New LMS from Instructure Goes Open Source

A Utah-based company has fired a warning shot across the bow of learning management system (LMS) companies, including market leader Blackboard, with the announcement that it’s turning its new LMS into open source. Instructure has publicly released the source code to its Canvas learning management system, which was launched in 2010. Currently, 26 institutions have signed contracts with Instructure, including 17 within the Utah Education Network. The company said that more than 100 other schools are currently evaluating its application.

“We’re excited to offer an alternative to the current LMS options,” said Josh Coates, Instructure’s CEO. “We want to open up the market to allow for innovation so teachers and students can be at the forefront of technology.”

Canvas, a cloud-based application, provides standard course management as well as newer features, such as learning outcomes, peer review, migration tools, e-portfolios, screen sharing, video chat, and rubrics. The SpeedGrader puts a video, blog, document, or spreadsheet into a format viewable in a Web browser, allowing the teacher to grade the material and make comments.

Above all, the product is being promoted as having an open architecture. “We don’t think we’re going to predict what the next big shift is for the Internet, so we’ve built an architecture that’s easy to plug into,” said Coates. “Historically, LMSs have been walled gardens. They’ve been closed and monolithic in their architecture. From day one, Instructure has been designed to be open.”

As a start, Canvas integrates with Web services such as Google Docs, Google Calendar, SMS, Facebook, Twitter, and RSS. When a teacher changes the date of a quiz, for example, the system automatically sends a text message to students who want notifications sent to their phone, a Facebook message to students who want notifications sent to their social network, or an e-mail message to students who prefer that.

Panola College, a community college in Carthage, TX, began a pilot of Instructure in January after using WebCT for multiple years. WebCT is now owned by Blackboard. “Blackboard is going to eliminate WebCT altogether. At first, I thought we would just make the natural transition to Blackboard, but I found out quickly that that wasn’t what a lot of our faculty wanted to do. So that’s when we began to investigate other potential LMSes,” said Ann Morris, dean of distance education.

Joined by Jason Gilbert, Panola’s education technology coordinator, Morris began evaluating alternatives, and that’s when Canvas came onto their radar. They attended an audio conference about the product in September 2010. “I expected not to like Canvas and was very surprised. They were offering some of the very same tools for students and faculty that Jason and I were wishing for,” she recalled.

Those features include a multitude of options for faculty to communicate with students, its social network integration capabilities, and the SpeedGrader function, which will allow the college’s online speech teachers to request that their online students video themselves using their Webcams and then upload it to Canvas.

Panola began its pilot testing in mid-January with 13 instructors–“far more than I expected,” Morris added. “We thought two, three, four instructors would give us a good analysis. Then we had 13 come forward, close to a third of our faculty that uses an LMS. We were excited about that.”

Although Morris is hesitant to express any opinions about the product–“I don’t want the instructors to feel as though I’m guiding them in one way or another,” she explained–she noted that she’s pleased with how open the company is to taking feedback. “As our teachers who are piloting Canvas request a feature, we pass that to the Canvas engineers who will incorporate it. We’re not just using it. We’re providing them with a lot of valuable feedback and helping them make their LMS better.”