Terra’s Take on Two Tech Tools

Cover Stories / March 26, 2018

by Terra Graves –


Technology tools (hardware and software) are essential for a successful Flipped Learning experience. Each month, I will be reviewing two tech tools that I use for flipped professional learning with teachers. I will tell you why I use each one, what I love, what I hate, and who “wins.”

Canvas v. OneNote Class NoteBook

In one corner we have Canvas, a heavyweight learning management system (LMS), and in the other corner we have Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook, a former lightweight productivity tool that has been modified for classroom use.  Canvas offers a free trial for teachers, but this version is not a long-term solution for institutions. Class Notebook is free for teachers and schools as part of the Office 365 suite. Click here for more information.   

I am going to discuss important elements of a digital learning environment and compare each tool’s functionality related to each element.  

Let’s get ready to rumble!

Round 1:  Shared files

Instead of making copies, teachers want to be able to store all of their course materials online in a digital format. This serves both the teacher and the student. Teachers can have easy access to all of their content wherever they can get online. Students can also access the content at any time in any place. (Dogs can’t eat their digital homework!)  


Canvas has unlimited capacity for sharing files with your students. There are different levels of file sharing in Canvas. You have Course files, which are all of the files you have uploaded to your course, including images. Each student has access to this unless you lock them out. All Canvas users have their private files, including every file that has been submitted to an assignment within a course.  They can also upload other files if they wish. If you create groups, they have a separate shared folder to use.

Read more about files in Canvas here.

Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook

Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook does not have an “official” folder for sharing files.  There are a few ways to share files with your students and for students to share files with each other. The Content Library is like the teacher’s file cabinet. Students can view the pages and copy pages into their own notebooks if they want to edit them, but they can’t add, edit, or delete any of the pages in the Content Library. Students can create pages in their own notebooks and the teacher can view, edit, or delete anything in the student notebooks. The Collaboration Space is where students can share pages with everyone in the class. The only issue is that everyone has editing rights to everything that is in the Collaboration Space. Students must understand the rules for behavior in this space, just like any other public forum or social media platform. Classroom management must be reinforced to ensure that all students feel safe and that their work is respected by everyone in the class. I even need to remind teachers (who are my students) the power they have in the Collaboration Space so they know that they need to be careful about what they delete. Something I learned in my first experience with this tool is not to put the template for an assignment into the Collaboration Space. Sometimes people don’t remember that the template has to be copied and they end up writing their stuff in the template. I learned to distribute the templates to each person’s individual notebook so they then can copy their completed assignment into the Collaboration Space when they are ready.

Read more about the different areas of the Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook.

The winner of this round:  Canvas

While there are ways to establish file-like structures in the Class Notebook, Canvas has a much more robust functionality, as it should since it is a heavyweight tool.  

Round 2:  Submitting assignments

It’s much easier for students to submit their work online instead of having to shuffle binders full of paper back and forth to school. Teachers are always lamenting the mountains of paperwork they need to manage, so this is a welcome relief.


Since Canvas is an LMS, its main duty is for students to submit assignments. Students can submit a variety of file types, such as writing their answer in a text box, uploading a document or media file, or linking to a URL. This flexibility allows for differentiation in assessment. It also gives students some choice in what they want to do to complete an assignment. The teacher can also require more than one type of submission within the same assignment. Canvas also provides for group assignments and peer review functionality.

Read more about Canvas assignments here. 

Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook

In the Class Notebook, there isn’t a “submit” option. Basically, students just complete their work within their notebook. The only way to check if students have completed something is to look in their notebooks. There is a cool add-in for the notebook that allows you to quickly view all students’ work for an individual assignment. This does make the feedback and grading process go more smoothly. In my classes, I have people write “CHECK” at the top of the page in their notebook when they are ready for me to give feedback. This system seems to work pretty well. I can visually scan through the assignments to see who has written “CHECK” instead of having to click into each person’s page. Every click adds up to a lot of time!  

