University phases out Blackboard, introduces Canvas

| Senior Editor

Washington University is offering the online platform Canvas as an alternative for Blackboard to professors this fall, with the goal of phasing out Blackboard by fall 2019.

Since Blackboard was introduced to campus in 2011, students and faculty members have expressed frustration with the Learning Management System (LMS), one student going so far as to call it an “outdated, convoluted and mediocre system” in a Student Life column.

In fall 2017, the LMS Review Committee, a sub-domain committee of the University’s Teaching & Learning Domain Committee, reviewed Blackboard and decided to evaluate alternatives. The committee then organized an evaluation program where over 50 faculty members tested out two new systems: Canvas and Schoology.

In the evaluation program, half of the faculty piloted Canvas and the other half used Schoology. According to Kristi Lenz, the project manager for converting from Blackboard to Canvas, the feedback “was overwhelmingly positive in favor of Canvas.”

“As far as course platforms go, I’ve used Blackboard, Moodle, Canvas and a little bit of Wet Ink. Canvas is definitely my favorite,” said Kasey Grady, a Writing I professor and participant in the pilot program. “In the most superficial sense, it actually just looks nicer; it’s more polished and easier to navigate…It also just flat out works better than Blackboard did. Blackboard was often down for maintenance or it would lag or there would be glitches in it, and this one just doesn’t do that.”

In the spring and summer, Assistant Director of Residential Education Ashya Majied ran an RA education course called LEAD in Canvas.

“I felt like Canvas is really easy to use, and I think it took me about five hours to develop this class—to put everything on it and do everything I needed to do, but it was a lot of fun,” said Majied. “It was very easy to use and navigate once you got the hang of it. It’s more visually appealing than Blackboard, less cumbersome than Blackboard, too.”

As of Aug. 14, 420 instructors had uploaded courses in Canvas. During this transition year, however, Canvas and Blackboard will run in parallel.

“Students, in particular, will need to check both Blackboard and Canvas or check with their instructor to find out which system they’re using,” said Lenz.

Over 3,000 universities, school districts and institutions currently use Canvas. According to Lenz, peer institutions are switching to this “industry leader” because it has a “great support system in place and [is] a more modern, intuitive system.”
Both Lenz and Szaj highlighted the 24-hour support system offered to Canvas users.

“The University is contracted with Canvas for 24/7 support,” Lenz said. “So students can call, chat or e-mail Canvas support any time, day or night for any questions…We didn’t previously have that service with Blackboard.”

Grady found Canvas’ help services much more helpful than Blackboard’s. “I went into the Help page once, to watch a quick, concise YouTube video on how to set up an assignment for students,” she said. “It took me one watch—that was all I needed to get it up and running, which was substantially easier than trying to dig around the Blackboard help pages, which was sort of like going into the labyrinth.”

She also considered Canvas’ services superior to that of Blackboard.

“If I ever have to cancel class, I can put class on a discussion board and have everybody just chat there,” Grady said. “The few times where my office hours have not 100 percent not worked for a student, and I can’t find a way to get to school, there’s a chatroom feature in Canvas, where you can video chat, normal messenger chat and even upload your documents, so you can have a student paper on screen and you can video chat or conference with them.”

“Canvas has a whole bunch of external plugins that Blackboard didn’t have,” she added. “One of them is TurnItIn, like Blackboard’s SafeAssign, but flat out works a lot better…Literally my favorite part about this is the TurnItIn grading interface has all of these automatic bubbles that you can drag and drop into student papers. So, there’s a bubble for a comma splice error that will explain what the problem is to the student, so you don’t have to explain what a comma splice is a bunch of times.”

Majied agreed. “The SpeedGrader was super easy. You just click it and set up how you want it to be graded, and it was just really easy.”

By fall 2019, Canvas will be the sole University-supported Learning Management System in place for professors to use.

“We’re just starting off and it’s going to be phased again,” said Szaj. “They [the students] are so good with technology, I really don’t think it’ll be a big deal for students, because they catch on. They click and they figure it out. I think it’ll be really easy and a lot more reliable as well.”

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