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Washington State Higher Ed Shifting to Instructure Canvas

A nine-month evaluation process has led the Washington State Board for Community & Technical Colleges to begin contract negotiations with Instructure to use its learning management system (LMS), Canvas. In September 2011 the State Board began the process of seeking a replacement for Angel, which had been in use by 28 of the member schools. At that time Angel, now owned by Blackboard, was facing certain retirement in 2014; Blackboard has since canceled that deadline and announced that it would support Angel "indefinitely."

Canvas, a Web-based application, allows faculty to build and maintain a secure Web space in which to share course materials, communicate with students, provide online learning activities and assessments, and keep track of student progress. It provides a number of features that users have been attracted to, including a clean and intuitive user interface, drag and drop capabilities, notification options tied to Facebook, Twitter, and texting, and course migration and grading tools. It is also one of the only commercial open source systems on the market and one of the first to implement open standards for integrating third party tools and content.

The Washington State Board put together an LMS migration committee composed of representatives from multiple staff and faculty groups and released a request for proposal in December. By the end of January three finalists were selected and committee members and others began testing the top contenders, which included Blackboard Learn 9.1, Desire2Learn, and Canvas. According to the State Board, 800 people--instructors, students, IT staff, administrators, and others--provided feedback, including nearly a hundred "designated reviewers" who worked through a detailed rubric.

That rubric had 14 tasks to be performed in each of the LMSs, such as creating a "representative unit of course materials" with a module that had at least a week's worth of content, including material to be "time released"; and adding multimedia content such as audio or video into a course and then embedding a link to it within an announcement or a discussion forum post. For each task, the instructor was asked to give a score from zero (does not meet) to four (superior).

By March those scores were tallied and the committee met once again to get face-to-face demonstrations of each vendor's product. In the end, Canvas came out first in each criterion on the rubric, including mobile and social.

"We chose Canvas because it's an open platform that empowers instructors to use social media and mobile tools to engage students," said Connie Broughton, the State Board's director of eLearning and Open Education. "We felt constrained by the concept of managing learning in a box. We need something more flexible than a traditional learning management system."

During roughly the same period, two Washington colleges, Lower Columbia and Bellevue College, ran pilots testing Canvas as a replacement for their respective LMS implementations.

The Lower Columbia pilot involved 23 instructors and included 66 different types of courses--online, hybrid, and traditional--that used Canvas as the LMS instead of Angel. An assessment found that 78 percent of respondents preferred Canvas over Angel and 84 percent reported that they found the newer LMS "easy to navigate." A spring pilot is underway, involving 26 instructors and 75 classes.

"The faculty said Canvas is easy to use and navigate, intuitive, visually appealing, well organized and consistent," said Renee Carney, chair of the Lower Columbia task force.

Following months of research and evaluation, Bellevue College, a Blackboard Vista customer, is set to test Canvas in a "handful" of online courses during the summer term with plans to move all courses to Canvas for fall 2012.

"Faculty saw Canvas as a paradigm shift," said Russ Beard, vice president of Information Resources. "They chose Canvas because it saves them time and enables new ways of providing content and learning. They said there is no apple-to-apple comparison of Canvas to anything out there."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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