The story of Canvas at SFU

A vision rather than a system

Simon Fraser University’s search for a new learning management system (LMS) had ambitions well beyond simply choosing a technical solution. LMSs have been viewed traditionally as a tool for delivering content and managing courses, but SFU was driven by a more compelling vision as it moved to replace its aging WebCT system. That vision was inspired by an Academic Plan that emphasized the provision of “high quality learning opportunities … through a wide variety of pedagogies that expand the traditional classroom experience.” SFU, then, envisioned an LMS that reimagined and redefined an LMS as a foundation and catalyst for teaching innovation and for the creation of enhanced and expansive learning experiences for more than 34,000 students.

The project team charged with finding a new LMS understood that the replacement of WebCT was not simply a technical problem to be solved by analyzing functions and specifications of available systems. Instead, the search became an opportunity to define and implement a vision for the future of teaching and learning at the University.

Wide consultation

The foundational stage of the search process was a wide-ranging, six-month community consultation that engaged every stakeholder group from students and faculty to staff and administrators. The numbers tell the story: almost 250 direct consultations in the form of conversations, focus groups, forums and interviews, combined with online discussions and a student survey that drew 6,684 responses representing approximately 20% of SFU’s students.

Stakeholders were asked to answer practical questions about the features that they considered essential in their work. But more importantly, they were asked to imagine what an ideal teaching and learning experience would look like and how an LMS could help them realize that vision. This vision of an LMS, then, became inextricably linked to the needs, demands, and dynamism of the University’s academic community. The selected platform demonstrated the University’s commitment to anticipating and, indeed, leading in the pace, quality, and substance of change in university education.

Guiding principles

The results of the consultation demanded an innovative approach to selecting an LMS. It became clear that no single system could meet every need, since those needs were diverse and continually evolving in rapidly changing educational, technological, and socio-cultural environments. The project team did produce a list of specifications detailing certain basic functional requirements. However, the aspirational and often less tangible desires expressed by the academic community were framed in the form of five guiding principles:

  1. The teaching and learning imperative should drive the choice of the new LMS.
  2. The new LMS should be easy to integrate with other SFU IT systems and platforms.
  3. It should be extensible to allow for the addition of new and emerging tools, applications, and technologies.
  4. It should be easy to use with minimal training and accommodate a diverse range of learning designs, approaches, objectives, and strategies.
  5. It should emphasize portability; that is, it should allow for the easy migration of content from other platforms and formats such as LMSs, wikis, and e-portfolios.

The final report of the consultation team, issued in March 2012, further distilled these five principles into a single, overarching principle that was strongly and consistently articulated during the consultations: the LMS must be “flexible,” meaning characterized by openness, versatility, nimbleness, and adaptability to other LMS applications and usage.

A unanimous choice

The principles identified during the consultation were rigorously applied during the final selection process. The short list of candidates included a number of well-established learning management systems. However, these systems were essentially closed and, as impressive as their capabilities were, users would be constrained in a variety of ways by their rigidity.

Then there was Canvas, which was developed by a five-year-old company from Utah called Instructure. Canvas was new, relatively unproven, and less developed than most of the alternatives; only one other post-secondary educational institution in Canada was using it. On the other hand, Canvas was very user-friendly and shaped by a philosophy of innovation and openness. Rather than attempting to out-google Google and out-facebook Facebook by duplicating capabilities that were being offered by established platforms, Canvas supported the easy integration of external technologies and tools that many students and instructors were already using. It went even further by providing an open architecture designed to adapt and evolve in response to the emergent needs and technological changes in our digital culture. In short, Canvas embodied the principles of openness, extensibility, and flexibility that had been identified through the consultation process.

When the selection committee (a diverse group consisting of students, faculty members, senior administrators, IT professionals, and support staff) met to determine the successful candidate in August 2012, the choice was unanimous: Canvas.

It was a bold and, for many, surprising choice that reflected the University’s determination to be a leader in the delivery of cutting-edge teaching and learning experiences. Of course, selecting Canvas brought its own set of challenges. For example, most institutions use the cloud-based version of Canvas hosted on American servers. However, British Columbia’s strict privacy laws prohibit universities from storing students’ personal information outside Canada. As a consequence, SFU’s Canvas installation is one of the few (and also the world’s largest) to be self-hosted on University servers.

Preparation and implementation

Despite the challenges, the wisdom of the decision has become evident. Pilot programs and limited implementations in 2013 went exceptionally well. Students and instructors alike expressed high levels of satisfaction for the “look and feel” as well as the functionality and operation of Canvas. Adoption rates were higher than anticipated and, despite the newness of the system, calls for support to help desks were down substantially compared to the previous LMS.

January 2014 marked the full implementation of Canvas. Virtually all SFU students are now expected to use Canvas, and a significant number of instructors with no previous LMS experience are trying out the new system.

Building on the foundation

SFU’s focus will now move increasingly to exploring the pedagogical possibilities of Canvas. Instructors have already started to develop learning modules that can be easily shared with one another. SFU’s Teaching and Learning Centre is working with faculty members to develop exemplars, identify new and innovative practices, and explore creative learning opportunities. At the same time, the IT Services team is busy extending the capabilities of SFU Canvas. For example, a mobile app that provides easy access to Canvas on smartphones and tablets was launched in early 2014.

SFU has also become an active member of the international Canvas community, with faculty and staff attending Canvas conferences, sharing lessons learned, and contributing expertise (particularly in the area of self-hosted LMSs).

The story of Canvas at SFU is one of broad consultation, a community-driven initiative, bold decision-making, and experimentation with and openness to new ideas. The result has been a significant step forward for SFU in several areas: in the University’s infrastructure for teaching and learning, in the technical expertise of the University’s support teams, and above all in the ability of instructors and students to participate in the ongoing expansion, elaboration, diversification, and reimagining of their educational experiences.


LMS@SFU: Principles and Needs to Inform the Determination of an LMS at SFU
(Final report of the consultation team, March 2012)

Archived content from the WebCT Replacement Project website

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