The winner of this round:  Canvas

Again, our heavyweight contender beats out the Class Notebook.  

Round 3: Feedback and Grading

One of the biggest benefits of having a digital learning environment includes getting out of the paper-shuffling business. Since students are submitting work online, teachers need to be able to provide feedback and grading online.  


One of my favorite features in Canvas is the SpeedGrader.  All assignments and graded discussions have this feature. Basically, you open an assignment and click on the SpeedGrader. It opens up to the first student’s submitted assignment. There is a large window to view what the student has submitted (whether it is a document, media file, or URL). The teacher can annotate directly on the documents, grade through the use of a rubric (if used), record an audio message, and type comments into a text box. It’s super easy and efficient. As you would expect from an LMS, there is an integrated gradebook which allows for different grading schemes, categories, weighting, and a learning mastery option to show students their progress on the defined course outcomes.  There are way more features than the typical teacher would use!

Read more about SpeedGrader here

Read more about the Gradebook here

Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook

Giving feedback is easy in Class Notebook.  You can type or write (with a touchscreen device/stylus) anywhere on the pages within a student notebook. It works just like any other shared document with editing rights. You can also record audio and video feedback that embeds directly on the page where the assignment lives. Additionally, there are stickers you can personalize. Everyone loves stickers, even adults!

The Class Notebook does not have a gradebook. There are several options here. You can create a table on a page in the Teacher Only section to keep grades (they will need to be input by hand). You could create an external spreadsheet (either in Excel or Google) and link it inside the Teacher Only section. If you start with Microsoft Teams (formerly known as Microsoft Classroom), the gradebook would connect with the notebook. These grades can be exported as a .csv file and then imported into your student information system. I have not used Teams yet for classes, but I will be exploring it with the next class I am teaching. I began using Class Notebook before Microsoft Classroom existed and then the next year Classroom was merged into Teams. I didn’t want to use Classroom until I could play with it some more. Then Teams came around and I was already enmeshed in using the Class Notebook so I didn’t want to change mid-year. Another issue is that you can’t change the Class Notebook associated with the Team after the fact. If you mess up the notebook, there is no way to delete it; you have to delete the whole Team and start over.  So, I will be giving Teams a try and I’ll let you know how it goes in a future edition of FLR.

Read more about giving feedback in the Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook here.

Read more about digital inking.

The winner of this round:  Canvas

This was an unfair round for Class Notebook.  

Round 4: Calendar

It’s nice to be able to schedule assignments so that students can not only see when they are due, but also get emailed reminders from you. If students do not already have access to an existing suite of productivity tools for keeping themselves organized, this will fill that need.  


As you may have expected, Canvas has a robust Calendar feature. Students and teachers can view all of their courses at one time or filter out a specific class. They also have a personal calendar. Assignments and Events can be created directly from the calendar view. Assignments created outside of calendar view that have due dates will automatically appear in the calendar.

Read more about the Canvas calendar features here

Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook

There isn’t a calendar.  I used Outlook to fill this need and just sent out invites for the in-person classes and created week-long events for the online assignments to remind people of due dates. This was actually a great strategy because then people had the option to accept or decline the invites based on their own preferences. They already use Outlook calendar, so all of their class deadlines would be visible all of the time on their personal calendar.  

The winner of this round:  Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook (by proxy of Outlook)

The reason I gave this round to Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook is because students don’t have to go into an LMS to view their due dates. It’s part of the calendar they are already using.

Round 5: Announcements

Keeping students updated on assignments, tests, or class activities using an announcement is a useful feature. It’s also nice to have a record of things you have sent out.


