Tear Down This Wall(ed Garden): Canvas App Center to Offer End User Control Over Apps

Instructure took another step this past week to establish Canvas as a true learning platform, moving beyond the traditional bounds of an LMS. The company announced the upcoming release of the Canvas App Center, scheduled for availability at the same time as their annual users confer in June, which will allow end-user (read faculty and students) integration of third-party apps.

wrote about the trend of the market moving towards learning platforms last year.

In my opinion, when we look back on market changes, 2011 will stand out as the year when the LMS market passed the point of no return and changed forever. What we are now seeing are some real signs of what the future market will look like, and the actual definition of the market is changing. We are going from an enterprise LMS market to a learning platform market.

What I mean by ‘enterprise LMS’ is the legacy model of the LMS as a smaller, academically-facing version of the ERP. This model was based on monolithic, full-featured software systems that could be hosted on-site or by a managed hosting provider. A ‘learning platform’, by contrast, does not contain all the features in itself and is based on cloud computing – multi-tenant, software as a service (SaaS). [emphasis added]

The key idea is that the platform is built to easily add and support multiple applications. The apps themselves will come  from edu-apps.org, a website that launched this past week. There are already more than 100 apps available, with the apps built on top of the Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) specification from IMS global learning consortium. There are educational apps available (e.g. Khan Academy, CourseSmart, Piazza, the big publishers, Merlot) as well as general-purpose tools (e.g. YouTube, Dropbox, WordPress, Wikipedia).

The apps themselves are wrappers that pre-integrate and give structure access to each of these tools. Since LTI is the most far-reaching ed tech specification, most of the apps should work on other LMS systems. The concept is that other LMS vendors will also sign on the edu-apps site, truly making them interoperable. Whether that happens in reality remains to be seen.

What the App Center will bring once it is released is the simple ability for Canvas end-users to add the apps themselves. If a faculty adds an app, it will be available for their courses, independent of whether any other faculty use that set up. The same applies for students who might, for example, prefer to use Dropbox to organize and share files rather than native LMS capabilities.

Not a New Idea, Just Taking Concept to Application

The idea of having the ability to easily integrate multiple applications into a learning environment is not new. SUNY Learning Network (SLN) was working on the Learning Management Operation System (LMOS) concept back in the mid 2000s (where Michael was one of the key drivers behind this initiative), but the LMOS implementation did not pan out. Patrick Masson, another key player in the initiative, went on to UMassOnline after SLN and has been instrumental in creation of the Needs Identification Framework for Technology Innovation (NIFTI) to enable local adoption of learning tools. The general desire to support easy integration of apps also lead to the LTI specification.

What has not been available, however, is the empowerment of end users to make these decisions without going through the IT department or LMS system administrators.

IMS global is also talking about the need for an educational app store, as described in Rob Abel’s blog last week.

For those of us that have been attending Learning Impact the last several years (and, yes, don’t forget to sign up right now for this year’s because space is getting short!), we already know what the future of the “LMS” is (and that the term LMS is a bad name for what it has been or what it will be).  We also know what the general roadmap for digital learning resources is and how this evolution is intertwined with the evolution of the LMS. That’s because the LMS is evolving into a disaggregation of features and resources that come together easily and seamlessly for the needs of teachers and students.

The post also announced the IMS plans to support development of an app store to be available in a few years.

Can universities and school districts control their own online “store” of educational content and applications for easy access and use by students and faculty? Yes they can – and they will in only a few short years. Will such an “app store” be based on Apple, Google or Amazon?  No it will not.

The “take it or leave it” proprietary vertical integration strategies of consumer-oriented providers of digital books and applications, that maximizes their ability to create revenues from sales of such resources, have left educational institutions with a conundrum. Do we dare dictate to our students and teachers a “preferred platform?” Of course, the answer to that question needs to be “no.”

What is not apparent, however, is whether the Canvas App Center will be seen as friend or foe with the IMS effort. The Canvas effort will be ready years before the proposed IMS effort, it is offered for free, the apps are built on LTI, and the API for the app is itself open-source. But . . . it will be run by a vendor.

