In this interview, Jared Stein, Vice President of Education Strategy for Canvas by Instructure, discusses how faculty are putting Canvas to productive and innovative uses.


  1. As you know, more faculty are embedding videos in Canvas. What do you see as the benefits of increased use of videos?

While at one time video may have been desirable because of its novelty, in a media-infused world we are more interested in the impact it can have on learning.

In Canvas, we see video used frequently both to deliver content and to engage students with personal, human communication or feedback. For instance, some teachers who assess students’ online assignment submissions in Canvas SpeedGrader will take an extra 30 seconds per student just to record a brief summary of their feedback in a way that’s direct, personal, and (most importantly) encouraging. That human touch can make the difference in how a student receives the assignment feedback, and may affect their motivation in a positive way.

The multimedia element means that video can provide a clearer, richer, multi-sensory view of objects, processes, or even concepts. Video is reusable, which means not only can a single video save teachers’ time and facilitate teaching models like the flipped classroom, learners can also rewatch video.

Several studies show that we are innately drawn to people—their faces, their voices, their stories—and so video can be a way of capturing students’ attention. Nowadays, anyone can create video virtually anywhere, making asynchronous online discussions based on video as easy as hitting record.

Finally, video gives learners flexibility so that they can watch the video when they are most ready to pay attention, and control in that they can pause, review sections, or change the speed of the video to suit their needs and preferences. There’s some research that this element of control alone grants students an advantage in learning.


  1. From a learning perspective, how would you describe the differences between traditional video and interactive video?

At Canvas, when we talk about interactive video we are either referring to (1) live, multi-way audio and video sessions where participants can learn and discuss in real-time, or (2) recorded video with interactive components. Live or broadcast video has been used for decades as a way of serving distance education, and most closely resembles a live classroom.

Today’s asynchronous interactive video allows teachers to provide high quality recorded content, gives students flexibility and control, and adds an element of learner interaction with the video content—and their classmates—to maximize learning and engagement.

For instance, there is a lot of research that shows a positive impact on learning outcomes of embedding questions into learning activities, whether that is to activate students’ prior knowledge or assumptions, or to reinforce what they just learned. Some teachers using Canvas video will embed questions early on in a video as a means of asking students to predict what happens next.

This activates prior knowledge and, as research has shown, may cause students to confront their own misunderstandings. Other teachers will use questions in video to check students’ knowledge at certain key points. Simply asking student to restate or verify what they just understood can both reinforce their learning and keep them engaged and attentive throughout the video.

We also see interactive video used for learners to speak up and interact with their peers inside the video itself. By allowing students to comment on or discuss any segment of a video, learners can dig deeper into the content—or even just connect with each other. In this way, interactive video can enhance the social or community aspect of any learning experience that’s delivering video-based content.


  1. Thanks in part to the increased flexibility of learning management systems, more faculty have been designing blended learning experiences within campus-based courses. What do you see as the most important benefits of such hybrid courses? Where is innovation taking place?

Whether your blended course retains face-to-face meeting times or reduces those onsite sessions in favor of more online learning, blending is a way for teachers to add flexibility, to increase student participation, and emphasize active learning.

Hybrid courses that require fewer synchronous, onsite meetings add flexibility for learners’ schedule, but any time you put learning activities online you’re giving learners additional control over the pace and the place of learning.

This control translates into increased student autonomy or responsibility for learning, which may not come automatically but is definitely a goal of more educational experiences. And that’s one way blending can increase student participation, but the most common way is by breaking out of the boundaries of time and space that the physical classroom imposes.

For example, while an in-class discussion benefits from the spontaneity and human connections of being in the same place at the same time, blending that discussion so it continues online after the session is over ensures all students have the time they need to reflect, consult resources, and participate in their own way.

Perhaps the greatest opportunity for innovation in blending comes through a commitment to make learning more active. By “active” I simply mean learning activities are designed to get students involved and actively testing their knowledge and applying what they’ve learned. Active learning relies on what Bjork called “desirable difficulty” to ensure learning sticks. The thoughtful use of an online platform can facilitate reusable quizzing, discussions, and interactive video, which allows teachers to provide active learning opportunities to every student, on-demand, and ahead of valuable face-to-face sessions.

Certainly the classroom is also a place for active learning experiences, too (e.g., Eric Mazur’s peer instruction). One of the things about deciding to blend your course that is most inspiring for many teachers is that by re-thinking their current approach in light of the strengths and weaknesses of online and face-to-face environments, teachers often value the face-to-face time even more, and work to ensure that the precious time onsite is maximized with social, active learning.


  1. Asynchronous online courses have made all kinds of education more accessible to a wide range of audiences. How is technology being used to make those courses more personal? What are some interesting examples that come to mind?

In asynchronous online courses, personal video messages—whether from teacher to student, or student to students—can reduce students’ sense of distance and foster community.


  1. A number of schools in recent years have developed MOOC-based master’s degrees. Does a large-scale degree programs pose any unique challenges for Canvas?

