It’s been a long time since I published something about VLE market share, I guess because we’re all happy with Canvas at Sunderland and aren’t looking for a replacement. Nevertheless, it came up in conversation a few days ago and I had a quick DuckDuckGo out of curiosity. Looks like lots of people are pretty happy with Canvas looking at that growth curve! Alas, poor Blackboard, we knew ye well.
The data in EduTechnica’s report pertains to US HE, but from my knowledge of the UK HE community, I wouldn’t expect a UK graph to look much different.
CanvasCon had to go online this year due to the pandemic, but the (very small) silver lining, is that it meant I got to attend. Some things worked very well in the new format, others not so much, but the content of the sessions was very high. I attended all of the keynote addresses from both Instructure and the guest speakers, a handful of the partner sessions, and a number of HE admin and Faculty led sessions which were presented by colleagues at institutions using Canvas.
The day began with a keynote and welcome address from Instructure which was the standard corporate fare of how well they are doing and how great Canvas is, but one slide really stood out for me (first screenshot above), on how they have managed capacity during the pivot to online learning. To paraphrase, all usage records have been broken, but not Canvas. Can confirm: we’ve had no significant outages or degradation of service at Sunderland. Interestingly they saw this coming in February when the impact of the pandemic was starting to be felt in Asia, and took pre-emptive action before lockdowns were implemented in the US and Europe.
‘Education makes you dangerous’ is a quote I’ll remember from LeVar Burton, the first guest keynote speaker who talked about his passion for education, storytelling, and his work with Reading Rainbow. Another nugget which struck a chord was the ‘right to define your own destiny’. It was a good speech, invigorating, a reminder of the purpose of education and why I have chosen this career.
Instructure’s Chief Product Officer, Mitch Benson, gave a presentation on their focus on innovation, and how they are going to continue to respond and adapt to the changing needs institutions have as a result of the pandemic, such as integrating more options for online tutoring and pastoral care. This segment was delivered as a newscast, and I have to say they absolutely nailed it. This could have been really cringy, but the mix of content and professionalism of the delivery was spot on. Bonus points for the panda co-host.
I then attended a couple of user-led sessions in the HE Admin conference strand. First, on how instructors are really using Canvas by Bob Edmison at Virginia Tech, who developed a ‘depth of use’ metric of data points indicating how, and how well, staff are using the VLE. I say VLE, because they started this work prior to migrating to Canvas from Sakai, and the metric was designed to be platform agnostic. It was a really interesting talk which will feed into the VLE usage standards project which is ongoing at Sunderland. The second session was Jim Federico at Microsoft who talked about how they are working with Instructure to build deeper integrations with Microsoft products, particularly Teams. It was a little hush-hush, I’m not sure how much I can say about this, but what they showed looked really good, and I’m looking forward to seeing these features rolled out over the coming year. Jim win’s my Pun of the Conference award for including a photo in his presentation of ‘On-Lawn Learning’.
I also jumped into some of the partner sessions which replaced the usual conference stalls where partner companies can showcase their wares. One good one I looked at was Qwickly which allows tutors to make batch changes to things like announcements and adjusting assignment settings. The partner sessions were delivered on a platform called Remo which attempts to replicate the boardroom style aesthetic of conferences. You can see this in one of my screenshots which I’ve posted above. I get what they are trying to do with this, but for me it absolutely did not work. I found it artificial and annoying. Rooms which had a presentation had an unnecessarily small thumbnail for it at the top where a stage would be, and the table metaphor was awful. To interact with anyone, you had to join a table and then you could only chat with people at that table. But it’s so artificial, and then it didn’t even work within its own context, as you can see in the screenshot, despite the ‘tables’ having six ‘chairs’, I couldn’t join a table with an open spot because it was actually limited to 5 for some reason. I have a feeling a lot of people shared my experience, as there was little interaction or evidence of any significant use in any of the rooms I entered, and I quickly lost interest in trying to engage with them.
That was it for me on the live day of the conference, as I wasn’t able to engage with any sessions running in the afternoon as, despite my boss instructing us to treat this like we were going away to a conference and keep our calendars free for it, people still put meetings in for me that I couldn’t decline, so that was something else that didn’t work. Not a failing of the conference itself, but of culture. I note it because it is something to be aware of when planning or attending online conferences. The flip side success is that Instructure recorded all of the presentations, so I was able to watch a few more things that I had missed out on in the following days.
