Canvassing Opinion

I spent today in Edinburgh at a presentation about Canvas – a VLE by the strangely named company Instructure (it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue). To declare a potential interest, I currently work for an institution that has a long history with a competitor – Blackboard. I leave it to the reader to decide whether/how that colours my comments.

A large part of the day was spent listening to staff not sales people – Darren Marsh and Margaret Donnison from Birmingham University which has recently been through the periodic VLE review process that every educational institution undergoes from time to time. In Birmingham’s case, their current VLE (WebCT) had gone ‘end of life’ and so they were facing a migration regardless of which product they chose. In that sense it is an excellent example of an unbiased evaluation, as there was no status quo option. On the down side, WebCT is pretty long in the tooth and would fare poorly in a comparison with almost any VLE on the market today.

As well as the need to find a new VLE system, the University felt that distance and blended learning was becoming more important and that the market was  undergoing a period of disruption due to factors such as increased student fees, MOOCs and alternate modes of delivery. Their needs were clearly expressed in a few points:

  • a high quality product
  • fit for purpose
  • distinctive

That last point is interesting – in a market dominated by a small number of vendors, is there a risk that all institutional offerings look the same? This is an intriguing proposition that I have some issues with – is the online learning experience only skin deep? Equally does just changing the appearance of content (akin to applying a different template to a WordPress site) significantly alter the learner’s experience in any meaningful way? That doesn’t fit with my experience. I think the MOOC I learnt most from so far was the #OCL4Ed course hosted on WikiEducator/MediaWiki. It looked awful and was hard to navigate, but the learning activities were well-designed and stimulated meaningful collaboration amongst the participants (e.g. commenting on each other’s blogs – see http://apperleyrd.wordpress.com/).

A question I didn’t think to ask at the time was where had this notion of distinctiveness come from? Was it requested by academics, tired of working in the same old online courses, was it from students, or perhaps from marketing? I have seen a lot of student feedback describing institutional VLEs as ‘clunky’ and ‘tired looking’ but I’ve never seen any students asking for them to be more distinctive!

The findings of Birmingham’s detailed tender process were echoed in the subsequent demonstration of the Canvas product – there is a large feature set common across all the major VLE platforms. We saw demonstrations of online marking using the cloud Crocodoc/Box View service, adaptive release of content based on dates and tests scores, integration with third party services such as Kaltura, Panopto, YouTube. Whilst slick, these features should have been familiar to the audience and many required the purchase of third party services (e.g Kaltura and Panopto). Assignment workflow was a little disappointing, lagging behind that in Moodle or Blackboard – no support for moderated marking, anonymity and other factors held dear (even if perhaps in some cases misguidedly) by many UK HEIs.

Great play was made of the ability to use the IMS LTI standard to connect to third party systems. They publish an impressive catalogue of possible integrations at http://www.edu-apps.org/index.html. A closer inspection shows that very few of these services have been certified as compliant by IMS (see http://developers.imsglobal.org/catalog.html), which makes me wonder whether they take advantage of the full range of LTI features (e.g. populating the grade centre) or are just a simple launch point that may or may not actually implement LTI.  Later I browsed through a few entries on edu-apps and some of the comments about tools no longer working (including the YouTube integration) were a bit worrying – although in this case they might have just referred to integration via Moodle.

Also, although IMS are working at a standard for analytics data – caliper – this is not yet ready to implement, so integrations that rely on LTI will not provide any tracking/usage data to the parent VLE. This is a missed opportunity for both staff interested in their learners actions in a given course and those trying to aggregate data across courses, or attempting to measure the return on investment in a particular tool.

Interesting too that like many other VLEs,  the ability to integrate with 3rd party systems using LTI first requires action by a user with appropriate privileges (see http://www.edu-apps.org/tutorials.html). Whilst the document suggests this can be done at a course level, in practice I think this may be restricted to system administrators –  if only  to keep the lawyers happy and to safeguard the privacy of our users – creating a potential bottleneck to innovation.

Canvas offered a distinctive hierarchy of user accounts and sub-accounts (with permissions inherited) that allows you to model the University, breaking it down into faculties/colleges, then further into schools/departments, and assign branding, permissions, even custom javascript. This is interesting and something I plan to explore further. As ever the devil is in the detail and Universities seem to excel at complicating situations. For example should you divide it up by faculty, or level of study (e.g. separating undergraduate from postgraduate courses?) Should the mode of delivery matter – differentiating between face to face, blended and distance courses? I wonder if this user account model cope with several different overlapping possible hierarchies? Should these change in the future, how easy will it be to change this?

Although only just coming to the end of their first year of using Canvas, Birmingham had found the time to solicit student feedback via questionnaires. The usual caveats about small sample sizes, risk of only capturing the extremes of opinion and questionable use of some leading questions all apply. Still 84% of students agreed with the statement that they found canvas easy to use, and an encouraging 88% found it useful for their studies. Perhaps more worrying is why 12% did not, assuming that it contains links to the course materials, online tests and e-submission!

