Instructure Canvas: A New LMS Entrant

We’re making progress on getting the Sakai conference keynote videos online, but while we wait for those to be ready for the kick-off to the conference post series, I’d like to take advantage of the unexpected lull to write a bit about a new LMS entrant that I had an opportunity to learn about recently. Instructure‘s Canvas product is one of a new generation of LMS’s being created by start-ups that seem to be suddenly popping up everywhere. It has some of the Web 2.0 features that you would expect, like easy personal profile integration with external social networking sites and easy video embedding. But unlike, say, NIXTY—another start-up that really emphasizes open education—Instructure’s big theme seems to be getting back to basics—in a good way.

First, a little background. The company was founded by two BYU graduate students who were unhappy with how clunky and out-of-date their school’s LMS felt. They decided to do something about it. Now, BYU is a good place to be if you want to rethink educational technology. For starters, it is home to such out-of-the-box thinkers as David Wiley and, until recently, Jon Mott. It also has a lot of support for students who aspire to start their own businesses.[1] So these two guys mocked up an LMS design and business model for an entrepreneurialism class and, as a result, were put in touch with serial entrepreneur Cory Reid, who became the company’s CEO. They then went on a further requirements-gathering tour of schools in their area and used the data they got to design their LMS and their business. The result is Instructure.

If I had to summarize Instructure’s strategy in one sentence, it would be “They use the lessons learned by consumer web companies to clear the clutter out of LMS software design and business model.” They’re not focusing particularly on open education or analytics or any other hot topics in online education, although they are aware of these and do pay some attention to them. Rather, they are looking at core use cases and trying to make them as simple as possible, throwing out some outdated LMS design assumptions in the process. For example, now that we live in a time where we have pretty sophisticated needs for managing information being pushed to us—and sophisticated tools for addressing those needs—the old email alert check boxes that are sprinkled unevenly throughout LMSs seem pretty inadequate. Why not build a global notifications panel in which users can control the different kinds of notifications they can receive both in terms of frequency (e.g., instantly, daily, weekly, etc.) and in terms of notification channel (e.g., email or text message)? This is something that dotLRN had years and years ago but which most LMSs are only kinda sorta coming to in fits and starts, partly because it’s one of those things that’s hard to bolt on well if it hasn’t been designed into the product from the start. Likewise, if you know that users are going to be using popular Web 2.0 tools as part of their coursework, why not build account integration for things like Google Docs and Twitter right into the personal profile page? Some of the simplification is not driven so much by lessons of Web 2.0 as by just plain good UX design work. For example, they’ve worked hard to simplify the grading workflow and reduce it to as few clicks as possible, so that teachers can power through grading of a couple dozen student assignments as quickly as possible. In fact, Cory spent a lot of time in our conversation talking about reducing the time burden that the LMS places on teachers and on getting the technology out of the way as a core value proposition of Canvas.

The end result feels quite nice:

Instructure also works hard to simplify the business arrangements with their customers. Individual faculty can use the system—with help desk support—for free. This helps the company build a support base within a school that might consider adopting. Institutions sign a relatively straightforward contract at what Cory claims is a pretty competitive price. The company uses a couple of strategies to make a decent profit at a decent price. First, by building a SaaS-only platform using modern web technologies (presumably including a lot of open source, although we didn’t talk about this), the platform development and maintenance costs are significantly lower than those of a previous-generation on-premise enterprise-style app. Second, they claim to be able to keep the customer support costs low, despite having offering help desk support even for non-paying teachers, by focusing hard on ease of use. One Instructure customer claims to have reduced faculty training time from six hours on a previous LMS platform to four short overview videos.[2]

Those of us who work in educational technology typically spend a lot of time hand-wringing about how inherently bad the LMS might be and how much we need to throw out. What’s intriguing about about Instructure and Canvas is that they raise the question of whether some of the things that teachers and students dislike about LMSs are ontological or contingent in nature. We may just need to refresh the product design (including both technical architecture and assumptions about how users will tend to want to work) based on lessons learned in the past decade. After all, Google didn’t have to throw out SMTP and POP in order to bring a significant modernization of email in the form of GMail. The real problem with the LMS may simply be that there hasn’t been a refresh of basic design and architectural assumptions…well…certainly in the last seven or eight years, and arguably since the product category came into existence. It’s no wonder people are dissatisfied.

