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Instructure Rethinks LMS Messaging

Shortly, Instructure's cloud-based and open source learning management system (LMS) will include a new messaging feature that replaces the standard LMS inbox. When it's available later this month, Canvas Conversations is intended to provide the user with flexibility for how messages will be received and sent. The preview of the new function came during the three-year-old company's first user conference, which took place this week in Utah, drawing about 200 attendees. At the same event, Instructure said it has grown its customer base to 56 institutions from 26 schools, as reported in February 2011.

"In traditional LMS messaging, there's this idea of the inbox; but for all intents and purposes, it's just another e-mail client," said Brian Whitmer, co-founder and vice president of products for the company. "You had to log in to see anything--to see if you had any messages, to reply to anybody. It had an interface like e-mail, but it wasn't as good as other e-mail clients. It was difficult and clunky and never got used."

The idea behind Conversations, he noted, "is to build a messaging system focused on education rather than copying e-mail." The student and instructor can specify how messages will be sent out and received--whether by e-mail client, cell phone, social alerts, or texting. The user won't have to log into the LMS to respond.

The feature adds the notion of a "group conversation." "This is targeted more at students," Whitmer said. "It's a way for you to start a private conversation with more than one person as a thread. Everyone sees all the message from everyone else. You can invite more people to the thread. You can have this conversation around the things you need to talk about, then it just gets thrown away when you're done with the topic."

Conversations will maintain a history, including comments submitted by the instructor on homework submissions and messages from all participants in a group conversation. Those who partake of a conversation can come from multiple courses.

The new function will also address the problem of needing to communicate with classmates whose names may be unknown. "Sometimes you have people in your course you need to send a message to, and you don't remember their name. In addition to showing a list of users, we also show the course and group names," Whitmer explained. "You can drill in to get a full roster and select people based on their names or avatars or the groups they're in. This is one of the ways we're making sure it works for education."

The company said it would also release a mobile edition of Canvas specifically for students. The first version, expected in the third quarter of 2011, will be for Apple iOS devices, with an Android version planned for the "future." Instructure already offers a mobile edition of its SpeedGrader for instructors. Mobile functionality will allow the student to view grades, participate in discussions, and do private messaging.

Among previously unannounced customers for Canvas are the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania; Rider University in Lawrenceville, NJ; and Bay Path College in Longmeadow, MA.

The reasons schools are choosing Canvas, declared Whitmer, "have to do with user experience. It's not because we have more features. It's not because we have more traction in the market. It's because consistently what we've heard is that the user experience is better."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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