By Daniel Strawhun, Opinions Editor
On September 21 and 22, representatives from Instructure Inc. visited the University of Missouri-St. Louis to demo the company’s learning management software, Canvas. The demos took place in the Thomas Jefferson Library’s Training Room and were open to both students and faculty.
The presentation began with an overview of the Canvas platform, with special emphasis placed on the innovative features that set Canvas apart from its main competitor, Blackboard. Canvas, which was launched in 2011, was “architected for the Cloud,” as one of the company’s reps explained; therefore, the software is constantly up and running, with zero downtime for scheduled maintenance. Canvas also works on all browsers, and there is a free, fully functional mobile app version available to both Android and iPhone users. As the rep was eager to point out, students could potentially complete an entire online Canvas course using only their smartphones—a milestone in usability that the company surpassed three years ago. Canvas also opens all documents in-line, which means that users never have to download files in order to view them. Everything is contained and displayed within the browser page.
The demo also included a workshop, which was oriented toward instructors. Laptops were arranged in front of each seat, and the reps guided audience members through the process of creating their own Canvas courses on the spot. One feature that seemed especially popular with instructors was the assignment calendar, which allows assignments to be rescheduled or postponed with a simple drag-and-drop motion. Another popular feature was the “clone course” option, which copies the instructor’s course and applies it to the next semester’s calendar, updating all the due dates in the process.
During the workshop, some instructors even went as far as to import their own Blackboard courses into Canvas, testing the software’s cross-compatibility. After the demo, Barbara VanVoorden, associate professor of English, said: “I tried to import a test from the online grammar class, just to see how that worked, because some of the rumors that had been going around had been that changing over to the different test tool was going to be a real headache. However…I exported the test from Blackboard and then imported that package, like a zip file or something, into Canvas, and it seemed to go very smoothly. I looked at the test and everything was there.”
However, VanVoorden also offered her own criticism of the program. She said: “From what I could see, I think it would be very similar to what we already have with Blackboard. It looks like all the same tools and functions are there. They’re [just] called something else and on a different place on the screen…” However, she also mentioned some new features that she liked: “What Canvas does have that Blackboard does not, which would be nice for us—probably nice for students too—is it has an integrated attendance app inside Canvas.” She added, “Canvas’s calendar app also seemed more sophisticated than Blackboard’s.”
Audience members were allowed to keep their Canvas usernames and passwords, and reps encouraged them to continue to explore Canvas from home. UMSL must decide whether to switch from Blackboard to Canvas by November 30.