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  1. Passions for both education and entrepreneurialism seem to be woven into the fabric of the Mormon culture. []
  2. Incidentally, there has been some debate in the Sakai community about whether Sakai 3 embedded help can be reduced to this level of just a few overview screencasts, at least for most users. Instructure clearly believes that they have done it. []

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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13 Responses to Instructure Canvas: A New LMS Entrant

  1. Bill says:

    I’ve been using Instructure with my on-line course and agree it’s much more useful than the other LMS system used on our campus. I particularly appreciate the video option, easy feedback option, calendaring system for students, and several other features. They continue to respond to input and make the system one that faculty will appreciate. The risk to try a new product and convert courses has been well worth it in my opinion.

  2. Thanks, Bill. You reminded me of a point that I forgot to mention in the post, which is that Instructure has also put a lot of effort at making course conversion from other LMS’s as easy as possible.

  3. It’s worth noting that Utah has its own Silicon Valley and has a history of innovative I.T. (Novell and Wordperfect were developed here). Perhaps, between Agilix and Instructure (another VLE company located here in Utah) the beehive state will carry this tradition forward and be the new hotbed of VLE development. Utah, as you note, is also home to David Wiley one of the better known advocates of OER. But in spite of this indigenous interest in openness Utah higher education has been slow to integrate into OSS VLE communities. I’d like to think that there are synergies in pursuing both kinds of openness simultaneously. But Instructure and Agilix’s successes suggest that maybe other ecologies are viable ways to develop the next generation VLE.

  4. Pingback: Next Steps? « Joyful Latin Learning — Tres Columnae

  5. Perhaps all roads lead to Jerusalem.

  6. Laura Gibbs says:

    Thanks for writing up this piece about Instructure! I would like to point out here the feature of Instructure that prompted me to begin using it: you can create a TRULY PUBLIC online course using Instructure, which is not an option available with Desire2Learn or Blackboard, the two systems I have experience with in my work as an online instructor at the University of Oklahoma. I teach fully online courses and it is my goal to share those courses with EVERYONE, not just the students in my classes. There is no easy way to do that with Desire2Learn or Blackboard; I cannot just “flip a switch” to have my courses open themselves up to search engines, link to materials in my course like any other website, etc. So, as an online instructor, I have ended up keeping my courses materials outside Desire2Learn and using D2L only for quizzes and grading. That’s very frustrating for me; I would very much prefer to make my online courses available to everyone.
    So, when Cory Reid from Instructure contacted me about using Instructure to create public courses, I was so excited to give it a try – and I am thrilled with the results. I am building a course in Instructure this summer that is meant to be 100% public and 100% teacherless, something that is open and available to independent learners anywhere anytime… and which I can also use for a traditional semester-long university level course if (IF… fingers crossed!) I can ever persuade my university to offer the course for credit. Since it is public, I can link to the course here:
    http://canvas.instructure.com/courses/20544
    The course is a creative composition course in Latin, Aesopus Latinus, to help Latin students (3rd-semester college, junior or seniors in high school) learn how to write their own fables and proverbs in Latin. I’ve completed one module, and over the rest of the summer I plan to write another 10 or so modules. The “module” feature in Instructure is really fantastic, providing very user-friendly navigation for students and making it very easy for instructors to implement a consistent learning strategy.
    As someone who’s spent a lot of time working with both Blackboard and Desire2Learn, I can say that working with Instructure is a completely different experience. I can work on Instructure all day designing materials and not get a headache, ha ha – while the same is not true of Desire2Learn or Blackboard. The course materials area is a wiki, which gives me the flexibility in using and reusing materials in my course which I really need. I love the fact that each time I add materials or assignments to this course, I know that I contributing to the overall richness of the Internet as a repository of learning materials. Even if someone is not interested in doing my entire course, a teacher or student might find some of the materials I’ve put online to be of use. For example, here is one of my resource pages:
    http://canvas.instructure.com/courses/20544/assignments/3451
    This exists as a page in my course, part of the “orientation module” – but it also exists as a freestanding webpage here which I can share with my colleagues, which they can link to, bookmark, etc. – just like any other webpage. No login, no password, no guest access – it is just a page on the Internet, a page that happens to be part of my Instructure course.
    So, for anyone else whose goal is to share their learning materials at large via the Internet, definitely take a close look at Instructure. I’m really thrilled by the chance to build a course that allows this kind of sharing and openness and I’m sure there are lots of other online instructors out there who feel the same way and chafe, as I do, at the way everything is locked down in Desire2Learn and Blackboard, whether you want it to be locked down or not! Of course, you can choose to keep your class private in Instructure, and I’m sure many instructors do so – but for someone like me, who wants to create open classes, I am so glad to have the CHOICE to open my class up to all.

