Ask any Michigan student what their most visited website is during finals week and you’ll be sure to hear one answer: It is the site for late-night cramming, last-minute panicking and hopeful (or hopeless, depending on the class) dreaming. It is also the site that induces expletive-filled rants about missing grades and randomly organized PDFs. For the longest time, CTools has been the go-to source for my academic frustrations.

But this past fall, students at Michigan were introduced to CTools’ replacement, Canvas, and soon we will use this new website for all of our schoolwork.

With Canvas comes a new hope for students and teachers alike. Where CTools often seemed like a dated side project that still ran on dial-up Internet, Canvas is supposed to be a modern, efficient and constantly improving educational resource.

Rather than being locally stored on the University’s servers (like CTools of yore), Canvas runs off cloud-based computing systems that are managed by a group of universities, collectively called Unizin. This decreases the risk of server overload and hardware failure that has occurred within the CTools framework in the past.

Other features detailed by the University’s Canvas transition guide include peer grading, learning outcome mapping, online rubrics, learning analytics, streamlined instructional workflows and a speed-grader system. All of these improvements will undoubtedly lead to a better user experience for both students and teachers.

But, ask me about Canvas next year during finals week and you’ll surely hear CTools-esque rants.

Despite Canvas’ fresh new look and exciting new features, nothing about the new site addresses the biggest problem we all had with CTools in the first place: the people actually using it.

Thousands of professors and GSIs maintain the everyday workings of systems like Canvas and CTools. Because every class is different, every Canvas page is, understandably, very different; an EECS professor will likely use their Canvas page differently than a linguistics GSI.

While flexibility is good for adapting to course needs, the openness of Canvas often leaves everybody involved searching for answers.

One primary problem area that Canvas didn’t solve is professor resources, such as PDF assignment documents, syllabi and announcements. Many professors place their class resources under the “Files” tab and organize subcategories within this location. However, syllabi, along with assignment documents, often make their way into this tab, despite each having their own respective Canvas tabs.

Even more confusing are assignment documents that are attached solely to class announcements. Professors have the ability to send announcements to their entire class instantly, which encourages many professors to use these announcements as assignment-updating mechanisms. But in doing so, assignments and other attached resources are stored separately from other class materials.

When you factor in an average of four classes and one discussion section for every student each semester, you are left with a jumbled mess of PDFs, Word documents, folders, subfolders and headaches. Related complaints focus on instructors failing to update grades routinely, underutilizing discussion sections and leaving large portions of Canvas completely untouched (my roommates can attest to my shouting and frustration the night before I have a midterm).

All of these issues point to the ways in which users are interacting with the site. Users are ultimately responsible for how Canvas looks and feels. Nothing about Canvas caters to users and mitigates the issues CTools had.

Information Prof. Barry Fishman spoke with the Daily about the introduction of Canvas this past March. Despite his general approval of Canvas, he concluded his thoughts by saying, “(Learning management systems are) the plumbing. Good teachers are doing the normally good things that they’re doing around here. Particularly exciting teachers, I have seen no way in which Canvas is holding them back. It’s not about Canvas, it’s about what you do with it.”

Until we address the manner in which we collectively use learning management systems like Canvas, nothing will change. Educating professors on best practices and general management skills is a good first step to fixing the issues at hand. Teaching students how to effectively traverse Canvas is a coinciding step that would also likely improve the educational process.

Both of these processes take time, though, and cannot be fixed with a software update. Professors are understandably very busy, as are college students. Making the effort to collectively address users’ issues with employing a new system is neither a simple solution nor one that many would identify as the University’s top priority. It is, however, the necessary solution to a problem that deeply affects students and faculty alike.

Canvas is not holding us back — if anything, it is a step in the right direction. But if the only step we take is making Canvas the new standard platform without any sort of user prep, you will surely hear the same expletive-filled rants from me this time next year.

I just won’t be able to blame CTools anymore.

Elliott Rains can be reached at

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