Canvas learning platform (by Instructure)

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Canvas compared to other top or popular learning management systems (LMSes)
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Last Update

  • Updated.jpg 1 September 2017


See also Blended learning | Connectivism | Massive open online courses (MOOCs) | Open pedagogies for librarians | Teaching library users

"...the Canvas learning platform (by Instructure) provides a means for students to check their grades, receive important notices in a timely way, participate in online discussions, share video and audio, and communicate with instructors quickly and efficiently..."
"...Canvas is a system designed for mobile and will provide expanded capabilities as well as a more user-friendly interface for faculty, students and staff...Canvas is widely used across world-leading research intensive universities, and the move to it represents a significant opportunity for UBC to further enhance the way digital tools can support and enhance student learning. To find out more about the platform’s capabilities, support resources and drop in consultation sessions that start next week, please visit UBC's Learning Technology Hub website: ..." - UBC selects Canvas as replacement for Blackboard Learn (Connect) new2.gif

Canvas is a relatively new, open learning management system (LMS) or "online platform" developed by Instructure Inc., an American educational technology company based in Utah. Canvas helps to create and manage online courses with a content editor, features for online grading, learning outcome tracking, and notification setup via email, Facebook and other text-based instant messaging. Canvas is a comprehensive cloud-based software tool that has been developed to compete with similar systems such as Blackboard Learning System, Moodle, D2L (Desire2Learn) and Sakai. Instructure was created in 2010 to support a new learning management system originally called Instructure but now branded "Canvas". The company tested the LMS at several schools including Utah State University and Brigham Young University before it officially launched.

According to Carroll et al (2016), "...Canvas is software that allows faculty to set up an online presence for their courses, where they can post readings, video tutorials, discussion boards, assignments, and quizzes. Instructors can also track student participation and performance with tools built into the software. By creating Canvas modules, we were able to directly import content into a faculty member's course space. We were added as co-instructors so that we could also view students' performance...". Canvas is built using Ruby on Rails as the web application framework backed by a PostgreSQL database. It incorporates JQuery, HTML5, and CSS3 to provide a modern user interface. OAuth is used to provide limited access to a user's information on certain social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to allow for collaboration. Canvas operates as a software-as-a-service using Amazon Web Services in the "Cloud".

Some of the better features of Canvas

  • 'Canvas' mobile apps for iOS and Android: integrated updating; as a cloud-based system, there are no concerns about versions, upgrades, downloads, or migrations. Updates happens automatically to minimize risk and downtime.
  • Collaborative workspaces: students can record or upload audio and video; content editor: customizable user profiles.
  • Customizability: use the system’s extensive, open API to plug in third-party apps for data import and export.
  • Openness: Canvas is an open source software that offers APIs, security audits, and feature discussions.
  • Open API: audio and video; integrate with tools like Google Docs and Etherpad; supports external service integrations, like Facebook, Google; RSS support; Web conferencing; Analytics
  • Pedagogical flexibility: vendor offers an app center that institutions and instructors can explore to add new technologies to their courses. They can browse through tons of LTI apps and install them easily without IT support.

What tools can I use with Canvas?

Canvas comes with numerous internal tools to expand your teaching options for courses. Among the most widely used are:

  • Chat: allows students and teachers to interact in real time. Note: The Chat tool must be enabled at UBC before it can be used in Canvas courses.
  • Conferences: primarily virtual lectures, virtual office hours, and student groups. They can also be used to demonstrate technologies or troubleshoot technology issues online. Conferences can accommodate up to 50 people.
  • Conversations: messaging tool used instead of email to communicate with a course, a group, an individual student, or a group of students. You can communicate with other people in your course at any time.
  • ePortfolios: ePortfolios are connected to user profiles not a specific course, and users build an unlimited number of ePortfolios to document their educational projects, submissions, experiences, and other products. Users keep ePortfolios private or share with other students, instructors, and/or future employers.
  • Modules: used to organize course content by weeks, units, sections, or a different organizational structure. Modules essentially create a one-directional linear flow of what students should do in a course.
  • Notification Preferences: For each type of course notification—announcements, due date changes, discussion replies, and more—you decide how and when you’re alerted. You can choose from email and text message or stay connected via Twitter, LinkedIn, and other Web services. You can also control how often you receive notifications, so important messages never fall through the cracks.
  • Pages: all pages are actually “wiki” pages! So the Pages feature serves the same function as a dedicated wiki tool. Benefits include revisions history and shared authoring between student and instructors.
  • Speedgrader: view, score and provide audio, video or written feedback on submissions; provides built-in rubrics and learning outcomes; grades are transferred automatically from SpeedGrader to the gradebook; save on data entry to provide more student feedback.
  • Syllabus: instructors can post the content of their syllabus, and display an Assignments summary section displaying all assignments (Quizzes, Discussions, Assignments.

Adapted from

Critiques and observations for librarians

  • The Canvas Librarians and Resources group helps to discuss strategies and share examples of ways library resources are promoted and integrated into the tool.
  • Many librarians use LMSes; many should be simple to use and work with third-party tools and services, but are not. Canvas' user interface uses tabs and contextual menus; it is said to be easy to use, while offering free access to APIs for building tools and self-hosting via an open-source version. Instructure has built a cloud-based LMS, hosted by Amazon Web Services. Some librarians express concern about the "cloud-based" aspect of Canvas, and its ownership and hosting by Amazon Web.
  • Other issues include problems with logging out which may require clearing Internet browser cookies. Other known issue is Speedgrader which does not work as expected after changes are made to a group set associated with a group assignment.
  • Thanks to the Canvas Commons repository for sharing classes, modules, and assessments; the Canvas Network integrated platform for distributing face-to-face, blended, and online courses (Canvas Network); and the EduApps Center library of apps.
  • The UI is organized around three central components: the Dashboard, a high-level overview of top courses; Global Navigation, a static menu that provides access to key features; and the sidebar, which aggregates time-sensitive updates.
  • The Dashboard organizes courses using cards, each of which includes tabs for announcements, assignments, discussions, and files. Those tabs even surface contextual notifications using number icons. You can also toggle to the Recent Activity stream.
  • The left-aligned Global Navigation menu is accessible from anywhere, providing quick access to account settings, courses, groups, and the calendar and inbox. Educators and administrators ought to explore the Settings tab. It's not scary, I promise. Instructure allows admins and educators simple access of every kind of notification. For example, after I connected my Twitter account to Canvas, I set the system to notify me immediately whenever a student contributes to a discussion. For other settings, I select daily and weekly email summaries, and for those messages to which I need to respond, I can reply directly from my Gmail account.
  • Instructors begin with a Course Setup Checklist with items such as importing content, adding students, choosing a course homepage, and adding calendar events. What I like about this approach is that educators can design courses in a nonlinear fashion. I started by importing content but soon struck out on my own.
  • Most functions fold around an HTML editor, to which educators may insert links to wikis, quizzes, announcements, and discussions. You can also upload files and images. Recently, Instructure began allowing admins to specify usage rights and published dates for those items. Instructure is also accommodating of existing content. In addition to support for SCORM files, Canvas ingests files from other vendors, including Blackboard, Moodle, D2L, and Angel.

Canvas network and courses

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