Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Year: 2023

Example Collections page - Canvas modules page with four collections. Showing the Why collection with three cards (modules)

Announcing (finally) Canvas Collections

Finally, a reasonable version of Canvas Collections and associated support materials is ready to announce. Following will eventually form the content of a blog post posted to the Canvas community space.


Canvas Collections is an open source tool that helps to transform the Canvas modules index page by adding structure, visuals, and context. This can help you improve the organisation, aesthetics, usability, and findability of your Canvas course. Improvements known to enhance student self-efficacy, motivation, and retention.

The following offers a summary of how you use it and what you can do with Canvas Collections. See the Canvas Collections’ site for more. Questions and suggestions welcome, here on the Collections’ site.

How do you use it?

Collections is most useful when installed institutionally. But you need to be an administrator to do that. That might not be an option for you.

Collections can also be installed individually. Most useful for teachers/designers of Canvas course sites, or people just wanting to experiment with Collections. Individual installation has two steps:
1. Install the Tampermonkey browser extension
2. Install the Canvas Collections userscript.

Once installed, you can:
1. Check it is installed.
2. Configure Collections for your course.
3. Navigate your course using Collections.

What can you do with it?

Start with vanilla Canvas modules

The following image is an example (vanilla) Canvas modules index page. Showing the standard linear structure with a visually limited interface and little contextual information visible.

From what you see here, can you identify the three driving questions behind the design of this course?

Scrolling through a Canvas modules index page. Showing 13 modules and all their items in one long linear scroll. Each module visualised with a 'windows-95' like folder with a list of items.

Add live (dynamic) Canvas Collections

The following image is the same course. However, the Canvas Collections code is live and is dynamically modifying the Canvas modules index page to add

  • Structure – modules have been allocated to four collections with only the modules belonging to the currently selected collection visible at any one time.
  • Visuals – each collection is using a different representation (and also including content from a Canvas page) which allows direct navigation to a module.
  • Context – additional contextual data (e.g. description, banner image/iframe, date etc.) is visible for each module. (What isn’t shown is that this data can include requirements completion)

Can you identify the three driving questions behind the design of this course from this view?

Canvas modules page configured with four collections (why, what, how, and questions & suggestions). Changing between different collections, showing only that collection's modules at any one time. Navigating directly to a module by clicking on its specific representation. Showing off the representations which include cards for each module. Cards with images/iframes, descriptions, dates, labels and other contextual data

Create a Claytons (static) Canvas Collections page

Live Collections requires installing the Canvas Collections code (institutionally or individually). If installed individually, then you probably can’t use live Collections with students (each student would have to install Collections individually).

As an alternative, you can use your individual installation of Collections to create a Canvas page that contains a static (Claytons) version of Canvas Collections. Echoing the common Canvas community practice of creating a visual home page for a Canvas course. The difference being that Collections does the design work for you.

The following demonstrates a Claytons Collections version of the live Collections above. Same (similar) collections, representations, and contextual data. However, all saved onto a Canvas page that is being used as the course home page.

(NOTE: Due to limitations of the Canvas RCE at least one of the current representations shown does require external CSS to work.)

Animation showing how a Canvas page has been updated to contain a sequence of tabs for each collection. Allowing the visitor to see different representations of Canvas modules (but not the modules themselves). Representations that are basically the same as live Canvas Collections. Clicking on the representation for a module will take you directly to that module.


Modify Canvas Collections

Canvas Collections is explicitly designed to be generative. That is, to improve the capacity of the community “to produce unprompted change driven by large, varied, and uncoordinated audiences”. By making it simpler (though perhaps not simple) for others to make changes. The rationale behind Canvas Collections is that generativity is a key enabler for providing usable short arc design tools that scale

Some of the means used to achieve this, includes:

  1. Source code distributed under an open source licence (GPLv3).
  2. Written using Svelte component framework
  3. Designed with an architecture that (hopefully) supports generativity.

Higher ed L&T’s scale problem?

Contemporary higher education appears to have a scale problem.

