Canvas Network – Are the LMS and MOOC Markets Colliding?

Six weeks ago I posted a new graphic on the LMS market which included MOOCs in the same view as traditional LMS solutions.

In the comments to the post there was an interesting note from Josh Coates (Instructure CEO) in response to whether MOOCs should be so closely aligned with the LMS market:

i agree with you [fellow commenter Bob Puffer] that MOOCs aren’t the same thing as an LMS and should be accounted for differently.

With the recent news of the Coursera / Antioch partnership as well as Instructure’s release of the Canvas Network, I believe we are starting to see the LMS market overlap with the MOOC market, although I do not see them completely merging. After offering to fix Josh’s broken shift key, I’d like to explore the prospects for the Canvas Network to compete in the MOOC marketplace.

Coursera / Antioch

The first announcement was that Coursera has evolved their platform definition based on the new agreement with Antioch College. From Steve Kolowich at Inside Higher Ed:

For Coursera, which is still building its MOOC empire with venture capital, the Antioch deal is a first step toward developing a product that it can sell to colleges: “self-contained” online course platforms, complete with built-in content and assessment infrastructure.

“It’s an LMS [learning management system] that’s wrapped around a very high-quality course,” says Koller, the co-founder. “It’s not just the box, it’s a course in a box.”

While we don’t know how serious Coursera is in pursuing this model, it is quite clear that they see an opportunity in the combination of learning platform and content to be sold to institutions – a variation or augmentation of the LMS market. Will Udacity follow suit, or will Coursera expand this model? We don’t know, but watch Antioch as a bellweather for migration from MOOC into the LMS market.

Canvas Network

In the second event Instructure announced the Canvas Network, which positions the company as a competitor to Coursera, Udacity and edX in delivering MOOCs.

“We believe the people who know best how to transform learning are teachers and students, so through the Canvas Network we’re enabling them to experiment with new teaching methodologies with more flexibility and less constraints,” said Brian Whitmer, co-founder and chief product officer at Instructure.

Canvas Network allows institutions to define the structure of their courses and the approach to teaching that makes the most sense to them. Some institutions have chosen to pursue a massive open online course format (MOOC), and some have chosen to pursue a smaller online course format with more interaction. Often the courses are taught on the same platform the institution uses to teach tuition-based courses, which means students have a seamless experience as they progress through their academic journey.

The Canvas Network shows real signs of being more than just a pilot program. There are already 21 courses listed from multiple institutions, with the first courses to begin January 2013. During EDUCAUSE, Canvas Network was the primary marketing message from Instructure, and several of Instructure’s customers told me that they were already developing their MOOCs or planned to do so very soon.

It’s worth reading Audrey Watters in her post on the announcement as well as Michael’s Feldstein in his analysis from last week, which included the following summary:

And let’s be clear: This is not, in and of itself, about improving the quality of open course pedagogy or experience. It is about improving open course discoverability.

More interesting than the new features are the comments made by Instructure management. First, Instructure Co-Founder Brian Whitmer said to both me and ZDNet’s Christopher Dawson that this isn’t just about MOOCs. It’s about open education in general. He stressed in his conversation to me that we don’t really know what MOOCs are good for yet, and it is therefore important to empower schools to experiment. If you think about it from that perspective, then making courses more discoverable is a reasonable place to start. CEO Josh Coates echoed this sentiment in his conversation with Campus Technology, along with an interesting follow-on bit:

“MOOCs are a part of education,” rather than the be-all and end-all of education. And he characterized the service as an “alternative platform that isn’t only for the elite schools. We’re opening up a platform for everyone else” and, he said, providing support for “dozen to tens of thousands of students.”

Are Blackboard and Desire2Learn also moving into MOOC territory?

Blackboard scored a marketing mini-coup on the same day as the Instructure announcement by re-announcing Coursesites as a MOOC platform, thereby raining on the Canvas Network parade. While Blackboard had already started this effort with the Bonkopen MOOC in Spring 2012, it appears to me that there is not a new strategy here – just stating that 3 schools had decided to build future MOOCs on Coursesite. Of these 3 schools, ASU has repudiated their part of the announcement per the Chronicle article’s update.

