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Canvas System Change Proposal

A project management endeavor that sought to design and propose a system change to Canvas, a popular Learning Management System. This was a proposal for a built-in forum on Canvas designed for efficiency and to increase students' engagement on the site.

Team: Sophia Danly, Sally Huynh, Ell Park, Alexandra Shlosman, Rohan Hemrajani

Project role: Project manager, researcher, UX designer

Fall 2021



Canvas is a robust LMS (Learning Management System) that provides a myriad of different tools for instructors to host courses in a virtual environment. However, it falls short when it comes to facilitating student discussion and providing a space for productive, 2-way instructor-student interaction. The platform does not possess a built-in forum for students to discuss class material with each other and to receive clarification from their instructors. This leaves many educational institutions to delegate a separate third-party forum platform for the students and teaching staff to use. Since this adds a layer of navigation for students, it can be an inconvenience for them to access the third-party site, which can explain why the forums for some courses are sparse, with few posts throughout and lackluster student engagement. This can be a detriment to students' academic experience, especially in the era of remote learning, where forums are one of students' few opportunities for interpersonal interaction. Thus, an integrated forum in the Canvas platform would create more convenience for its users. Adding a gamification feature to the forum could also increase student engagement via incentivization.

Project Description

Our solution is a forum, Sermo, that can be integrated within Canvas and provides multiple functionalities to inspire student engagement. Engagement can manifest differently, but the ultimate goal is to incentivize students to respond to others’ posts in a helpful manner. This is achieved through gamification, or in this context, turning the mundane activity of posting on a forum into a rewardable endeavor. On our forum, every time a student gains "upvotes" on their post or replies, as well as whenever they ask or answer a question, they receive points that they can spend to customize their avatar. Another way to inspire user engagement is that specific posts can be “followed”, or a user can sign up to receive email notifications about certain posts on the forum when they receive a new response. 

Furthermore, to achieve the important quality of usability, we have implemented features to enhance ease of use. This includes a search feature for posts and category tagging for posts, which make them easier to search. Additionally, the search feature allows users to filter multiple types of posts at a time, such as filtering for posts that are both unanswered and unread, which is not possible in the more popular forum choices. The forum also enables instructors to link directly to a filtered list of all posts tagged with a specific assignment directly from the assignment page on Canvas, further reducing the amount of navigation a student must perform to receive relevant information. Finally, we have utilized machine learning to display similar questions that have already been asked as a student begins creating their own post, providing them a call-to-action to engage with existing material first.

Functional Requirements
Post and reply feature

A user is able to post on the forum. Any user - student or instructor - is able to reply to this post. Users are also able to reply to others’ replies within a post. 
Customizable avatar: In our forum, each user has an avatar and a shop where they can buy items to customize their avatar. They buy items with points that they earn from asking questions, answering questions, and receiving upvotes on either of these types of posts. 


Category tagging

Instructors can create different categories to tag posts with. Additionally, instructors can tag or adjust the tags on students’ posts.

Search and filter feature

Users can search for posts by typing in a search bar, as well as specify the category tag they would like to search within. Furthermore, users can select multiple filters for their search query. 

Assignment integration

The forum must be able to link posts with specific category tags to assignment pages in Canvas. This will manifest as a forum section on Canvas assignment pages that will bring the user to all the relevant posts on the forum. This will be a toggleable feature that can be turned on or off at the instructor’s discretion; it will automatically be turned on when the forum is integrated. The location of this toggleable feature will be in the same settings that are used to create assignment pages on Canvas.

Grouping by similar posts

When a student begins to create their post, the forum will automatically suggest similar posts as they type, displaying a call-to-action to direct them to relevant postings.

Post following

A student or instructor can sign up to get notifications from a specific post, as well as customize how often they receive notifications for that post

Non-functional requirements

Given that an instructor can access student information, such as their ID and email, we want to ensure that the forum has robust security and encryption.


We want to ensure our system can be run on any Operating System and accessed with any browser. 


Although the potential number of users will be consistent with other course-specific forums, we want to ensure we account for increased user engagement or more users on the forum at a given point in time. 


Ultimately, we want the forum to be intuitive and easy for users to interact with, as an important aspect of our system is that it generates more user engagement. 


The project must be within the allocated budget, with priority given to gamification features. 


The project must be completed within the allotted time, utilizing a 2-week agile structure. Each feature must be completed within its deadline. This model will allow for rapid prototyping where features can be tested and re-designed as needed, as well as allow development to fail fast if the feasibility of a feature comes into question. 

Design consistency

The design of the forum should be malleable enough for any institution to make it look consistent with the colors on their Canvas. Thus, certain design liberties must not be taken, as it should be able to seamlessly mesh with any customized version of Canvas.

Gamification features

Gamification features must be implemented to provide incentive for user engagement, but not so much as to detract from the primary goal of the course in which the forum is being used - for students to learn. An acknowledgement of this constraint would see gamification features not evolve beyond the current planned implementation. 


The forum must be designed such that all features remain working and consistent when integrated with Canvas. Systems respond differently when integrating 3rd-party software and can sometimes prevent the 3rd-party software from working as intended, such as not generating unique URLs for all the different pages users can navigate to within the 3rd-party software, making it impossible to link to specific items. Thus, Canvas’ ability to integrate 3rd party software must be closely ascertained to ensure all features of our forum will remain working. 


