media release

Canvas enriches learning world at SFU

February 24, 2014

Bill Krane, 778.782.3147,
Christine Tulloch, 604.377.3026 (cell),
Martin Laba, 778.782.5166,
Keith Fong, 778.782.2038,
Lynda Williams, 778.782.4900, 604.250.7029 (cell),
Mark Bachmann, Teaching and Learning Centre, 778.782.9247,
Carol Thorbes, PAMR, 778.782.3035,

Video: Dr. Martin Laba speaks about Canvas:

When Simon Fraser University faculty and students want to view course notes, check grades or conduct group discussions, they’ll now likely reach for a smartphone or tablet, thanks to a new, free mobile app.

The app, for iOS and Android, provides fast and stable access to SFU’s new Canvas learning management system (LMS). It’s an example of how the university has become a leader in providing innovative teaching and learning environments.

LMSs, which provide web-based tools for online and face-to-face courses, are plentiful. Canvas, a relative newcomer from Utah-based software developer Instructure, stands out because it emphasizes open architecture. Rather than trying to meet every need, Canvas offers a core platform that integrates easily with existing and emerging external technologies.

“The user-friendly way that Canvas is structured invites students to spend more time on the site, explore on it, and really get to know the different tools,” says Christine Tulloch.

The SFU student and member of the Canvas project executive steering committee adds, “I am the first one to admit that I am not someone who is technologically savvy. But I felt comfortable and confident using Canvas and looking into the different tools it integrates.”

With Canvas, notes Martin Laba, SFU School of Communication associate professor, and director, Academic Community Engagement, for the Canvas project, classrooms are no longer bounded in physical terms. Teaching practices and learning experiences are participatory, collaborative and active models of engagement.

“I have used Canvas not merely to deliver content, but, more ambitiously, to establish a digital space where students provide course resources for their classmates. They debate current events and controversies related to their courses. Through Canvas they can contribute to their content and direction,” explains Laba.

Canvas challenge:
SFU’s Canvas platform is unique because B.C.’s strict privacy laws rule out use of the standard cloud-based version. SFU’s open-source implementation—one of just two in Canada—resides on the university’s own servers, holding the distinction of being the world’s largest self-hosted Canvas installation.

Self-hosting comes with challenges. For example, Instructure employs a constant-upgrade cycle rather than the traditional staged release of software updates, and SFU’s IT team has had to develop a rapid-response capability to keep pace.

SFU’s resulting expertise has earned the university a prominent role in the international Canvas community. Keith Fong, IT systems architect and technical lead for the Canvas team, notes, “SFU is now a member of the Canvas Advisory Board and is a key reference site for the open-source version of the LMS.”

In fact, says Fong, SFU’s customized mobile app wouldn’t have happened apart from that role: “Our relationship with Instructure ultimately led to the company’s willingness to modify and license the mobile app to us. We are the only open-source client to have that privilege.

Canvas engages students:
This semester marks SFU’s full implementation of Canvas, and students and instructors are responding strongly. Roughly 24,000 of SFU’s 34,000 students are enrolled in at least one course using Canvas. Adoption by instructors is well ahead of forecasts, and the total number of Canvas courses—more than 1,200—has already surpassed the peak achieved by SFU’s previous LMS during its 10-year life cycle.

Canvas evolves at SFU:
Now the focus will shift from implementation to innovation.

Lynda Williams, a learning technology manager whose team provides LMS support to instructors through SFU’s Teaching and Learning Centre, says Canvas offers unprecedented options for richer learning experiences.

She cites the example of a plug-in that reads course documents aloud. “That’s a huge benefit for students who struggle with reading English or have visual disabilities,” says Williams.

Bill Krane, leader of the Canvas project, echoes the emphasis on enhancing the learning experience.

“Ultimately this is about teaching and learning,” says Krane. “Canvas will propel the university’s Academic Plan and its call for us to engage in two ways. One is to provide more opportunities for faculty members. The other is to innovate and to ‘improve infrastructure to ensure it meets the learning and other needs of the students’ environment.’ ”


Backgrounder: Additional quotes and web links

Jon Driver:
“Canvas situates the university where it needs to be—at the vanguard of change in online, online-assisted, and blended teaching and learning,” says Jon Driver, VP Academic and sponsor of the Canvas project. “The vision for this new LMS has been driven by, and advances the priorities of, the university’s Academic Plan, with its emphases on the quality, diversity and relevance of the student learning experience.”

Bill Krane:
“One of the main features that students, faculty and administrators wanted in a new LMS was a system that was flexible and malleable,” says Bill Krane, special advisor to the VP Academic and leader of the Canvas project. “It had to be capable of handling diverse needs across a wide variety of disciplines and a high level of customization. Canvas has both in spades.”

“Yes, our inability to use the cloud version of Canvas was a cause for concern, but it soon evaporated when we looked at other self-hosted solutions. Given the level of functionality provided by Canvas and its thoroughly modern look and feel, ease of use and slick integration of external learning tools, Canvas became an easy choice.”

“Our preliminary estimates are that Canvas will cost about $1.7 million over the first three years of operation. Most of this is the cost of support staff.”

Martin Laba:
“Canvas was chosen because it is an expansively open-source platform that speaks forcefully to SFU's commitment to teaching and learning. The traditional LMS is all about the technology. Canvas at SFU is all about the depth and quality of the learning experience and the possibilities to imagine and develop new teaching approaches,” says Martin Laba, School of Communication associate professor and Academic Community Engagement director for the Canvas project.

Stephanie Chu:
“One of the keys to the success of this implementation was the amount of work that went into supporting instructors before and during the process. Our learning technology team spent many hours anticipating needs and working one-on-one with instructors and departments on their courses,” says Stephanie Chu, Teaching and Learning Centre director and member of the Canvas project executive steering committee.

“I was struck by the collaborative approach on this project. Looking around the table I saw representatives from the Library, from IT Services, from the Teaching and Learning Centre and from the Centre for Online and Distance Education, along with faculty members and students, and that gave us a broad and multi-faceted perspective. And of course we had collected the views of the entire academic community.”

Canvas support site:
Instructure site:

Simon Fraser University is consistently ranked among Canada's top comprehensive universities and is one of the top 50 universities in the world under 50 years old. With campuses in Vancouver, Burnaby and Surrey, B.C., SFU engages actively with the community in its research and teaching, delivers almost 150 programs to more than 30,000 students, and has more than 125,000 alumni in 130 countries.


Simon Fraser University: Engaging Students. Engaging Research. Engaging Communities.

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