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Canvas Network – Are the LMS and MOOC Markets Colliding?

This article was originally posted at e-Literate

Six weeks ago I posted a new graphic on the LMS market which included MOOCs in the same view as traditional LMS solutions.

In the comments to the post there was an interesting note from Josh Coates (Instructure CEO) in response to whether MOOCs should be so closely aligned with the LMS market:

i agree with you [fellow commenter Bob Puffer] that MOOCs aren’t the same thing as an LMS and should be accounted for differently.

With the recent news of the Coursera / Antioch partnership as well as Instructure’s release of the Canvas Network, I believe we are starting to see the LMS market overlap with the MOOC market, although I do not see them completely merging. After offering to fix Josh’s broken shift key, I’d like to explore the prospects for the Canvas Network to compete in the MOOC marketplace.

Coursera / Antioch

The first announcement was that Coursera has evolved their platform definition based on the new agreement with Antioch College. From Steve Kolowich at Inside Higher Ed:

For Coursera, which is still building its MOOC empire with venture capital, the Antioch deal is a first step toward developing a product that it can sell to colleges: “self-contained” online course platforms, complete with built-in content and assessment infrastructure.

“It’s an LMS [learning management system] that’s wrapped around a very high-quality course,” says Koller, the co-founder. “It’s not just the box, it’s a course in a box.”

While we don’t know how serious Coursera is in pursuing this model, it is quite clear that they see an opportunity in the combination of learning platform and content to be sold to institutions – a variation or augmentation of the LMS market. Will Udacity follow suit, or will Coursera expand this model? We don’t know, but watch Antioch as a bellweather for migration from MOOC into the LMS market.

Canvas Network

In the second event Instructure announced the Canvas Network, which positions the company as a competitor to Coursera, Udacity and edX in delivering MOOCs.

“We believe the people who know best how to transform learning are teachers and students, so through the Canvas Network we’re enabling them to experiment with new teaching methodologies with more flexibility and less constraints,” said Brian Whitmer, co-founder and chief product officer at Instructure.

Canvas Network allows institutions to define the structure of their courses and the approach to teaching that makes the most sense to them. Some institutions have chosen to pursue a massive open online course format (MOOC), and some have chosen to pursue a smaller online course format with more interaction. Often the courses are taught on the same platform the institution uses to teach tuition-based courses, which means students have a seamless experience as they progress through their academic journey.

The Canvas Network shows real signs of being more than just a pilot program. There are already 21 courses listed from multiple institutions, with the first courses to begin January 2013. During EDUCAUSE, Canvas Network was the primary marketing message from Instructure, and several of Instructure’s customers told me that they were already developing their MOOCs or planned to do so very soon.

It’s worth reading Audrey Watters in her post on the announcement as well as Michael’s Feldstein in his analysis from last week, which included the following summary:

And let’s be clear: This is not, in and of itself, about improving the quality of open course pedagogy or experience. It is about improving open course discoverability.

More interesting than the new features are the comments made by Instructure management. First, Instructure Co-Founder Brian Whitmer said to both me and ZDNet’s Christopher Dawson that this isn’t just about MOOCs. It’s about open education in general. He stressed in his conversation to me that we don’t really know what MOOCs are good for yet, and it is therefore important to empower schools to experiment. If you think about it from that perspective, then making courses more discoverable is a reasonable place to start. CEO Josh Coates echoed this sentiment in his conversation with Campus Technology, along with an interesting follow-on bit:

“MOOCs are a part of education,” rather than the be-all and end-all of education. And he characterized the service as an “alternative platform that isn’t only for the elite schools. We’re opening up a platform for everyone else” and, he said, providing support for “dozen to tens of thousands of students.”

Are Blackboard and Desire2Learn also moving into MOOC territory?

Blackboard scored a marketing mini-coup on the same day as the Instructure announcement by re-announcing Coursesites as a MOOC platform, thereby raining on the Canvas Network parade. While Blackboard had already started this effort with the Bonkopen MOOC in Spring 2012, it appears to me that there is not a new strategy here – just stating that 3 schools had decided to build future MOOCs on Coursesite. Of these 3 schools, ASU has repudiated their part of the announcement per the Chronicle article’s update.

While Blackboard did succeed in watering down the Canvas message, the real focus of Blackboard’s learning platform strategy is on the new MyBlackboard tool that is the second release in Blackboard’s new platform strategy.

For its part, Desire2Learn is currently delivering part of the Change / Future State for Education (aka EdFutures, aka CFHE12) MOOC. This is the first attempt, to my knowledge, of using a traditional LMS for a connectivist style cMOOC.

Desire2Learn, however, does not appear eager to enter the MOOC market. Based on conversations at EDUCAUSE, they are planning to enable their current clients to develop MOOCs using their platform, but there is not intention to take the step of addressing the discoverability of MOOCs and making this a core part of their strategy.

