A broken chain

Avoiding Broken Links in Canvas

Has this happened to you? You open an email from one of your students that reads, “I can’t access the required reading file in week 3 of the Canvas course?” Concerned, you open your Canvas course. You check your week 3 module; it’s published and so is your “Required Readings” page. Strange. You open the course page and click on the link to the reading file; it downloads. Even stranger. Your student still insists that they cannot access the file. What is going on???

Instructors working in Canvas can occasionally encounter scenarios like the above where a link, image, or file in their Course works for them but does not work for their students. These errors can be very tricky to diagnose and are often caused by something sneaky going on “under the hood” in Canvas. Thankfully, Canvas has a tool that instructors can use to hunt out bad links in their course. This post introduces Canvas’s course link validator tool and explains how it can be used to proactively detect broken links in your courses. It will also provide a few tips for fixing these issues once they’ve been detected and best practices for avoiding these issues altogether.

Detecting Broken Links

Your secret weapon in this fight against broken links is the course link validator. The course link validator, which can be accessed from the Settings page of your course, scans all content in a course for links that may not work for any of several reasons. It will detect and report links to unpublished content, links to content in another course, and links to external websites that just don’t work. It’s a great idea to run the link validator right before you are ready to publish your course and run it again each time you make a large change or addition.

After running the link validator, Canvas will display a list of each piece of content in your course that contains at least one link that may need your attention. These problematic links are further sorted beneath a description of the cause of the error. In the example screenshot of link validator results below, the validator found five broken links in this course:

The results of a link validation check in Canvas.

  • One embedded image in a quiz question that will not work for students because the embedded image is stored in another course.
  • Three links within a single page that students cannot access because each link points to an object in another course. This page has a link to a page in another course, an embedded image stored in another course, and a link to a file stored in another course.
  • A link in a different page that points to an assignment in this course that has not yet been published.

These results illustrate two of the most common causes for confounding broken links in a course:

  1. Links pointing to unpublished files or other unpublished course content
  2. Links pointing to content that is in a different Canvas course

Both of these issues create links that appear to work fine for the instructor but do not work for students. Without a tool like the course link validator, it would be very difficult to detect these issues!

Defeating Broken Links

Whenever the link validator detects a broken link in your course, it’s time to spring into action and heal those links. Mending links that are broken because they point to unpublished content is straightforward: find that content in your course and publish it! Fixing links that point to content in other courses is trickier.

First, you need to remove the bad link. To do this, find the course content that contains the bad link and edit it. Then remove the bad link or embedded image:

  • For broken links, find the course content that contains the bad link, click edit, click the link in the editor, then click Remove Link.
    The Remove Link option in Canvas
  • For broken embedded images, put your text edit cursor after of the image and backspace to remove it.

Once the bad link is removed, use the Canvas editor’s tools to create a new link that points to the course file or course page, or embed the image from your course images. If that file, page, or image you are linking to doesn’t yet exist within the course, you’ll have to upload it from your computer or import it from the other course. Recreating the link in this fashion will point it at content that is contained within the same course, ensuring your students get to where they need to go!

Why Broken Links Happen

These sneakily broken links are typically the result of a teacher trying to share something with their students that their students are not allowed to access. Naturally, teachers are afforded much wider access to a course than students. The most confusing broken links commonly point to either unpublished content or content in another course. Students can’t see unpublished content or content in the teacher’s other courses, but the teacher can!

One item type in a Canvas course that can unexpectedly cause access problems with its published status is course files. Unlike most other content in a Canvas course, you typically don’t have to manually publish course files; most files you upload to a course will be published upon upload. However, files or even entire file folders can be unpublished in your course Files page. When that happens, students will receive access denied messages after attempting to click a link to that file. To resolve this issue, the course instructor must publish the file or folder in the course’s Files page.

Links to content in another Canvas course can sneak in whenever course content is manually copied from one Canvas course and then pasted into another course. The result of copying and pasting between courses creates links to files, pages, and images that point to an outside course. When students try to follow these links, Canvas sees that they are not enrolled in that course and sends an “access denied” message. To prevent this type of broken link, never copy and paste links or images from one Canvas course into another. Instead, use Canvas’s copy and import tools whenever you need to duplicate content from one course to another.

An Access Denied Error in Canvas

Try it Out!

Whether or not you have been bitten by broken links in the past, we encourage you to run the link validator in your Canvas courses. If the validator finds any issues, take a look at those pages in your course and either remake those links or publish any unpublished link targets. You can check to see if your fixes were successful by rerunning the validator and using student view to try the links as the test student. If you’re ever unsure of how to fix an issue reported by the link validator, please don’t hesitate to contact Canvas 24/7 support via the “Help” button in Canvas, email UWGB’s Canvas support team at dle@uwgb.edu, or request a CATL Consultation for one-on-one training on finding and fixing broken links!

"Test pattern" bars and text covering an LCD screen.

