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.
I 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.
And now for this week’s version of “do you notice which publications are not covering this story”:
- PR Neswire (official press release), “Instructure Announces Canvas App Center”
- TechCrunch, “Instructure Launches App Center To Let Teachers, Students Install Third-Party Apps Across Learning Platforms”
- CampusTechnology, “Canvas App Center Brings 1-Click Access to LMS Add-ons”
- InformationWeek, “Canvas LMS Maker Launches Open Education Apps Directory”
- PandoDaily, “Instructure launches open Canvas App Store to turn education into an ecosystem”