From Blackboard to Canvas

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Canvas is expected to be fully implemented by winter 2015.

No doubt, students on campus have been adjusting to the College’s transition from Blackboard to Canvas as the College’s learning management system. Canvas, which has been gradually implemented, is now used in more than half of spring term courses. Three-quarters of Dartmouth undergraduates are using Canvas for at least one of their spring courses, and Canvas is expected to be fully implemented by the winter of 2015. Thus, The Dartmouth Review felt that this would be an opportune time to sit down with Educational Technologies staff and professors to better understand Canvas’s implementation.

The search for a new learning management system was driven by the impending expiration of the College’s Blackboard license. At this point, the College had the two distinct options of moving to an upgraded version of Blackboard or an entirely new system. To decide, Dartmouth put together a steering committee, which consisted mostly of faculty but also included some students and staff.

In choosing Canvas as the College’s next learning management system, Educational Technologies staff looked at all the available options and quickly narrowed the choices down to five popular platforms: Sakai, Moodle, a newer version of Blackboard, Canvas, and Desire to Learn. Educational Technologies communicated with other institutions using all five of these platforms to learn more about them. Sakai and Moodle, both of which are free and open source, were quickly ruled out because they would be expensive to implement and support. Desire to Learn was slow in implementing pilot environments and was then also ruled out.

Weighing the two remaining options, the College conducted pilots with actual courses to gather feedback from students and faculty. The costs of implementing the two platforms were also considered. Throughout this process, the steering committee gathered information, including references from other institutions.

One of the main advantages of Canvas that was cited most often among test classes was its flexibility and modularity. While the College was able to customize Blackboard, any customization would have to be implemented system-wide. Thus, a change made for one course would have ramifications for the other seven hundred or so courses, forcing Academic and Campus Technology Services to exercise extreme caution and avoid specializing the site for individual faculty needs. By contrast, Canvas allows customizations to be made for a single class, a single department, or single faculty member. It is also important to note that the process of implementing customizations is quicker. Previously, when faculty members approached Academic and Campus Technology Services, it would often take several months to integrate the functionality they desired. Now, with Canvas, the same functionality can be integrated within days.

Alan Cattier, the Director and Associate Chief Information Officer (CIO) of Academic and Campus Technology Services, heavily emphasized the agility and power of the new Canvas system. The instructional designers that Educational Technologies employs are able to work with faculty members to implement the tools that Canvas provides in a manner specific to different courses. Cattier expects the adaptability of Canvas to change the way courses are taught, while College President Phil Hanlon ’77 has also noted Canvas as a major component of the College’s academic future.

Assistant Professor of History Paul Musselwhite, a freshman faculty member who has used both Blackboard and Canvas, is pleased with Canvas overall. In an interview with The Dartmouth Review, he praised the smooth transition and overall effectiveness demonstrated by Educational Technologies while pointing out the increased flexibility of Canvas. For his first-year seminar entitled “Founding Colonies in Seventeenth-Century America,” he was able to integrate readings with the overview pages and link them to the calendar feature, something he was unable to do in Blackboard. He also appreciated the ability to create collaborative groups for students and the ability to provide audio feedback on papers. In particular, Professor Musselwhite is enthusiastic about Canvas’s multimedia features, such as posting videos related to the topics discussed in his seminar.

Professor Musselwhite also explained a few of the drawbacks of Canvas. He noted that there was a learning curve to the platform, and he described how it takes more time and effort to make a Canvas course look as professional as a Blackboard course. Moreover, he said that some of his students faced technical difficulties in uploading papers and navigating the site, but he expects this problem to be resolved as students and faculty become more acquainted with the platform.

Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Sharon Bickel provided a different perspective. This term, Professor Bickel was instructed to switch from Blackboard to Canvas for her foundation Cell Biology class. However, she refused to do so. Professor Bickel felt that experimenting with the transition for a large, introductory course containing many high-strung pre-medical students would cause unnecessary angst, saying she would prefer to test Canvas with a smaller, higher-level course. That being said, she mentioned that the overall reception to Canvas within the Biology Department and among students was positive.

In an interview with The Dartmouth Review, Barbara Knauff, Senior Instructional Technologist of Educational Technologies, further described the positive reception to Canvas. Knauff said that she has received unsolicited emails from faculty praising Canvas. Moreover, she noted that surveys conducted during winter term showed that students favored Canvas five-to-one. Educational Technologies has also conducted focus groups in which students tested similar tasks in both learning management systems. In these focus groups, most students concluded it was not particularly important which platform was used. However, it was important to students that faculty members be able to use the platform well and improve the student experience. And overall, faculty members prefer Canvas.

Canvas’ superior multimedia features are especially convenient in an increasingly networked world, while the system also gives users more control over notifications and the integration of the system into their academic life. Although Canvas is not perfect (in particular, numerous students have commented on the way it is organized), the College displayed a rigorous approach in selecting it, and the reception of the new platform should improve over time as faculty, staff, and students become more familiar. Implementation is ongoing, but has already proven smooth and professional. Canvas is a functional system that demonstrates positive technological change, in contrast to the ill-advised shift from BlitzMail to Microsoft Outlook. The Dartmouth Review hopes that the College can continue to make such well-reasoned decisions under the leadership of President Hanlon.

Joon H. Cho also contributed to this article.