The big one was the second guest keynote from Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy. This took the form of an interview which was a nice break, another example of doing something different from the usual format which worked well. Sal talked about how he founded and grew Khan Academy, from teaching maths skills to his immediate family, to 110 million users today. I enjoyed seeing Sal’s humanity, and humility; the extent of his sci-fi book collection which you could see behind him, and the need for a human touch was a theme that came up throughout the interview, and a key factor he attributes to the success of the Academy.
I also watched a few more end-user led sessions, including from Kona Jones on ‘Designing for Kindness’ in which the theme was something that goes that little bit beyond accessibility, to making content which induces students to learn by being helpful, friendly, and well-structured. It wasn’t so much the ‘tips and tricks’ that I got from this session, as I was pleased to note we’re pretty much doing everything that Kona recommended, but the emphasis on why. Checking the quality of your captions, for example, is not a chore we should do for the sake of legislative compliance, but an act of kindness towards students who may need to use them. That did resonate, and will inform how I deliver accessibility staff development in future. Finally, I watched the ‘Owning Your Data’ session from a couple of the techies at Instructure which talked about changes and improvements to the Canvas Data Portal and related planned changes to simplify the database structure.
Finally, finally, my coveted Bookcase of the Conference Award! If there is one big positive that has come of pandemic home working, it’s getting to nose at people’s bookcases. And judge them. Both LeVar Burton and Sal Khan gave their keynotes in front of some impressive collections, but they both lose points for having haphazard stacks. LeVar’s collection appears the more elegant and classy, very important considerations, but ruined by a TV right in the middle of them! For shame. Therefore, the award must go to Sal Khan and his impressive sci-fi. Well done Sal, and well done Instructure for managing to deliver an engaging and useful online conference which had some genuinely innovative ideas and experiments.
Joined Instructure’s accessibility webinar this afternoon to learn more about what they are doing on the accessibility of Canvas. With regards to the product itself, quality assurance developers assess the accessibility of new features throughout development, then they work with an external agency, WebAIM, to complete their VPAT (Voluntary Product Accessibility Template) to comply with US legislation.
With regards to content, they provide an accessibility checker tool which I learned today wasn’t their own thing, but UDOIT, an open source tool developed by the University of Central Florida. This can check web content, but not files like PowerPoint and Word documents like Blackboard Ally can. Instructure have also recently added Microsoft’s Immersive Reader as a beta feature, which will hopefully become a permanent addition.
This morning we had a visit from our account managers at Medial to give us a demonstration of the new version of Medial which we will be upgrading to imminently, and to discuss future developments. Version 6 provides new video editing options, the ability to batch import and apply metadata to videos, improvements to the live streaming part of the system, and the various options which are now available for adding closed captions to videos – either machine transcription or more accurate, but much more expensive, human services. The player has also been updated to add variable playback rate, from 0.5x to 2x speed.
We also discussed the practicalities of integrating Medial into Canvas, especially now that we also have reVIEW (Panopto) which has overlapping functionality, and some further changes planned for their next release.
Second day of Canvas fun, my first CanvasCon. Alas not the global one they had in Colorado this year. It was still huge. 650 attendees from 300 institutions across Europe, up from only 35 institutions four years ago.
The day began with a corporate keynote where they talked about the success of Canvas and what new things are coming – a Canvas Commons preview tool, yay! There was an overriding theme of small, incremental changes from the ground up, mirroring the agile development method behind the Canvas product itself.
The afternoon keynote by Alex Beard focused on pedagogy rather than technology, as he talked about innovate ways in which students learn across the globe such as the MIT Media Lab where students are given a huge amount of freedom to construct their own learning. One of the freebies that Instructure were giving away was a copy of his new book, Natural Born Learners, which I’ve already skimmed.
In between the keynotes were a diverse range of breakout sessions and the ones I attended were a mixed bag, some interesting insights about how Canvas is being deployed and lessons learned from some institutions, but some of the other sessions I didn’t get a lot from.
And of course then there was the networking, with time available in between sessions, at lunch and a cocktail reception at the end of the day to meet people and chat about their experiences.
Now how do I get the boss to agree to send me to the next one in Long Beach in July?
Isn’t it nice that the University are letting me get out and about again? In London for two days for the UK HE User Group today and CanvasCon Europe tomorrow.
