The Story of Emble

The Story of Emble

On 12 July, RMIT launched a new tool called Emble in Canvas.

Emble is a simple-in-a-good-way tool that helps educators to build their Canvas courses by offering a range of often-requested and useful visual assets like banners, columns, callout boxes, dividers and more.

Emble also happens to be a rare thing in a learning environment primarily comprised of off-the-shelf vendor products. Unlike most of RMIT’s learning tools, Emble has the special distinction of being designed and built right here at RMIT.

Let’s talk about why that matters.

06 December 2021


The “great looking courses” problem.

It’s a familiar scenario across the sector— someone in a university is asked to find a great looking course for a showcase or conference. What seems like a simple request often becomes a challenging search, for a couple of reasons.

  1. There’s a lot of choice. RMIT has thousands of active Canvas shells.
  2. There’s a distinction between being a great educator and great course site designer.

Many courses are still primarily built by individual educators, often people with a wealth of discipline expertise, passion for teaching, excellent feedback delivery and industry experience— all things that really, really matter to students.

Now, while RMIT is rightly proud of its educators, the relationship between educator and an LMS course site is something akin to tomato-grower and pizza. Knowing about, and having access to the best, most-freshest tomatoes might help you make better pizza, but pizza-making demands a whole new set of skills.

Put another way — not all good tomato-growers make good pizza and not all good educators make good Canvas course sites.


What is the visual design and layout floor?

From this point on, we’ll be referring to the visual design and layout floor of RMIT’s Canvas course sites. This idea is built around four related concepts:

  1. Accessibility
  2. RMIT identity
  3. Consistency and structure
  4. Meaning

These concepts represent four ways in which visual design and layout can benefit students:

An accessible course is one in which the learning materials support the learning of all students studying the course.

A course with RMIT identity leverages the visual brand established by the marketing team to give students a distinct RMIT experience.

Consistency and structure are the patterned use of visual design and layout elements across multiple contexts. Good consistency and structure promote confidence through familiarity, reduce cognitive load and can save students’ time.

Successful learning is about creating meaning. The application of classical graphic design practice like colour, size, shapes, layouts and symbols can all contribute to student meaning-making of the learning materials, and in particular which content and tasks are the most critical.

So, with all of that said, the visual design and layout floor is simply the space where a university’s less visually engaging courses sit in terms of these four areas.


Raise the floor not the roof.

In the pre-Emble days of 2019, if you picked a random Canvas course site from one of RMIT’s three academic Colleges 1 (where courses were largely produced by the educators that teach them), you would get something across a wide gamut from whatever the visual equivalent of a teenager’s room is (low floor, probably covered in clothes 2 to visually superlative (high ceiling)3.

In contrast, if you wanted to find an area at RMIT with a high visual design and layout floor you might look at RMIT Online or RMIT Creds. Why? Well, both of these areas used a consistent learning experience design approach, featuring style-guides and templates in conjunction with course production teams4 In these parts of RMIT choosing a random course would have likely resulted in something visually effective (high floor) but not necessary superlative.

This is not the criticism it might appear on the surface. Here’s why:

Evidence collated by John Hattie (2017) suggests that, broadly speaking, visual design and layout are not in the group of factors that most positively influence student learning achievement. Visual design and layout may, however, matter a lot to specific students. If we take a lesson from Hattie’s list ‘visually effective’ may be a better outcome for students than ‘visually superlative’… if the resources spent getting from effective to superlative could better be used elsewhere, for example, allocating more capacity to student feedback, which matters a lot.

Across the sector, the right amount of effort to spend on the different aspects of course design and delivery depends on factors like study-mode, class size, nature of the subject, and student expectations. If available resources preclude being amazing at everything, what are you going to choose?


Hello Emble

Let’s stop, make a nice hot drink, and reflect on what we’ve concluded so far:

  1. Out of the box, an LMS alone wasn’t going to deliver the expertise needed to have good quality visual design and layout in our courses.
  2. Whilst visual design and layout matters, they don’t influence student learning achievement as much as a range of other factors.
  3. It’s not sensible to ask educators to expend more effort (time) on the visual design and layout of their courses if there are more impactful things they could be doing.
  4. Visual design and layout varied across colleges (where the courses didn’t have the safety net of mature style guides and templates, though there are some notable and exceptional examples), when compared to places like RMIT Online and RMIT Creds, which have a more standardised approach.5

Thus, RMIT needed a way to raise the visual design and layout floor of the collective group of courses that might otherwise not meet student needs and expectations…without diverting precious resources away from more impactful aspects of the learning and teaching experience.

And so Emble was born.


The six-week challenge

The usual starting point when you have a problem like this is to scan the market and find a product that fills the need, which is exactly what we did. The available options

  • Had too many features rather than the right ones, resulting in usability issues.
  • Lacked the flexibility to adapt to RMIT’s evolving models.
  • Failed too many of the user-acceptance criteria set by the business at the time.

Not to be deterred, an ambitious community of product owners, developers and designers from across RMIT pitched the idea that they could build something in six weeks to their directors from RMIT Studios6 and RMIT Online. On 25 February 2019, the team made their first commit7 to the codebase that to this day, is Emble. Six weeks later Emble was being used by the RMIT Creds, RMIT Online and the VE Design Team to build real courses.8

Ironically, the initial team was populated with staff from high visual design and layout floor areas like RMIT Creds, RMIT Online and the VE Design Team, because in many ways what the team was trying to do was build a product that both minimised the reliance on themselves (in terms of supporting others to build courses) and saved themselves time (when building courses). If learning and digital media designers are a scarce resource that can’t be available to directly work on all of the courses, how would we best ensure their expertise reaches students?

