By Phil Hill
For the first few years of the Canvas LMS, Instructure’s core message was ‘Canvas is better than Blackboard’. This positioning was thinly veiled in the company’s 2011 spoof of the Apple / 1984 commercial and even hitting the level of gloating in a company blog commenting on Blackboard’s strategy reversal in 2012. Instructure made their name by being the anti-Blackboard.
At InstructureCon 2014, there was hardly a mention of Blackboard or any of the other LMS providers. In fact, most of the general sessions avoided any direct or indirect comparison of LMS products. This year there were three observations that surprised me:
- Snow in June;
- Canvas growth in K-12 markets; and
- Lack of mention of LMS competitors or product one-upmanship.
Snow in June
The weather eventually cleared up, however, with a high of 69 forecast for later today.
Company Growth, Even in K-12
Instructure is on a roll, and in the 3.5 years since the launch of Canvas LMS, they have grown to have more than 800 customers and more than 12 million end users registered in their system. During Josh Coates’ keynote, he showed a chart that showed the growth, including breakouts per market. In the two years since I was last at InstructureCon (2012), the company has almost tripled the number of higher ed clients and more than quadrupled the total number of customers.
Beyond the impressive overall growth, I was surprised to see that Instructure now appears to have approximately 3/4 the number of K-12 customers as they do higher ed customers. I also noticed a large number of K-12 users at the conference.
It is worth pointing out a few caveats:
- The K-12 market is more of “the wild west” (term used at Instructure) than higher ed, with a large number of unconnected districts without consistent purchasing patterns;
- There are far more K-12 schools and districts than there are higher ed institutions, and Canvas market percentages are much lower in K-12 than higher ed;
- Typical customer sizes can be much smaller in K-12, so I doubt that Instructure makes 3/4 the revenue in K-12 as they do in higher ed; and
- These are self-reported student and faculty registrations, which includes newly-signed schools that have not yet migrated from their old system (this chart is more of a leading indicator than typical market share measures).
Canvas Moving to Next Stage
Given the significant growth over just 3.5 years, it is striking the change in tone from Instructure. Call it a maturing process, or call it confidence from winning the majority of LMS selections in higher ed recently, but Instructure has subtly but significantly changed their assumed competition. Rather than focusing on being better than Blackboard or Desire2Learn or Moodle or Sakai, the real competition for Canvas now seems to be lack of meaningful adoption, whether the end users are working online or face-to-face.
Josh Coates’ keynote was close to 40 minutes in duration, and I estimate he mentioned Canvas for 4 minutes or less – and that was on system uptime and growth in adoption presented in an introspective manner. Rather than pitching the product, Josh spent the majority of the keynote talking about his fictional and real inspirations or heroes, including Katherine Switzer, Atticus Finch, Norman Borlaug, and Sophie Scholl. Is this the same Josh Coates from the 2013 Learning Impact Fight Club as described by Claude Vervoort?
LMS CEOs Panel: Leave all Political Correctness at the door, thanks! I was amazed. It all started smoothly but it did not take long for Instructure’s CEO Josh Coates to give a kick in the anthill. I could not believe my ears Not always constructive but surely entertaining!
For the general sessions and over-riding conference themes, the primary product announcement was on “Lossless Learning” – combining “the ease and efficiency of online learning with the magic of a face-to-face environment”. The idea is to use online tools to augment the face-to-face experience, with four tools to support this idea:
- Canvas Polls – a built-in response system using iOS or Android devices to replace clickers;
- Magic Marker – an iPad app allowing the instructor to observe and evaluate individual performance of students in group environments, integrated with Canvas gradebook;
- Quiz Stats – an improved visualization of multiple-choice quizzes and item analysis; and
- Learning Mastery for Students – the student view of mastery-based gradebook.
Mike Caulfield describes more of the minimally invasive assessment angle in this blog post.
Instructure has a new announcement about Canvas, and it’s in an area close to my heart. They are rolling out a suite of tools that allow instructors to capture learning data from in-class activities.
But Mike, you say, the LMS is evil, and more LMS is eviler. Why you gotta be Satan’s Cheerleader?
Well, here’s my take on that. The LMS is not evil. What is evil is making the learning environment of your class serve the needs of the learning management system rather than serve the needs of the students.
Leading this Lossless Learning effort is Jared Stein, whose role is to connect the Canvas product team with actual classroom usage and vice virsa. When co-founder Devlin Daley left Instructure last year, I made the following observation:
While that official explanation makes sense, it doesn’t mean that Devlin’s departure will not affect Instructure. The biggest challenge they will face, in my opinion, is having someone out on the road, working with customers, asking why and what if questions. Just naming a person or two to this role is not the same as having the original vision and skills from a co-founder, although I would expect Jared Stein to play a key role in this regard.
What I believe I am seeing at InstructureCon is just how important Jared is becoming to Instructure’s strategy.
Rather than Canvas vs. Blackboard or Desire2Learn or Moodle or Sakai, the message now has shifted to more meaningful implementations of Canvas vs. shallow usage of an LMS.
I used to think that the biggest risk that Instructure faced was the lack of focus on large online programs (University of Central Florida being the primary exception). No longer, as I see that the company has plenty of headroom to grow with their focus more on augmenting traditional face-to-face or hybrid programs, especially with K-12 markets and international markets being open. The biggest risks I now see:
- Hubris – there is a fine line between confidence that allows a company to look beyond other LMS providers and cockiness; if the company becomes too comfortable in their growth and becomes cocky, then they can take a fall like other LMS providers have shown.
- Focus – as the company grows and adds customers, it will be increasingly difficult to maintain the focus that has led them to have a clean, intuitive user interface and to avoid feature bloat.
We’ll keep watching Instructure and their Canvas product suite, but we’ll also look at other LMS providers and how they might change the market.