Today was really useful. Around 40 of us from all over the country at St George’s Medical School in Tooting sharing our experience as Canvas users. In the morning we had a demonstration of anonymous and moderating marking from colleagues who are currently piloting it with positive results, though they noted that they have found a limited number of ways to circumvent the anonymisation. However, as they are all quite obscure and difficult they remain confident in the tool and are rolling it our further. It will be interesting to see how Instructure’s offering here compares with Turnitin’s pending anonymous and moderated marking tool.
Also in the morning we had some group discussions on different ways of using Canvas for assessment and feedback to stimulate discussion and share ideas and best practice.
In the afternoon we were joined by representatives from Instructure who gave us updates on their developments and allowed us to grill them quite freely. This is always an excellent opportunity to use our collective influence to nudge Canvas in a direction which helps to address the needs of the UK sector. The anonymous and moderated marking tool for example, is something that was proposed by, and has been driven by this group.
Instructure provided us with a progress report on our Top 10 priority development list from last year, as shown in the photo above, which shows ‘Non-Scoring Rubrics’ and ‘Analytics to include Mobile App Usage’ as complete, and most of the others in the design or development stages. Finally, we voted on the new Top 10 list for 2018-19. From a long list of suggestions collated prior to the User Group, each person at the group was allowed to vote for three issues, and I voted for QuickMark style functionality in SpeedGrader, improved Group functionality, and the ability to set Notifications by course. All things which I’m being pressed for by our academic community at Sunderland.
I was invited along to this event today to contribute to the continuing development of our medical programmes, specifically with regards to the integrations between various systems. Representatives were there from VEO and SMOTS, who provide systems for video based observation. They gave us updates on their services – VEO have been developing integrations for ePortfolio systems and a bespoke VLE used by one of their clients, and SMOTS can now take any video input as a feed. We will shortly be acquiring an ambulance outfitted with cameras and SMOTS integration to add to our range of training environments.
To provide students with the best possible experience we want to be able to give them a single point of access for all of our systems, including something new, possible just a web form, for booking the various rooms and equipment which are available to them for practice. That place will be the VLE, Canvas. The representative from VEO couldn’t say how the integrations they have been working on have been developed, but knowing the company and having met someone from their development team previously, I would be surprised if this wasn’t an LTI. And if it is an LTI, then integrating into Canvas should be pretty straightforward. It’s another case of having the right tool for the job, choosing Canvas the best decision the University could have made. This wouldn’t even have been a possibility with LearningStudio.
Attended a webinar for a demonstration of the new version of Analytics currently being developed for Canvas. The new version will bring a new look and make it easier for staff to get an overview of student performance in their modules and how it compares with other students. This is still in the early stages of development and the webinar was also to gain my feedback. What I think is missing from the demonstrated design is the ability to view and compare a student’s performance across different assignments in the same module, which was noted and should be fairly easy to implement, and across different modules in the same programme, much more difficult due to the way different institutions manage the relationship between programme and module spaces. With that in mind I have a follow up call next week to discuss how we would like to see this work, which is part of a broader consultation Instructure is having with the UK HE sector to better meet our needs in this area.
Watched a webinar recording explaining how the new(ish) Blueprint Courses tool works in Canvas. This is the tool that allows a kind of parent – child relationship between courses which gives you the ability to add and update content in the parent course and push it into any children. Potentially very useful to us here as Sunderland has multiple instances of courses for our various campuses and partner institutes.
Blueprint Courses was released just before we went live with Canvas in June, but not in time for us to test and integrate into our deployment plans. Instead, we created a ‘Master’ occurrence of every module with no student enrolments which gave staff a space to create the generic content which can then be copied into each live occurrence, but it’s a manual process. Blueprint Courses could give us a more elegant solution, or it could be used by us to control and deploy the university module template. Can it be used for both though, a Blueprint course deployed into another Blueprint course? That would allow us to use the tool for both purposes. Something to experiment with.
Having set a record for the implementation and deployment of a new VLE, it seems as though we have gotten through the start of the new academic year pretty unscathed. I still fear that there are parts of the integration of Canvas not working as they should, and the integration we do have with SITS is far from complete – doesn’t do updates or removals yet – but we are coping, and our academic community for the most part seem to be very pleased with the new system.
My team has expanded to the tune of two new interns who are here for six months to help us get over the implementation phase and the managed discontinuation of SunSpace; I finally got to do a shift with our live streaming service during graduations at the Stadium of Light in July; and I finished off another Storyline presentation for Pharmacy students – an online induction to a specific ePortfolio template they have to use.