Instructure Dodges A Data Bullet

Last week’s EDUCAUSE conference was relatively news free, which is actually a good thing as overall ed tech hype levels have come down. Near the end of the conference, however, I heard from three different sources about a growing backlash against Instructure for their developing plans for Canvas Data and real-time events. “They’re Blackboarding us”, “the honeymoon is over”, “we’re upset and that is on the record”. By all appearances, this frustration mostly by R1 institutions was likely to become the biggest PR challenge for Instructure since their 2012 outage, especially considering their impending IPO.

The first complaint centered on Instructure plans to charge for daily data exports as part of Canvas Data, which Instructure announced at InstructureCon in June as:

a hosted data solution providing fully optimized data to K-12 and higher education institutions capturing online teaching and learning activity. As a fundamental tool for education improvement, the basic version of the service will be made available to Canvas clients at no additional cost, with premium versions available for purchase.

What that last phrase meant was that monthly data access was free, but institutions had to pay for daily access. By the EDUCAUSE conference, institutions that are part of the self-organized  “Canvas R1 Peers” group were quite upset that Instructure was essentially selling their own data back to them, and arguments of additional infrastructure costs were falling flat.

Vince Kellen, CIO of the University of Kentucky, was quite adamant on the principle that vendors should not sell back institutional data – that belongs to the schools. At the most vendors should charge for infrastructure.

The second complaint involved a product under development – not yet in beta – called Live Events. This product will provide access to clickstream data and live events, ideally following IMS standards and supporting the Caliper framework. Unizin is the primary customer driving this development, but the Canvas R1 Peers group is also playing an active role. The concern is that the definition of which data to make available in real-time, and how that data is structured to allow realistic access by schools analyzing the data, has not yet been defined to a level that satisfies Unizin and the Peers group.

I contacted the company Friday mid day while also conducting interviews with the schools and with Unizin. Apparently the issues quickly escalated within the company, and Friday evening I got a call from CEO Josh Coates. He said that they had held an internal meeting and decided that their plans were wrong and had to change. They would no longer charge for daily access to Canvas Data. On Monday they posted a blog announcing this decision.

tl;dr: Canvas Data is out of beta. This means free daily data logs are available to all clients. [snip]

We just took Canvas Data out of beta. A beta is a chance to test, with actual clients, the technology, the user experience, and even possible for-cost add-on features. Some of the things we learned from the 30 beta institutions were that once-a-month updates aren’t enough (Canvas Data “Basic”), and charging extra for daily updates is kinda lame (Canvas Data “Plus”).

“Kinda lame” is not the Canvas Way. So we changed it: No more Canvas Data Basic vs. Plus; It’s now just Canvas Data, with daily updates of downloadable files, at no additional cost, for everyone.

Checking back with schools from the Canvas R1 Peers group and Unizin, I was told that Instructure really did defuse the Canvas Data issue with that one quick decision.

On the Live Events issue, the Canvas R1 Peers group put together a requirements document over the weekend that collected data needs from Berkeley, UT Austin, U Kentucky, and the University of Washington[1]. This document was shared with Instructure through Internet2 based on the Net+ contract with Instructure, and they are now working out the details.

Vince Kellen indicated that “Live Events is real minimal start in the right direction”, but that Instructure will need to figure out how to handle transactional events with no data loss and clickstream data not requiring the same fidelity within the same system.

Additional sources confirmed that the Canvas Data issue was resolved and that Instructure was on the right path with Live Events, although there is still a lot of work to be done.

Amin Qazi, CEO of Unizin, stated in an email:

Yes, Unizin had an agreement which allowed access to the daily Canvas Data files without our members paying any additional fees. My understanding of the new pricing model is all Instructure Canvas customers now have a similar arrangement.

Unizin is only beginning to explore the benefits of Live Events from Canvas. We are transporting the data from Instructure to our members via cloud-based infrastructure Unizin is building and maintaining, at no cost to our members. We have started developing some prototypes to take advantage of this data to meet our objective of increasing learner success.

Unizin has had, and plans to have, discussions with Instructure regarding the breadth of the data available (current:, the continued conformity of that data to the IMS Global standards, and certain aspects of privacy and security. Unizin believes these topics are of interest to all Instructure Canvas customers.

We understand this is a beta product from Instructure and we appreciate their willingness to engage in these discussions, and potentially dedicate time and resources. We look forward to working with Instructure to mature Live Events.

In the end, there is work remaining for Instructure to support institutions wanting to access and analyze their learning data from the LMS, but Instructure dodged a bullet by quick decision-making.

Additional Notes

  • I am still amazed that Instructure’s competitors do not understand how Instructure’s rapid and non-defensive acknowledgement and resolution of problems is a major factor in their growth. There were no excuses given this weekend, just decisions and clear communication back to customers.
  • This is the clearest demonstration of value by Unizin that I have seen. Amin’s explanation goes beyond the vague generalities that have plagued Unizin over the past 18 months and is specific and real.
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  1. There might be other schools involved. []

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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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