While Blackboard did succeed in watering down the Canvas message, the real focus of Blackboard’s learning platform strategy is on the new MyBlackboard tool that is the second release in Blackboard’s new platform strategy.

For its part, Desire2Learn is currently delivering part of the Change / Future State for Education (aka EdFutures, aka CFHE12) MOOC. This is the first attempt, to my knowledge, of using a traditional LMS for a connectivist style cMOOC.

Desire2Learn, however, does not appear eager to enter the MOOC market. Based on conversations at EDUCAUSE, they are planning to enable their current clients to develop MOOCs using their platform, but there is not intention to take the step of addressing the discoverability of MOOCs and making this a core part of their strategy.

Pearson does consider MOOCs as part of their strategy, but not their LMS strategy. They are approaching MOOCs from the testing / certification perspective with Pearson VUE.

Consider this simple test: go to the respective web sites of the LMS vendors and determine how many clicks or searches are required to discover all of the open online courses that are available or planned to be available. At this stage, only Instructure is strategically migrating into the MOOC market.

What are the prospects of the Canvas Network?

The beauty of open education – whether it be open source software, open educational resources, open access, or open online classes – is that the market does not represent a zero-sum game. Therefore when I ask what the prospects are for Canvas in the MOOC market, it is not necessary for Instructure to displace Coursera, Udacity or edX. Open online courses are reaching new audiences and growing rapidly. The challenge for the Canvas Network is to develop a significant, self-sustaining business model for both Instructure and its clients in a new market. This market, however, requires scale and relies on the network effect – where the value of the network is strongly tied to the number of participants in the network.

In comparison to the big three MOOC platforms, the strengths of the Canvas Network include the following:

  • Instructure has an existing revenue model that works, and they can afford to explore different online education models.
  • The Canvas Network essentially democratizes MOOCs, allowing non-elite institutions to develop open online courses at scale. This is important as elite research institutions are not necessarily the best source for quality teaching and learning. A great deal of the innovation in course design and pedagogy in higher education comes from the non-elite institutions, many of whom are chomping at the bit to show the quality of their faculty and courses.
  • The Canvas Network has a built-in network of 260+ schools to create open online courses based on their current customer base. Likewise, they have ~4.5 million students already using the platform. The largest MOOC provider, Coursera, has 1.85 million users, but they are growing at a rate of ~70,000 per month.
  • Since the Canvas Network is tied to the Canvas LMS at the 260+ schools, there will be some interesting opportunities to migrate students into credit-bearing courses. Similarly, any school using a Canvas MOOC as a marketing / qualification tool will benefit from prospective students interacting directly on the same platform they would use if enrolled at the institution.
  • While Coursera, Udacity and edX talk about the potential of analytics across such large user populations, Instructure has a real opportunity to leverage the new Canvas analytics tools, particularly if they can share the results publicly. Hmm, open analytics anyone?

At a joint EDUCAUSE session this week alongside Coursera’s ubiquitous Daphne Koller, Brian Voss (CIO of the University of Maryland) related his personal MOOC story that is quite illustrative. Brian shared a timeline for July 17, 2012:

  • 3am: Coursera announces addition of 12 new partner institutions
  • 9am: Brian calls several CIO friends at the partner institutions
  • 10:30am: The University of Maryland president calls Brian
  • 12:00pm: Brian is in the president’s office for a 90 minute conversation on MOOCs

Just a few weeks later, Maryland signed on with Coursera, and by October 4 courses were online.

Think about this for a minute. Presidents (and to a lesser degree provosts) are now driving the decisions on MOOCs, and major decisions and implementations are occurring within a few short months. The CIOs such as Brian Voss are instrumental in the process, but it is the president’s initiative, the president’s requirements, and the president’s schedule that are driving the MOOC processes.

Herein lies the greatest barrier for the Canvas Network to succeed in the MOOC market. Presidents and the popular media know Coursera, they know Udacity, they know edX. Coursera’s marketing department (aka the NY Times) is unparalleled in getting campus presidents’ attention. Instructure does not tend to have this direct access to the people driving the popularity and adoption of MOOCs. Hopefully the institutions involved in the Canvas Network do not have a false set of expectations on the challenges to getting the M in MOOC (massive).