Pearson does consider MOOCs as part of their strategy, but not their LMS strategy. They are approaching MOOCs from the testing / certification perspective with Pearson VUE.

Consider this simple test: go to the respective web sites of the LMS vendors and determine how many clicks or searches are required to discover all of the open online courses that are available or planned to be available. At this stage, only Instructure is strategically migrating into the MOOC market.

What are the prospects of the Canvas Network?

The beauty of open education – whether it be open source software, open educational resources, open access, or open online classes – is that the market does not represent a zero-sum game. Therefore when I ask what the prospects are for Canvas in the MOOC market, it is not necessary for Instructure to displace Coursera, Udacity or edX. Open online courses are reaching new audiences and growing rapidly. The challenge for the Canvas Network is to develop a significant, self-sustaining business model for both Instructure and its clients in a new market. This market, however, requires scale and relies on the network effect – where the value of the network is strongly tied to the number of participants in the network.

In comparison to the big three MOOC platforms, the strengths of the Canvas Network include the following:

  • Instructure has an existing revenue model that works, and they can afford to explore different online education models.
  • The Canvas Network essentially democratizes MOOCs, allowing non-elite institutions to develop open online courses at scale. This is important as elite research institutions are not necessarily the best source for quality teaching and learning. A great deal of the innovation in course design and pedagogy in higher education comes from the non-elite institutions, many of whom are chomping at the bit to show the quality of their faculty and courses.
  • The Canvas Network has a built-in network of 260+ schools to create open online courses based on their current customer base. Likewise, they have ~4.5 million students already using the platform. The largest MOOC provider, Coursera, has 1.85 million users, but they are growing at a rate of ~70,000 per month.
  • Since the Canvas Network is tied to the Canvas LMS at the 260+ schools, there will be some interesting opportunities to migrate students into credit-bearing courses. Similarly, any school using a Canvas MOOC as a marketing / qualification tool will benefit from prospective students interacting directly on the same platform they would use if enrolled at the institution.
  • While Coursera, Udacity and edX talk about the potential of analytics across such large user populations, Instructure has a real opportunity to leverage the new Canvas analytics tools, particularly if they can share the results publicly. Hmm, open analytics anyone?

At a joint EDUCAUSE session this week alongside Coursera’s ubiquitous Daphne Koller, Brian Voss (CIO of the University of Maryland) related his personal MOOC story that is quite illustrative. Brian shared a timeline for July 17, 2012:

  • 3am: Coursera announces addition of 12 new partner institutions
  • 9am: Brian calls several CIO friends at the partner institutions
  • 10:30am: The University of Maryland president calls Brian
  • 12:00pm: Brian is in the president’s office for a 90 minute conversation on MOOCs

Just a few weeks later, Maryland signed on with Coursera, and by October 4 courses were online.

Think about this for a minute. Presidents (and to a lesser degree provosts) are now driving the decisions on MOOCs, and major decisions and implementations are occurring within a few short months. The CIOs such as Brian Voss are instrumental in the process, but it is the president’s initiative, the president’s requirements, and the president’s schedule that are driving the MOOC processes.

Herein lies the greatest barrier for the Canvas Network to succeed in the MOOC market. Presidents and the popular media know Coursera, they know Udacity, they know edX. Coursera’s marketing department (aka the NY Times) is unparalleled in getting campus presidents’ attention. Instructure does not tend to have this direct access to the people driving the popularity and adoption of MOOCs. Hopefully the institutions involved in the Canvas Network do not have a false set of expectations on the challenges to getting the M in MOOC (massive).

For better or worse, Coursera and Udacity provide consistent, simple-to-understand, experiences across their courses. They have a consistent course design approach built in to the platforms. While Instructure provides instructional design support, a great deal of the design will be left up to the schools. This approach will likely lead to innovative learning opportunities, but at the same time it also runs the risk of inconsistent experiences and even poor design in terms of open online course needs. Coursera and Udacity are optimized to get students into the course and into the material with very little friction.

It seems to me that Instructure has a very real chance to become a viable MOOC provider and even to enable institutions to improve open online courses design. However, the Canvas Network is just the first move, and there is work yet to be done by both Instructure and their institutional clients.

Thinking ahead, if the Canvas Network succeeds, I see two key impacts on the MOOC and LMS markets.

  • The richer feature set of LMS vendors will push the MOOC vendors to offer more options for course design.
  • The other LMS vendors will likely develop their own strategies to get beyond pilot projects and actually address the MOOC market opportunities, including the crucial aspect of discoverability.

However this development turns out, I do believe the LMS and MOOC markets are starting to overlap and influence each other.

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