  7. Barry Brown says:

    Hi, I just discovered your blog. You have lots of great links to new instructional technologies. I’m particularly excited about all these new LMSs. I’ve used Bb and Moodle. My institution runs Bb, but I personally use Moodle with my classes. While the latter works better than Bb for my purposes, it has fallen behind in terms of usability and Web 2.0 integration.

    Do you maintain or know of a list of the newer LMSs, especially one that I, as an instructor, can use in my classrooms? The amount of money we spend annually on Bb is astonishing and I’d love to be able to show my higher-ups that there are better alternatives out there.

  8. Barry, I don’t know of any lists of new LMSs, but I hope to continue to blog about new entrants as I learn about them.

  9. Pingback: First Look at Instructure « Barry Dahl dot com

  10. UVU Student says:

    I’m a student at a higher education institution in the valley. We were told that we would be using the delivery platform of Canvas Instructure for our course content. It was a sigh of relief, until you got on the site and discovered how incompatible it truly is. You log in to be taken to a home page that doesn’t allow to fully navigate to where you want to go. You hit the teeny-tiny little Home Icon in hopes of finding your content (left) and it doesn’t take you to the HOME page at all. I have NO CLUE of where I’m at, at all. Then you attempt to locate your assignments, but they are ONLY listed in alphabetical order, NOT chronologically! If something is due, then I need to know WHEN… Where is the option to sort by? Also, the dates of the entries don’t in anyway correspond to the dates of the term that we are in… Now, hmmm, how are we suppose to know if we are to respond to the outdated dates? Why can’t it be updated? There are MANY issues, but these are a couple that I’ve encounter, leading to frustration levels that would have me requesting to use BlackBoard.

    The other issue I have is being targeted, as a university student, to conduct beta testing without being offered the “option” of doing so. If I’m paying FULL CREDIT PRICE and being requested to offer my feedback, then I would like to be compensated for doing so, in addition to the struggles of having to navigate a system that is not conducive to the learning environment. Students have a host of issues to have to contend with, and this certainly shouldn’t be one of them!

    As the Utah State contract with Blackboard draws to a close [Dec 2011] it appears that many are attempting to move swiftly into the marketplace in presenting their products for consideration. Boards and committees are being drawn to evaluate new products, a gamut of professors, instructors, and others are being sanctioned for input, but the student is the ultimate end-user. They are the ones who ultimately PAY FOR THE SERVICE. They should be the first to be polled, the first to be offered enticing offers of userability and testing, and being offered the chance to BE PAID FOR THEIR EFFORTS. It shouldn’t be thrown into their faces and jammed-down their throats… Is the professor receiving a kick-back? It hardly seems fair!!!

  11. Thanks for sharing your experience and honest perceptions. It’s really important that we hear from people who are actually using the software.

  12. Frankie Kam says:

    Michael and Barry

    For a comprehensive list of Web 2.0 LMSes, check this out:
    http://www.shambles.net/pages/learning/ict/vleweb2/
    At last count there were around 38 LMSes listed(!!!).
    And Canvas is in there. In Moodle, students have to log in to
    find out about notifications and announcements. With Canvas,
    they get notified via email, mobile or Facebook/Twitter. Wow!

  13. Frankie, I’m going to leave your comment up because I believe you’re genuinely trying to provide useful information, but a word of advice: Be careful about your tone. Your comment could easily be perceived as comment spam.

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