What is a course management system?

A student takes notes from his tabletYou may have never heard the term “course management system” before, but you’ve probably heard about (and extensively used) UC Davis Canvas, the UC Davis learning management system since 2016. Broadly defined, a course management system (CMS) is a software application that offers an introduction to a course in an online environment.

Most CMSs provide a way to:

  • efficiently deliver learning materials
  • to foster communication and collaboration between students
  • to distribute information from the instructor to students, and
  • to track how students use available course materials.

Why should I be interested in UC Davis’s course management system (UC Davis Canvas)?

canvas logoWhile the functionality of a course management system can be taken for granted, it is a fantastic teaching tool, one that students have reported finding particularly useful. Over 100,000 college students surveyed reported that they found using a CMS to be one of the most valuable tools for their success in a college environment (Dahlstrom et al. 2013). Not only that, but these surveyed students also expressed an interest in having their instructors use the CMS more frequently in their classrooms than they’ve experienced in the past. Over 95% of college campuses nationwide use a CMS, but only 50% of faculty take advantage of the CMS’s full functionality (Dahlstrom et al. 2013).

UC Davis is working towards making our campus’s transition to UC Davis Canvas go smoothly so that instructors can take full advantage of Canvas’s functionality. To learn more about on-campus workshops and trainings, please visit Move to Canvas.

How can a course management system benefit student learning?

TAs in TA wkshp

  • Accessibility: Course management systems are designed and adopted by universities to guarantee that all students have equal access to course materials. In particular, Canvas is committed to meeting nation-wide accessibility guidelines so that all students can be successful finding what they need for their courses. Canvas includes a guide to its accessibility features, so that instructors can help students know what to expect from using UC Davis Canvas.
  • Interactivity: While many instructors advise students to engage only in class or via e-mail, the CMS can be a powerful place to get all students involved in conversations together so that they can see each other’s questions or thoughts about the course materials. While students may organize study groups outside of class, giving students a virtual space to talk to each other (and to you) within the CMS can be another way to make course learning more interactive and engaging.
  • Organization: Most courses involve a complex set of materials that students are required to use. By organizing course materials, activities, discussion forums, and chat tools within the space of the CMS, students have a “one-stop” website to which they all have complete and immediate access for all of their course activities.

Checklist for incorporating the CMS into Your class

Student at a TA workshopIf you’d like to incorporate your CMS more into your class’s activities, consider using the following checklist to help you ensure that your students have a clear understanding of how they should be expected to use the CMS throughout the class:

  • Explore the CMS functionality. An Educause survey found that instructors only use 50% of the tool functionality available within their campus’s LMS (Dahlstrom et al. 2013). Even before you begin teaching your class, you’ll find it useful to peruse resources like The Canvas Help Center’s Instructor Guide, which includes a very comprehensive look at all of the tools within Canvas and offers answers to frequently asked questions about these tools.
  • Include a section in your syllabus devoted to explaining how you’d like students to use the CMS. Create a new (but short) syllabus section on all of the activities you’d like students to do in the CMS. Many students need some explicit explanation of what role the CMS will serve in your class because they may never have used a CMS before. Try to operationalize student activities using action words (e.g. “Respond to in-class reading assignments using the “Discussions” tool” or “Check for class announcements in the “Announcements” section).
  • Use the CMS to archive course activities and materials. Passing out materials in class can be one great way to distribute course content, but many students will either need to or prefer to access course materials in alternative ways. Archiving course materials on your course management website will give students options about how they read and engage with your course. If you’re interested in learning more about how to make your course materials accessible in the CMS, check out the Accessibility UC Davis guide or contact the Student Disability Center.
  • Offer an introduction to the CMS either in-class or in a screen capture video. Students often benefit from an orientation to the CMS and, as an instructor, a walkthrough of the major features that you will expect students to use in the CMS will be useful for their success. E-mail movetocanvas@ucdavis.edu if you’d like an ATS employee to facilitate an orientation for your class.
  • Keep the CMS updated over the course of the quarter. Make sure that any course materials you use as the quarter progresses get updated. That way, your course site remains a reliable resource for your students.
  • Continually encourage student participation on the CMS. Course management systems can be a great place to archive materials, but their functionality allows you to do so much more than that! There are great ways to bring the best of in-class activities into an online space so that students have a variety of ways to participate in and engage with the course. For example, discussion forums can be a great tool for facilitating responses to reading, quiz features can assess student learning outside of class, and chat features can facilitate student dialogue in coordinating student projects. Check out some of EdTech Commons’ suggestions for facilitating Discussions, Quizzes, and Writing Activities.

Resources for Learning More

UC Davis Canvas Transition

  • Move to Canvas: This website includes news, event announcements, and updates on UC Davis’s transition to Canvas.



References & Resources

Dahlstrom, E., Walker, J.D. and Dziuban, C. (2013). ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2013 (Research Report). Louisville, CO: EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research, September 2013, available from http://www.educause.edu/ecar