Update: Clarification provided by Rob Abel here in the comments. Short answer – IMS does not see Canvas App Center as a threat but as a very positive development; there is concern over language of “LTI compliant” apps that are not cross-platform compatible.

Who’s In Control?

The closest vendor-based effort to the Canvas App Center is probably xpLor from Blackboard, which Michael described in this post. This cloud-based platform is not technically an app store model, but it does enable standards-based content and applications to be shared with the core LMS from a cloud-based platform. xpLor appears to be focused more on packages of content, grouped learning material and communities of interest. Despite some of the similarities, xpLor focuses more on institutional decision-making and system administrator control, whereas the Canvas App Center focuses more on easy access to consumer-based tools for faculty, students or system administrators.

From the press release:

“We want to tear down the walled garden that has plagued the LMS market,” Instructure co-founder and CPO Brian Whitmer said. “Third party integrations have existed, but they’ve required the IT department to make them work. With Canvas App Center, we want to let anyone install an app with one click and begin personalizing their learning experience with these tools.”

Tired of Waiting

While the core concept is not new, and as seen by IMS plans is not unique, the significance of the Canvas App Center and the corresponding edu-apps site is in making the idea much more of a reality. Brian Whitmer created a slideshare with audio that gives more detail on the announcement, including a description of Instructure’s frustration that educational technology is still not an ecosystem. I recommend the slideshare to people wanting to get more of a UI-based explanation of the concept.


This attitude exhibited by Instructure – focus on consumer-based tools and desire to  implement basic concepts in a quick fashion – matches their pedigree as a venture-capital backed company with a startup mentality.

I believe that the App Center will significantly push forward the adoption and importance of LTI, but it is not clear whether the benefits will only affect Canvas customers or actually push the LMS field further into a learning platform market. As with all pre-announcements, a great deal of the impact will depend on the actual implementation of the new software.

One other factor to watch will be whether Canvas institutions can (or should) adjust to the paradigm shift of enabling faculty and student adoption of pre-integrated tools. Concerns over data security, standardization and loss of control could cause some schools to take a cautious stance towards the app center.

Additional Reading

And now for this week’s version of “do you notice which publications are not covering this story”:

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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.
This entry was posted in Guest Bloggers, Higher Education, LMOS, Notable Posts, Openness. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Tear Down This Wall(ed Garden): Canvas App Center to Offer End User Control Over Apps

  1. Rob Abel says:

    Hi Michael- Just to clarify, IMS is not trying to build its own app store. Our job is to enable any supplier or institution to build an app store based on open standards. In fact, we are aware of several other suppliers doing similar things – but Instructure has been the most prominent (so far).

    So, IMS doesn’t see what Instructure doing as a threat. In fact we think it is great – because it is a step in continuing to open up the market and achieve plug and play, 1-click integrations. But, you will be hearing about other competing efforts in the coming days, weeks, months.

    The app store project IMS has launched is for interested parties to build a reference implementation to help work out certain issues and further accelerate this approach in the market. As the IMS press release points out, we have a number of universities that want to cooperate on this – and the project will include peer-to-peer cooperation between app stores.

    The only thing IMS is potentially concerned about is suppliers claiming they have apps that are “LTI compliant” when they really are just custom Javascript integrated apps that aren’t cross platform. Unfortunately, Instructure does have quite a few of those listed on their site – which is potentially confusing to the market. In other words, many of the listed apps that will only work with Instructure and are not really certified to be LTI compliant. That’s why we have our certified app catalog and certification site – so that there is a source of truth on what has really tested to be cross platform.

    But, all in all this is a VERY positive development in the next generation of the LMS as you describe!

    -Rob Abel

  2. Phil Hill says:

    Rob, thanks for clarification. I have added an update linking to your comment within the post itself.

  3. carl says:

    Any instructor can use any Web 2.0 technology or resource by using embed codes, which I have been doing for several years, so what’s the big deal?