Canvas prides itself on the scalability of the system so that downtime or slowness is the least of our users worry.

For MOOCs or other large-scale courses, there are additional challenges that any tool or system might face. For example, teachers looking at a gradebook with thousands of students and dozens of assignments are dealing with a massive amount of data delivered through their browser.

Canvas has spent a lot of resources over the past two years addressing key features such as the Gradebook to ensure greater responsiveness for teachers of large courses. There’s always more work to do, but I think the greater challenge becomes empowering teachers—and students—to create better learning experiences at scale, ones that don’t sacrifice interactivity or active learning for the sake of extending learning to a larger audience.

Canvas has some fantastic partners in higher education—institutions that are finding new ways to deliver high-quality learning experiences to a broader, more diverse audience of learners. We trust these partners to help keep us focused on that goal of a better experience for the individual student, even in large-scale programs or courses.


  1. In recent years, many companies have been designing add-on products that can increase the utility of an LMS. What are some of the most intriguing products that come to mind? How do they enhance learning?

We live in an exciting time as far as the Canvas LMS is concerned, in part because of the hundreds of other providers, tools, and systems that are helping us realize the vision of Canvas as an open platform and an open ecosystem.

No longer is the LMS the only and final word on capabilities; both companies and institutions are using open standards, Canvas’s open API, and access to data to build their own awesome tools.

I can’t name one favorite third-party tool, but the ones that most excite me are those that allow teachers to give students richer, more valuable feedback within a specific domain while actually saving teachers time. Or that enable students to take a more active, even social role in the course, to become teachers or team members or coaches to their peers.


  1. Learning analytics has long offered the promise of more focused instruction and practice. What progress have you seen recently in the use of such data to inform and customize teaching? Where is the future headed?

Learning analytics seems to have largely survived the hype cycle, and we’re seeing a combination of institutions exploring data for the purposes of understanding adoption, showcasing instruction, or personalizing interventions for students.

For Canvas, we want analytics to help teachers, students, and administrators quickly understand how things are going, and uncover ways that they can make things better. Going forward, I’m most excited about invisible analytics—using data and analytics not just to surface visualizations or enable further exploration, but to prompt or engage students and teachers in the activity of learning itself.

For example, predictive analytics may be hidden from users, but could trigger a nudge to students if and when they might need a nudge—to submit an assignment, to participate in a discussion, to re-take a quiz, or to study (differently) for an upcoming exam. When analytics are used under the hood to help personalize the experience, I think we have a chance to increase engagement and outcomes without asking teachers to do more work and become wizards of automation.


  1. What other innovations come to mind in terms of how Canvas has contributed to learning and teaching?

One of the things I’m most proud of with Canvas is that our commitment to openness has enabled educators to do great things that we never even dreamt of.

One really great recent example is what’s happening in the state of Washington to open new educational opportunities to people who need it most. We know that corrections education for incarcerated people works, but delivering that education is enough of a challenge that fewer higher education institutions are able or willing to do so. Often times this involves asking faculty to come into prisons to teach. Some institutions still offer paper-based independent study courses to corrections. But a lot of these students aren’t starting off with strong background knowledge or study habits, and they rely on the frequent feedback and guidance that a teacher provides. Asynchronous online learning is not an option because inmates have zero internet access.

At Larch Corrections in Washington, they’re creating the best of both worlds, even though they’re cut off from the internet. They’ve downloaded and locally installed the open source version of Canvas, with some custom modifications for security. Canvas’s Open APIs are allowing them to build custom innovations, like the offline sync capability that’s being tested with inmate laptops. This lets Clark College deliver hybrid or even “online” courses via Canvas that give inmates the organization, repeated practice, and immediate feedback that they need. The flexibility of a hybrid approach saves precious face-to-face time for engagement with faculty within the rigid prison schedule.

One of the reasons why the use of Canvas in Washington correctional facilities is so ideal is because all of Washington’s community and technical colleges have been using Canvas on the cloud for years. It’s easier for teachers to bring content from their college’s Canvas instance to the offline Canvas within the prison. And when inmates hit the gate, they can continue their studies in local colleges with one less thing to worry about: they know the ins and outs of the LMS. It seems small, but for these guys every advantage counts.

Larch Corrections and Clark College wouldn’t be able to do this if Canvas wasn’t open source, and we didn’t have open APIs that allow DIY innovation like this.

If you want to learn a bit more about what Washington is doing in this respect, check out the video that we made last year: Larch Corrections Center and Canvas.


As VP of Higher Education Strategy for Canvas by Instructure, Jared Stein ( Twitter: @jstein) and team uncover new ways that technology can improve teaching and learning, often in collaboration with colleges and universities. Jared works to help teachers design effective blended and online learning so that all students can have great experiences in education. He believes in applying research to design, and encourages real-world practice, openness, and simplicity. Jared has also helped institutions plan for education challenges through grassroots, faculty-driven initiatives (such as open education projects), and top-level leadership plans (such as the growth of online and hybrid offerings). Jared is co-author of Essentials for Blended Learning: A Standards-Based Guide.