Mockup of a student profile page on Sermo. The colors should change depending on the college's colors. Since this was designed by UCI students, a caricature of UCI's mascot, Peter the Anteater, is used to demonstrate a mock avatar.


Mockup of the Store page on Sermo, where users can redeem points for items with which they can customize their avatar.


Mockup of a user's Inventory page on Sermo, where users can view their redeemed items and customize their avatar.

Work Breakdown Structure

WBS Full Scope.png

Full Scope

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WBS Full Scope.png

Quality Control

In order to test the functionality of the program, automated test cases will be created and conducted. Automation testing is much more efficient than manual testing, since unit tests can be run in order to test the basic functionality of the program. To test the user experience, guerilla testing will be conducted outside one of the UCI libraries or cafes on campus. In order to get a thorough understanding of what the general consensus would be on the forum’s user experience, this phase should test 50 subjects. Students who agree to the test will be the subjects of the study, and they should perform the listed tasks for the test on the prototype of the forum. They should both narrate their thoughts as they navigate the site and then answer a few feedback questions at the end of the test. To test the user interface, manual tests of clicking through the prototyped pages and testing their responsiveness on different screen sizes should be completed by the development team. The UI should also meet adequate accessibility requirements, so that the experience for someone with impaired sight, hearing, or mobility would not have much trouble navigating the page.

The requirements document should clearly state the necessary and desired features of the forum feature. A Customer Service-Level Agreement would be appropriate for this project between our teams and Canvas/Instructure so that the requirements, expectations, deliverables, and terms for system maintenance can be agreed upon. In order to meet schedule requirements, the CPM should be recorded, and after each item in the Gantt chart has been completed, it should be assessed whether the item was completed within the estimated time. If this is not completed, then the team would have to incorporate crashing on the next item. This could mean having the team work for twice as long each day on the next item, but shortening by half the total time needed for its completion, or outsourcing work to a third party, although this would cost more. When maintaining the forum after its launch, Canvas users and campus IT departments can send error/bug reports, and the software will automatically send reports in the case of a crash or system error. These bugs will be addressed every month at a team meeting, but if the frequency of the bug/crash reports per week passes a specified threshold, these problems will be addressed more urgently, at the end of that week, and these issues should be fixed within the next four weeks.

Risk Control

Risk:  Academic Dishonesty
Without proper moderation from the course instructors, the forum could be used for academic dishonesty by the students.
This could tarnish the reputation of Canvas, especially since Canvas is well-known for its tracking software that closely monitors student activity on the site in order to prevent academic dishonesty from occurring.
Depending on each instructor’s level of familiarity with navigating forum interfaces, there is a low to moderate chance of this risk occurring.
In order to monitor this risk, students who try to upload photos or pdfs to the forum will be given a general caution message that the content should be appropriate and not show their solution for a problem on homework or otherwise be seen as a violation of academic integrity.
If a student sees a post on the forum that is inappropriate or violates academic integrity, they have the option to flag it for the instructors’ review. 
Instructors will be notified via email of each post that has been flagged as academically dishonest, and then can review the post to determine if it indeed is a violation of academic integrity and then decide the appropriate actions to take.

Risk: Incompatible interface
One risk is that the visual design for the gamification feature to make this forum stand out may not match the rest of the Canvas interface.
Because Canvas has a simple interface design and its purpose as a learning management system has meant that there is little room for students to customize and have any “fun” with their experience on the site, this gamification feature on the forum may seem out of scope for the rest of Canvas. 

This feature could distract students from their schoolwork, and the gamified forum could detract from all other features on the Canvas site.
This risk could occur only if the designers for this forum feature do not follow the general design features of the rest of Canvas, such as using the same colors and fonts.
In order to monitor this risk, those in charge of designing the interface should check in weekly to show their progress and their ideas for their designs.
If these designs start to stray too much from what would be appropriate for Canvas, redesigns must be discussed and implemented quickly to make sure that the forum interface matches the rest of Canvas.

Risk: Cost overruns
Another risk is that the costs for this project will go over the budget.
If the costs for this project goes over budget without proper prioritization of the items that are needed for it, then the project will either become much more expensive than was predicted and prepared for, or will have to take much longer in order to garner further funding.
There is a moderate risk of this happening, especially if hiring artists to design the customizable avatar features for the gamified forum.
In order to monitor this risk, the budget set aside for each “department” of the team (backend development, frontend development, UI design, project management) should not be exceeded.
If each week during a financial check-in for the project, the estimated budget for that week has been exceeded, the scope of the gamification feature of the forum should be cut down, so that the most nonessential items will have the lowest priority of completion. 
This is to ensure that the rest of the project can still be completed within the budget.

Risk: Market risk
While the addition of an integrated forum into Canvas would be new, there are still several other forums currently that are in competition with the SEARS forum that instructors have already been using and have embedded into a page on their Canvas course websites.
There is a moderate chance of this risk of too many competitors to succeed occurring, since Piazza, Edstem, Zulip, and Slack are already some popular forum websites that instructors have been using. 
In order to mitigate this risk, this forum will have its gamification feature to make it stand out from its competitors. By adding features for students and instructors to better customize their forum experience, this forum can stand out from other forums. 

For the full report on this project, which includes a schedule analysis, financial analysis, stakeholder register, and the team process, click here.

Project Description
Quality Control
Risk Control
Full report
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