The University of Maryland is saying goodbye to Blackboard Inc., the educational software company that has served as the institution’s enterprise learning management system (hereafter: ELMS) since 2007, and shaking hands with Instructure Inc. to welcome a new campus-wide, web-based platform for teaching and learning.
On July 16, 2012, the University of Maryland’s Division of Information Technology (DIT— formerly: OIT) announced the decision to adopt Instructure® Canvas® as the new ELMS, with a pilot run beginning in the fall semester of 2012. DIT hopes to have fully transitioned to Canvas by January 2013, according to its press release.
“The selection of a new, next-generation ELMS increases the university’s capacity to educate students for work and life in the 21st century,” proclaims Vice President of Information Technology and Chief Information Officer Brian D. Voss. Adding to that statement, DIT Director of Learning Technologies and Environments Chris Higgins describes Canvas as “easy to use, intuitive, and accessible” with collaborative opportunities and a prolific arena for “multimedia, e-portfolios, social media tools, and Web conferencing.”
Students attending the University of Maryland can access Canvas by logging in to https://umd.instructure.com/, where they will instantly see an activity feed of announcements generated by their respective courses. At the top of the home page is a navigation bar (menu) featuring “Courses,” “Assignments,” “Grades,” and a “Calendar.” Conveniently, students can hover over “Assignments” to see what’s been recently graded and what is due next.
On the right side is a reading pane that functions as a helpful organizational planner. The pane is divided into three sections: “To Do,” “Coming Up,” and “Recent Feedback.” Here’s the icing on the cake: Once students have completed an assignment, the check-mark icon next to the assignment name will turn green, giving them that “crossed-off item on list” satisfaction.
Each course has its own page and customizable appearance, with a left-hand navigation menu to organize content. Unlike Blackboard, Canvas houses a fluid, practical, and cohesive discussion space in which all threads, subsequent posts, and classmates are on the same page. Posts can neatly embed hyperlinks, images, and other multimedia content, while Blackboard just allows file attachments. In addition, students can edit their published posts and press a “Jump to Next Unread” button to do exactly that.
By contrast, once a post on Blackboard is submitted, there’s no option to edit or delete. “Canvas feels like a modern web-based application,” remarks senior computer science major Nate. “A lot has been learned in the time since Blackboard was introduced, and it’s nice to see those lessons applied to create a more friendly experience.”
Perhaps one way to sum up the differences between Blackboard and Canvas is by pointing out that there is more equalized opportunity for students and faculty on Canvas. Much of Blackboard’s content management and any modifications—even to posts composed by students—are handled by teachers, who possess administrative credentials and who see the site quite differently. On Canvas, students and teachers can interact more “personally,” and the dynamic more closely mimics that of a face-to-face environment. “It allows for a remarkably smoother transition from inside the classroom to outside,” observes senior English major Jane*, who is using Canvas in one of her classes this semester. “Now, the in-class discussion and the sense of community that it creates are not left behind in the room.”
Conceived a whole decade earlier than Canvas, Blackboard is a more traditional platform, and its name might dictate the image of a teacher standing at the head of a classroom, a piece of chalk in his or her hand. Canvas paints a portrait of teacher and students interacting, blending, and learning—a mixed array of colors.
Despite all of the new features boasted on Canvas, some students are skeptical of the change. “I’m not saying Blackboard is amazing, but we should be careful to not jump on something just because it is new,” says junior journalism major Matt*.
As the pilot semester unfolds and more teachers prepare for the switch, University of Maryland faculty will investigate if Canvas contributes to producing better-equipped students—better “artists”— who can produce a better future.
Explore the Instructure Canvas home page at http://www.instructure.com/.
*These names have been altered to respect the privacy concerns of the individuals.