To: Harvard University Information Technology
From: Tianyu Su, Harvard University
Subject: Suggestions for improving the notification system of Canvas
Date: September 27, 2020
Thousands of Harvard students use and benefit from Canvas, the online learning platform, which is well designed and user friendly. However, the notification systems of Canvas is confusing and overwhelming. This memo illustrates this issue, proposes two possible solutions, and provides a couple of approaches to test them out.
The confusing notification system
As a centralized platform, Canvas is the primary source of course information and material posting. Many functions are elaborately designed and implemented to make sure it fulfills this role and meets both students’ and teaching teams’ needs. However, the diversity of functions also sometimes confuse students, one of which is the notification system. As we can see from the attached diagram of the current Canvas home page, three places (i.e., three buttons) imply the functions of “notification”: “Inbox” in the left banner, “Announcements” in the main page area, and “View Course Notifications” on the right. These buttons are quite confusing as one cannot easily tell or memorize their differences unless opening them repeatedly. Moreover, most of the course teaching teams send out the most critical notifications by E-mail, making the whole notification systems less essential.
Here presents a few possible solutions that may improve this notification system of Canvas.
Eliminate one or more items from the three “notification” functions, especially the duplications of E-mail. According to this criterion, both “Inbox” and “Announcements” seem removable.
Combine these existing notification functions into one function. We can still keep different parts under this single function, but simplicity is highly recommended.
Remove all these three functions or make them much less noticeable, and then add one single notification function for upcoming deadlines of assignments, problem sets, and exercises. This would be much more helpful than duplicating E-mail notifications.
How to test them out?
In order to test out the hypotheses listed in the last section, I also recommend a few fast and easy verification approaches. For the first two possible solutions, a viable approach to verify our hypotheses is to temporally shut down one function in the back-end and see whether students complain. This will cause no harm to the whole system, and it is easy to recover as we can re-open the function very quickly. The verification of the third hypothesis should follow those of the first two. It can start from a notification email system. We can observe whether this increases assignment finishing rates and then decide whether this function should be integrated into Canvas.