Monday, July 11, 2011

You Say You Want a Revolution....

I'm finishing my 11th week teaching in the Canvas system. As an instructor who has taught extensively in Blackboard, Moodle and Sakai here are my current impressions of the product and the larger community:

Just when you had given up all hope that Utah’s hotbed of digital innovation would produce an LMS of your liking, along comes Instructure’s Canvas a system that promises to rock the industry off of it’s clay feet. Plenty of people have already reported about Instructure’s eminently usable interface and my own experience teaching a course in it over this summer semester is something I want to talk about a bit later.

But first a bit about Utah as that hotbed of LMS innovation – it’s actually true. After all, we’re the progenitor of Novell and Wordperfect as well as plenty of more recent startups. So if you suffer from some sort of reverse provincialism – thinking that really cool LMS innovations are only going to come from the coasts, or from Silicon Valley or from cities or universities with a reputation for a more cosmopolitan orientation, the Instructure product will lift that veil quickly. Use it as I have for only a few days and I guarantee that it will knock your teaching socks off.

This has not been easy for me to admit, because for years now I’ve been using and promoting Sakai and Moodle. I’ve been doing so because of their open, global communities and the promise that involvement with those communities would benefit my own university’s commitment to global outreach. Back in the summer of 2008, when Instructure made it’s earliest pitches to me at TTIX it seemed implausible that a more locally situated organization, with a much smaller body of developers who were all concentrated in one area could compete with that value proposition.

And yet on a functional level, it’s clearly competing. As Michael Feldstein has noted, Canvas has streamlined the number of clicks it takes to work in the gradebook – that bane of almost all LMSs. But I don’t need to repeat those accolades here. What I find most impressive about Canvas are two things: A design that looks spare but (like a very good waiter) presents functionality when and where you need it. And a design that draws students toward the activities they need to do in a course even when you might be a little forgetful. In this regard, Canvas is sort of like an executive secretary on speed. Once you’ve constructed and scheduled your assignments, Canvas will present prompts and course views that will keep even the spacier students on track and informed about what needs to be done, the consequences of not doing it, as well as the larger learning outcomes that are associated with each activity in the course. Do you get tired (or sometimes forget) to remind students of upcoming assignments or ones that might be past due? If you do Canvas will remind students for you. And if you sometimes wonder whether students understand or take into account the relative weight of different activities, Canvas presents easily accessible gradebook views that drive this message home. And for students who actually work prospectively, Canvas automatically generates a calendar with the course’s activities so that they can think about the course’s various commitments in the context of their other lives. Finally, for students who aren’t just grade grubbers or scheduling fanatics, but who are actually thinking intellectually about the course, Canvas allows them to view a list of learning outcomes and to grasp how those learning outcomes are aligned with the various activities in the course.

While there is plenty to gush about in Canvas (and if you want to participate in the gushing subscribe to the listserv by sending an email to : or come to Instructure's upcoming August conference in cool Snowbird, Utah) this isn’t to say that I don’t have a few reservations about moving to Canvas . I’ve worked for a long time with Sakai and Moodle and have developed many collegial relationships in those communities. And right now I’m participating in an NEH grant that came my way in part because of the social and professional relationships that I’ve developed with those organizations.

So while there are plenty of nice things to celebrate in the Canvas product, this hardly means that we should all of a sudden forget these other associations or gloss over all of the contributions that these other communities have made, and are continuing to make to the development and refinement of the LMS.

It is in this context that I lament Instructure’s use of the iconography of war and insurrection to suggest what is going on in the LMS landscape or the relationship between the various players. It’s best instantiated by their release a couple months ago of the following video which is a takeoff of Apple’s 1984:

To some extent this is forgivable; Canvas really is the upstart David to Blackboard’s entrenched Goliath. And it would be nice to see a bit of Blackboard’s near monopolistic hold on the market eroded (or in the parlance of the day, “disrupted”) by Canvas innovation. It’s after-all what Steve Jobs was trying to do 30 years ago when 1984 was released and I don’t know anyone who seriously begrudges that marketing campaign. But one thing that distinguishes the Canvas-Blackboard narrative from the Apple-PC scene is that there are also a number of strong open source players in the LMS market including Sakai and Moodle. These organizations, in terms of their governance structures and their disposition to transparency and openness are at least as revolutionary as Instructure is. Moreover, while Instructure presents itself as something entirely new, one would have to put on some serious blinders not to see the many aspects of the product which are derivative of prior art. A good example of this is their modules tool which is an obvious copy of Moodle’s. The product, despite the marketing campaign and the gush, has not emerged ex nihilo nor is it something entirely new. More accurately, it’s a refinement of prior art in a field that many claim has largely been commoditized.

I suspect, as Canvas gains market share (which as early adopters of their product I and my institution seriously want) the adversarial nature of their marketing can be toned down and the intellectual debt which all of these LMS initiatives owe to each other can be more openly acknowledged. After all, it’s universities to whom these organizations ultimately cater and it’s from their feedback that these organizations learn in which way to innovate. And in so far as universities espouse the ideal of openness, proper attribution and spirited collaboration one would think that our LMS partners would ultimately align behind those values as well. Here’s hoping they will.


  1. Luke,
    Thank you for the considered thoughts. It is refreshing to hear the perspective, so true, that the "innovations" used to compete might better be viewed as derivative works of the community. I think this new wave of products will be good to help us refocus and reprioritize. Good luck on your new journey.

    Mark Leuba

  2. Thanks for an insightful article on Canvas and your honest evaluation of its strengths and weaknesses in as far as Moodle and other LMS like Sakai are concerned. I find Instructure Canvas' Web2.0 features and ease-of-use of the Gradebook light years ahead of the competition. But I love Moodle because of the PHP customisation that my creativity feeds on. By the way, what are your thoughts on Haiku LMS?
    Frankie Kam