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Friday August 1st 2014
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Opinion: I’m a new Open Source LMS and all the other ones suck

It’s basically the gist of the press release and ensuing media coverage of “Canvas” by Instructure, a fledgling learning management software company from Utah.  Their base level LMS was announced as the newest open source player to much hoopla yesterday in the major education-focused blogs and news sites:

I think this is great.  I love testing new software and competition breeds innovation no matter how “old guard” the players in the marketplace might be.  It’s also nice to see (sometimes) the snarky, brash CEO of a new start-up throw down the gauntlet publicly and pick a fight with the biggest players in the industry.

The release of Instructure’s Canvas (which is their open source, unsupported but available for download) does matter for Moodle and other other current LMS players, but not as much as the flurry of news might suggest.

Yes, there is a version of Instructure’s LMS available as open source; but there also is a tiered, hosted SaaS model on which Instructure is built.  Instructure’s greatest strength is that it’s a new player (and has been designed from the ground up in the last 2 years).  Instructure however has cornered only 26 clients (the majority of which were gained through a contract in Utah, which was surrounded by it’s own controversy).

It will be interesting to watch the activity surrounding their open source version and community.  Other issues they’ll need to triage: is it easy to install, will it be available through cPanels, what’s the usage learning curve?  More importantly though its release begs the question: “If you build it they will come” is not necessarily the best way to garner clients and users in the LMS marketplace; so what truly are the tools and features that attract users and is Instructure the only LMS capable of having them?

Have you given it a test drive or are you using it currently?  Share your experience in the comments.

¹There’s another opinion piece at Educhalk.org which I think has some quality insights and thoughts on the Canvas LMS, open source and Moodle’s current and future struggles: http://educhalk.org/blog/2011/02/canvas-lms-goes-open-source-an-appealing-alternative-to-moodle/

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15 Responses to “Opinion: I’m a new Open Source LMS and all the other ones suck”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I had these guys come in and demo their system for us. To be honest, I liked it better than Brainhoney from Agilix (which I have used in a production environment). If I were going to choose a new LMS, I think it would be between Moodle (probably) and Instructure (if I were looking for a hosted model).

    Their in-browser video recording features are particularly nice, especially for technophobic instructors.

  2. bmp says:

    I’ve used Moodle and another small, privately owned LMS for several years. I would use Canvas in a heartbeat. It’s thin on a handful of features I would like to have, mostly due to its newness, but it’s hands-down the easiest LMS I’ve ever used (have tested several others). I hope they can make it in this increasingly crowded marketplace. They’ve nailed the sweetspot of great functionality and ease-of-use.

  3. Joseph Thibault says:

    Thanks for the comments! I tried out canvas over the last few months when Instructure was created and found that the claims in some of the articles were not necessarily true: specifically how “easy” it is to convert course content from other LMSs, including quiz questions. There are a few options, but if you’re moving from one system to another it’s still going to include some major administrative/conversion efforts to get pre-created courses converted to Instructure (but this is quite the same for all LMSs.

    I also found it interesting that Canvas also relies on the standard three column layout which most LMSs have embraced, some combination of Navigation (left), content (middle) and additional information (right) which is common to Moodle and Blackboard (though Bb uses a 2-column layout primarily). It will be interesting to watch the LMS market over the next few years for sure.

  4. dude says:

    I remember when Sakai was going to be the next huge thing and knock everyone else out… A few years later and it is barely on the radar.

    The other thing to consider with this product is that if it really was any good, and/or really managed to get a foothold in the market, BB would be all over it.

  5. Michael says:

    I’ve been evaluating open source educational software since 1998, one of the first things I check into is whether the OSS has a strong community of support, non-core contributors, etc. This gives a sense of the long term viability of the code if the originator moves on, etc.

    Not sure how that applies to a commercial company releasing it’s code, it’s happened a few times, but I can’t recall a case where it’s been good for the code or the company – can anyone?

    A code dump on github perhaps was done to check off a requirement in an RFP, rather than to build a strong volunteer community of users, testers, and contributors around a core codebase, it will be interesting to see how this experiment plays out- will a community spontaneously arise? Will commercial partners begin offering alternative hosting? How will Instructure handle this if it does?

