Using Canvas to Navigate Student Absences
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Using Canvas to Navigate Student Absences

By Christine Hood, OTL Instructional Designer

DU’s new fall quarter requirement that “critical course materials” be hosted on Canvas brings with it an exciting opportunity to decrease stress for both you and your students. As students increasingly choose to access their course work via various mobile devices, the move to Canvas not only helps facilitate increased access to materials for all students, but also is particularly helpful in combatting the effects of unplanned absences. 

While students may seek permission for planned absences from your course for major life events or religious holidays as normal, the ongoing global pandemic raises the likelihood of longer-term, mandatory absences due to illness or exposure to the COVID-19 virus. 

Although DU has many policies outlining classroom behavior and excused absences for COVID, how you navigate student absences pertaining to your course content is unique to you and your students, your expertise, and your pedagogical approach. In some extenuating circumstances such as those impacting immunocompromised students, some may qualify for formal student accommodations from the Disability Services Program

Here are some options for getting absent students caught up with course content. 

Record your class and give absent (or ideally, all) students access through the Zoom feature on Canvas then upload them to Kaltura

You could record the whole class, or just the lecture portion; it’s up to you! You could even give all students access, because it is helpful whether they were absent or not.  

Instructors noted that even students who attended every course (synchronously or in-person) are still accessing the recorded lecture materials (CU, 2021). While CU found that access to recorded content does not affect attendance, there is some research, including an Inside Higher Ed article from 2019, that suggests otherwise. However, even such research acknowledges the benefits of recorded lectures, including the ability for students to engage with recordings for clarification, additional note-taking, and even assessment preparation. What’s more, with the ability to add closed-captions or create a transcript, recording lectures also makes the content more inclusive.  

A recorded lecture video also creates opportunities for differentiated instruction. It can be difficult for students to stay completely focused for the entire lecture, so being able to re-watch the content when students can allocate more focus is especially beneficial.  

Recordings further benefit students who are not native English speakers (Mckie, 2019). They can engage with the material with captions, pause when something did not translate, or even slow the speed down! A great Universal Design for Learning (UDL) tip is to enable live Zoom closed captioning for your students; you can read more about this process on our Accessibility Knowledgebase. For Zoom sessions uploaded to Kaltura, editing closed captions is user friendly and easy. This provides accessibility to students regardless of modality. 

To record the class, you could use the webcam on your computer, or the classroom computer. To get you started, you can fill out the Classroom Meet & Greet form to have Digital Media Services come help with your tech. If you need to borrow a camera, Digital Media Services can lend you one. 

At the University of Denver, we protect the intellectual property of all our faculty, including recorded videos. To this end, students may not reproduce or distribute any of the recorded content. Students who violate this policy will be reported to The Office of Student Rights & Responsibilities and may be subject to both legal disciplinary action. The OTL has a full syllabus statement on intellectual property. However, students with approved recording accommodations from Disability Services Program may record classroom lectures as long as they have a signed Audio Recording Memorandum of Understanding.  

Using Assignments and Discussions as Alternative Forms of Engagement with Course Material

Because the new DU Canvas requirement states that “critical course materials” need to be on Canvas, creating an online assignment submission for an absent assignment should be easy! An absent assignment would be prepared in advance in Canvas and given to students individually to help hold them accountable for content during their absence. Ideally, an absent assignment contains questions that are vague enough to be re-used throughout the quarter as your students are out, not just for a specific week. On Canvas, there would “absent” assignments for each week; that way, whoever is absent that week can upload their response to the prompt. You might have a three-question, one-page write-up on the content using the following questions or something like them.  

    1. What stood out to you the most about this reading? 
    2. What are you still potentially confused by or would like to explore more? 
    3. As the instructor, if you were in my shoes, what discussion questions would you ask the class? 

This is a great opportunity to give students multi-modal opportunities for engagement, action, and expression, as part of Universal Design for Learning. When creating this assignment, it could involve a one page write-up or alternatives such as an audio recording, a video, or even an arts-based response such as a Digital Storytelling Project! If you decide to encourage student agency in choosing the modality, this does not diminish the rigor and can still measure the same learning outcomes with multiple forms of engagement.  

Like an absent assignment, this is an alternative option for keeping students accountable to content missed during an absence. An absent discussion would likely include similar questions to the example above but in a more public format. As the instructor, you would need to create a weekly absent discussion post. The big difference between the previous suggestion and this one is the possibility of other absent students engaging with each other. Canvas has a groups feature, which means just the absent students can be added to the discussion to engage with fellow absent students, if there are more than one. As the instructor, you will also engage with the discussion boards by responding to the students and continuing the discussion. A good UDL tip for this option is to allow different forms of engagement; this can include video, audio, imagery, etc. Educational technology like FlipGrid and Perusall also allows for other interactive ways of engagement. 

Plan for Exams

To accommodate absences, instructors can offer their exam on Canvas, even if they have their students take it in-person at the prescheduled time. Transitioning the exam to the online Canvas format can take many different forms.  

Exams on Canvas can modify the availability date or even the deadline for a particular student through moderation. Canvas has the option of the following exam question styles, such as multiple-choice, fill in the blank, true-false, fill-in-multiple-blanks, multiple answers, drop-down, matching, numerical, formulas, or even a file upload. Canvas can also enable question shuffling and draw from question groups to help safeguard against sharing answers.  

If the exam is an essay or a project turned in by a PDF or Docx, then the instructor can have the student submit via Canvas and they can give feedback through SpeedGrader.

An additional exam type might be a presentation; if that is the case, then a professor can create a Zoom link on Canvas and have that person either present synchronously, or record their portion, depending on their absence.

If you are hesitant to transition the exam online, consider exploring Respondus Lockdown Browser or Respondus Monitor to help limit potential academic dishonesty situations. Respondus Monitor does have some important drawbacks and limitations, though, so please make sure you review the OTL’s blog on the inclusive use of proctoring technology

If you need help setting up any of these alternative options for participation and accountability, please reach out to the OTL either by setting up 1:1 time with an OTL Instructional Designer or contacting us at We are here to support you over the entire lifecycle of your course!