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U North Carolina Business School Shifting to Canvas

After an expansive "conversation" among faculty, students, and staff, the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School has decided to adopt Instructure Canvas as its next learning management system (LMS). The business school decided to act after the wider campus chose to shift to Sakai from Blackboard. The school's undergraduate and master of accounting programs both used Blackboard, which the institution will be decommissioning in December 2012; but faculty in its other programs relied on a custom course portal.

"We said, 'Let's step back and understand our needs before we decide to go in that direction," said Susan Kellogg, associate dean of information and technology and a lecturer within the accounting program.

To understand its options, the school put together committees with faculty, program administrators, and students. They worked separately and together to develop a set of requirements and do an initial sorting of products through online demonstrations. One major criterion was that the school wanted a hosted solution. "We're a rather small shop," Kellogg said. "If we didn't have to, we didn't want to run the servers."

Finalists were brought in for onsite demos. "It was pretty unanimous. It really came down to, Canvas was the right solution for us. And universities aren't typically unanimous on anything," Kellogg admitted with a laugh.

It was the intuitiveness of the interface that sold people, she explained. People found other products "too clicky"--requiring too many mouse clicks to get to the capabilities. "Canvas has a nice interface to it, it's intuitive, but it also has a richer feel to it. It uses more multimedia, and it's incorporating that from the get-go."

One feature Kellogg is intrigued by is the ease with which faculty will be able to incorporate video into their student feedback process. With 60 students in a class and multiple assignments to grade from each, faculty are pushed for time, and the use of Canvas could help reduce that pressure. "To try to explain to a student, 'Hey, you were close, but this is what I was going after--you didn't quite get there...' sometimes it's so much easier to say that than to write it and convey exactly the intonation. I think it's [going to result in] a much better experience for the students in the end. It's kind of odd, but I think they're going to have a closer relationship with the faculty member with an online tool."

Another requirement high on the faculty must-have list was a "mega-matrix" to display all course assignments on a master calendar. "You can go to the calendar and see for any given week and any given day what assignments are due," Kellogg explained. "The students live and die by that mega-matrix. One of faculty's first concerns was, where's the calendar and does that overlay with an Outlook calendar? Students can do an overlay which allows a live sync with Google Calendar or an Outlook calendar. They can look at their club schedules, and personal schedules along with their assignment schedule."

The business school was also impressed by how willing Canvas was to respond to customer requirements. For example, one of the reasons why the graduate programs required a course portal in the first place was because of the way it does sections, short, intense courses on specific topics that make up the core classes. A faculty member will teach five sections of the class concurrently. Some assignments will be for all of his or her sections and others will be for a single section, to address, for example, a discussion that took place in a specific class. Faculty wants the process of posting to be as streamlined as possible. As a result of those unique needs, Kellogg said, the school is working closely with Instructure, "to help them understand the business school environment, because it is a little bit different."

Kellogg credits the faculty LMS committee with helping to make pending change more palatable to their colleagues in each academic area. They were "wonderful," she said, "about going back to the faculty and saying, 'Here are the recordings of the demos, and here's what we think,' and getting feedback. They were great."

During an all-hands faculty meeting, Canvas was demoed. Kellogg said she expected a litany of complaints about the coming change, but instead, "Everybody walked away and they were smiling."

Canvas will be used by all of the school's programs with the exception of its online master of business, which uses an interface developed in concert with program partner 2tor. Kellogg estimated that about 40 percent of faculty will be using Canvas in their courses starting in fall 2012. Others will remain on their chosen platform and eventually have to choose between Canvas and Sakai, she added. "We will make a decision on when to decommission the course portal based on how well things are going with Canvas."

The process for selecting a new LMS began in August or September 2011, Kellogg noted, but it was time well spent. "Having a school conversation does take time, but it's so valuable," she said. "As it is now, our school is on the same page with this, so consequently, we're all moving to the same goal. The wider and more inclusive that conversation can be, the better."

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