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How to Use Canvas...and Get Away with it: Everything Begins at Inception

Mike Lang
Mike Lang

Table of Contents

Engagement is all about getting into your user's head

The Mission

Eames: Listen, if you’re going to perform inception you need imagination.
Dom Cobb: Let me ask you something, have you done it before?
Eames: We tried it. We got the idea in place, but it didn’t take.
Dom Cobb: You didn’t plant it deep enough?
Eames: Well, it’s not about depth. You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in the subject’s mind. It’s a very subtle art.

Inception, 2010

The most valuable thing in life is your attention. Everything is vying for it. Social Media. Your family. Your job. Your Netflix queue. Right now, I’m trying to give you a good reason not to put this book down and do one of any number of things you might have to do. Your attention is EXPENSIVE. It is an investment of your time and energy. The opportunity costs can be high, but once something has your attention, it’s GAME OVER. It is therefore the goal of anything wanting your attention to STEAL it. It must make itself so attractive that you give it precedence over everything else. It plants an idea into your mind, an idea that blooms into action. In short, acquiring someone’s’ attention is Inception and every edutect (teacher) should start here first.

Christopher Nolan’s film “Inception,” is one of the most imaginative heist films of all time. What if your job wasn’t to take something from someone, but instead to give them something? By give them something, we mean plant an idea in their mind and convince them that it was their idea from the beginning. Through a series of events, Dom Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and his team, do just this. Pretty different, right? A heist film wrapped in a sci-fi, action thriller. It’s a great film and one I suggest to edutects as a must watch. I’m always threatening to do a professional learning series around the flick. Perhaps I’ll get around to it…eventually.

Planting ideas into minds?

Sci-fi Action Flicks?

What does this have to do with Canvas?

Remember that idea of attention? Let’s re-brand it as “engagement.” And not just run of the mill engagement, but the quest for what Philip Schlechty refers to as authentic engagement. As edutects, the whole goal is to convince users to complete standard aligned tasks enthusiastically…like it’s their idea in the first place which sounds a lot like INCEPTION. The focus should be on how to insure the activities that will be presented in your Canvas course will be undertaken by our users with fervor and aplomb. We aren’t just placing things in Canvas because the curriculum says so. We’re carefully constructing experiences so that users are willingly giving us their attention. We design fully understanding that a user can take their attention elsewhere when they choose to. So, yeah, let’s plant some ideas, okay? We’ll need a bit of collaboration, some research, and our imagination.

The Execution

Don’t Go it Alone

Dom Cobb: If I were to do this, if I even could do it, I’d need a guarantee. How do I know you can deliver?
Saito: You don’t. But I can. So, do you want to take a leap of faith? Or become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone? Assemble your team, Mr. Cobb. And choose your people more wisely.

Inception, 2010

One way to make your Canvas experience smoother? Grab a team to help you. No, you don’t need people that know Canvas. You don’t need tech savvy folks. You don’t have to scour Twitter looking for people to collaborate with you (even though that’s not a bad idea). You can find folks in your building, district, or city that are looking to do dynamite work, preferably with different skill sets whenever possible. “Knowing” Canvas is a continuum. You can be a successful Canvas user without “mastering” it. It’s the pedagogical structure and imagination of your course that makes it great. The magic is talented people. Talented people can be successful in any environment.

In the film, Mr. Saito, played by Ken Watanbe, tasks Cobb to perform inception by doing just this. He understands from the beginning that the job isn’t something that can be executed successfully by one person. They will need people who can perform specialized and nuanced functions so that the overall mission can be accomplished.

Here are some roles you should consider:

The extractor- In the film, Dom Cobb’s role is to remove information from the subconscious of others. Applied to our work? You need someone who is going to constantly be on the lookout for better ways to do things. The internet, especially social media, is full of examples of different perspectives and ideas for doing just about everything. You need someone on your team that enjoys leaping from virtual rabbit hole to virtual rabbit hole all in the name of making the squad better.

The point person- No team runs without a highly organized person that is focused on execution. This person is detail oriented, excels in research, but also the possessor of improvisational skills when the plan needs to shift. Arthur, the point person in the film, is not a being of raw imagination, but is a quick thinker and problem solver because he knows every detail of the plan.

The architect- You are going to need someone who is highly pedagogically sound, but also very creative. It’s also a plus if this person is tech savvy, but it’s not entirely necessary. You probably have a highly effective STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics) teacher in your orbit. This is the time to rope them in. The architect doesn’t have to be able to build in the Canvas environment. They just need to be able to create structures that will allow learning to take place regardless of the tools being used. The pedagogy and ideas come first and that’s why the architect is there. Inception doesn’t happen by itself. It’s gotta be structured.

