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New LMS from Instructure Goes Open Source

A Utah-based company has fired a warning shot across the bow of learning management system (LMS) companies, including market leader Blackboard, with the announcement that it's turning its new LMS into open source. Instructure has publicly released the source code to its Canvas learning management system, which was launched in 2010. Currently, 26 institutions have signed contracts with Instructure, including 17 within the Utah Education Network. The company said that more than 100 other schools are currently evaluating its application.

"We're excited to offer an alternative to the current LMS options," said Josh Coates, Instructure's CEO. "We want to open up the market to allow for innovation so teachers and students can be at the forefront of technology."

Canvas, a cloud-based application, provides standard course management as well as newer features, such as learning outcomes, peer review, migration tools, e-portfolios, screen sharing, video chat, and rubrics. The SpeedGrader puts a video, blog, document, or spreadsheet into a format viewable in a Web browser, allowing the teacher to grade the material and make comments.

Above all, the product is being promoted as having an open architecture. "We don't think we're going to predict what the next big shift is for the Internet, so we've built an architecture that's easy to plug into," said Coates. "Historically, LMSs have been walled gardens. They've been closed and monolithic in their architecture. From day one, Instructure has been designed to be open."

As a start, Canvas integrates with Web services such as Google Docs, Google Calendar, SMS, Facebook, Twitter, and RSS. When a teacher changes the date of a quiz, for example, the system automatically sends a text message to students who want notifications sent to their phone, a Facebook message to students who want notifications sent to their social network, or an e-mail message to students who prefer that.

Panola College, a community college in Carthage, TX, began a pilot of Instructure in January after using WebCT for multiple years. WebCT is now owned by Blackboard. "Blackboard is going to eliminate WebCT altogether. At first, I thought we would just make the natural transition to Blackboard, but I found out quickly that that wasn't what a lot of our faculty wanted to do. So that's when we began to investigate other potential LMSes," said Ann Morris, dean of distance education.

Joined by Jason Gilbert, Panola's education technology coordinator, Morris began evaluating alternatives, and that's when Canvas came onto their radar. They attended an audio conference about the product in September 2010. "I expected not to like Canvas and was very surprised. They were offering some of the very same tools for students and faculty that Jason and I were wishing for," she recalled.

Those features include a multitude of options for faculty to communicate with students, its social network integration capabilities, and the SpeedGrader function, which will allow the college's online speech teachers to request that their online students video themselves using their Webcams and then upload it to Canvas.

Panola began its pilot testing in mid-January with 13 instructors--"far more than I expected," Morris added. "We thought two, three, four instructors would give us a good analysis. Then we had 13 come forward, close to a third of our faculty that uses an LMS. We were excited about that."

Although Morris is hesitant to express any opinions about the product--"I don't want the instructors to feel as though I'm guiding them in one way or another," she explained--she noted that she's pleased with how open the company is to taking feedback. "As our teachers who are piloting Canvas request a feature, we pass that to the Canvas engineers who will incorporate it. We're not just using it. We're providing them with a lot of valuable feedback and helping them make their LMS better."

Morris said she expected Panola to be done with the first stage of its pilot in April. At that point faculty and students will be surveyed to develop a recommendation to the college's administration. If that goes well, the school will bring on more instructors to try out the LMS during the summer, and then more during the fall. "Our pilot will be a year-long process," she explained.

"I think [Instructure] has some very intelligent leadership," Morris concluded. "I think they're committed to surviving whatever may come their way as they strive to become a real player."

Instructure started as a class project in a venture start-up course Coates was teaching at Brigham Young University. "One of the assignments was: List the top five worst pieces of software you use on a daily basis," Coates recalled. "Their No. 1 answer was Blackboard, which is what Brigham Young uses. The follow up to that was to find out how really bad software can be in the market." Two students who eventually founded Instructure began studying the LMS market and, when they decided to start the company, brought Coates in as an advisor and investor.

The company's move to open source may be a pre-emptive effort to avoid a potential patent run-in with Blackboard, which had about 63 percent of the market in 2009, according to the Campus Computing Project. In 2007 when Blackboard was thick into a patent infringement lawsuit against Desire2Learn, the company issued a statement that granted unrestricted use of its patented technologies to open source developers. That pledge also covered companies that service those systems, including hosting, maintenance, support, and customization. The legal dispute between the two companies formally ended in December 2009.

However, Coates insisted the move to open source will allow the company "to penetrate the market quickly." And, he added, "In some sense it inoculates us from a Blackboard buyout. We hear that so often: 'Your stuff is so great. Blackboard always buys everyone out. What happens when they buy you out?' Our response is, 'Well, no, that's not what we're in this for. I want to change the market. That's why I'm doing this. Going open source is the best way to do that. If Blackboard tries to buy us, we'll rebuff the offer. And no matter what happens to Instructure, Canvas is out there because it's open source."

Instructure is offering three editions of its product. Canvas Community Edition (CE), available for a free download, will include an open source AGPL license and community-provided support. Canvas Pro will have a commercial license and will offer four levels of support, from basic to professional service. Both of those editions are expected to be run on institutional hardware. The third option will be Canvas Pro Cloud, which will be made available as a service subscription and come with three levels of support, from basic to premium.

As part of that last edition, Canvas provides for automated provisioning. During peak usage periods, Instructure's hosting service notices traffic jumps and automatically configures additional servers to handle the load.

Later this month the company will issue a version of SpeedGrader for the iPad. In the third quarter of 2011, Instructure reported, the company will release its entire application as an iPad app, with other mobile platforms to follow.

"The LMS market is in transition," noted Panola College's Morris. "More colleges and universities are leaving the big LMS systems and going with [alternatives]. With constraints on budgets, we have to keep an open mind."

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