Common themes that the students praised were ease of use and a clean layout. Looking at Birmingham’s implementation (which provides a pretty standard canvas course) you can understand the ease of use – the interface is relatively uncluttered and the content is restricted to materials relevant to the courses they are taking. There was no evidence of any portal functionality being delivered through canvas – a later perusal of their website identified [my.bham] – a student portal based on SunGard’s Luminis product.

The clean layout is an interesting comment. I’m not sure if this means ‘it looks like Facebook/Wordpress’ and just reflects the widespread adoption of this user interface model, or whether it was very like the old WebCT course structure they already knew? Screenshots showed templates with similarly labelled folders on Canvas, some even going to the trouble of replication the icons representing folders in WebCT.  On a more positive note, it might be the result of carefully planned and structured courses on the new system.

One advantage of switching learning environments is that it offers the institution a chance to start again. It is all too easy for systems to become bloated over the years (like an old laptop) with content that is no longer used, courses based on copies of copies of copies, all of which can have a negative impact on performance. Also it provides staff with the chance to review the content and online components of their course. Doing this across a whole institution and with a real fixed deadline, where just using the same stuff as last year is not be an option, has benefits that can’t be achieved through an isolated course review (though I’m not arguing you should stop doing this either, there’s just an extra benefit/multiplier effect when everyone is thinking, talking and sharing about this at the same time). It’s also a good time to check all the links work, content is copyright cleared, etc.

It is also a good motivator to get staff to attend training. Birmingham use a mix of face to face workshops with online materials – with separate courses for staff and students.

As a relative newcomer to the market and built for a hosted, scalable solution from day 1, I was interested to see canvas performs on mobile and tablet devices. Sadly there was no evidence of responsive design comparing the experience in a standard browser at different screen sizes and on laptops and tablets 😦
Like many other vendors, they have released mobile apps for iOS and Android. I thought that the mobile UI they showed actually looked nicer than the standard one, with clear icons next to course menu buttons giving an extra clue to the functionality of the links . Special apps exist for dedicated tasks e.g. the SpeedGrader app for online Grading – which on a cursory inspection seems a bit like Turnitin’s GradeAnywhere app, though without support for offline marking of downloaded scripts.

This video shows Canvas deployed on a range of devices and footage of the custom SpeedGrader app:

A few eyebrows were raised around the room when they mentioned their approach to versioning/software release: there is only one version. They operate an agile approach with new releases every three weeks. When probed, there is a degree of control, it is possible to turn off or delay the implementation of new features on your build. This is good news if you want to avoid any changes during key times (e.g. online exams) but seems to contradict the one version policy and I am not sure how it works with their online help documentation – does it respect all these local settings?

The product is only available as a hosted service, sitting on the Amazon AWS cloud, providing a scalable solution, with a promise from Instructure (UK) of 99.9% uptime over a year – assuming it doesn’t fall foul of a denial of service attack by those angry about it’s approach to in-country taxation.  They use the Dublin-based AWS European Data Centre for EU clients to keep everyone happy. It is unclear whether all the bundled extras – e.g. the  Big Blue Button conferencing app – also offer an EU or  -Safe Harbor compliant solution.

Although Canvas’ origin lies with American computer science  students dissatisfied with their current online experience (sound familiar?) the staff present in Edinburgh were keen to play the international card. It was good to hear them supporting localisation for different languages (no support for Gaelic yet) and with research and development teams available in-country – in the case of the UK in London. As one of the small fishes in a pond still dominated by the US, it is always nice to know that someone is listening and able to act locally.

Although we ran out of time, they are also analytics options and Instructure staff were  keen to hear from UK institutions wanting to use their Canvas network product to facilitate MOOCs (like #BlendKit2014).

More information about Birmingham’s experience can be found on the UK Canvas site  (though tred carefully as the comparison table Canvas publish doesn’t give me much confidence in their QA – I found errors in the third row: Development Technology). They also link to this video, note it was uploaded to YouTube by Canvas, not Birmingham:

Some final thoughts:

Q. Did the day leave me feeling that our current platform (Blackboard) was pedestrian or had been eclipsed?
A. No – some features in Canvas look slicker/more mature/better than Blackboard, but equally some  features in Blackboard look slicker/ more mature/better than Canvas.

Q. If I was looking to implement a VLE from scratch or undergo a review of provision would Canvas be on my short list?
A. Yes.

 

by Featured Image iVincent by JD Hancock shared on http://photos.jdhancock.com/photo/2014-02-22-200113-ivincent.html
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One thought on “Canvassing Opinion”

  1. Hi Malcolm,
    Thanks for your thoughts and detail!
    Sounds like an interesting day with very good discussion.
    One thing that strikes me though is the benefit that can be gained from a “fresh start”. It seems to me that it doesn’t take a new vle to benefit from this. Old, tired and staid generally relate to the content placed on a VLE rather than the platform itself, though granted this accusation could be leveled at Bb in its current guise. Creating an empty course for staff each year would be a wholesale and radical change -(definitely not one I’d like to enter into without series consideration and consultation first!), but perhaps it may be just the one needed in order to promote active involvement, engagement and ultimately ownership of courses by teaching staff.

    Like

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