Sophisticated course-assembly tools. Platforms for sharing class modules, enabling integrations, and publishing courses. Open API. New UI makes shrewd use of tabs and contextual menus. Extensive third-party integrations.
Pricing not as transparent as suggested. Some idiosyncrasies in the UI.
- Bottom Line
Boasting a modern interface, native web hosting, and extensive third-party integrations, Canvas is the best educational learning management system on the market today.
Although Instructure is beginning to make inroads into the corporate Learning Management System (LMS) market with its Bridge LMS, the company is best known for its educational LMS, Canvas—and for good reason. Alongside Moodle, Instructure has cracked the Blackboard lock on higher education. According to Edutechnica, Instructure ranks second in educational LMS market share—behind only Blackboard.
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A key difference is that Instructure understands that most academics only begrudgingly use their LMS. For this reason, an educational LMS must be simple to use and easy to interoperate with third-party tools and services. Whereas the enormously successful Blackboard boasts a powerful yet traditionally cumbersome interface, Canvas' UI employs tabs and contextual menus to excellent effect. Moodle's open-source, plug-in–based design will delight tech-savvy admins, but daunt LMS newcomers. Instructure trumpets ease of use, while offering users free access to the API for building their own tools and self-hosting via a commercial open-source version.
In fact, unlike both Moodle and Blackboard, Instructure has taken a cue from the corporate space and built a native cloud LMS, hosted by Amazon Web Services. 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, Instructure offers a capable educational LMS and an attractive alternative to Blackboard.
For those acquainted with Blackboard, setting up Canvas is suspiciously straightforward. The new user interface is organized around three central components. These include 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.
I particularly like the new Dashboard, which organizes courses using cards, each of which includes tabs for announcements, assignments, discussions, and files. Those tabs even bring to the foreground contextual notifications using number icons. If you prefer a list view, 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 to 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.
Finally, the right-aligned sidebar features a Coming Up feed, a Review Grades link, and a To Do list. For educators, the To Do list might include assignments to grade. For students, it might be assignments to submit. The sidebar is probably my least favorite feature. Unlike the Courses sidebar, which I discuss below, it's not contextual, and there's little reason that information couldn't be folded into the primary Dashboard section. Moreover, when viewing the LMS on a mobile device, the sidebar ceases to be a sidebar; instead, it drops to the bottom of the page, where it effectively joins the Dashboard.
Teachers and students alike will spend most of their time in the Courses screen, which has been thoroughly overhauled over the past couple of years. Beside the Global Navigation menu, Instructure pins a Course navigation menu with links to different areas of the course, each of which can be customized. The Course navigation menu is tremendously useful, though hiding it—to save precious screen real estate—isn't as straightforward as hiding the Global Navigation menu, which you can simply click to close.
Instructure also provides a breadcrumb trail at the top of the screen, as well as a right-aligned contextual sidebar in much the same manner of the corporate LMS Absorb. This sidebar, which changes based on where you are in the course, streamlines and organizes the intricacies of course creation, which Canvas makes an inviting and open-ended process.
Instructors begin with a Course Setup Checklist, with items such as importing content, adding students, choosing a course homepage, and adding calendar events. There's even something Canvas calls an Introduction Drawer that provides instructors with contextual help related to key features. 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. Instructure allows 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.
Given that Instructure includes a sophisticated course assembler, I will, in the interest of brevity, highlight three of my favorite features: Modules, Outcomes, and Quizzes. Centered on a theme, topic, or order, Modules help organize course content into units. By stipulating prerequisites for modules, educators can sequence them so that students don't see one until they unlock its prerequisites. For example, I could prevent my students from accessing a second unit until they accomplished criteria for the first. In this sense, Modules achieves much of what D2L Brightspace accomplishes with Release Conditions, though Canvas lacks an automated early intervention system, in the manner of Intelligent Agents.
Educators can use Outcomes authored by their state or institution to assess student mastery. Those outcomes can be coupled with grading rubrics that educators import or create themselves. I suspect this functionality won't excite faculty. It will, however delight administrators who, particularly at a K-12 level, need to align courses and student assessments to standards. Furthermore, Gauge's recent release provides K-administrators with a comprehensive assessment management platform designed for K-12 school districts.
When it comes to assessments, Instructure employs the term "quiz" liberally. Quizzes can be graded or ungraded, timed or self-paced, with questions as wide-ranging as multiple choice, true/false, matching, or short answer. Faculty can even assign Exams if they want to require students to take a quiz at a certain place.
While Canvas has long included the ability to copy a course from one semester to another, a new feature—released last summer, in fact—called "Blueprint Courses," enables administrators to create standardized content or course templates that they can push out to courses. I could see how Blueprint Courses could prove a powerful tool for promoting best practices, particularly in terms of accessibility.
Gradebook and SpeedGrader
Alongside course-authoring tools, Instructure bundles a full-featured Gradebook from which educators and administrators can drag, drop, and sort columns corresponding to assignments. Grades can be imported or exported manually (via CSV files) or automatically through student information system, or SIS, integrations.
Instructure has made a number of subtle yet meaningful refinements to the platform's standout Gradebook. Modest updates—for example, the platform now remembers instructor preferences, and some routine actions require one or two fewer clicks—ought to make using the Gradebook across multiple courses or sections less onerous.
