University pilots alternative learning management system 'Canvas'

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Two learning management systems are fighting head-to-head to secure a claim to the 40 Acres, a match that could possibly knock market leader Blackboard off campus.

Under the instruction of 44 faculty members, 3,000 UT students are currently testing Blackboard and Canvas, learning management tools that administer content, store grades and access student knowledge. The UT System Board of Regents has allocated $3.9 million for the pilot project and will make a decision on whether to switch all of UT to Canvas in 2016 based on student and faculty feedback. No decision has been made, but UT officials said they expect Canvas to be received well.

UT has used Blackboard since 2000 and recently upgraded to a new version of the system. It pays about $400,000 a semester to use Blackboard and house Blackboard’s servers on campus. Throughout the pilot, UT will continue to use Blackboard.

Because the pilot only affects specific courses, students involved in the pilot will most likely use both systems.

Gretchen Ritter, vice provost for undergraduate education, said searching for next-generation tools plays into UT’s plan to increase four-year graduation rates, which currently stand at 51 percent.

“It is not telling people, ‘you have this number of this semesters to graduate and you’re out.’ It is ensuring [students] have the tools they need,” Ritter said. “What a lot of people do not appreciate is that by using these online tools you can increase what happens in a face-to-face environment.”

The learning management tool evaluation originated in 2010, after a UT survey revealed many of Blackboard’s features were not being used. Information Technology Services also found that students and faculty thought Blackboard was clunky and slow. The results propelled ITS and the UT Center for Teaching and Learning, a campus-wide institution focused on innovating education, to evaluate Blackboard the following year and search for alternatives.

Ritter said contrary to Blackboard, Canvas is a more intuitive learning management system. One of the main differences between the two is Canvas’s ability to integrate social media and learning management. For example, students using Canvas can opt to receive notifications on Facebook whenever their professor posts a certain grade. Canvas also boasts a calendar that syncs with Google Calendar as well as Google Docs, a popular collaboration tool. UT is currently trying to figure out how to securely use Google Docs through Canvas and limit the service to only those with a UT Mail account.

All nine UT System universities currently use Blackboard, and the company has about 100 colleges and universities using the system in Texas, a Blackboard official said. UT Chief Information Officer Brad Englert said a UT-Austin decision to switch to Canvas will not affect all UT System schools, although schools will likely be interested in what UT is doing.

Blackboard representative Anne Jenkins said UT is a strong and valued partner and the company is focused on building on their relationship. Jenkins said the company will deliver more Blackboard updates during the year that aim to help students collaborate. She said the company also plans to make Blackboard compatible with Facebook and Twitter, something Canvas already does.

Mario Guerra, an instructional technology specialist at the Center for Teaching and Learning, said UT is currently in the process of developing a support structure for Canvas. UT handles a majority of Blackboard’s troubleshooting since its servers are housed on campus. Canvas uses off-site cloud computing, so UT will depend on Canvas to fix server problems.

Guerra said if all UT decides to switch over to Canvas, the University wants faculty to start fresh instead of just transferring course materials, although Canvas offers a course transfer tool.

“We don’t want them to just plop their Blackboard course into Canvas,” Guerra said. “We would like them to be more organized and think about what they want to do with a learning management system. It is no longer just a course repository.”

Canvas spokesperson Devin Knighton said if UT decides to switch over to Canvas, it will be the company’s biggest client. Canvas currently has more than 200 clients. Knighton said about nine of 10 institutions that pilot Canvas end up switching over, and a significant portion of them switch from Blackboard.
“They want something that is modern, up-to-date and easier to use,” Knighton said.

Knighton said the company is confident it can support UT for various reasons, such as its use of cloud computing, meaning Canvas operates and supports its customers from remote locations. Also, instead of upgrading to a new version of Canvas every year, the company automatically updates the software every two weeks.

Kimberly Gonzales, curriculum and instruction graduate student, is using both Blackboard and Canvas this semester in her classes. Gonzalez said Canvas’s overall look is refreshing, but navigating the website and taking advantage of its features has been a challenge.

Gonzalez also said she had problems with the Canvas iPad application because it did not load videos her instructor posted for class. With Blackboard, she said she has had trouble finding her assigned content materials and finds the platform cluttered. Despite her troubles with both tools, Gonzalez said she prefers Canvas.

She said if professors catch on to Canvas, students will follow.
“If professors are properly trained and know how to lay out a course in a way that it makes sense, students will not have difficulty moving from one system to another,” Gonzalez said.

Printed on Thursday, September 6th, 2012 as: Blackboard faces new competition