Emory tests Canvas as possible future replacement for Blackboard

Published 09-22-2015

by Maureen McGavin

A screen shot shows a sample homepage from one of the classes participating in the Canvas pilot this semester.

This semester, Emory University is conducting a pilot of Canvas, a cloud-based learning management system (LMS), as a possible future replacement for Blackboard.

“We’re evaluating Canvas as a potential substitute, but we’re still far away from having a final recommendation – it would take a long time and a great deal of campus coordination to make the switch away from Blackboard,” says Lee Clontz, manager of Teaching & Learning Technologies in the Library and Information Technology Services (LITS) division.

About 20 faculty members have been trained to use Canvas for one of their fall 2015 semester courses, which involves around 650 students in the pilot. “There is a diverse collection of courses, class sizes, topics and schools involved,” Clontz says. Faculty and students will provide feedback throughout the semester regarding Canvas’s functionality and ease of use.

Another 100 users, including additional faculty, administrators and others in the Emory campus community, will have “sandbox” accounts where they can practice using Canvas privately, outside of an enrolled course.

Drop-in demo sessions

The Canvas pilot team will have drop-in demo sessions, where the Emory community can learn about Canvas, try it out and ask questions. The demo sessions are every first and third Wednesday of the month through November 18. The next session is on Wednesday, Sept. 23 from noon to 2 p.m. in Woodruff Library Room 217. Additional dates may be scheduled after November, Clontz says.

In addition to the demos, the Canvas pilot team also plans to reach out to other Blackboard users not engaged in the pilot through departmental visits, presentations, and Wonderful Wednesdays, then conducting surveys for feedback.

“We’ll be doing lots of surveys and demos to see how faculty and students feel about Canvas and how it compares to Blackboard,” Clontz says. “We’re still in the early stages of the evaluation, and we understand that this has to be a very deliberate and considered recommendation, so we want as much stakeholder input as possible.”  

Considering a change

Emory has been using Blackboard for more than 12 years. During that time, the LMS industry has made many changes and improvements, but Blackboard “has had a slow pace of innovation over the past several years,” Clontz says. Faculty members and students have complained about the “clunkiness” of the Blackboard user interface. “There’s not a lot of enthusiasm among our Blackboard users,” he says.

Canvas was chosen for consideration after researching the feedback from peer institutions and consulting with them, Clontz says.

“Canvas has a clean, consistent user interface and simple drag-and-drop functionality,” he says. “It’s a younger product, and the reality is that it doesn’t yet do as much as Blackboard, but the evaluation process is intended to assess how well it fulfills the needs of our students and faculty.”

The Canvas pilot team will analyze feedback from participants in the pilot, the demos, and other outreach methods and present preliminary findings and a recommendation to IT and university governance by spring semester to assess next steps.

Blackboard support will be unchanged while a decision is made based on feedback from the pilot. According to Kim Braxton, director of Academic Technology Services in LITS, if Canvas is approved, the transition to the new system is expected to take as long as four semesters, and would include an extensive communication plan, documentation, coordination and training for university faculty, students and staff.

“After hearing frustration from so many faculty and students about the Blackboard platform, we are excited to have the opportunity to bring to the campus an alternative product to road test and assess,” Braxton says.

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