Karen Brennan


Like most faculty at HGSE, Karen Brennan has made some significant adjustments in the transition from iSites to Canvas. She reminisced, “I really came to love iSites, in a perverse way.” Karen’s first Canvas site honored The iSites Way, with many page links in the left-hand navigation column. As she has iterated on that design, working within the constraints of the Canvas platform, she has come to develop one of the most popular site designs here at HGSE. I sat down with Karen on March 23, 2016 to discuss her design principles and learn from her emphasis on user experience and accessibility.

Karen’s goal for her Canvas sites is that they become “part of the [course’s] landscape. Ideally, you’re never confused by the technology. If anything, you’re confused by the ideas of the course -- that’s great. But you can easily draw on the platform, the infrastructure, the tools to help you make connections, build understandings, develop greater clarity. That’s my dream world.”

Speaking more on her most important design principles, Karen stressed “usability and navigation are key for me.” She emphasized the importance of designing for students with varying levels of tech familiarity, because “when people are frustrated by the technologies they are using, they are not focusing on the things they should be. So if they’re never thinking about Canvas, I think that’s a success.”

 Karen’s implementation in Canvas emphasizes design principles of simplicity and legibility while working within the constraints of Canvas itself. All of the most important course links can be found on her homepage, including links to weekly readings, her students’ semester-long projects, and other resources related to the course.

While joking that the site is reminiscent of a 1990s Geocities webpage, Karen described her reasons for designing a site that is very simple from a technical standpoint. This allows students to intuitively understand how to navigate the course website and find the content they need. Karen articulated two central questions: “How do I make it even easier?  How do I make it even cleaner? Always keeping it in line with my goals.”

When asked for recommendations to other designers in Canvas, Karen laughed while sharing her advice: “Steal. Particularly in the online design world, everything's a remix. There’s no prize for building it from scratch, for building it from the ground up. So find something that works; try it, remix it, iterate.”  

 To explore examples of Karen’s work in Canvas, you can visit her current Spring semester course, T553: Learning, Teaching, and Technology. To learn more about Karen’s research interests and design background, visit her HGSE faculty page.

 If you are interested in implementing any of these ideas in your own Canvas site, contact our team at canvas@gse.harvard.edu.