Improving the visual layout of Canvas

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Many people at RMIT comment on the “improved look and feel” of Canvas over its predecessor Blackboard. Some people have requested more advice on the ways to improve the visual layout of their Canvas courses.

This session will consider structuring courses in Canvas, as well as some simple improvements you can make through graphic design.

Structuring a course in Canvas

There are many ways you can structure a course in Canvas. You can use the Calendar and Syllabus features for a streamlined approach. You can create a Page that links out to other pages of topics. You can drive the course through Announcements. You can organise all content into Modules. These are some of the main ways, and all of them can be used in combination.

Calendar and Syllabus

Early in the transition to Canvas we worked out that the Calendar and Syllabus is a very efficient way to structure a course. Events are created for each topic or learning activity, and in that event is listed the Page for the topic or activity, and any other relevant links and information. These Events automatically list in the Syllabus along side Assignments, in order of their dates. The Syllabus therefore becomes the Home page requiring just the usual course introduction. Drag and drop any changes in the Calendar, and they automatically update on the Syllabus Home page.

An early demonstration of Calendar and Syllabus in Canvas

Here’s some older post of ours about Pages:

A Page that links

Alternatively you can manually create a Page listing all the topics or schedule of lectures and activities. Each topic or activity then links to a Page for that topic or activity. Essentially you are manually creating what the Syllabus does automatically, perhaps so you can have more control over the look and feel of the Home page.

Here’s some older post of ours about Pages:


Driving the course through Announcements is a little like using Calendar, but using Announcements instead, which will not automatically create a Syllabus, but will build up a Syllabus of sorts in the Announcement index. Generate a new announcement for each new topic or transition in the course, and include all the relevant details in the announcement. You can preload all the announcements and simply schedule their release.

Here’s some older posts we have about Announcements:


Modules have become the main way people structure their courses at RMIT, and that’s largely driven by the requirements of the 14 Elements, which makes use of the Modules feature for the Welcome module. The only thing that Modules offer over the above methods is the ability to sequence content and activities in a type of page turner display of “Next and Previous”, as well as adding Requirements and Prerequisites before each module. Most courses we have seen have not really needed these features, and so could move away from the less that satisfactory visual appeal of Modules. If you are using Modules though, you might consider adding headings over your modules to help improve layout and way finding.

Here’s some older post of ours about Pages:

All of the above

It isn’t a lot more work to achieve all of the above however. The Calendar generates the Pages and Assignments, as well as the Syllabus. The Syllabus can be the Home page and have many graphic enhancements made to it, as can each Page and Activity. Announcements can reinforce the Pages and Activities that are scheduled in the Calendar, adding more context that may be relevant to the moment in the course. All of this can still be arranged into Modules if desired, and so your course is structured in just about all possible ways with minimal extra work.

Graphic design basics

Use Level Headings

Instead of manually changing the font size and colour of title and subtitle text in Canvas, Use Level Headings, or Headings, in the edit tool bar item called “Paragraph”. Level Headings take on the typographic design used all over your Canvas site, and so offer you a quick and easy way to achieve a typographic consistency in your course, as well as better helping people access your content with assistive technology.

Use Hyperlinks

It is very easy to create links to other areas within your canvas course. So when you mention the first assignment, why not link to it right there in the text to help your students find what you’re mentioning.

Optimize and align images

When you place images in Canvas, ensure they align by editing the image properties. To access the properties, click the image then click the image icon in the tool bar. Use the same number in the Dimension area, only the first field, the aspect ratio will be preserved in the second field automatically.

Keep it brief and use numbered lists

Most guides on writing for the web advise to keep it brief. If there’s lengthy detail or a reading, consider linking to it from the general instruction page. Draw focus on steps in the instruction by using a numbered list.

Use video

If you’ve worked out how to make videos quickly and easily, why not add a video of yourself explaining the content. It gives people an option to listen to you while they do other things; not to mention people who speak English as a second language will appreciate hearing the pronunciation of words they only know how to read.

Embedding content in Canvas

Canvas supports the adding of HTML code to content areas so that content from other websites can be displayed. This means you can set up your Canvas to display content from other sites you want to focus your energy on, knowing that any changes you make to content on those sites, will automatically display in Canvas. For example, you can embed a Google Doc and make it look like it is entirely part of Canvas. Now you have the auto save, version control, and collaborative editing features that Google offers but Canvas does not. RMIT switching away from GoogleApps for Education is a blessing in disguise. It means we can use Google products without the limitations that RMIT placed on them.

Other resources we have on this topic

We’ve written other resources to with structure and design of courses, and some to do with Canvas specifically:

  1. How to structure content in Canvas
  2. Working with Prerequisites and Requirements in Canvas Modules – Social Work Field Education Preparation
  3. What is the difference between modules and pages?

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