There’s a serious new contender on the VLE market, and its name is Canvas. Developed by two BYU graduates in 2008, the system has made a big splash in the edtech market, and is now the virtual learning environment of choice for over 800 institutions in the US.

Recently, Instructure, the company behind Canvas, has set its sights firmly on the UK and discovered a nation of educators weary of Blackboard and Moodle. But are we truly ready to embrace the new kid on the block?

On behalf of the Greenwich Connect Distance Learning Working Group, I invited Richard Horton, Instructure’s UK Regional Director, to visit the University of Greenwich this week to offer an insight into the new platform and its capabilities. Turns out he had a lot to show us.

First impressions

If you’re used to Moodle or Blackboard, the first thing that strikes you when you log in to Canvas is the minimalist simplicity of the landing page. No long, static course lists here, but instead a super-clean dashboard offering a global overview of everything that is likely to be important to the individual user. Recent announcements from your tutors, new assignments, looming deadlines, and a personalised To Do list — all swathed in acres of white space. To use Richard’s term, there’s more than a pinch of “Google-esque” in this sparse design.

Drag-and-drop magic comes as standard, which makes rearranging your calendar and uploading course content a breeze. But the real thrill for the newbie is the seamless integration with other web platforms. Canvas is a cloud-native environment, which makes it ridiculously simple to incorporate social media and collaborative online tools right inside the platform — just as we’ve come to expect everywhere else in our Web 2.0 world.

Seamlessly networked

Individual users, whether students or teachers, can connect Canvas to their Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Pinterest accounts. Announcements, assignments, discussions and events from their course will reach students wherever they happen to be hanging out in their digital ecosystems. Even more impressive is that they can respond to discussions in Canvas directly from their social networks — all while keeping their social login details private.

This networked integration reflects the core philosophy behind the platform. “The whole idea of Canvas,” Richard explained, “is trying to take education to the students where they are, rather than hoping that they’re going to come into the VLE and check things on a regular basis.” The Canvas App Centre, which features over 140 social and collaborative apps ready to install with a single click, is an exciting manifestation of these values.

Creating from within

Another key feature of Canvas is the ease with which multimedia content can not only be embedded, but actually sourced or created from within the platform. Wherever a tutor or student can input information of any kind, they are presented with the Rich Content Editor. This is like Moodle’s text editor on steroids. It performs all the expected functions, like editing text and uploading images or video. But it also has a built-in search function that will scour the landscapes of YouTube or Flickr to find creative commons media that you can embed directly into a forum post, announcement, quiz or — well just about anywhere. All without leaving Canvas.

The Rich Content Editor can also use your computer’s webcam to record video messages directly from your machine, and then post the clip wherever you want it in Canvas immediately. The fact that students can do the same makes asynchronous video conversations not only possible, but surprisingly simple to conduct.

Assessment and feedback

The webcam feature really comes into its own for assessment and feedback in Canvas. The built-in SpeedGrader enables learners to submit their work as a Word document or PDF for the tutor to view on-screen. The tutor can annotate the document within Canvas, using a variety of built-in commenting and highlighting tools, and the learner can then comment on the feedback.

More detailed conversations can be held between tutor and student on the same screen as the annotated assignment, using either text-based messaging or short video recordings created with the Rich Content Editor in the sidebar. In short, these communication tools facilitate much richer feedback and engagement around submitted assignments than students typically receive in traditional paper-based assessment.

Virtual classrooms

The coup de grâce for the competition, at least in terms of group work and collaboration, must be the seamless integration Canvas achieves with web conferencing platforms. Adobe Connect, for example, opens up right inside the Canvas interface to enable document and screen sharing, live presentations, and all the other interactive features we’ve come to expect from standalone virtual classroom tools. The fact that students can initiate web conferences between each other just as easily as the tutor can, is a particularly exciting feature for proponents of collaborative group work and student creativity.

Incidentally, if you’re a teacher who fancies launching a MOOC independently, Canvas has got you covered. You can set up an unlimited number of courses on the Canvas Network, a MOOC platform second only to Coursera in terms of user numbers. Plus, thanks to Instructure’s Free-for-Teacher scheme, if your classes are free for your students, they’re free for you to teach.

What’s the catch?

Canvas makes the VLE look effortlessly cool — even fun. It is automatically updated by Instructure every three weeks, with no effort on the part of the customer. It integrates comprehensively with major institutional student record systems, and it works well on most mobile devices. So what’s the catch? Why are we not all clamouring to embed this Instructure innovation into our institutional infrastructures?

Well, apart from the general sector-wide inertia towards change, it seems that some just don’t like its face. Out of the box, the appearance of Canvas seems a little … stark. Without a variety of themes to choose from, it can be hard to imagine how the appearance could be customised by anyone other than a CSS or JavaScript guru. According to Richard, it is possible to change the look and feel, but most customers choose not to. Evidently the standardised, almost Spartan look holds greater aesthetic allure for customers across the pond.

Also, many UK higher education institutions require blind or double blind marking of assessments. Recent versions of other platforms like Moodle have started to offer this functionality. Although Instructure has received many requests for blind-marking capabilities, this is not a feature that Canvas currently offers. Richard’s assurances that it is high on their list of priorities may offer hope enough for some to take the plunge.

Overall, Canvas is an impressive cloud-based platform that seems aeons ahead of more familiar VLE choices that struggle to stay relevant in a Web 2.0 educational landscape. It may take a little time for Canvas to gain a major foothold in the UK, but from what Richard shared with us at Greenwich, it seems like a strong possibility.

The University of Birmingham jumped ship from WebCT a year ago to adopt Canvas as its main institutional VLE. Judging from the video above, they don’t seem to have looked back since. It’s early days yet, but so far the platform certainly looks like it could be — to quote the Instructure website — a “breath of fresh air” for online learning.