The chemist-In all endeavors, it’s helpful to bring along a scientist because invention is something that you’ll have to do along this path. Breaking things to see how they work, reimagining functions for Canvas, and considering new processes for success are some of the talents this person will bring to your team.

The forger-You will always need someone to impersonate users and consider the content being created from their point of view. This is the forger’s forte. This person is able to understand the mannerisms and preferences of the users while considering the goals of the mission at hand. In short, you want someone that can become your user when you need them to. This will make sure that you aren’t considering strategies that fall short of our goal of authentic engagement.

Build Personas

“A well designed product is one that does what it promises to do.”Jesse James Garrett, The Elements of User Experience

Ariadne: How could they be trained?
Arthur: Fischer’s had an extractor teach his subconscious to defend itself, so, his subconscious has been militarized. It should have shown in the research. I’m sorry.

Inception, 2010

You can’t build a proper course unless you know who you’re planning for and why the course is needed. Teaching is “selling.” Selling needs conviction. Conviction needs information. We’re attractively marketing ideas that a user might not be aware they are in need of. Your course is your product. It is a promise that you are going to insure that users will be successful if they follow the instructions you have set forth. Fail to take this into account and your user’s attention, the engagement that you as the edutect need to launch a successful product, is gone.

In the film, the team experiences a bit of complication to their plan when Arthur fails to do his due diligence with the research into their mark. The team expects an unguarded subconscious, but instead they walk into one ready to do battle. If you skip the research portions before creating your course, you might miss opportunities to receive greater insight into who your users actually are and what they want from you.

You’re not creating a course that you’d like to take. You’re creating a course that your users would like to take and if you’d like to take it, that’s a bonus. With that said, we need to properly consider the user’s experience in the course. In the words of Jesse James Garrett, “Everything the user experiences should be the result of a conscience decision on your part.” This takes strategy to do. One extremely beneficial strategy is building personas.

A persona is a fictional depiction of a user that utilizes real information. It allows you to build a portrait of a user so you can consider this perspective as you construct the product. Personas are a product of your research and your imagination. This works because it humanizes all the data that you know or have researched. No longer are you talking about sixth graders, you’re talking about “Josephine,” a user you created to represent a segment of your users. This “user” can be present as your craft your course from your long range plans.

You can start by examining your demographic data and trends in your past achievement data to help you start to build your personas. This is probably data you’re in possession of or could easily acquire. Try to create groups from the trends you’re noticing. Who are the most successful users in a particular area? Who are the users who hover in the middle in this area? Who are the users that we really need to reimagine the product for? This is best to do with a group, but you could go it alone.

Your personas aren’t complete with only demographic and achievement data. You need a bit more personalized information about your users as well. With your team, brainstorm a list of questions that might be great to get answers to in order to ascertain some of their preferences.

Questions to Consider:

- What are our users doing during their free time?
- What are our users’ attitudes toward the content we teach?
- How can we be culturally responsive to our users?
- Who are our users listening to in their headphones?
- What are our users viewing on social media?

You can always create surveys for users. Keep these short and focused on the information you’d like to know. You can also use informal conversations and the internet to help you peak into their worlds. You’ll be surprised by the information you’ll learn just by paying attention and short jaunts into social media.

Another strategy is setting up spacing where students can converse with friends from school. I use tools like Parlay ( and Padlet ( to provide a safe space for users to have conversations about topics. You’ll get valuable information about what matters and doesn’t matter to your users directly from their fingers.

Now that you have information, it’s time to create our personas or user profiles as they’re also known. I suggest that you make three different users to consider as start to thinking about what your course will look like. You and your team will create back stories for each of these users inspired the information you’ve researched. Once completed, make sure each member has access to the personas so they can always be front of mind. You can find templates here.

Team assembled? Check.
Personas created? Check.

We’re well on our way to a successful product.

Getting Away With it

  • Students are users and your course is a product.
  • “Knowing” Canvas is a continuum.
  • Team up with like minded edutects with varied skill sets.
  • Build personas so that you’ll be creating a product that desirable to your users.

Consider these ideas before we continue:

  1. What exactly do you as an edutect want this product to do? you have standards, objectives, and expectations from your administration, but how will you (and your team) know that the course is a successful one?
  2. How are your users going to define success in this course?

Mike Lang Twitter

18 year classroom vet. Intelligent Hoodlum. Pedagogical Supervillain. Apple Distinguished Educator. PBS Digital Innovator. Hip Hop Junkie. Coffee Fanatic.