GIFs: An Underutilized Ed Tech Tool

Image of a blue hardcover book flying through the air into a stand-alone book return book.

The finished book return GIF – click to get a Canva template

They’re (J/G)reat! 

Whether you pronounce it as “jif” (incorrectly, no matter what the creator says), or whether you say “gif” (and thus affirm the validity of English pronunciation), this humble piece of technology is incredibly handy. Unlike video files, GIFs don’t have to be sent as separate files, or hosted on a website where users have to push “play”. GIFs can be embedded in emails, newsletters, and websites, making them an excellent tool for sharing processes and directions. They are also great for making fun animations to draw the eye! 

Until recently, Screencastify was my go-to for making and exporting GIFs, but they recently switched that option to the Pro (paid) version. However, there are still some great tools out there that allow you to make screen capture GIFs

But as part of my effort to go beyond merely “functional”, I’ve also learned I can turn still images into motion GIFs! My tool of choice for this? Canva.

An Educator’s Favorite Word: “Free”

We all know that in the world of education, “free” is a magic word. There are a lot of online services that offer “freemium” versions of their products; they offer some basic tools for free, but charge for the most useful features. 

So when a colleague said that Canva offered educators a free version of their product, I figured it was the same deal. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that was not the case! Once Canva verifies your school email address, they provide a features-packed version of their online software that makes design a breeze. It has truly changed my professional work for the better.

For the sake of transparency: I’ve had several people online tell me that the “educator” version of Canva does not include all the features of the “pro” or paid version. In my personal experience, I have yet to find an option or tool that I am not able to use in the educator version. Your mileage may vary. 

Seeing Canva-created items other folks have shared online, and playing with Canva’s abilities, I figured out how to make my own GIFs from still images. My first creation was a reminder for my students to return their books. When I shared it online, folks were curious to know how I made it. So here’s how it came together. 

A Quick Canva Overview

Canva is a remarkably easy to use design program. It has an extensive stock photo and clip art catalog. The upgraded free educator package removes watermarks and limits on those collections. You can also upload your own images and videos. I used some stock images to create my animated book return. 

And Canva makes designing and manipulating media a breeze. In addition to offering a very useful and capable background removal tool, Canva also offers lots of great features and templates. Two features we’ll need: looking at a project’s layers, and adding animation. 

Finally, Canva lets users export their projects in a variety of formats – including as a GIF!

Step 1: Finding the Pieces

I began this project with a particular vision of the end product in mind. So first I had to gather the pieces of the puzzle. 

1A: Sizing My “Canvas”

I started by creating a blank Presentation. I happened to know that the space where I planned to use the image was 3” by 2”, so I adjusted the canvas size. It was a happy coincidence that this size also worked perfectly for the 

Canva makes resizing pretty simple. And because it remembers projects you’ve worked on, it offers some “Recent” options for quick selection. 

Screen capture of Canva's resizing menu showing the order of clicks to use to select a previously-used size for a new project.

1B: Image Search

The first thing I did in Canva to create the book return GIF was to search for a picture of a book return box I liked. 

Canva offers lots of image options. I started by clicking “Elements”. This searches Canva’s library of images, videos, audio, and more. Then I told Canva what I was looking for: a book return. Once I hit enter on that search, I selected the type of media I was interested in; I chose to view all their photos related to book returns. This provided me with many options.

I had something specific in mind, and fortunately, it was one of the first images that appeared in my search. 

Screen capture of Canva's Elements search panel - shows how to click "Elements", then enter search term, then select "Photos" - "See All"

1C: The Right Book Return

Why did I choose this particular image? Thinking through my design idea, I knew I wanted a book return box that had an “open mouth”. That would make it much easier to create the animated GIF I had in mind. All I would need to do is “push” the book into the “mouth”. This would avoid having to animate return doors opening and closing. (Although, thinking about it now, adding that kind of animation might not be too difficult.) But for a first attempt, I wanted to keep things smooth and simple – a “less is more” approach. 

(In this GIF, you can see that many of the images are marked with graduation caps – that icon indicates these are elements not available in the “regular” free version of Canva, but that they are available in the educator edition.)

Once I found what I was looking for, it was simplicity itself to click the image so it added to my blank canvas. I also knew I’d want another copy of the return box image, so I right clicked and hit “duplicate” (you can also use “Ctrl-D”, or just click the image again). 

A GIF showing the many hits for "book return" in Canva's Photo elements; includes a pause to show some elements are marked as belonging to the "educator" package of Canva.

1D: Editing Images

Canva makes editing image sizes very easy. When you select an image on your canvas by clicking on it, Canva offers two kidneys of “handles”. Corner “handles” increase or reduce the size just by “pulling” or “pushing” on them. The wider “handles” in the middle of the selected image’s “pane” are “focusing” handles – dragging them essentially crops the image. This doesn’t permanently delete that portion of the image, it just “hides” it. These “hidden” portions can easily be “brought back” by pulling the handle back to its original position.