For better or worse, Coursera and Udacity provide consistent, simple-to-understand, experiences across their courses. They have a consistent course design approach built in to the platforms. While Instructure provides instructional design support, a great deal of the design will be left up to the schools. This approach will likely lead to innovative learning opportunities, but at the same time it also runs the risk of inconsistent experiences and even poor design in terms of open online course needs. Coursera and Udacity are optimized to get students into the course and into the material with very little friction.

It seems to me that Instructure has a very real chance to become a viable MOOC provider and even to enable institutions to improve open online courses design. However, the Canvas Network is just the first move, and there is work yet to be done by both Instructure and their institutional clients.

Thinking ahead, if the Canvas Network succeeds, I see two key impacts on the MOOC and LMS markets.

  • The richer feature set of LMS vendors will push the MOOC vendors to offer more options for course design.
  • The other LMS vendors will likely develop their own strategies to get beyond pilot projects and actually address the MOOC market opportunities, including the crucial aspect of discoverability.

However this development turns out, I do believe the LMS and MOOC markets are starting to overlap and influence each other.

Feel free to comment below or on the Google+ post.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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19 Responses to Canvas Network – Are the LMS and MOOC Markets Colliding?

  1. Cable Green says:

    Let’s not forget the second letter in MOOC stands for “Open” : http://creativecommons.org/weblog/entry/34852

  2. I have been interested in online learning since 2001 when I took a position to serve as the coordinator of Louisiana’s first online Bachelor of Science program offered by a university in Louisiana. I think we need to find a way to encourage colleges and universities create new online courses that reflect the following:

    a) the high-level of discoverability characterized by MOOCs like Coursera, edX and Udacity,
    b) the learning analytics functionality of tools such as Purdue University’s Signals project and Altius Education’s Helix LMS
    c) a focus on the achievement of competencies similar to what Southern New Hampshire University is doing with their College of America program:
    http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/10/01/competency-based-education-may-get-boost

    So perhaps we can change our focus on MOOC’s per se and develop a new acronym:

    Massively
    Open
    Online
    Competency-Based
    Learning Analytics Focused
    Courses

  3. bob puffer says:

    I liked this op-ed/ analysis piece. Just an opinion and an observation:
    – I don’t like how NOT-open Instructure is, I’d appreciate them much more if they were more like Alfresco, providing the same functionality in their open system as in their hosted system.
    – I think the fact that Canvas runs on Ruby could be a serious hindrance to “Massively” in MOOC. Their platform seems awfully committed but I don’t believe it could take the stress of a course like edX.

  4. Phil Hill says:

    Bob, thanks for the comments. Given your origin of this topic, what are your thoughts on whether the LMS and MOOC markets are starting to overlap? I’d be interested in your opinion or conjecture.

  5. We usually forget the real problems and dive into the details .
    Real Problem is
    1.- Colleges are expensive
    2.- Colleges are not at the quality we wish
    That means we want a good product at a fair price.
    That is here COURSERA/ANTIOCH
    That is the very quick response to the problem .
    See my blog for quick recovery http://www.savecolleges.blogspot.com

  6. bob puffer says:

    “Colliding” … yes. “Overlapping”… I don’t think so. By this I mean that a separate apparatus (which I won’t call an “LMS”) must be constructed to actually handle the “Massive” part of MOOC. This “MMS” (obvious acronym) assesses successful progress differently, aligns cohorts and groups differently, administers discussions differently and likely assigns the signet of successful completion differently than an ‘A’.

    I see some real value coming out of the need to confront this type of learning experience with software capable of managing its peccadilloes. Perhaps we’ll become more “outcome-based” in our assessment where my final certificate won’t say, “I got an ‘A’ in Artificial Intelligence” but, “I’ve achieved these levels of competency in these five capabilities”. That, IMO, would be an improved learning experience.

  7. Phil Hill says:

    Bob, interesting thoughts, particularly on the addition of competency-based education being a key focus for next-gen MOOCs.

    I’m not sure if it’s ‘overlap’ or ‘collision’ terminology, I see both the LMS vendors (at least the more flexible ones) and the MOOC vendors (Coursera, Udacity, edX in particular, but also Google Course Builder) will both attempt to develop this MMS. Now will this be extensions of current solutions or different / separate solutions – not sure.

