Learning Management Systems, or LMS, is a web-based environment that provides a virtual space for instructors to deliver online course materials to students. It has various teaching tools for collaboration, management and reporting, and makes interaction between students-to-students and student-to-instructor an easier task. The majority of higher-education institutions in the country have one. The University of Utah currently uses WebCT.
Most students and faculty know exactly what WebCT is when it’s mentioned. Some have simply just heard of its name. Others don’t like it too much and would rather do without it.
For those who don’t find the name too familiar, WebCT is an online virtual learning environment system owned by Blackboard that is used in higher-education institutions; it creates an online community where students and instructors can come together outside of the classroom. The platform includes tools, such as discussion boards, mail systems, live chat and class content, including documents and Web links. For a long time, WebCT was the world’s first and most successful course management system. During the 15 years it has been available to the public, WebCT has been used by over 10 million students in over 80 countries.
Since its launch in 1996 at the 5th International World Wide Web Conference in Paris, WebCT strived to improve student satisfaction and academic education resources through Web-based course tools, hence the name. In 2002, WebCT creator Murray Goldberg resigned from his company president position, and in 2006, the platform was acquired by then rival Blackboard.
Over the years, WebCT has been at the heart of e-learning for many colleges and universities, including the University of Utah. However, its glory days are over. WebCT is being discontinued. Blackboard will no longer support it, and the University of Utah’s license with WebCT will expire in June 2012. Over the past year, all of the higher-education institutions in Utah have gotten together to decide what will become the state’s next Learning Management System.
UEN, the Utah Education Network, has made its choice. The replacement for WebCT as the statewide Learning Management Systems for Utah colleges and universities will be Canvas, the new system from Instructure – a privately owned company right here in Utah.
Canvas was discovered, believe it or not, inside a classroom. Brian Whitmer and Devlin Daily drew out the idea for Canvas as a project assignment for their entrepreneurship course at Brigham Young University. Their professor, Josh Coates, now founder and CEO of Instructure, asked his students to think of the worst software that existed, and then how to make it better.
Whitmer and Daily answered with WebCT because of its lack to stay updated with the latest technology interface, and came up with Canvas as the better solution. Last year Instructure – developer of Canvas – raised $1.7 million and got to work on the new idea. Instructure now has 20 employees and are working with 26 educational institutions across of the country (http://techcrunch.com/2011/01/31/instructure-blackboard-universities-coates.)
Coates was quoted in The Chronicle News saying, “I don’t consider what we’ve done at Instructure rocket science. But it feels like it because we’re working in the context of the Stone Age,” Coates said.
It’s time for the veteran LMS to step down. There’s a new player on the team. And although it may be a newbie, it certainly isn’t a rookie, U. officials say.
“We had to make a change to something else, and either go with Blackboard Learn, the next generation product, or look at other alternatives,” said Scott Allen, UEN’s Learning Service Administrator, “and that’s what we chose to do.”
UEN is a consortium of public education partners that provides several services to K-12 schools and districts, higher-education institutions and public libraries in Utah. UEN’s main role with Utah’s Learning Management Systems is providing Internet connectivity and interactive videoconferencing services while hosting and supporting the LMS. During the transition to Canvas from WebCT, UEN will continue to act as host and provider of support on Canvas for all the public higher-education institutions in the state.
Allen says the veteran software served Utah universities well over the years, but it has now become an outdated product.
“Since WebCT was acquired by Blackboard several years ago the focus has been on developing the next generation Blackboard product,” Allen said, “but very little development has been put in the software.”
“Excited” was the word Allen uses to describe his feelings moving into Canvas, which is said to offer new tools that will make teaching and participating in online courses a better experience for both instructors and students.
What Canvas Can Do
The biggest change instructors and students can expect is a simpler and more intuitive interface with Canvas. Instructors who will teach using Canvas will most likely find tasks, such as grading assignments and communicating with students, more easy and will take less time than it did when using WebCT. Instructors will also enjoy the ease that Canvas allows for incorporating media files in their courses.
“Faculty and students will both appreciate the compatibility of Canvas with a wide variety of Web browsers and the ability to use Canvas on mobile devices,” Allen said.
Students will also be able to use Canvas with the ability to be notified of course events via text message or other means via configurable communications preferences, including Facebook, Twitter, Skype and other social networking tools that many currently seem to use.
“Canvas is a new product that doesn’t rely on legacy code and uses the latest Web technologies to provide tools for teaching and learning,” Allen said, describing the new software.
Canvas will be released to the public as an open-source product. This means anyone can create a course in Canvas for free.
Most software bought or downloaded online only come as complied ready-to-run software – what you see is what you get. The actual program code from the developer, the source code, has to be run through a compiler that translates the source code into a form the computer can understand. This makes it difficult to modify the complied software and nearly impossible to see how developers created the program (http://allos.org/what-does-open-source-mean.html.)
With Canvas being open source, the source code is included with the compiled version and can be modified or customized. Developers of the software say allowing others who may be interested in modifying or customizing the source code will, in the long term, make it more useful and error-free. (http://mfeldstein.com/instructure-goes-open-source)
And if anything is to be modified or customized, it’s the grade books.
Grade books are probably the first thing instructors and students look for when exploring an LMS. But as there are so many different instructors, there are so many different ways these instructors grade their students’ work. Some instructors may choose to grade using points, letter grade, percentages, or a mixture of all three. Some will want to drop the lowest test score, and others may want to grade on a curve. There are instructors who give assignments that are not graded, and some who will want to use rubrics to determine scores. Then there are those instructors who will go the extra mile and want to provide feedback with grades. Without an open source, all of these different instructors will have to resort to grading with the same monotone way; the way WebCT used to grade.
Help is Available to Learn Canvas
“WebCT was a great system five years ago and helped thousands of students get through their classes,” said Cory Stokes, Director of Technology Assisted Curriculum Center (TACC) at the University of Utah. “But its core code was getting old and had many features added over the years. In some ways it became so big that it was clunky to use.”
TACC provides LMS support at the University of Utah. Just as a librarian helps you navigate through book shelves, TACC helps instructors and students navigate through LMS systems.
According to Stokes, Canvas has a more “modern feel” compared to WebCT. Where WebCT used “older technologies,” Canvas offers Web 2.0 features which will make it easy to navigate around the “well-designed platform.”
“Canvas is all about enabling communication and promoting collaboration by making it easy to connect teachers to students or students to students,” Stokes said. “It does not have every feature WebCT had, yet. But what it does have will make all of WebCT’s features irrelevant.”
With the new change in LMS, instructors and students may feel nervous about the change and how it will affect them. Stokes assures the change won’t take more than 30 minutes to adjust to. Students and faculty will find a class environment ready to expand to fit the way they want to interact.
“For a few years we’ve been showing people how to work around the weaknesses of WebCT,” Stokes said. “In Canvas, they’ll find a system that gets out of the way and enables more natural connections between people.”
UEN introduced Canvas to Utah colleges and Universities during the summer 2011 semester. Only a selected few departments will experience Canvas at a time, to gradually ease the way to a complete university-wide usage on the new LMS come summer 2012. Instructors and students alike, who may have trouble with the new system, can visit the TACC center on campus for help, or can visit Instructure Canvas’ support page online.