Using Video Responsibly

Article by Scott Berg

“A picture is worth a thousand words.” If that saying is true and one second of video is 30 pictures, then it could be said that a minute of video is worth 1.8 million words! While it is not likely that students glean that much meaning as a video flashes onto their screen, there’s no denying the great power of the moving picture for conveying information and demonstrating technique. But, to repurpose another saying, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Harnessing the power of video in your courses comes with a cost. These days, it’s possible to quickly and cheaply produce video content on nearly any device, but video carries it’s high cost in the data, bandwidth, and hardware requirements necessary for students to access or produce their own. Because video is resource-hungry, it’s important to provide alternative paths for your students in addition to video options. This article aims to describe why it is important to keep this “cost” of video in mind and suggest some strategies you can implement to ensure that your course content is accessible to all students. 

The slings and arrows of outrageous file sizes 

Video files are huge! To help demonstrate how large videos files are in comparison to other types of web content, I ran an experiment. I returned to “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but considered it through the lens of file size instead of knowledge conveyance. I started with 1,000 words and generated a text document containing 1,000 words of Lorem Ipsum. Next, I took the old saying too literally and took a screenshot of those same 1,000 words on my screen and saved it as an image file. Next, I decided to make a video of myself reading 1,000 words using the Kaltura webcam recorder. In a move that will call into question both my scientific and humanities bona fides, I realized that I cannot read Latin, so, for my video dictation, I swapped the 1,000 words of Lorem Ipsum with four consecutive readings of the first 250 words of Hamlet’s soliloquy. The last step of my experiment was to use a free program called VLC to extract the audio from my video recording to create an MP3 audio file. After each step of the experiment I recorded the size of the resulting file. 

Here are my results: 

File Type  Size (Kilobytes)  times larger than text  N downloadable w/ 1GB data 
Text (TXT)  6.58  N/A  159,358 
Image (PNG)  209.07  32  5,015 
Audio (MP3)  4,693.88  713  223 
Video (MP4)  17,327.98  2,633  60 

As you can see, each file type is roughly an order of magnitude larger than the one that precedes it. The 5-minute video recording of me reading 1,000 words of Hamlet is a whopping 2,633 times larger than the 1,000-word text file, 83 times larger than the image file, and nearly 4 times larger than the audio file. Another way to frame this data is to think about how many of each file type could be downloaded with one gigabyte (GB) of cellular data, which is the limited amount of data I thriftily pay for each month with my cellphone plan. My monthly data would be exhausted after watching the video 60 times. I could listen to the audio recording over 200 times, view the picture over 5,000 times, and load the text file nearly 160,000 times in a month without exceeding my data plan! Hopefully, this comparison illustrates just how much larger video files are than pages made up of text and images. My experiment even used perhaps what is a best-case scenario for video files, as Kaltura was able to compress my video’s size to be about 5 times smaller than the raw video file during playback! The results obtained from using a higher-quality or less-efficiently compressed video in this experiment would have been even more evocative. 

Having your cake 🍰 and eating it too 🍴

So, is all this intended to scare you away from using video in your courses? No! Video is a great instructional tool! A September 2020 survey of students who completed the UWGB Impact MBA online bootcamp revealed that 69% of 13 respondents preferred course presentation types that included video. Instead of arguing against using video, I have chosen to demonstrate video’s demanding file sizes to argue that you should use it responsibly by taking steps to ensure that lessons and assessments are accessible for all students, and not just those with easy access to unmetered broadband internet. In a survey of UWGB students conducted in May 2020, when asked to describe the technology the they had to complete their coursework since UWGB shifted to remote instruction, 20% of respondents reported that they had regular access to a computer but not high-speed internet. That’s a significant segment of our student population who would struggle to keep up in a course that used video as the sole medium of instruction. Providing additional lower-bandwidth (i.e. text-based) means to access course lessons can help the students who have wound up on the wrong side of the digital divide achieve positive outcomes. 

A pie chart showing the results of the UWGB Impact MBA online bootcamp survey.
Results of the “Presentation Types” question on the UWGB Impact MBA online bootcamp survey.

Beyond accommodating students with limited internet access, providing additional ways for students to access lessons beyond watching videos will help them learn on-the-go whenever they have a quick opportunity to study on their smartphone. Text-based lesson alternatives can help a student study while away from a solid Wi-Fi connection at home, traveling, or in a break room at work. Another reason to provided additional alternatives to video learning materials is that not all students share the same learning preferences. This practice of providing multiple paths for a learner to access and consume a lesson is one of the central recommendations of the universal design for learning (UDL) framework. UDL revolves around the idea that courses should be designed so that all learners can access and participate in learning opportunities. While universal design is often thought of solely as an accommodation for learners with disabilities, according to Thomas J. Tobin, a leading proponent of UDL, “Universal design goes beyond just assisting those with disabilities and offers benefits for everyone involved in the online learning environment.”

Tobin illustrates the benefits of using UDL in your course design by imagining a lesson where “students can start by watching a short video clip of their professor, print out the text-only version while they are working on an assignment, and then watch the video again with captions turned on while they are studying after the kids have gone to bed” (Source: “Universal Design in Courses: Beyond Disabilities” from the book Planning and Designing Your College Course).

Using video responsibly by incorporating these principles of UDL will not only lessen the effects of the digital divide in your course, it can keep your students engaged in course materials and help them make use of every opportunity they have to study and keep up in your course. 

