Offline Access to Course Materials

by Aaron Bannasch

In December, Canvas announced a new feature to download course materials in EPUB format for viewing as an ebook. The feature is still in beta testing and as of the publish date of this blog post Canvas has not announced a date to move the feature out of beta. The feature will be useful for reading content offline, but does not allow interactions with the course material in the same way the fully online mobile app and browser based Canvas interfaces do.

For example, you can navigate a course’s basic structure and read content pages, announcements, assignment instructions, or other static content in an EPUB. However, submitting assignments, responding to discussions, or sending any information back to Canvas from an EPUB is not possible. EPUB versions of a Canvas course only remain as useful as the most recently downloaded version. If you plan to remain offline for long periods of time you will likely miss due dates, important changes such as discussion replies and announcements, and many other interactions with students, instructors, or peers.

What is EPUB good for?

A road trip, a vacation, a long flight, archiving courses for your own personal enjoyment, extended durations in a Faraday cage. Offline EPUB versions of a course site aren’t a substitute for an online Canvas course and are definitely not intended to replace the learning experience. Northwestern IT and SPS Distance Learning will continue to evaluate the benefits of using this new feature and in the meantime I will offer some alternative ways to keep content for offline use.

For as long as we have been accessing things online, there have been people interested in creating decentralized archives of online material. and the Library of Congress are places where you can find past archives of websites or other content that was published online. But what if you want to make a copy of something for yourself to access later when you don’t have internet access?

There are a number of web browser plugins, utilities, and services that can do this. Evernote, Google Keep, and Pocket are a few that I use regularly. Your web browser’s print function is another way to make a paper hardcopy or PDF version of a page. There are even extensions and add-ons for web browsers like Firefox to let you save multiple pages as PDFs. Most browsers have a “Save Page as…” function as well, allowing you to keep an offline HTML version of the page and retain its original formatting. Advanced users can tinker with their Google Chrome browser settings to tell the browser to access cached content when internet access is unavailable. Depending on your individual needs, plain old “Print Screen” or copy and paste can usually do a pretty good job, too. While none of these options offers a simple method to grab an entire site at once, each is a viable, interim alternative.

What about materials that aren’t text on pages? Are there ways to save videos or interactive content for offline use? Videos created and hosted by Northwestern, such as video lectures on our own YouTube or Vimeo accounts, web conference recordings on Adobe Connect or BlueJeans, or multimedia Flash content can all be downloaded for offline access. What about for videos that aren’t produced or hosted by Northwestern? A YouTube RED subscription, a quick Google search, or some simple coding in a Creative Commons licensed utility called YouTube-DL are all options for watching videos when not connected to the internet. Videos that were uploaded using the Canvas media upload option in the Rich Content Editor can be saved with a simple right click and “Save Video as”.

It’s important to keep students regularly engaged in asynchronous distance learning courses. The Canvas platform provides numerous ways to create engagement opportunities and like many great technologies, it evolves along with its community of users to provide new features when needed. In an asynchronous education model we can expect students to need to adapt their learning environments and styles between online and offline modes and the Distance Learning team works to make this possible.

If you have suggestions for interesting uses for EPUB versions of Canvas course sites, alternative methods for accessing content when offline, or have other feedback to provide please visit the Contact page to find a communication platform that fits your preference.

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