What are the pedagogical uses of Canvas Commons?

Last Updated: Thu October 10, 2019

What is Canvas Commons?

Canvas Commons is a platform for sharing course content in the Canvas learning management system, which is part of the Learn@UW suite of learning technologies. Instructors can share a range of learning objects including modules, quizzes, assignments and full courses.

There are four levels of sharing in Canvas Commons, which are:

  • Public: Materials are available to anyone with access to Commons, including instructors from other higher ed and K-12 institutions
  • Consortium: Instructors and staff at UW-Madison and pre-defined partner schools can access materials. UW-Madison currently belongs to the “Unizin Canvas Commons” consortium.
  • UW-Madison: Instructors, instructional staff, and administrators with access to UW-Madison’s Canvas instance can access material
  • Group: Groups can be created that allow access to only selected UW-Madison users. Groups can only be created by Learn@UW-Madison team members; distributed Canvas sub-account admins don’t have the capability to add groups. More information about how to request groups is available in this document.
  • Private: Ideal for sharing materials between an instructor’s courses if they have more than one that may use the same quiz or assignment.

How can I use Canvas Commons to improve instruction?

Canvas Commons can help you collaborate on course design with colleagues at UW-Madison or other institutions using Canvas. It can also be a useful tool for sharing best practices, exploring new ways to deliver course content, or helping you improve your course between semesters.

Collaborate with Colleagues

Canvas Commons makes it easy to collaborate on your Canvas course design. You can share your course materials with a small group of colleagues or with Canvas instructors far and wide.


  • You are teaching a course this semester but will hand it off to another instructor next semester. You can post all or some of your course content to a Canvas Commons group, share it only with your colleague, and then let them choose what they would like to import into their own course.
  • You are working with other instructors in your department to create a quiz that will be used in multiple courses. You can post drafts of quizzes or quiz questions to a Canvas Commons group.

When you share course materials with Canvas Commons, you are only sharing content. Even if you upload your full course to Canvas Commons, course rosters and student-generated content like discussion posts or assignment submissions will not be shared. This makes it easier to collaborate with colleagues without compromising student privacy.

As on any tool or platform, you should confirm that materials you share are FERPA compliant and adhere to applicable policies, such as UW System’s Acceptable Use of Information Technology Resources policy.

Share Best Practices

Using consistent organizational structures or design elements across a department helps orient students. Canvas Commons allows groups to develop best practices for course design and distribute them internally or externally.


  • A team of instructional designers creates a template course that can be used by all instructors in their department. You can post it to a Canvas Commons group for your department. For more information on how to request a group, see this document.
  • Your school or college has a page that they would like all instructors to include in their courses.
  • You have created high-quality course content and would like to share it with other instructors as an Open Educational Resource (OER). You can post this content so that it is accessible to all UW-Madison instructors or all Canvas Commons users.


Canvas Commons allows you to search materials that other instructors have shared publicly in order to get new ideas for your own courses.


  • You are teaching a new course and are not sure how you would like to structure it. You can search Canvas Commons to browse related courses or try out one of UW-Madison’s course templates.
  • You are converting a face-to-face course to an online-only course. You can search for ideas for delivering online-only material.


The option to share a course in Canvas Commons as “private” allows only the originator to access the content. Many instructors teach the same course multiple times, but want to make improvements without losing the original content. Private sharing in Commons allows you to save discrete learning objects like assignments, quizzes, or content pages in a personal repository, then mix-and-match to create your new course.


  • Having taken a course design program like Blend@UW, you want to make changes to the format and structure of your course. You plan on overhauling your course next semester, but you have assignments that you know you’ll want to preserve. You can share the assignments to Commons privately and import them to your new course after you’ve made your other modifications.
  • Every semester, you rotate through a set of quizzes. You can save all of the quizzes to Commons and select which one you want to pull into your course for a given semester.

What materials can I post to Canvas Commons?

If you created original content for your Canvas course, you can share it! Original content may include a range of course materials such as quiz questions,assignments, written descriptions, the structure of your modules, or your full course.