  8. bob puffer says:

    We do some tight integration between Moodle and Google Apps for Education so I like keeping my hand on the pulse of Google Course Builder but for now its a “less than rich set of tools” requiring a developer/programmer to implement. It would be interesting if the LMS vendors branch their capabilities in this direction but the history of commercial LMS vendors is not one replete with innovation.

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  10. Patrick Masson says:

    How would you classify MOOCs like EduStartup 101 (http://edstartup.net/)? Richard Culatta, Todd Manwaring, Aaron Miller, and David Wiley have apparently gone out of their way to not specify any technology platform, rather, they invite students to utilize existing Web 2.0 tools to create, distribute and archive content as well as communicate with peers in the course. From the “Getting Started” page:

    “You are required to have a blog for this class. Any time you post something related to the course on your blog it must be tagged “edstartup. We strongly encourage you to regularly use Twitter for this class. Some course assignments are video assignments. If you don’t already have a YouTube account, grab one now. Finally, you may want to also grab a Flickr account.”

    This approach utilizes student’s existing resources and profiles, enabling the student’s education to merge with their (and others’) personal/professional experiences. This, to me, provides a key differentiator from the MOOCs as described above as courses within platforms (i.e. and CMS/LMS) with an implied time frame for participating and tool set for teaching/learning. Even when EduStartup 101 is over, the community created can continue on because the tools they use are independent of the course and there is no platform (or, again, LMS).

    This also enables more openness in EduStartup 101 than how MOOCs have become to be described/managed. Here are a few examples: students are free to choose any tool(s) they are comfortable with and associate them to one another or another students’ (an open–as in not prescribed–learning ecosystem). Previous work can be included (open as in and and all/any works may be included). Others (non-students), outside the course, may see and contribute to both the personal learning of the student, the class as a whole or even provide some teaching (open access). The content, learning objects, lessons, etc. are freely accessible by all, etc. not just those in the course, and importantly, during the course. A year from now the lessons are just as valuable. To me this level of openness is simply not possible on a dedicated platform, whether that is in a traditional LMS or any of the newer edX, Coursea, etc. LMS-like technologies. A purest might very well argue, running such a (closed) LMS-like platform is antithetical to MOOCs.

    I can understand the lure to use an existing LMS platform from a practical point of view. I can also understand the desire of those in the more traditional LMS space to want to capture, contribute to the MOOC wave. As the CTO for one of the country’s larger online learning initiatives, I would be worried about standing up and supporting a platform for potentially hundreds of thousands of students and all that entails: the dynamic technology; help desk services; anonymous access for open enrollment; content portability, etc. Far easier to host a course with open enrollment through Blackboard CourseSites, Instructure Canvas Network or Coursera, edX, but I do not think that provides what many may be expecting in a MOOC.

  11. bob puffer says:

    Patrick, I think you’ve highlighted some keen opportunities whereby MOOCs can collide with LMS structures and bring about some good changes to those that are open source. I believe as Martin Dougiamas (Moodle founder) has said many times that the LMS can no longer be a walled gardens where all the functionality is provided by itself. It must begin to include web services that better meet the needs of a particular set of users.

    A couple of observations and questions:

    When you use the term “open” you use it differently than I. Your “open” allows anyone to use whatever tool they choose even though those tools are each constrained within a very closed framework (I can’t change the way Facebook or Twitter operates). My “open” (and the only one I would stand up for) allows anyone to programmatically change the tools used to meet the (often) very particular needs of their constituent bodies. While its possible Facebook and Twitter meet the needs of certain audiences I think it more likely the audiences are so used to using them and therefore have no reference by which they can consider what these tools don’t provide.

    I’m interested in how “discovery” works for eduStartup if each person is free to use their own tools? Maybe I don’t quite get all that you’re saying — perhaps each MOOC is free to use its own tools but everyone participating must use the selected tools of that particular MOOC.

    What do you think about the idea that the people who’ve designed the course (MOOC) have anticipated outcomes for those who successfully complete it and, in many cases these cannot be divorced from what are the appropriate tools to bring about the desired outcomes?

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