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Instructure's Canvas LMS: 7 Cheers
February 6, 2011 - 7:26pm

Go and check out Instructure's new Canvas LMS. You can play with the system, as I have been doing, by signing up for a free course account. Next, go ahead and read what Michael Arrington has to say about Instructure over at TechCrunch. You can also check out the story in the Chronicle about Instructure's winning of a big Utah statewide LMS contract, and the reaction (and subsequent change of heart) of Desire2Learn.

I spent a fascinating hour discussing Instructure with CEO (and major funder) Josh Coates. Coates and his team are passionate about challenging the incumbents in what he sees as a broken LMS market, what Casey Green refers to as "a mature market with immature products,: (Josh quotes Casey in his presentation). Reviewing the history of LMS technology, Coates compares it to "10 years of trench warfare" - more and more resources invested for little gain but much pain.

Even if you are not in the market for a new LMS, I recommend that you contact Instructure's director of public relations, Devin Knighton, and try to set-up a webinar with Coates. He definitely has something to say, and unlike most CEOs he is not afraid to compare his product directly to the competition.

I'm very curious about what you think of Instructure Canvas.

My " 7 Cheers" and "7 Critiques":

Cheer 1 - Technology: Canvas is built using Ruby on Rails, and leverages Amazon web services and other web 2.0 technologies. The system has built in conferencing from Dimdim, and has options for integration with Facebook, LinkedIn and Google Docs.

Critique 1 - Technology: The technology stack and approach sounds right to me, probably the right way to do things when architecting with a clean slate. Getting the technology right, however, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success in the marketplace. The success of Instructure will depend much more on business models, leadership, long-term investments, willingness to take risks, and luck. Instructure is justifiably proud of its technology, but needs to be wary of the belief that those with the best technology should and will win in the marketplace.

Cheer 2 - User Interface: I spent some time building a quick course on Canvas (and you can as well). The interface feels clean, modern and uncluttered. The integration to Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google Docs looks good (although I did not fully test this), and the multi-notification system for events seems great.

Critique 2 - Feature Set: The interface was clean and modern, but from what I see (and again my testing was quick and nowhere near a complete evaluation), it seemed that the feature set was limited compared to more "mature" LMS systems. The feature sets and tools will evolve over time, but my first impression was that Canvas is not fully ready for prime time as a replacement for Blackboard, D2L, or Moodle. Assignment tools, discussion boards, grade centers, blog and wiki tools, assessment engines - these are all complicated tools. I've seen the Blackboard feature set evolve over the years, so that Blackboard 9.1 does seem to offer many more features and option than Canvas in these areas. I'd be interested in a head-to-head feature comparison sheet.

Cheer 3 - Innovation: I applaud Instructure for bringing a desire to innovate to the LMS space. We would all be better off if Blackboard, D2L, Pearson (eCollege or is it LearningStudio?), Moodle etc. had more competition.

Critique 3 - Disruption: I see real innovation in what Instructure is doing, but I worry that the approach is insufficiently disruptive. A marginally better service at a marginally better price will be, I fear, too little of an incentive for schools to adopt an immature product from an unproven company. A truly disruptive play would have been to give the Instructure Canvas LMS away, and build a business on integrating the system with existing campus SIS systems, providing service and user (student/faculty support), and maybe even looking at some form of subtle and appropriate advertising. LMS systems benefit from network effects, as the service becomes more valuable the more institutions who become adopters. This is one area where a large investment to get a big customer base can open up downstream opportunities for monetization.

Cheer 4 - Open Source: Instructure has released its code as open source, which will allow "educational institutions can download and use the Canvas Community Version™ for free."

Critique 4 - Open Source?: I'm skeptical (although I'd love to be wrong) that this open source option will really provide benefits to the higher ed community, and instead it is mostly about marketing. We need to get better about thinking and talking about "true" open source technologies vs. truly marketing based open source. In the case of Instructure, I think it may be the latter, as the vast majority of adopters will be using the SaaS solution (and therefore not developing on the application on campus). I don't see vibrant developer community around Instructure taking shape anytime soon, nor do I see the community leading the direction for features or improvements.

Cheer 5 - Cloud: The SaaS (software as a service) multitenancy cloud model is absolutely the way to go. Local hosting of LMS systems should and will disappear over the next couple of decades, Instructure is smart to lead the way on this trend.

Critique 5 - Business Model: The fact that Canvas runs on a SaaS cloud based model should allow for the disruptive business model of giving away the platform, and charing for services such as integration, training and support. This is what Google should be doing today, a failure on Google's part that continues to boggle my mind.

Cheer 6 - Diversity: More options and different models for LMS platforms are good things for customers. We should find ways to support new entrants and more competition in the LMS market.

Critique 6- Pricing: Instructure's pricing follows industry norms on non-transparency. If you are going to make an argument for being a true alternative to the incumbents in the LMS space, then it is essential to live up to this rhetoric and do things differently. Transparent pricing would be a great first step.

Cheer 7 - Leadership: It is hard not to be impressed with Josh Coates. He is passionate and smart, with a proven track record in this industry and resources to back up his vision. Go and watch his wife blow things up, or check out his flamethrower, and you get the sense he will bring some much needed energy to the ed tech market.

Critique 7 - Leadership: I wonder if Coates has enough people around him who will disagree with his ideas and plans. I have no idea about how Instructure is organized, nor have I spoke with his team, but there is always a risk when the CEO is also the major funder that strategic decisions are made without adequate evidence or debate. My sense, however, is that Josh Coates would welcome to any critiques of his company's value proposition and product, and would happily enter into any discussion about the current status (and problems) of the LMS market. I look forward to continuing this discussion.

Have you checked out Canvas from Instructure? What are your cheers and critiques?

 

 

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