Ellis & Goodyear (2019) explain in some detail Bain’s and Zundans-Fraser’s (2017) diagnosis of why attempts by universities to improve learning and teaching rarely scale, including the observation that L&T centers try to “influence learning and teaching through elective, selective, and exemplary approaches that are incompatible with whole-organizational change” (Bain & Zundans-Fraser, 2017, p. 12). While most universities offer design support services the combination of high demand and limited resources mean that many academics are left to their own devices (Bennet, Agostinho & Lockyer, 2017). Moving from working at scale across an institution, Ryan et al (2021) suggest that maintaining the quality of L&T while teaching at scale is a key issue for higher education. Massification brings both increased numbers and diversity of learners creating practical and pedagogical challenges for educators having to teach at scale.

Attempts to address the challenge of scale (e.g. certain types of MOOC, course site templates) tend to strike me as limited. Why?

Perhaps it is because…

A Typology of Scale

Morel et al (2019) argue that there is a lack of conceptual clarity around scale. In response, they offer a typology of scale, very briefly summarised in the following table.

Concept of scale
Adoption Widespread use of an innovation – market share. Limited conceptualisation of expected use.
Replication Widespread implementation with fidelity will produce expected outcomes.
Adaptation Widespread use of an innovation that is modified in response to local needs.
Reinvention Intentional and systematic experimentation with an innovation. Innovation as catalyst for further innovation.

The practice of scale

Most institutional attempts at scale I’ve observed appear to fall into the first two conceptualisations.

MOOCs – excluding Connectivist MOOCs – aimed to scale content delivery through scale as replication. Institutional practice around the use of an LMS is increasingly driven by consistency in the form of templates. Leading to exchanges like that shared by Macfarlan and Hook (2022)

‘Can I do X?’ or ‘How would I do Y?’, until the ED said, ‘You can do anything you like, as long as you use the template.’ With a shrug the educator indicated their compliance. The ironic surrender was palpable.

At best, templates fall into the replication conception of scale. Experts produce something which they think will be an effective solution to a known problem. A solution that – if only everyone would just use as intended – will generate positive outcomes for learners. Arguments could be made that it quickly devolves into the adoption category. Others may claim their templates support adaptation, but only “as long as you use the template”?

Where do other institutional attempts fit on this typology?

Institutional learning and teaching frameworks, standards, plans and other abstract approaches? More adoption/replication?

The institutional LMS and the associated ecosystem of tools? The assumption is probably adaptation. The tools can be creatively adapted to suit whatever design intent would be the argument. However, for adaptation to work (see below) the relationship between the users and the tools needs to offer the affordance for customisation. I don’t think the current tools help enough with that.

Which perhaps explains why use of the LMS and associated tools is so limited/time consuming. But the current answer appears to be templates and consistency.

Education’s diversity problem

The folk who conceive of scale as adaptation, like Clark and Dede (2009) argue that

One-size-fits-all educational innovations do not work because they ignore contextual factors that determine an intervention’s efficacy in a particular local situation (p. 353)

Morel et al (2019) identify that this adaptation does assume/require the capacity from users to make modifications in response to contextual requirements. This will likely require more work from both the designers and the users. Which, for me, raises the following questions

  1. Does the deficit model of educators (they aren’t trained L&T professionals) held by some L&T professionals limit the ability to conceive of/adopt this type of scale?
  2. Does the difficulty of institutions face in customising contemporary digital learning environment (i.e. the LMS) – let alone enabling learners and teachers to do that customisation – limit the ability to conceive of/adopt this type of scale?
  3. For me, this also brings in the challenge of the iron triangle. How to (cost) efficiently scale learning and teaching in ways that respond effectively to the growing diversity of learners, teachers, and contexts?

How do you answer those questions at scale?


Bain, A., & Zundans-Fraser, L. (2017). The Self-organizing University. Springer.

Bennett, S., Agostinho, S., & Lockyer, L. (2017). The process of designing for learning: Understanding university teachers’ design work. Educational Technology Research & Development, 65(1), 125–145.

Clarke, J., & Dede, C. (2009). Design for Scalability: A Case Study of the River City Curriculum. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 18(4), 353–365.

Ellis, R. A., & Goodyear, P. (2019). The Education Ecology of Universities: Integrating Learning, Strategy and the Academy. Routledge.

