Published August 7, 2014

Canvas beats Blackboard in 5 out of 6 criteria in assessment, presents opportunity for improved resource sharing

Move over, Blackboard — there’s a new learning management system in town.

Oregon State University chose to replace its online learning tool Blackboard with Canvas, a “next-generation” learning management system. This decision follows three years of assessment, including open evaluation from staff and students in Spring 2014. Canvas will replace Blackboard in stages over the coming year.

Dave King, associate provost of OSU Ecampus, said classes with online components need a more flexible and nimble online platform and Canvas can better meet OSU’s needs.

“Blackboard is a very well-structured and well-designed system that allows faculty members to understand it, learn it and make it work,” King said. “But flexible it was not. Nimble it was not.”

King hosted an open conference Friday to introduce Canvas and Unizin to OSU staff and faculty. He invited questions after his presentation. About 25 people were in attendance physically, with more than 40 present online.

Canvas vs. Blackboard

Students enrolled in certain classes were able to test Canvas and compare it to Blackboard. Their comparison used six testing measures: viewing grades, course content, announcements and instructor feedback, as well as submitting quizzes and assignments.

Student responses indicate that Canvas is easier to use in five of those measures, falling slightly behind Blackboard in viewing course content.

Jarrad Schulte, a senior in exercise and sport science, tested Canvas in a human anatomy and physiology course last spring.

“I really saw it as a vast improvement over Blackboard,” Schulte said via Facebook. “There was much more accessibility with calculating projected grades, viewing due dates for assignments and taking quizzes/tests.”

Sara Jameson, senior instructor and assistant director of writing, currently uses Blackboard heavily to add to her classes.

“If students like it, that’s really important,” Jameson said. “(Blackboard) is clunky, and it takes a lot of steps to get from one thing to the next. I always want to streamline and simplify.”

A consortium of universities

In addition to switching to Canvas, OSU is considering joining Unizin, a consortium of universities using Canvas and building a common digital infrastructure to support the missions of its members.

“It’s sort of like a union,” Jameson said. “If (universities) work together, they can have a larger voice in how things work and what they want, so they’re more able to get the learning experience they want through their university.”

According to Unizin’s web site, its founding members include Colorado State University, Indiana University, University of Florida and the University of Michigan. King said at least 10 institutions total are prepared to join Unizin.

King said Unizin will be able to collect data on a large scale that will help universities understand and improve user experience.

“In five years, we fully expect there to be 50 schools in this consortium,” King said.

More universities contributing data will result in better learning outcomes for all, he said.

Open-learning experience

Transitioning to Canvas and joining Unizin presents resource and course sharing opportunities. Instructors will be able to submit and access education modules, textbooks and other materials from a shared repository.

These materials can be used to build massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

King said one MOOC is already planned to be delivered through Canvas this October. It will be a course for teachers who want to be certified in English language instruction.

Kevin Ahern, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics, is a strong advocate for sharing academic resources. He said his free textbook has been downloaded by at least 92,000 individuals and he created a biochemistry MOOC that is available through iTunes University.

Ahern said OSU should offer courses broadly through high-traffic sites such as YouTube.

“You use freebies as advertising for paid offerings,” Ahern said. “We can get people to take freebies, and the freebie says ‘sign up for this paid class at OSU and get credit for it.’”

Ahern explained that other platforms, like Coursera and Udacity, have offered MOOCs developed by individual professors. But once a course is on the platform, it gets more credit for disseminating that class than the professor gets for teaching it.

“OSU wants to have some control over (the courses) and have some recognition for it. Unizin is about that,” Ahern says. “Overall, I think this is a very good move for OSU.”

Jodie Davaz, news reporter

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