    “if it really was any good…BB would be all over it.”

    Agreed, like with Prometheus, WebCT, Angel, etc. BB will wait until Canvas has significant revenue/marketshare, then before buying it out. I’m not sure how the Affero GPL license will affect this – if there is not a viable community of users built up around the codebase, then the OSS release will likely not be forked by volunteers when the company gets bought.

  6. Joseph Thibault says:

    Michael, great comment. I haven’t been covering the LMS market for very long, but I would agree that even though Canvas might be OS, if it starts to gain market share it’s acquisition prospects will increase (and not just BB will be a window shopper).

  7. Danny Wahl says:

    My only fear in seeing a tiered support and/or host package is that there is almost inevitably a divide between the actual software used.

    This was the case with Kaltura CE, not only was there no support for the community version, but the sales representative told me that they had fixed several bugs and committed them to their hosted platforms, but not to the public repository.

    It’s great if you’re open-source and fixing bugs, but if the bug fixes never get pushed into a public repository, is it really open source? – and are you really just selling hosting if part of your sales pitch is that the private servers have bugs fixed that the public repositories don’t? I think the answer is no. So it’s like Michael says, you need to have a community of non-core contributers, and I would add you need to have a public repository.

  8. UI is really clear, makes moodle look like a relic of a distant era me.

  9. Kevin says:

    A couple of observations since this article was written.
    Instructure has since picked up many customers. Over 75 now, so that is quite a few in just 7 months, not counting the many open source installs. Recent additions include Brown, Alamo, New Mexico State, Western New Mexico, Auburn to name the ones I have seen in the news lately.

    It appears to me to be a product with a vision. Josh Coates the CEO said the code base of the SaaS and Open Source version will be the same, but cited some 3rd party integration tools that would not be in the open source because of licensing agreements or copyrighted code of those vendors.

    Because it is a cloud native app (vs an app hosted in a rack and stack hsoted enviornment) it is build to scale automatically by monitoring load and bringing additional app servers online ahead of peak demands, and then killing them off when the load goes down.

    So far I am impressed.

  10. Ricky says:

    Our school recently divorced Blackboard and married Canvas. I just went to InstructureCon 2012 and there were over 600 in attendance. This was triple from last year, so I imagine their client base has grown significantly since this article was written. We are in week 5 of launching Canvas and it’s been awesome! Migrating 1200+ Blackboard Vista courses was easier than migrating to Bb Learn. Canvas offered many training resources to pass along to faculty. Our technical calls from students to our Help Desk are nearly gone, but we still get the usual username/password calls, which isn’t related to the LMS. Overall, I <3 Canvas. So far, our faculty love it too. We'll be surveying students soon. I'll comment back if we divorce Canvas, but I doubt it.

  11. Sunnydeveloper says:

    Dissatisfaction with Moodle/Blackboard has bred new LMS. They do breed innovation but additionally highlight what’s missing from traditional choices . I have not tried canvas yet – instead participating in Drupal LMS initiatives . An already thriving community of innovation .

  12. David O'Bryan says:

    Our institution adopted Canvas June 1, 2012. We started with Blackboard. Liked it. Changed to Angel. Loved it. Now we have Canvas. What a huge step backward. If you have nothing better to do than start completely over with your online courses then this might be just the product for you.

  13. Rusty says:

    CANVAS SUCKS! Don’t believe their smooth sales pitch. You will be sorry if you change to them. We have and it’s awful. The canvas guides are just a longer faq. They will change functionality without any notice. They will remove functionality and just say tough it’s what we thought was best. Users will beg and plead for changes only to be ignored.

    Buyer beware!!! Don’t fall for their BS sales pitch. This group makes blackboard seem wonderful and responsive!

  14. Peter Haas says:

    My school has gone from Blackboard to Desire2Learn to Canvas. I find each one of them to be horribly flawed, but I’m also burned out on trying to learn new LMS crap. When schools/universities adopt these things they externalize the cost of learning them to their end users.

    But more to the point: what Rusty says! SU-UCKS.

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