InstructureCon: Canvas LMS has different competition now

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

14 - 1

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.

Graphic presented by Instructure at 2014 InstructureCon

Graphic presented by Instructure at 2014 InstructureCon

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.

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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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11 Responses to InstructureCon: Canvas LMS has different competition now

  1. pmasson says:

    I was wondering what mention there was of “open source”? The last reference to open source as a value proposition/differentiator, as opposed to marketing, or general “openness,” I could find on their site was from Nov. 2012.

    “Instructure embraces the open source community. We leverage many open source projects in our work. We also provide an open source learning platform to the world, Canvas, that is leveraged by millions in their learning endeavors.” (

    It seems to me Instructure hasn’t been promoting themselves lately as an open source platform or benefiting from open source collaboration over the past few years. One reason may be the decreased buzz over open source in higher ed. which may have peaked at the 2012 Educause Conference, and thus there is less marketing value in associating the brand with/as open source. Although another possibility is, because few institutions actually deploy the open source version nor is there much of a contributing community (I believe this is still true–evidence otherwise would be great to have), Instructure’s interest in open source is really around mitigating risk for their clients as opposed to the more traditional reasons for exploiting and open source development method.

    “But then when we started trying to sell the product, everyone kept saying, “You’re stuff is awesome, but you’re going to get bought six months from now and then we’ll be back where we were before.” Suddenly, open source became a crucial part of our business strategy because it addressed that concern perfectly.” (

    So was there much at InstructureCon14 from Instructure on open source?

  2. Phil Hill says:

    Patrick – I did not hear much about open source, and I agree with your observations both about de-emphasis (since 2012) and rationale (less buzz, few OS deployments). From a quick perusal of the individual sessions, I can find one open source session, with more on OER, open data, open courses (open is such a flexible word). This certainly lends credence to the OS as risk mitigation argument.

    If I’m missing something here at conference, someone else chime in.

  3. Here is what Michael had prognosticated about Instructure’s “open sourcyness” a few years ago:

    “There are no signs that the company [Instructure] is going to cede
    product development to an open source community or even cultivate a
    community in a serious way. On the one hand, I expect there to be some
    open source contributions to the project. The barriers to entry are
    low enough, and a Rails-based LMS is a very attractive project for
    computer science students and computer-savvy university faculty and
    staff to play with. (On a related note, I’m taking bets on how many
    hours it takes Chuck Severence to download Canvas and add Basic LTI
    support.) But I suspect that those contributions will tend to be
    enhancements and extensions around the edges, rather than changes to
    the core platform. How much that matters depends a lot on your
    perspective. ”

    Has that prognostication been realized? I’ll let Michael or Phil answer that. Although it lacks precision, one way to gauge how much activity there is around the open source version is to subscribe to [email protected]. There are at least occasional technical questions being posted on this forum that come from users who are trying to install or customize it.

  4. One indication that Instructure’s open source community isn’t robust is that AFAIK there hasn’t been any open source efforts to redress the Canvas mail system which has been a pain point for years and which even Instructure admitted was “broken”. User’s dissatisfaction are publically accessible in the Canvas ticketing system (cf. and Here’s how one dissatisfied user summed up the problem earlier this month:

    “My theory (and I’m not kidding) is that this is someone at Instructure’s “vision” of how communication ought to be handled. Sort of like that guy from Apple who insisted on leather bound covers for ebooks on iOS apps (skeuomorphism). The Apple guy got the boot – I’m not saying that should happen here. But could someone PLEASE listen to the hue and cry of actual users who, like myself, find the Inbox system HORRIBLE. There are multiple threads throughout this site with users pleading for a change.”

    Yet in spite of this endemic unhappiness among Canvas useres there are no open source initiatives that I know of that are attempting to contribute a solution to a problem that Instructure developers, for whatever reason, have been slow to fix on their own.

  5. As an instructional designer at Utah State University I love the “open sourcyness” of Canvas. My colleague Kenneth Larsen (@duniken) created custom tools for Canvas that we refer to as USU Tools or Kennethware. You can learn more about Kennethware here: and feel free search Twitter for the response to #Kennethware at #InstCon.

    Our team utilizes the Canvas API, and we have created a number of custom LTI integrations to manipulate Canvas to function the way we want. Although it may not be an official Canvas Community, we have quite a network of institutions that we share our code with and collaborate with to improve these tools. All of our tools are licensed as OER’s and accessible on our github:

    This has created a sense of community as other institutions have been willing to share their code for innovative tools and functions in Canvas as well. While Instructure may not be cultivating the community as originally intended, the community is thriving through back channels.

  6. pmasson says:

    Let me preface this by stating I am not offering any value statement around the quality of work USU is doing, the institutions that share code and collaborate, Kennethware or Canvas. I am sure that everyone involved with each of these groups are all working hard to increase access to education and improve the quality of the courses, content and technologies that support it.

    My area of interest is around, as Travis puts it, “open sourcyness.” A while back Michael and I put together “the ‘Ultimate’ Benefits of Open Source List” ( The point was to try to articulate those qualities (development and community behavior) and outputs (artifacts and interactions) that only can occur because of, and are only present in, open source development communities and projects.