However, if you worked with a collaborator to create your Canvas course, the collaborator may also retain rights to the material. You’ll need to determine whether you should obtain their permission before you publish this content to Canvas Commons or share it in any other public forum.

Can I post my course if it contains some content I didn’t create?

You can post course content that contains copyrighted material if you have permission from the copyright holder. UW-Madison Libraries’ “Obtaining permission to use a copyrighted work” guide contains written templates you can use to request permission from a copyright holder.

Examples of copyrighted material that may require permission to use include:

  • Photos or images created by another person and used on your course pages.
  • Excerpts of texts or articles written by colleagues.
  • Excerpts of your own texts or articles, if you transferred your copyright to a publisher.

What about fair use and other exceptions to copyright?

Fair Use

Many instructors use portions of copyrighted material within their courses under the auspices of fair use. Fair use permits the use or adaptation of copyrighted materials under specific circumstances, including teaching, research and scholarship. While fair use may protect excerpts of copyrighted materials within the classroom, sharing content on Canvas Commons opens it to a wider audience that may not qualify as fair use.

Based on guidance from UW-Madison’s Office of Legal Affairs, we ask that instructors carefully consider copyright protections when deciding what to share on Canvas Commons. If your course contains copyrighted content from others, you should obtain permission from the copyright holder or remove the copyrighted content before sharing your course materials to Canvas Commons. See UW-Madison Libraries’ “Obtaining permission to use a copyrighted work” guide for information on how to request permission to use copyrighted materials.

Creative Commons Licenses

If your course contains content that was published under a Creative Commons license, you can post it to Canvas Commons provided you meet the terms of the license.


  • A photo is published with an Attribution-NoDerivs CC BY-ND license. You use it on your course homepage with appropriate attribution. The homepage can be posted to Canvas Commons.
  • A colleague published their course to Canvas Commons with an Attribution-NonCommercial CC BY-NC license. You adapt it to create a new version of the course that better meets your students’ needs, and you include attribution. You can post the course to Canvas Commons.

Public Domain Works

Public domain works are not protected by copyright law. They can be used and shared as you see fit, within the bounds of academic honesty. See UW-Madison Libraries’ guide “What is the Public Domain?


  • An illustration has entered the public domain because the terms of its copyright have expired. You use it in a Canvas quiz question and can post the quiz question to Canvas Commons.

When I post my original content to Canvas Commons, do I retain the copyright?

When you post to Canvas Commons, you can select the license under which you would like to share your content. You can mark materials as copyrighted, release them to the public domain, or select from a variety of Creative Commons licenses. See “What types of content licenses are available in Commons?” for details.

Can I use Canvas Commons to archive my course data?

No, Canvas Commons is not intended for long-term storage and should not be used to archive historic course data. Like other Learn@UW learning technologies, Canvas Commons is intended to support teaching and learning and facilitate the sharing of educational content.

How do I report copyright violations on Canvas Commons?

If material posted by a UW-Madison instructor appears to violate copyright law, you can report it by emailing learnuwsupport@doit.wisc.edu. The Learn@UW-Madison team will work with UW-Madison’s Office of Legal Affairs to review claims of copyright infringement. Material found to be in violation may be removed from Canvas Commons.

Where can I find out more about copyright best practices?

There are many resources on campus to help you understand copyright. UW-Madison Libraries’ “Copyright Basics” guide is a great resource for getting started with copyright questions.

What resources are available to help me get started?

The Canvas Community’s “Commons Guide” contains how-to information to get you started with Canvas Commons. Resources specific to Canvas Commons at UW-Madison can be found in the Learn@UW-Madison KnowledgeBase.

Who can I talk to for more information?

Our learning technology consultants are happy to help you choose the best tool to fit your needs and start using it to improve student success. To schedule a meeting with a DoIT AT consultant please contact the Help Desk and ask to meet with a DoIT Academic Technology consultant. In addition, the Learn@UW KnowledgeBase offers helpful documents for instructors, course owners and students.