense of manaaki and make the students feel at home. 

Video messages can not only help to orientate students but can also support teacher presence (see Practice 4). 

For more information, follow these guides on making welcome and orientation messages.


This is a great example of an orientation video from Aaron Evans from the Faculty of Health and Environmental Sciences. The video gives students a roadmap of their learning journey, outlines the teaching team’s expectations and provides reassurance and support. 

3. Communication

Does my site have places that allow for effective and consistent online communication with and between students? Have I provided opportunities to hear from my students about how they are doing? 

 Teacher-student communication plays a critical role in student learning. For students in some courses, online messages may be the most highly contextualised, personal interaction they have with you. Ensure that your communication is clear, complete and consistent across face-to-face interactions and on the site.  

It is important to establish how students and staff will communicate with each other on the site. For example, making it clear that you will provide weekly Canvas announcements for course-related issues and that students should use email for personal matters. 

Key considerations:

Communicate regularly with your learners, especially at the beginning of the course. This communication could take many forms. It might be mainly text-based, but you can use a combination of visuals, audio and video. 

Communicating online is a learned skill. Effective online communication takes practice and effort to achieve, but it gets easier with experience. Think about the tone you wish to set, as the students will take their lead from you. 

Think about how you will manage responses to student queries even when they arrive out-of-hours. Remember their pastoral needs, but also your own health and well-being. Whatever your normal work pattern is, make sure students know how this translates in the online space. Online teaching can take place anywhere, anytime – but it does not have to. 

When you set up a discussion forum, make its purpose clear. For example, as a place for students to ask questions about the course, or as a space to complete a specific task that contributes to assessment. 

Consider setting up activity completion to enable students to track their activity and progress through the course. You can send reminders to those who have yet to contribute to activities or submit assessments. 

4. Teacher presence

Have I considered how I create my online presence which gives students a sense of belonging and helps them to feel connected to a community of learning? 

Teacher presence is one of the most important practices in the online space. In a face-to-face environment, how you interact with students and help them to feel part of a group often comes naturally, but this can be more challenging online. If you have a clear concept of how you will be present and communicate this to your students, you will ease any potential isolation associated with learning online and help students to feel connected to you, their fellow students and the class as a whole. 

Key considerations:

There are many ways in which you can foster teacher presence in your online space including:

recording short videos to welcome your learners, prepare students for a topic or assessment or to provide feedback 

being responsive on discussion boards 

introducing the whole teaching team, not just the course lead 

using announcements that are positive, and supportive, in a voice that is authentic to your persona as a teacher 

using stimulating, relevant images as a way to engage students in dialogue about the subject 

identifying opportunities for timely feedback, to both individuals and the group 

As with many online practices, communicate how you will be present with your learners at the start of the course. Set the tone for learning online – share your stories. Let your passion for what you do come through in your online spaces. 

Provide students with opportunities to be present alongside you – give them the opportunity to work in small groups that support peer interaction (synchronously or asynchronously) and use your presence to provide feedback. 

Think about how you can create a sustainable presence in an online setting. Rather than trying everything, think of a small number of ideas that will work best for your course. How can you be present online in some way three to four times a week? 

Teacher presence can be supported through many other Baselines Practices, so think about how your approaches to orientation, assessment design and student participation reflect your own aims for being present. 

We have prepared some practical ideas for maintaining collaboration and communication in online spaces.

In this video, Dave Cormier from the University of Windsor, Ontario, provides some great examples what teacher presence can look, sound and feel like in online spaces.

5. Assessment

Does my site clearly outline assessment requirements and link to tools and information to help avoid plagiarism?

Assessment information presented within Canvas should be clear and accessible. Ensure that assessment information is clear, complete and consistent across face-to-face interactions and on the site.  

You should consider how students will be supported to complete assessment tasks – whether these take place online or in a classroom, lab or studio setting. 