    Also, do you really believe that an institution is going to give up “institutional control” and permit or allow instructors to just plug tools into their course management systems?

    Think of the nightmare this opens for supporting the CMS. Each instructor plugging in whatever they want into the CMS; a user encounters and problem viewing the resource and calls/emails the help desk; now what? Will the support desk/staff be able to address numerous “outside” tools? That was the reason for the CMS in the first place, i.e., to ELIMINATE MULTIPLE POINTS OF FAILURE! So, now we’re back to 1997, deja vu all over again!

  4. Phil Hill says:

    Carl, I suspect there is a small minority of faculty willing to use embed codes to show Web 2.0 tools within an LMS. Further, embed codes do not integrate the information (course lists, grading, potentially activity). For these two reasons I see the App Center approach as increasing adoption of integrated tools, as well as opening up new possibilities due to interconnection of tools. That’s the big deal IMO.

    Do I believe that an institution will give up institutional control? That’s a key question and one that we should watch. I do think this will be a struggle, and I could easily see some Canvas customers wanting to disable this capability. Not knowing what percentage of them will do so, I think this is a ‘wait and see’ situation.

    You do bring up a very good point about help desk support – Canvas better make the App Center and integrations as error-free as possible. If tools just work within Canvas, the help desk issues will cause IT staff to fret, but institutions will eventually move on due to faculty demand. If there are significant errors or problems, then you are right that help desks will have trouble supporting and the pushback on the App Center will grow.

    Are we back to 1997? I think the world has changed significantly. Consumer tools and expectations, social networking, cloud services, prevalence of online education or just online tools to support f2f, general dissatisfaction with walled-garden LMS approach – these are significant changes since 1997. Perhaps the biggest one, however, is LTI. We did not have specifications back then that allowed near-seamless integration between tools. LTI changes the game.

  5. Re: Rob’s not-really-LTI-compliant comment, we do have a bunch of apps that aren’t IMS certified, but we’re making sure to label which ones are and aren’t actually certified. I’ve personally written a bunch of apps that aren’t certified, and I think that’s what Rob is talking about when he mentions custom JavaScript apps, but all but one of those apps work across platforms and adhere to the LTI spec to my knowledge, they’re just not certified. There was a misunderstanding a few months ago about those apps, but I think it’s resolved at this point.

    In the next little while I’ll hopefully be adding functionality to the edu-apps site to crowdsource the question, “does this app work in your LMS?” or something similar to help with this as well.

    The control question is an interesting one. Like you said carl, teachers (and students, technically) can already go outside the campus system and embed links or resources to outside sites and services. We work closely with our schools to make sure we’re not implementing something they can’t swallow, and many of them already understand the ecosystem of today’s web and know they have to find a comfortable balance with our without an app center. This just brings to topic some attention.

  6. @Carl

    I’m a little confused by your comment. You begin by saying “teachers already do this” then complain that it could be a problem with support. So what happens when your embed codes do not work? Do students not call the helpdesk?

    Also as Phil correctly pointed out, an embed code isn’t necessarily an integration. Yes the YouTube LTI can been seen as something less amazing because it just adds a search YouTube button onto the text editor. For some of us that’s not a big deal since I know Canvas can just take a URL from YouTube and automatically embed it (which is awesome). However if I’m a 55+ year old returning student I may not know how to do that, and if I don’t see a big YouTube button in my text editor I’m going to call the teacher to get help which the teacher shouldn’t have to deal with.

    The advantage of the learning platform and this App Center vs. a traditional L.M.S. is IT departments (hopefully) won’t have to try to please every single learner and instructor at their institution with their system choice. My school for example has spent years evaluating and eventually choosing a new L.M.S. 90% of the focus was on what tools it came with. If we had more open learning platforms we wouldn’t have to worry about it. We also learned that pleasing everyone is impossible from “this system doesn’t have enough color” to “I don’t like that it doesn’t have (insert function). Our list of complaints was never ending. No system will ever be perfect so I believe it’s better to have a platform that people can mold into what they want. I believe this is what Moodle and Sakai set out to do, and what Canvas does. Canvas gets a little more of a nod since they take care of a lot of the config that causes that “openess” to become daunting.