What I like about using Announcements in Canvas is that you can schedule when they are posted.  This is really nice because you can set up all of your weekly reminders in advance and they will release to your class at the scheduled time. I like to schedule them for 6AM so my students think I’m up and working that early! You can also allow for replies if you want. This way, if your students have a question about something mentioned in the announcement, it’s all in one place and not lost in the abyss of your inbox.  Usually, more than one student will have the same question, so it’s good for it to live within the course. This is a time-saver for the teacher. You can also have your latest announcements show at the top of your course home page.

Read more about Announcements in Canvas here. 

Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook

There isn’t an announcements feature. I used Outlook email for announcements. You can schedule emails just like the announcements feature in Canvas. I recommend you use the BCC field for these so you don’t get trapped in a “Reply All” extravaganza. To keep documentation of all of the announcements within the notebook, create a page in the Content Library>Syllabus section to paste in all announcements you send out.  

The winner of this round: It’s pretty much a draw

Announcements from Canvas get pushed to student’s email anyway, so it’s roughly the same functionality you are getting. Using Outlook is just a little extra work.  

Round 6: Discussion Forums

An important part of a digital learning environment is the dedicated space for academic discussions. Most students are fairly adept at using social media for personal communication, but they aren’t as proficient at how to participate in an online academic discussion. One feature you will want to look for is “threaded” discussions. This is useful when trying to follow a complete discussion with the student’s original post along with all of the replies to that post. Without threaded discussions, it’s difficult to follow. Posts are usually arranged with the newest one on top, and unless students include the name of the person to whom they are replying, it’s just a disorganized stream-of-consciousness mess.


There are so many options for discussion forums in Canvas. You can have forums in which the whole class can participate, or you can make groups and they can have their own discussion forum. There are options for threaded replies, a “liking” function from which you can organize the posts based upon number of likes, ways to grade using a rubric, and a “post-first” function that requires students to post their own thoughts on the prompt before they can read what others have written.

Read more about Discussions in Canvas here.

Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook

There isn’t a discussion feature in the Class Notebook itself. If you use Microsoft Teams (which includes a Class Notebook), you can use the Conversations feature, but there isn’t threading. For the classes I teach, the discussions happen during the face-to-face meetings. Students provide feedback to one another on a group page in the Collaboration Space and, in a way, this mimics a discussion forum.  

The winner of this round: Canvas

Another knockout for the heavyweight LMS!

Round 7: Navigation

An important part of the digital learning environment you select is intuitive and redundant navigation. What I mean by this is that the average student user can find what they need in the course without possessing a degree in website development. The different spaces in the environment should be defined by purpose, and getting from one area to the next should be easy to manage.


Through the years I have had mixed reviews from my students regarding Canvas. People either love it or hate it. There are ways for the teacher to set up a course to make things easier for the students. I like to use the Modules format, which allows all content to be organized in a linear fashion, which is preferable to most students. There is a Module tab in the navigation, but I also create shortcuts to each Module on the course home page so students can click directly to where they need to go. It’s also useful to hyperlink something at the bottom of each page like, “Click here to return to the Course Home page.” They can also follow the breadcrumbs at the top. I also disable items in the navigation menu that I don’t use or don’t want students to use. For example, since I employ the Modules format, I want my students to use that as their main way to access the course content. If I showed “Pages” or “Assignments” in the menu, they would get confused about when things are due since these show up alphabetically.

Read more about Managing the Navigation menu in Canvas here. 

Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook

Helping students navigate in Class Notebook takes some time. The biggest hurdle for students to get over  is understanding the difference between the Collaboration Space (everyone can read and write on these pages), the Content Library (read only/copy for students), and THEIR notebook (only the individual student and the teachers can read and write). When I have students tell me they can’t type into a page, this is a signal to me that they are in the Content Library (and not THEIR notebook or the Collaboration Space). Once they understand this, things usually run smoothly. There is a way to link from one page to another within the notebook, so that is useful when writing directions. If students need to copy a page from their notebook to a section of the Collaboration Space, I will hyperlink the section within the directions so they can easily navigate there.