Ryan, T., French, S., & Kennedy, G. (2021). Beyond the Iron Triangle: Improving the quality of teaching and learning at scale. Studies in Higher Education, 46(7), 1383–1394.

Macfarlan, B., & Hook, J. (2022). ‘As long as you use the template’: Fostering creativity in a pedagogic model. ASCILITE Publications, Proceedings of ASCILITE 2022 in Sydney, Article Proceedings of ASCILITE 2022 in Sydney.

Morel, R. P., Coburn, C., Catterson, A. K., & Higgs, J. (2019). The Multiple Meanings of Scale: Implications for Researchers and Practitioners. Educational Researcher, 48(6), 369–377.

Productivity commission recommended a need to grow access to higher education, contain fiscal costs, and improve teaching quality

Gatherers, Weavers and Augmenters: Three principles for dynamic and sustainable delivery of quality learning and teaching

Henry Cook, Steven Booten and I gave the following presentation at the THETA conference in Brisbane in April 2023.

Below you will find

  • Summary – a few paragraphs summarising the presentation.
  • Slides – copies of the slides used.
  • Software – some of the software produced/used as part of the work.
  • References – used in the summary and the slides.
  • Abstract – the original conference abstract.


The presentation used our experience as part of a team migrating 1500+ course sites from Blackboard to Canvas to explore a broader challenge. A challenge recently expressed in the Productivity Commission’s “Advancing Prosperity” report with its recommendations to grow access to tertiary education while containing cost and improving quality. This challenge to maximise all cost efficiency and quality and access (diversity & scale) is seen as a key issue for higher education (Ryan et al., 2021). It has even been labelled the “Iron Triangle” because – unless you change the circumstances and conditions – improving one indicator will almost inevitably lead to deterioration in the other indicators (Mulder, 2013). The pandemic emergency response being the most recent example of this. Necessarily rapid changes to access (moving from face-to-face to online) required significant costs (staff workload) to produce outcomes that are perceived to be of questionable quality.

Leading to the question we wanted to answer:

How do you stretch the iron triangle? (i.e. maximise cost efficiency, quality, and accessibility)?

In the presentation, we demonstrated that the fundamental tasks (gather and weave) of an LMS migration are manual and repetitive. Making it impossible to stretch the iron triangle. We illustrated why this is the case, demonstrated how we addressed this limitation, and proposed three principles for broader application. We argue that the three principles can be usefully applied beyond LMS migration to business as usual.

Gatherers and weavers – what we do

Our job is to help academic staff design, implement, and maintain quality learning tasks and environments. We suggest that the core tasks required to do this is to gather and weave disparate strands of knowledge, ways of knowing (especially various forms of design and contextual knowledge and knowing), and technologies (broadly defined). For example, a course site is the result of gathering and weaving together such disparate strands as: content knowledge (e.g. learning materials); administrative information (e.g. due dates, timetables etc); design knowledge (e.g. pedagogical, presentation, visual etc); and information & functionality from various technologies (e.g. course profiles, echo360, various components of the LMS etc).

An LMS migration is a variation on this work. It has a larger (all courses) and more focused purpose (migrate from one LMS to another). But still involves the same core tasks of gathering and weaving. Our argument is that to maximise the cost efficiency, accessibility, and quality of this work you must do the same to the core tasks of gathering and weaving. Early in our LMS migration it was obvious that this was not the case. The presentation included a few illustrative examples. There were many more that could’ve been used. Both from the migration and business as usual. All illustrating the overly manual and repetitive nature of gathering and weaving required by contemporary institutional learning environments.

Three principles for automating & augmenting gathering & weaving  – what we did

Digital technology has long been seen as a key enabler for improving productivity through its ability to automate processes and augment human capabilities. Digital technology is increasingly pervasive in the learning and teaching environment, especially in the context of an LMS migration. But none of the available technologies were actively helping automate or augment gathering and weaving. The presentation included numerous examples of how we changed this. From this work we identified three principles.

