I’ve attended InstructureCon, or CanvasCon as it once was, pretty much every year since Sunderland went over to Canvas in 2017, and I’ve always wanted to present but didn’t feel like I had a good enough topic. This year I’m proud to announce that I will be presenting on our experience of implementing Studiosity through Canvas over the past year, supported by my spiritual other half at our London Campus, Evi.
Our presentation is attached below, and I’m sure our actual presentation will be available online after the conference. Alas, it is a recorded one, much as I would have liked the University to send me off to Barcelona to present in person. (Damn you, Dan!)
A second online only event for CanvasCon as the pandemic rumbles on, with two key differences from last year’s event: first of all, this event combined both all of Instructure’s various wares, not just, Canvas, and all regions – the Americas, EMEA, etc. And secondly, it was, to be blunt, a bit rubbish. I’ll get more positive and have nice things to say towards the end of this post, but I’ll proceed in order.
You have to go into events of this nature expecting a deal of corporatisation and marketing nonsense, but last year Instructure managed to get product and company updates to us via the means of a news broadcast style segment which worked well and was entertaining. In contract, this year felt like whatever private equity firm(s) currently own Instructure had sucked all life and soul out of them. The morning keynote was a roundtable discussion between what was effectively eight different marketing people heavily selling technological solutionism. A particular low point was reached when trying to sell the benefits of Canvas for Elementary. Do elementary school children (primary school), really need a VLE? Really?
This was followed by a ‘partner and product hall’ for corporate sponsors of the event to sell their wares, and were divided into platinum, gold and silver tiers depending on how much money they had paid Instructure to be there (I imagine). I engaged with these out of desire to try and get the digital badges and swag that were on offer (damn you psychology!), but there was very little value in the experience. They used a platform called Bizzabo to host these, and like Remo last year, it was awful, though for different reasons. They don’t support Safari, my default browser, the Microsoft session had an animated banner in the background which was completely distracting, and a number of sessions I went into just had no-one there, or, in one case, had people complaining about how the service wasn’t working for them as hosts. I did manage to have a good discussion with folks from PebblePad as I was keen to see what it looks like now and what it can do, as I’m involved in a small project looking for an ePortfolio solution for a midwifery programme that goes beyond what we can accomplish with Mahara.
In our third contrast with last year’s CanvasCon, the afternoon keynote was from will.i.am, and it was a rambling, incoherent mess, though he came dangerously close to making some salient points at times. While LeVar Burton’s keynote last year could be criticised for being a little too generic, it was well-argued and coherent, and more importantly, it was genuinely inspiring and motivational.
The conference was saved by the afternoon partner-led sessions – educators talking about education, and how they’ve used various Instructure tools to help and support them – this is what it should have been all about. I attended five such sessions in the afternoon, three of which were a bust for different reasons, but in a concerted effort to end on a positive note and take something constructive out of the day, I’ll focus on the two that were genuinely good.
“Quick Quality Guide: 10 Take-Home Tips to Make Your Course Sexy” from Florida International University, was a presentation on their top-tips for engaging and accessible course design using a metaphor of ‘sexy / fashionable’. Lots of Universal Design for Learning on show here, including using multiple measures of assessment, and a wide variety of different course materials. They also talked about using a landing page with key information, having a learner support page, and using course structure tools, like the Syllabus tool in Canvas, to aid design and navigation.
“Why Microlearning is Real Learning” by Dr Peter Thomas of HaileyburyX was another excellent session discussing the benefits of micro learning – content chunked into 2-5 minute sessions, and 15 minutes at most, as a way to reduce extraneous cognitive load, replicate real-world environments where people often have to learn tasks very quickly, and exploit attention grabbing mechanisms like Twitter and TikTok do so successfully, but for good intent!
All of the session recordings, including the other 85 peer / partner breakout sessions I couldn’t attend, are available to watch online here. Colleagues inform me that they attended some good sessions too, on the coming improved Teams integrations with Canvas for example, so maybe I was just a little unlucky in what I chose to attend. We’re all in agreement that you can probably skip the keynotes though!
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.
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?
Had a live demonstration of Instructure’s Canvas from an old Northumbria colleague, who is now at the University of Hull where they have just rolled out Canvas as their new VLE. It looks like a different generation system compared with what we’re using at Sunderland at the moment, LearningStudio, and the technical and customer support Hull has received has been second to none. For example, they are using PebblePad as their ePortfolio solution and Instructure built an LTI integration to link the two systems within days, free of charge. Other available integrations are extensive, and includes Mahara and Turnitin. The ‘Commons’ feature looks very nice, it allows people to easily import and publish courses from a central Canvas repository – it could be a good way to finally get some traction on OER use.
Other nice features include a central ‘Files’ area that allows content to be reused across different course sites; the ability to publish calendars to Google Calendar, Exchange and other calendar services; an online marking system provided by Crocodoc (which Blackboard added a couple of years ago); a fully functional student view mode; the ability to record audio and video from anywhere that uses the virtual text-box editor; a quiz tool with 12 questions types, including an equation editor; and a user masquerade function which works as well as Mahara’s.
There are some issues with it as well, of course. There is currently no SITS integration which is going to cause them problems if they want to gain some serious market penetration in the UK, but I am told they are working on this with Tribal. There is also no built-in conferencing or whiteboard tool, but there are integrations available for BigBlueButton and, I believe, Blackboard Collaborate which is what we currently use through LearningStudio. Mobile access was disappointing, as they have taken an apps approach rather than responsive design. There are three different apps available for iOS and Android devices which serve different functions, one of which is for audience response, which is nice. Support for SCORM and Storyline is a potential issue as they have had problems with it at Hull that we would need to investigate further. There is no integration for Medial (Helix) at the moment, though Medial do seem to be gauging the market in preparation for working on one. Finally there is cost, which, for obvious reasons I can’t say too much about. But it is more than LearningStudio. A lot more.
Overall the demonstration and discussion was a very positive experience. Hull are the latest UK institution to adopt Canvas, joining five others, so Intructure are gaining some traction here. In the US they’re storming the market! Check out the latest market share report from Edutechnica.