Screen capture of a selected image in a Canva project; red markings and text indicate the difference between resizing handles and focusing handles.

Side Note: Background Images

In Canva, if you drag an image until it is as large as (or larger than) the canvas you’re using, or if you right click and hit “Set image as background”, the image will “click” into place. It essentially becomes “wallpaper” for your canvas. This can be really handy if you’re building an image that has other elements you want in the foreground. It’s easy enough to undo – just right-click on the background image and select “Detach image from background”. 

1C: Getting a Book

It only took a moment to find a book that would work for this project. Since I was using a photo for the book return box, I also wanted to use a photo for the book. But Canva also offers “graphics”, which are basically clip art. You can mix-and-match however you want. 

With all of the image elements ready, it was time to start assembling the pieces.

Screen capture of the book image Steve selected to include.

Step 2: Arranging Layers

This next part I figured could be done, but I had to do a little searching to find exactly how to do it. Canva (and many better image editing programs) allow you to build “layers” in an image.

Some of you may be wondering why I added a second copy of the book return box image to my canvas. Basically, I’m making an image sandwich. The background image of the book return box serves as the bottom layer. The book is on top of this image. The second image of the book return box is the top layer. 

Why? For the book to go “inside” the return box, I need to hide the image of the book behind something. That’s where the second book return image comes in. 

First, I used the focus handles to hide the entire bottom section of the second book return image. I hid everything below the edge of the book return’s opening. Then I fiddled with the two images of the book return until they matched up seamlessly, creating the appearance of a single image. 

Then it was time to look at the image’s layers.

Using the handles on the left side of each element, I dragged the book into the middle layer. This meant it was on top of (in front of) the background image, but under (behind) the cropped image of the book return box’s top. 

Screen capture illustrating how to click on "Position" at the top of a Canva project's screen, followed by clicking "Layers" to view the elements within the project.

Step 3: Adding Animation

With the layers of my image set, I was ready to bring the still picture to life!

First, I positioned the book image where I wanted it to start its journey. Clicking on an element in Canva gives you several options, one of which is “Animate”. While Canva offers some pre-set animations, it also offers “Create an Animation”. This allows you to set a customized animation path. 

I dragged the book up into the “mouth” of the book return box. Because it was in the middle layer, it was floating above the main background image; but when the book came to the foreground image of the top of the book return box, the book goes behind the top layer, seemingly “disappearing”. 

A great feature of Canva’s custom animation: you can ask it to “smooth” or “steady” the animation path, which is great for those who, like me, have shaky hands. Canva will also “orient element to path” – if you want, it will automatically rotate the moving element so it “faces” the same way throughout its travels. You can also speed up or slow down the motion with a speed slider.

If you don’t like the path you’ve created, hit “Delete path” and start again. Once you’re satisfied, click “Done” and your animation is complete! 

GIF demonstrating how to insert a custom animation: Click on the element that you want to add animation to, then click the "Animation" button at the top of the screen; click "Add custom animation"; drag the element, creating the path the element will follow when it is animated; use the "Smooth" button to smooth out the path of the element if you have shaky hands like Steve; use the Speed slider to adjust how fast or slow the animation will run; select "Done" if you are satisfied, or "Delete path" to start over.

Step 4: Exporting a GIF

Once you have finished your masterpiece, you can liberate it from the confines of Canva. Click “Share” -> “Download”, change the “File type” to “GIF”, and click the “Download” button. (Notice that you can adjust the output size of the GIF before downloading.)

Et voila! You can now embed your GIF into emails, newsletters, websites – wherever you like! 

GIF of Canva's GIF export process: Click "Share", "Downloads", change File type to GIF, click "Download".

Beyond Books: Bacon!

After I shared my creation on Twitter, I received a reply from educator Heather Hurley. She used my quick explanation of how I’d made the GIF to create her own, and it is FANTASTIC!

Image of Heather Hurley, smiling; a piece of bacon appears and floats into her mouth.

Heather Hurley’s awesome GIF

I love her self-image eating bacon – it’s so creative! And it shows that the only limitation on the kinds of GIFs you can make are those imposed by your imagination! 

Because GIFS can be used in so many places, they’re excellent for creating tutorials. And imagine the amazing things our staff and students could create with some basic coaching – the sky is really the limit! 


Author: Steve Tetreault

After 24 years as a classroom English Language Arts teacher, Steve became a school librarian in January 2022. He has earned an M.Ed. (2006) and an Ed.D. (2014) in Educational Administration and Supervision, and completed an M.I. degree in Library and Information Science (2019). He is certified as a teacher, school library media specialist, supervisor, and administrator. He is an old dog constantly learning new tricks!

Categories: Technology

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1 reply

  1. I’m right there with you! It’s graphics interchange format, why would that be pronounced jif. I will die on this hill! LOL Thanks for sharing.

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