From Gradebook, educators can launch SpeedGrader to access submissions alongside preconfigured learning outcomes and rubrics. With the ability to preview and annotate submissions within the browser, educators don't need to download any files. Microsoft Office, Google Docs, and PDFs are all visible within Canvas. In addition to text-based feedback, educators can add in-line annotations, such as highlights, text strikeouts, and freehand drawing. Should they enable peer review, all annotation tools are available to students.
Thanks to a new annotation tool, students can also add annotations, given that annotations are no longer maintained in the teacher-facing SpeedGrader. I could imagine that this functionality might prove particularly useful in writing-intensive classes. For example, an instructor might upload a piece of anonymous student writing (as an assignment), and solicit revisions, which students could supply as annotations.
Over the past couple of years, Instructure has also greatly bolstered Canvas' peer-review capabilities. Instructors can now make all notifications anonymous and invite multiple student reviewers to submit draft grades, provisional grades, or secondary grades. Should a faculty member ignore the grading functionality, I could imagine how she might use Canvas to manage a blind peer-review process.
Canvas Commons, a learning object repository, is one of the platform's standout features. While Blackboard Extensions offers administrators a powerful way to add functionality to sites, Commons is an indispensable resource for LMS newcomers.
Educators can supplement their own classes with hundreds of quizzes, modules, and courses, and dozens of modules, discussions, and documents. Because resources can be added to private classes, Commons provides a fast-track to course creation. Even if you don't keep the content, you can use it as a template for your course. Commons isn't just a public repository—it's also a platform for sharing content within an institution. This means that individuals can share courses across a department, university, or in the case of K-12, a school district or even a state.
Finally, should students want to manually download course materials for offline viewing, Instructure has added ePub support to Canvas (currently in beta). When enabled in Course Settings, students can download student-accessible course materials in a read-only state for any ePub reader, including the Amazon Kindle or the Apple iPad.
Canvas Network and Edu Apps Center
Canvas Network allows educators to share their face-to-face, blended, or fully online courses with the world. As a platform, Canvas Network reminds me of edX or Coursera in that its offerings skew toward higher education. As a platform, however, Canvas has room to grow. Offerings are still limited, and the webpage would benefit from more filtering mechanisms. Canvas also interoperates with the Edu App Center, a library of apps built on the Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) standard. At last count, there were more than 200 tools available from Khan Academy, Open Tapestry, WordPress, and many others.
I would love to see both the Edu Apps Center and Canvas Network rolled into, or more tightly integrated with, Canvas Commons. For apps, Canvas makes educators wade through course settings to enable apps—something I wouldn't have known to do if I hadn't consulted support. Given that Commons already features everything from images to modules, it would seem intuitive to add Canvas-compliant apps to that repository. Moreover, given that educators already share courses via Commons, a public-facing component could encourage faculty to activate courses for public enrollment.
One of Instructure Canvas' standout features is deep and extensive interoperability. To the former point, whereas many LMS interoperate with Google (e.g. SSO and access to Google Drive assets), Canvas takes that integration a level deeper. Students and instructors can access G Suite from inside Canvas, precluding the need for extra tabs and windows. Instructors can create a collaborative Google Doc from the Canvas Course Navigation Menu (including distributing individual copies to each student), embed a Google Sheet via the Canvas content editor, or even use a read-only Google Doc in a course module. For their part, students can submit Google Docs as assignments via the SpeedGrader or edit and annotate a Google Sheet or Slide in a Canvas collaboration. This type of tight interoperation ought to win Canvas new converts, particularly in K-12 school districts that have already invested in G Suite for Education and Google Classroom.
Instructure has also added integrations with online video and connected home platforms. Arc, a platform that allows students to comment on video directly in the timeline, now integrates with the company's K-12 and higher-education LMS. (Instructure plans to expand that support to include Bridge, its corporate LMS, in the coming months.) Last summer, the company also introduced a new Canvas Skill for Amazon Echo through which students, teachers, parents, and advisors can link their Canvas accounts with the Alexa app in order to ask updates about course information, updates, and scheduling.
The Bottom Line
Although Instructure boasts of the transparency and affordability of its pricing, I cannot evaluate those claims because I could not secure any hard numbers. Judging from institutional quotes online, Canvas is priced slightly more competitive than Blackboard, which is a pricey LMS. Similar to Blackboard, Canvas charges a one-time setup fee, an annual subscription, and determines pricing based upon the size, training, and support needs of the institution.
While I reviewed Instructure's hosted educational LMS, the company also offers a free, open-source alternative, in much the same manner as another top pick, Moodle. The open-source version of Canvas receives all the updates, and in the same timeframe, as the hosted version, though it lacks some paid services.
Naturally, institutions that prefer a turnkey LMS will gravitate toward the version that I reviewed, and I don't think they will be disappointed. Canvas earns our Editors' Choice designation for several reasons. First, native Web hosting will reduce institutions' maintenance and support costs. Second, in most instances, Canvas is simpler to use—sometimes significantly so (e.g., assignment annotations). Third, it offers extensive third-party integrations and a generous ecosystem of ancillary tools and services rivaled only by Blackboard. Finally, thanks to a free trial, administrators can try it before they make a more substantial investment.
As a contributing editor, William Fenton specializes in research and education software. In addition to his role at PCMag.com, William is also a Teaching Fellow and Director of the Writing Center at Fordham University Lincoln Center. To learn more about his research interests, visit his homepage or follow him on Academia.edu, LinkedIn, and Twitter. More »
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