The answer was to create a tool that would allow learning and digital media designers to easily make available to educators the kind of assets that normally require specialised design expertise e.g., HTML and CSS coding.9


Simple but brilliant

Emble is a tool that works alongside the default Canvas rich content editor but instead of providing a set of generic visual design options, offers individual educators a set of RMIT specific assets to choose from. When editing a page, Canvas users don’t really need the Course menu so they can just toggle to the Emble interface to quickly access important assets – no HTML or CSS code required and no time-consuming importing, either. Once editing is complete the educator can toggle the course menu back on and navigate to other areas of their course as needed.

Emble has three different types of assets:

  • Elements – a single item like a banner
  • Blocks – multiple elements grouped together (such as an image with heading, descriptive text and caption in a callout box)
  • Layouts – an entire page structure ready to populate with content
The Emble interface in Canvas Figure 1: The Emble interface in Canvas ^10

The magic of Emble is that it allows for the granular availability of assets by Canvas sub-account. Staff in the College of Business and Law (CoBL) might see different assets than staff in the College of Design and Social Context (DSC), for example.

This is a great example of why Emble being an RMIT built product is critical. Because RMIT’s current organisational structure situates decisions around consistency and templating largely with the individual colleges, it is important that the way our learning environment and tools work aligns to how we make decisions. Emble does this.

In this sense, Emble becomes a tool that very specifically supports the relatively small number of college-based learning and digital media design staff to develop assets that their whole college can benefit from. A great example of this is the specific set of Emble assets that support the redevelopment of the Bachelor of Business Innovation and Enterprise in CoBL. As our learning and teaching projects and organisational structure evolves, we can just adjust Emble to suit.

Emble with College of Business and Law specific assets Figure 2: Emble with College of Business and Law specific assets.

Making default tool behaviour good behaviour.

If we remember that RMIT has some 5,000 teaching staff, from a design perspective a good way of expressing the system challenge is that the default behaviour of our learning tools should be good behaviour.

A simple example of this is writing paper; the faint lines on writing paper naturally guide users towards writing in neat, legible rows that are easy for the reader to progress through. The product design means the writer doesn’t really need to think about neat rows, they just happen.11

Another example here is that for a period of time we had RMIT Red as the default heading colour in Canvas. At the time, any person building a Canvas course would have to actively choose a colour other than the harsh red and because that was the default behaviour the result was a lot of red on the pages. Not surprisingly, this led to educator feedback to remove the “angry red”, after all, its Canvas, not a Tarantino film. Now RMIT black is the default. Staff can still use the red, they just have to actively choose it.

Figure 3: Canvas Headings 2020 (RMIT Red) vs 2021 (RMIT Black) ^12

When we talked earlier about raising the visual design and layout floor, this ‘make default tool behaviour, good behaviour’ approach is central to making scaled improvement possible. Some educators might be too busy. Some might prefer to spend their time on other aspects of their course design. Some might not have much design expertise. These are all perfectly reasonable examples that won’t foreseeably change overnight, so we asked ourselves what can we do to help? Well, we could put well-designed assets people have asked for where they need to use them.


The little tool that could

And so, after July 12 when Emble was released across RMIT, you can think of it as so much more than a learning tool:

  • Emble is a grass-roots idea that RMIT leaders had the courage to support, even before they knew exactly what it was, because they trusted their staff.
  • Emble is the product of an organic collaborative community from right across RMIT, including the Education Portfolio, ITS, the Digital Learning Experience Squad, RMIT Online, and the Colleges
  • Emble is a people-first tool. Good course design and good teaching has always been ­— and continues to be — about putting passionate experts in the right places. Emble helps do exactly that, by providing a platform to distribute expertise to where it can be beneficial.
  • Emble will need caring for. Much of the work so far has been a monumental team effort to set up the infrastructure, and it’s going to take an ongoing community effort to make sure Emble is populated with the kind of assets that support great student experiences.

Emble - the little tool that could.

Emble acknowledgements

Project lead for 2021 release: Carly

Product development: Fai, Carly, Sam, Edwin, Jack, Ollie, Rakesh, Daniel, David, Lionel

Sponsors:Joyce, Tass, Dominique, Jayde, Will

Project: Aurnie, Vinay

Testing: Amita, Vaishali, Colleges

Support and training:Chris, Dan, Kirsten, Angela, Loretta


Story by: David Heath

1 RMIT has four now.

2 The 14 Elements-based QA approach helped pick up some of the clothes.

3 Some educators are like David’s Uncle Jamie. Uncle Jamie has his own yeast mother on his kitchen bench. Uncle Jamie grows his own heirloom tomatoes. Uncle Jamie won’t take his eye off his rising dough even when he is supposed to be mowing the lawn. Uncle Jamie makes better pizzas than any pizza shop.

4 A contemporary course-production team is usually some combination of subject matter expert, learning designer and digital media professional.

5 Again, this is less about criticism and more a reflection of the strengths of the different models we have across RMIT. It is important to reinforce that we’re specifically talking about visual design and layout and not course quality as a whole.

6 Now the Centre for Educational Innovation and Development (CEID).

7 Developer-speak for pushing the latest version of a source-code project into a shared repository.

8 Between 2019 and 2021 there was more user testing, a pandemic, and the wonderful day we transferred Emble from its initial proof of concept build to a fully RMIT supported platform.

9 At present these are the main staff involved, but as Emble grows the groups of people building assets might grow too.

10 Layouts are absent in this view (Elements and Blocks are only shown), as layouts are usually built out for specific areas and this screenshot just shows the default assets.

11 Some might argue that organic, freeform rows are more beautiful, but that’s a rabbit hole for another day.

12 At times there were seven or eight red headings on the one page.


06 December 2021


Related News

aboriginal flag
torres strait flag

Acknowledgement of Country

RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.