Key considerations:

Make explicit links between the learning outcomes and the assessment information you include on Canvas. You should make it clear which tasks are formative (to provide feedback on strengths and weaknesses of student performance while there is still time to take action for improvement) and which are summative (those that contribute to the students’ final grades). This will help your learners to recognise how completing an assessment task contributes to the completion of the course. 

Provide relevant academic literacy guidance to support learners as they engage with the learning activities and assessments on your site. AUT has created has a range of Assessment literacy clips that you can embed alongside a particular assessment task to support learners. 

Ensure there is a clear ‘Assessments’ section in your course, to which students can navigate quickly. This should be positioned near the top of the menu. 

Each assessment needs: a clear task brief, marking criteria, and submission guidance. Create Turnitin or Canvas Assignments if you require students to submit a file(s). 

Although online marking is not a requirement at AUT, it is used well by many teams. The upfront investment to set it up is offset by time-savings in the long-term. To get started, see this online module on Marking on the Gradebook (you will need to log onto your Canvas account for access).  

6. Resources

Have I provided well-labelled learning resources, using internal and external sources?

Use pre-developed resources of your own, or ones available online. These resources include videos, weblinks, PDF, MS Word, audio, diagrams and images. Resist the temptation to overload your site with content – use content to generate discussion and engagement – less is more. 

Key considerations:

Use short clear titles.
Write concise and descriptive titles that reflect the topics of learning resources. An example of a resource title is Week 6 Lecture: Muscular System.

“Week 6 Lecture” tells students that they are in Week 6 and this is the lecture of Week 6.

“Muscular System” is short and clear. The phrase tells students this resource is about muscular system of the human body

Briefly describe content of learning resources.
Write a short paragraph or a couple of sentences to summarise/describe content and purpose of a resource (see the description under Week 7 Lecture in Fig 6.1).

Design learning activities to encourage students to interact and engage with resources (see 7. Student Active Participation (below) and Designing Learning Activities Guide).

Structure your resources. Put resources in the order that you want students to read/watch/listen/complete.

Keep your Canvas pages short and simple. Ensure links work and fix broken links before releasing to students 

7. Student Active Participation

Do I encourage students to share their learning resources, interact with each other and participate in online activities?

To engage learners and help them meet the learning outcomes it is important to create active and participatory learning opportunities in the online environment. Think about how these activities complement those that you are asking your learners to engage with in a face-to-face environment.

Key considerations:

Consider incorporating active learning strategies to encourage deeper engagement with online resources, such as providing prompts to check for understanding, or to reflect on the content.  

Provide practice activities, such as formative online quizzes with automated feedback or answer guides, or exercise questions with answer guides.  

Create online activities (e.g. via discussion forums) that allow students to share their thoughts, resources or experience. For example students could, share a one sentence summary of the lecture or reading, share an example from their own experience or observation, or share a short article on a specific topic. Encourage students to interact with each other’s sharing. 

Provide student co-creation opportunities that support collaboration, such as creating a class glossary, concept maps for the course, or key summaries for each topic.  

Consider creating opportunities for peer feedback or discussions. This can be a small group discussion on topics then share summaries with the class, or peer review of each other’s ideas or work of a summative assessment. 

You can check out altLAB’s Designing Learning Activities Guide for more ideas on different types of learning activities.

8. Accessibility

Have I considered the accessibility of my site? Are files provided in accessible formats with cross-platform compatibility to enable students to view them on mobile devices?

Provide accessible resources by following a few simple rules for the benefit of all learners.

Key considerations:

Provide a brief, course-level accessibility statement. Your accessibility statement should contain any additional guidance and indicate who to contact (e.g., course leader, administrator) to request an alternative format for any resource.

Provide accessible learning resources. You can do this by ensuring:

Layout is clear, with good spacing, including text that is not cramped or dense.

Navigation is consistent (e.g., use departmental/School/Faculty template if available).

Fonts are sans serif and large enough to read (minimum 11pt).