The winner of this round: It depends

Both of these tools have their own quirks with navigation features, as you have read above. It really depends on how the teacher sets up the course and the directions they write for each assignment. The Class Notebook is somewhat easier because there aren’t that many different places to go within the notebook, but you can limit the navigation menu in Canvas.

Round 8: Ease of use


Given that this is such a robust tool, there are a lot of different pieces to learn and each piece has several options. This is not recommended for teachers who aren’t already comfortable with technology. Canvas provides a lot of tutorials and help guides, but having someone teach you how to build a course in Canvas is recommended. I teach a blended course on creating and facilitating online and blended courses for district leaders and professional learning staff. They attend a weekly face-to-face class and have online work in between. Part of their online work, aside from learning about the pedagogy and andragogy of facilitating in an online environment, is watching tutorials (created by Canvas) and then adding to their own “practice” course. This is intense, detailed work. If you are not comfortable with technology and your institution has mandated use of a certain LMS, realize that you will need to put in some time to learn it. (Hopefully they provide training for their faculty!)

Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook

If you are not very comfortable with technology, this would be the better choice for you. There are fewer features and settings for you to worry about. There are plenty of tutorials and support available online.

Read more information here, and you can also take this free online course. 

Final thoughts on Canvas

Canvas is a great digital learning environment for teachers who work in an institution that provides it and those who need a robust tool with many different features. I have used it for several different courses prior to getting other tools, such as the Class Notebook. It’s a great tool, but it has WAY MORE than the average teacher might use. The ROI should exceed the time and energy it takes to learn the tool! Once a course is built, however, it’s easy to copy it for future semesters.     

Final thoughts on Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook

I really like using Class Notebook, but there are some things that are irritating. The Office 365 version of the notebook is not as stable as the desktop version. I have had issues with content that either I or a student added NOT syncing when using the Office 365 version. Why can’t the cloud version work better? As most teachers do, we figure out how to work around these issues. What I love about using it for teacher professional learning is that our teachers can use this tool with their students. All of their courses and students are already synced through Active Directory so that part of the setup is already done. Teachers also experience using the tool as a student, which gives them a much-needed perspective as they begin to use their own digital learning environment.

And the winner is: YOU! You can’t go wrong with either of these tools.  It really just depends on your situation and how detailed you want to be with your digital learning environment.  

I hope you learned something from my take on these two tools.  Join me next month when I give you my take on two video creation tools.  


Terra Graves
Terra Graves
Terra has been an educator for over twenty years. She is the Project Coordinator/Administrator for the 21st Century Learning Department in Washoe County School District, NV. Prior to this position, she taught elementary and middle school, supported novice teachers as a full-time mentor, served as an Ed Tech Specialist, and a Program Specialist in the 21st Century Learning Department. Terra is Flipped Learning 3.0 Level-II Certified and a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty.

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Jon Bergmann
on April 18, 2018

Great comparison of these two tools. What have you learned about the ease of interaction between teacher and student and student and student in each of these tools?

    on April 24, 2018

    Jon, that is a great question. Canvas is designed for ease of interaction between teacher and student and student and student through several different features: Discussion Forums, Peer Reviews, Chat, Collaborations, Conferences, etc. Class Notebook allows for both types of interaction as well, but without a threaded or organized feature like a forum. The teacher can design activities within the Collaboration Space which can enable just about any type of student to student interaction they might want. You can even restrict sections within the Collaboration Space to certain groups of students to allow for small group work without the rest of the students having access. What I really like about the Class Notebook is that you can write/type your comments directly on the students’ pages (assignments) so they have your feedback in context. The only thing about this feature is that students can also delete what you write. I teach adults, so I am not that concerned about that being an issue. Kids may “mess” with things more if they were so inclined.

      Jon Bergmann
      on October 9, 2018

      Thanks for sharing how the canvas tech tool makes a huge difference.

      Cool features I wasn’t aware of!

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