+1 for captioning 

Retrofitting UDL principles into an existing course can seem like a daunting challenge, but there are some relatively easy and enriching techniques you can use to add additional paths to your video lessons. In his article, “Reaching all learners through their phones and universal design for learning,” Tobin writes that, instead of being overwhelmed by the consideration of every possible alternative format that could be added to each element and interaction in a course, instructors can adopt a “plus one” mindset to identify a single alternate format for multimedia that can be consistently provided throughout a course. The “plus one” mentality can help divide the work of adding UDL design principles to your courses into manageable chunks. 

One potential “plus one” to focus on in your courses using video would be to add closed captions to your videos. Within the Canvas course at UWGB, machine-generated captions can be quickly added to videos created with or uploaded to the Kaltura My Media service at no additional cost to you or the University. The procedure to add these captions to a video can be completed in under a minute and requires only a handful of clicks within Canvas. While the machine generated captions won’t be 100% accurate, even imperfect captions can help your students with their note-taking and comprehension. Whenever you have the time to work on it, the captioning files can be edited via the intuitive captioning editor that is built-in to the Kaltura service to make them 100% accurate and suitable to fill a potential future need for disability accommodations. 

Captioning your Kaltura My Media videos has become even more powerful with a recent addition to the My Media service in Canvas. UW-System has released a new “Transcript” video player that can be used to easily insert a searchable, printable, and downloadable text transcript underneath your videos when they are embedded in Canvas. The transcript video player automatically generates its transcript from your video’s captioning file, so, if your My Media video is captioned, embedding it with the transcript player is easily done through the advanced video embed options. The transcript player makes it simple for your students to download a text version of your video lesson and take it with them on-the-go to study offline. 

Beyond captioning 

Providing captions and transcriptions are far from the only ways to “plus one” your video content and provide additional paths for your students to access and be engaged by course content; podcast-like audio-only versions of course lectures cut down on screen time. You can provide them for students to learn during a commute. A collection of available articles on a lecture topic could provide yet another means for students to engage with a topic. There is also more to using video responsibly than providing alternatives to video content.

Based off of our knowledge of supportingstudies, CATL has long recommended creating videos that are not… long. Another video “responsibility” is to produce multiple short (under 10-minute) videos instead of one long lecture-length video. That strategy helps with the internet bandwidth concern by keeping individual video file sizes down, but it also helps combat the attention and retention problems seen with long videos. Using multiple short videos also provides the opportunity to sprinkle interactions between videos. Imagine creating a Canvas module for a lesson that contains five short videos (with transcriptions) and placing formative quizzes and/or discussion opportunities between them. You can even add interactions right to the video playback experience by using the Kaltura Quiz tool (or, for Fall 2020, by taking part in our pilot of PlayPosit, a new interactive video platform—just ask CATL to join!). Whether added to the videos themselves or included in the structure of a module, those interactive breaks can help your students stay interested in a lesson and help prevent an “ugh, another video!?” feeling. 

We’d like to hear from you

So, do you think you are using video responsibly in your courses? If so, what strategies are you using? If you suspect your video use is an area for growth, what ideas do you have make your use of video more responsible? Do you use tools other than Kaltura for video? What features can you use to help make your courses accessible for all students? What resources would you like CATL to provide? What other ideas do you have for implementing UDL principles in the design of your course content and assessments? Please sound off in the comments or share your questions and ideas in our Solidarity Café.

Until then, as you harness the great power of video in your courses, please remember to wield it with great responsibility! 

Teaching Toolbox

CATL continues to add to the Teaching Toolbox: a suite of resources to help you build and carry out your courses. 

Technology Toolkit 

In this section of the new CATL Resources site, we’ve created some guides to help you think about how you might wish to use technology to support your learning outcomes and pedagogyWe’ve created technology guides for things like Collaborate Ultra, VoiceThread, Kaltura My Media Video Recording, Video Quizzes, and more!

View the Technology Toolkit Here

Resilient Teaching Toolkit 

In this section, we’ve created some resources about how to teach when the center of gravity for your courses may be in flux due to the nature of the Fall 2020 semester. Some pages include things like optional attendance policies, interpersonal activities, equity challenges, and preserving class community. We’ve also created pages around “Practical Hybrid Course Tips” and how to “Navigate masked in-person and online group work.”  

View the Resilient Teaching Toolkit Here

“Pulse of the Semester”

The start of the fall semester typically has a comforting rhythm as we return from the summer to a predictable schedule of activities. This year we will not be able to fall into our regular routines as the typical benchmarks—five-week grades, mid-semester evaluations, ratcheting up for end-of-semester projects—will all be different.  

While we can’t put everything back to normal, the Center is working on ways to help you hit these benchmarks in ways that are doable under our present circumstances. 

Be on the lookout for the following resources coming your way this fall: 

  • providing feedback (weeks four and five) 
  • keeping the core of an activity or assignment when shifting to a new learning environment 
  • mid-term evaluations 
  • engaging students who have become unresponsive 
  • gearing up for culminating projects 
  • making referrals and accommodations 

Stay tuned for posts here on The Cowbell with the tag Pulse2020