  1. On-going activity focused (re-)entanglement.
    Our work was focused on high level activities (e.g. analysis, migration, quality assurance, course design of 100s of course sites). Activities not supported by any single technology, hence the manual gathering and weaving. By starting small and continually responding to changes and lessons learned, we stretched the iron triangle by digitally gathering and weaving disparate component technologies into assemblages that were fit for the activities.
  2. Contextual digital augmentation.
    Little to none of the specific contextual and design knowledge required for these activities was available digitally. We focused on usefully capturing this knowledge digitally so it could be integrated into the activity-based assemblages.
  3. Meso-level focus.
    Existing component technologies generally provide universal solutions for the institution or all users of the technology. Requiring manual gathering and weaving to fit contextual needs for each individual variation. By leveraging the previous two principles we were able to provide “technologies that were fit for meso-level solutions. For example, all courses for a program or a school. All courses, that use a complex learning activity like interactive orals.

Connections with other work

Much of the above is informed by or echoes related research and practice in related fields. It’s not just we three. The presentation made explicit connections with the following:

  • Learning and teaching;
    Fawns’ (2022) work on entangled pedagogy as encapsulating the mutual shaping of technology, teaching methods, purposes, values and context (gathering and weaving). Dron’s (2022) re-definition of educational technology drawing on Arthur’s (2009) definition of technology. Work on activity centered design – which understands teaching as a distributed activity – as key to both good learning and teaching (Markauskaite et al, 2023), but also key to institutional management (Ellis & Goodyear, 2019). Lastly – at least in the presentation – the nature and need for epistemic fluency (Markauskaite et al, 2023)
  • Digital technology; and,
    Drawing on numerous contemporary practices within digital technology that break the false dilemma of “buy or build”. Such as the project to product movement (Philip & Thirion, 2021); Robotic Process Automation; Citizen Development; and the idea of lightweight IT development (Bygstad, 2017)
  • Leadership/strategy.
    Briefly linking the underlying assumptions of all of the above as examples of the move away from corporate and reductionist strategies that reduce people to “smooth users” toward possible futures that see us as more “collective agents” (Macgilchrist et al, 2020). A shift seen as necessary to more likely lead – as argued by Markauskaite et al (2023) – to the “even richer convergence of ‘natural’, ‘human’ and ‘digital’ required to respond effectively to global challenges.

There’s much more.


The presentation does include three videos that are available if you download the slides.

Related Software

Canvas QA is a Python script that will perform Quality Assurance checks on numerous Canvas courses and create a QA Report web page in each course’s Files area. The QA Report lists all the issues discovered and provides some scaffolding to address the issues.

Canvas Collections helps improve the visual design and usability/findability of the Canvas modules page. It is Javascript that can be installed by institutions into Canvas or by individuals as a userscript. It enables the injection of design and context specific information into the vanilla Canvas modules page.

Word2Canvas converts a Word document into a Canvas module to offer improvements to the authoring process in some contexts. At Griffith University, it was used as part of the migration process where Blackboard course site content was automatically converted into appropriate Word documents.  With a slight edit, these Word documents could be loaded directly into Canvas.


Arthur, W. B. (2009). The Nature of Technology: What it is and how it evolves. Free Press.

Bessant, S. E. F., Robinson, Z. P., & Ormerod, R. M. (2015). Neoliberalism, new public management and the sustainable development agenda of higher education: History, contradictions and synergies. Environmental Education Research, 21(3), 417–432.

Bygstad, B. (2017). Generative Innovation: A Comparison of Lightweight and Heavyweight IT. Journal of Information Technology, 32(2), 180–193.

Cassidy, C. (2023, April 10). ‘Appallingly unethical’: Why Australian universities are at breaking point. The Guardian.

Ellis, R. A., & Goodyear, P. (2019). The Education Ecology of Universities: Integrating Learning, Strategy and the Academy. Routledge.

Fawns, T. (2022). An Entangled Pedagogy: Looking Beyond the Pedagogy—Technology Dichotomy. Postdigital Science and Education, 4(3), 711–728.

Hagler, B. (2020). Council Post: Build Vs. Buy: Why Most Businesses Should Buy Their Next Software Solution. Forbes. Retrieved April 15, 2023, from

Inside Track Staff. (2022, October 19). Citizen developers use Microsoft Power Apps to build an intelligent launch assistant. Inside Track Blog.