    There has to be a reason that drives participation in open source initiatives. Those who choose to invest in the communities and technologies must see–and realize–some value. Understanding this value and how it is created and delivered helps both the adopters and the contributors.

    It helps the adopters by ensuring the project and community are authentically engaging in best practices to realize the full benefit of the open source model. If an adopting organization is assessing the quality of the software, it’s obviously helpful to be able to see the source code. Indeed, code review is commonly sited as a value of open source licensing. But it is also extremely valuable to see how the decision-making was undertaken that led to the development of the software. Operational and organizational transparency, the ability to participate in governance, direct input through development, etc. are also benefits of open source models, but not necessarily part of all organizations that release software with an open source license.

    Understanding the value of open source development models and how that value is created and delivered also helps the contributors to the project by ensuring their investments will actually further the project and community. If contributors don’t have direct input, and ideally the ability to set direction, previous investments and future interests may be pushed aside in favor of less qualified approaches defined by biased insiders.

    Looking at the “Ultimate” List, I think it is fair to say that these benefits can only take place in projects where open source development occurs (not just licensed as open source): these benefits are both the attributes and the requirements.

    Just because a set of tools developed around a core technology is open source (in all the best ways, i.e. both licensing and development), does not mean the core technology will realize the benefits of open source. While the core technology distributed with an open source license may legitimately call itself open source software it may not be taking advantage of all of the benefits of the open source development model. The license is simply the tool that enables a very successful development model–it is not the end point in and of itself. The true value of open source is realized through open source development models.

    I would point to OSCELOT ( OSCELOT is a community of campuses focused on creating open source licensed software and promoting open source development models to support and extend Blackboard’s learning management systems. All of their work is released with open source licenses, they develop against LTI and the Bb Building Blocks APIs, and they also promote (IMHO) excellent development practices. However, this does not mean that Blackboard Learn can be considered an open source platform or community. Again, I am not in anyway trying to degrade Blackboard, Bb Learn, the campuses that have chosen to deploy it, or the teaching and learning that occurs through it. My point is that open source licenses enable specific development practices which in turn provides benefits that result in real value. Other models may be valuable as well to many organizations–but they provide different benefits and thus different values.

    Another example I often point to to highlight the important difference between an open source licensed product and the organization that develops and manages that product, is around portals, specifically uPortal and LifeRay. The uPortal Steering Committee, “the governing body responsible for the strategic direction and operational oversight of the uPortal project,” is composed of two members elected by the Apereo membership, two members selected by the uPortal developers, one member appointed by the Steering Committee, and two members representing the Apereo board. Liferay, also distributed under an open source license, is led by a private corporation of founding partners “driving innovation for the benefit of enterprises around the world.” These two examples—representing a community versus a corporate approach—I believe highlights the ambiguity of “open sourceyness.” Again, both technologies are “open source software” but the benefits of the development models employed will provide different benefits and thus value to the participating organizations.

    For organizations to truly realize the value of open source software, they should engage with projects who emply open source development models enabled by open source licensing. My threshold may be higher than most, however I think it is important to be clear and consistent in the language and messages organizations use. If folks want to start calling projects, “open sourcey” that’s fine, then I’ll know how to calibrate my expectations in participation–and thus my interest in how companies are marketing themselves over time.

  7. Just as a matter of record I think it was my post that sparked use of the term “open sourcyness.” Sadly, having just done a google search, it seems to have been coined sometime in the past and by someone else. For instance one person uses it as follows: “Obama’s White House web gets all open sourcy.” Frankly, I was being pretty loosy-goosy in my choice of language. If pressed I probably couldn’t have said exactly why I chose to use it although in retrospect I think I was trying to convey that there is a spectrum of open source models some of which are more open then others. Or maybe I just meant to convey that the term open source has been so corrupted by open washiness (uh, sorry — open washing) that it might be time to move on to other terms that have less multi-valent meanings. Open source, of course, is serious business as Patrick’s post makes clear. I hope my turn at being flip doesn’t call that too much into question. 🙂

  8. Let me preface this by stating I am not offering any value to the high threshold of Patrick Masson. I’m sure his intent was to be neither condescending nor narcissistic.

    My previous comment was not only playing off of Luke’s reference to “open sourcyness” but also in reference to Jared Stein at #InstCon talking about the problems with “lossyness” education as part of the product team general session (

    While semantics and overall “jerk-ery” are obviously important to Mr. pmasson I just want to point out that I was simply attempting to answer the question he posed in his original comment. While there wasn’t much mention of open source per se, Instructure did embrace the existence of #Kennethware as evidenced by Instructure tweeting about #Kennethware several times during the conference.

    I mostly just wanted to point out that this was my first comment on, and this will be my last as I am obviously below the caliber of the community here.

  9. Phil Hill says:

    Just as a reminder, our commenting policy is that “Comments are invited but should be topical and civil” (see This comment thread is certainly “topical”, and the discussion around the spectrum of what is open source, what is the value of the open source community models, and how does this apply to Instructure, is valuable. The examples of tool development and others are also useful.

    The “civil” part is pushing the envelope, however. There is no need to denigrate others, directly or indirectly, to keep a real discussion going – where there is value even where people disagree on a topic. Please keep comments civil.

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