    While I agree to a point that there needs to be a lot of oversight regarding the LTI integrations one of the beautiful aspects of LTI is how simple they are to setup. My one concern right now is that some of these LTI’s come with a cost or additional fee in order to setup. I’m hoping the list will indicate those to faculty so our IT department doesn’t get a bill!

  7. Mark Leuba says:

    Good article, thank you. I think as you seem to, that this is a positive for the market. However I see this Instructure emulating the Moodle model, more than pioneering it. Core Moodle developed and managed by Martin Dougiamas’ team at the .org, with community developed, managed and steered plugins and modules; seems very analogous to me. I do think (hope) it will be a shot in the arm to stimulate more innovation. The IMS LTI foundation in a very strong move in my opinion. It’s all good.

  8. carl says:

    Missing in this is the fact that LTI is supported by vendors like Blackboard, Sakai, etc. Let’s not miss the forest for the trees.

  9. Carl no one is arguing Instructure invented the LTI, nor are they exclusively using it. What they are doing is creating a space where LTI tools can be found, and curated, and commented upon.

    In my experience with Blackboard (I’ve been a student user, a teacher with it, and now am a system admin) LTI tools are heavily downplayed in favor of the proprietary building block. Building blocks are installs which even the company admits can make your instance unstable because of the infinite amount of configurations. These are also set to be turned on at the system level meaning everyone has access to the tools. So as a music teacher I want the Noteflight building block but now every course at the school will see it. You add 5-10 building blocks to your instance and you quickly have a button filled mess on your hands. Not to mention even going to Blackboard’s site to find a block is a jumbled mess.You also cannot comment on a block so if you know it breaks SP9 hotfix 11 you can’t communicate that out to other users on their site. I cannot comment on Sakai because my school has never been a Sakai campus.

    You also missed the giant paragraph in the article that says this site isn’t Canvas Exclusive:
    The apps themselves are wrappers that pre-integrate and give structure access to each of these tools. Since LTI is the most far-reaching ed tech specification, most of the apps should work on other LMS systems. The concept is that other LMS vendors will also sign on the edu-apps site, truly making them interoperable. Whether that happens in reality remains to be seen.

  10. Phil Hill says:

    Mark, good point about Moodle emulation, although Canvas is taking it a step or two further with the no-coding aspect of the App Center. I’ve heard that the Moodle community is involved / using the edu-apps.org tools, so I would not be surprised to see Moodle advances in this area soon. That’s good for the community, if it happens.

    Shaun, I agree with your points – I guess I have to on the ones where you quote me :} The other aspect of App Center that is significant is putting the tool integration in the end users’ hands and not forcing it to go through system administrators. I’m sure we’ll see cases where institutions and sys admins will not allow end users to configure, but there will soon be an option for both to happen.

  11. Stephen Vickers says:

    The presence of sites which are described as LTI App Stores raises in my mind the question of whether there is a commonly agreed definition of what an “LTI App” is. I am not sure this is the case.

    For me, an LTI App (or LTI Tool Provider) is characterised by:
    1. The Tool Provider issues a unique key and secret to each LTI Tool Consumer to enable access.
    2. The Tool Provider has an endpoint which is capable of receiving and validating LTI launch requests.
    3. The response made by the Tool Provider would vary according to the context/resource link/user/role data provided in the launch request.

    The nature of the web application provided by the tool provider does not matter; it may deliver content, an activity, or something else. It does not have to be IMS certified or even capable of being IMS certified (since certification places additional expectations on tool providers).

    Some of the apps on the Edu Apps site fit within this defintiion, but taking the YouTube app as an example, I am not convinced all do. Does the connection to YouTube require a unique consumer key and secret? Are these issued by YouTube? Does YouTube accept LTI launch requests? Is context/resource link/user/role data being passed to YouTube? Does the response from the launch request change according to the data being passed? If not, what does this site mean by an “app built on LTI”?

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