Coloured text has high contrast against backgrounds. Avoid red, green and pink text. Where possible, links are descriptive (avoiding ‘click here’) and open in the same window.

Where possible provide alternative text for images. Where there is heavy dependence on images, ensure that there is also a text description of the key learning points, for screen-reader users (e.g., alongside the image, as a caption, or as ‘alternative text’).

Consider file formats. When possible provide electronically-editable documents, but especially in the case of templates, worksheets or cover sheets. Avoid niche proprietary technologies such as Flash (swf files etc.) as these do not load on all devices.

Consider file size. Compressing file sizes can particularly aid those students viewing them on mobile devices. In file settings, ensure the file size and type is displayed alongside the filename (e.g., ‘Chemistry Lab Induction, 34MB video’). If you are asking students to submit video files, ensure they do this through Panopto, rather than Blackboard.

Birkbeck for all provides easy to follow guidance on how to creat accessible learning materials to enhance student learning.

9. Inclusivity

Does my site support inclusive practice? Is the site culturally inclusive, does it consider the needs of students with disabilities, or the educational background of students?

Inclusivity is an important factor in the design and presentation of your site and the way that our diverse student body might experience it. AUT is a vibrant and diverse university that recognises that success is not defined by gender, gender identity, socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicity or disability.

Key considerations:

In your site design, please consider appropriate language and options that recognise that as a University we are committed to building a safe, positive, and inclusive higher learning environment characterised by the free exchange of diverse ideas, skills and cultural perspectives. Read more on Diversity at AUT.

Consider spending time developing connections and relationships between you and the students and between the students themselves. This will help students feel welcome and make them feel more comfortable interacting with others. Whakawhanaungatanga is the process of establishing relationships, making connections and relating to the people one meets by identifying in culturally appropriate ways, whakapapa linkages, past heritages, points of engagement, or other relationships. Spending time building relationships and connections in the university learning space is important whether face to face or online. This can be as important as thinking about the ‘content’ that your site contains.

Be aware of the support offered by Disability Support Services – they are available to provide advice to staff. 
You can let all students know in the first class and/or on your site that they should feel free to talk to you if they have a disability and there is anything in regards to teaching that will enable their participation and success in the course. 
Where possible, publish slides/outlines, notes and resources the as early as possible to that students can utilise assistive technologies to access materials and prepare.
Utilise and provide access to Panopto where possible so that students can enhance their learning via recordings.

Consider students’ previous educational backgrounds and provide support and scaffolding for unfamiliar activities (e.g. for students not used to online group work). 

Consider incorporating some te reo Māori into your site

Where possible, consider public holidays, school holidays and religious and cultural observances when setting assessments, related learning activities and making announcements on your site. 

10. Legal

Does my site model good copyright practices and observe intellectual property and copyright legislation?

Your site should model good copyright practices as well as provide a safe environment for staff and students to work and learn in. 

Key considerations:

Ensure your MS Teams Class sessions are accessible to only your intended audience and you are familiar with how to manage interaction. Check out the online module to learn about this function on Canvas. 

Please check permissions before using any digital content. The AUT Library has published information on what you can legally share with students in an online environment. For guidance refer to the Copyright for Teaching Guide, contact your Liaison Librarian, or AUT’s Copyright & Open Access Advisor Sarah Powell.  

Course Resources is AUT’s platform for sharing readings and media resources with your students. For training and support see the online guide or contact your Liaison Librarian

Please consider the privacy related issues in your online space. If you have recorded your teaching sessions using Panopto, make it clear to students that AUT policies outline that these recordings should not be repurposed, shared or otherwise distributed. 

Ensure that student-generated content is stored on a password protected system. Non password protected sites should only be used if students are aware the material is publicly available and are satisfied with the implications of this (e.g. their full names may appear alongside their work). If students are asked to register with an external service, potential data protection issues must be communicated and an alternative AUT service should be available if students refuse to register.  

This Baseline for Good Practice is based on the UCL E-Learning Baseline and, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.