Lodge, J., Matthews, K., Kubler, M., & Johnstone, M. (2022). Modes of Delivery in Higher Education (p. 159).

Macgilchrist, F., Allert, H., & Bruch, A. (2020). Students and society in the 2020s. Three future ‘histories’ of education and technology. Learning, Media and Technology, 45(0), 76–89.

Markauskaite, L., Carvalho, L., & Fawns, T. (2023). The role of teachers in a sustainable university: From digital competencies to postdigital capabilities. Educational Technology Research and Development, 71(1), 181–198.

Mulder, F. (2013). The LOGIC of National Policies and Strategies for Open Educational Resources. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 14(2), 96–105.

Philip, M., & Thirion, Y. (2021). From Project to Product. In P. Gregory & P. Kruchten (Eds.), Agile Processes in Software Engineering and Extreme Programming – Workshops (pp. 207–212). Springer International Publishing.

Ryan, T., French, S., & Kennedy, G. (2021). Beyond the Iron Triangle: Improving the quality of teaching and learning at scale. Studies in Higher Education, 46(7), 1383–1394.

Schmidt, A. (2017). Augmenting Human Intellect and Amplifying Perception and Cognition. IEEE Pervasive Computing, 16(1), 6–10.

Smee, B. (2023, March 6). ‘No actual teaching’: Alarm bells over online courses outsourced by Australian universities. The Guardian.


The pandemic reinforced higher educations’ difficulty responding to the long-observed challenge of how to sustainably and at scale fulfill diverse requirements for quality learning and teaching (Bennett et al., 2018; Ellis & Goodyear, 2019). Difficulty increased due to many issues, including: competition with the private sector for digital talent; battling concerns over the casualisation and perceived importance of teaching; and, growing expectations around ethics, diversity, and sustainability. That this challenge is unresolved and becoming increasingly difficult suggests a need for innovative practices in both learning and teaching, and how learning and teaching is enabled. Starting in 2019 and accelerated by a Learning Management System (LMS) migration starting in 2021 a small group have been refining and using an alternate set of principles and practices to respond to this challenge by developing reusable orchestrations – organised arrangements of actions, tools, methods, and processes (Dron, 2022) – to sustainably, and at scale, fulfill diverse requirements for quality learning and teaching. Leading to a process where requirements are informed through collegial networks of learning and teaching stakeholders that weigh their objective strategic and contextual concerns to inform priority and approach. Helping to share knowledge and concerns and develop institutional capability laterally and in recognition of available educator expertise.

The presentation will be structured around three common tasks: quality assurance of course sites; migrating content between two LMS; and, designing effective course sites. For each task a comparison will be made between the group’s innovative orchestrations and standard institutional/vendor orchestrations. These comparisons will: demonstrate the benefits of the innovative orchestrations; outline the development process; and, explain the three principles informing this work – 1) contextual digital augmentation, 2) meso-level automation, and 3) generativity and adaptive reuse. The comparisons will also be used to establish the practical and theoretical inspirations for the approach, including: RPA and citizen development; and, convivial technologies (Illich, 1973), lightweight IT development (Bygstad, 2017), and socio-material understandings of educational technology (Dron, 2022). The breadth of the work will be illustrated through an overview of the growing catalogue of orchestrations using a gatherers, weavers, and augmenters taxonomy.


Bennett, S., Lockyer, L., & Agostinho, S. (2018). Towards sustainable technology-enhanced innovation in higher education: Advancing learning design by understanding and supporting teacher design practice. British Journal of Educational Technology, 49(6), 1014–1026.

Bygstad, B. (2017). Generative Innovation: A Comparison of Lightweight and Heavyweight IT: Journal of Information Technology.

Dron, J. (2022). Educational technology: What it is and how it works. AI & SOCIETY, 37, 155–166.

Ellis, R. A., & Goodyear, P. (2019). The Education Ecology of Universities: Integrating Learning, Strategy and the Academy. Routledge.

Illich, I. (1973). Tools for Conviviality. Harper and Row.

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