As the learning management system turns…

“[T]he LMS does a very poor job at providing a lot of the learning technologies desired by faculty and students. There is no way that a monolithic LMS can keep up with the market – it cannot match functionality of open internet tools especially without adding feature bloat.”

– Phil Hill, “LMS and Open: The false binary is based on past, not future markets,” e-Literate, September 15, 2014.

A good friend of mine who (normally) works at our sister school about three hours up I-25 from Pueblo, Colorado State University in Fort Collins, forwarded me the changeover announcement for their new learning management system. I’m about to fisk it. I don’t usually write about my own university on this blog, but, of course, I don’t work in Fort Collins. However, if anybody up in our system office reads this and thinks it’s a little too close for comfort, let me assure them that this sort of thing is happening just about everywhere. I’m using this particular e-mail only as a means to get at several broader points that you can appreciate even if you don’t work in Colorado at all. This announcement was simply the one that appeared in my mailbox first.

Introductory language aside, let’s start with that fisking!:

“Dear Colleagues,

We’re writing to update you on CSU’s upcoming move from the Blackboard Learn learning management system to Instructure’s Canvas learning management system. This transition will progress over the next three semesters, and will be complete before summer session 2016. At that time, Blackboard Learn will no longer be available to faculty, staff, and students at CSU and Canvas will become the only fully supported learning management system available at CSU.”

Three semesters? This must be a big deal then! I wonder if the faculty were consulted about this decision beforehand. Apparently not:

“The University’s decision to move to Canvas is a result of our involvement as a founding member of Unizin (, a consortium of leading universities that includes CSU, the University of Florida, the University of Indiana, and the University of Michigan. Unizin, which will soon be joined by a half dozen other institutions of comparable stature, is intended to increase the influence of higher education institutions in the development of a new educational ecosystem.”

Notice the language here: “The University’s decision to move to Canvas…,” not the faculty’s. “[I]ncrease the influence of higher education institutions,” not faculty. Apparently they’re more concerned about muscling out Unizin’s potential competitors than they are in opening up the decision-making process to their own employees.

In fact, it seems as if the decision to go with Unizin wasn’t really CSU’s decision at all. As my buddy Phil Hill has reported, faculty input in joining this consortium was minimal. Yet all the schools got together and settled on Canvas before Unizin was even public, despite the fact that very few of the founding members of Unizin used Canvas before this announcement. If I worked in Fort Collins I might develop the academic equivalent of those right-wing tendencies to believe that the United Nations is secretly plotting to establish world government. CSU is voluntarily giving up its sovereignty.

Yet you wouldn’t know that by reading this e-mail. Here’s the last sentence of that above paragraph:

“In brief, we want higher education faculty and staff to have a larger voice in the technology that our students use to learn.”

They’re not exactly off to a flying start on that front, are they? More importantly, look again at the Phil Hill quote I topped this post with again. Faculty everywhere have already performed the electronic equivalent of voting with their feet. If they bother to use their LMS at all, they barely use the bells and whistles that these companies offer them – perhaps because the wider Internet offers more options that they can actually control themselves or perhaps because they don’t need those bells and whistles to do their jobs well.

Yet the LMS bandwagon marches on. Back to that e-mail:

The founding members of Unizin have selected Canvas as our common learning management system. We’ve negotiated a highly favorable pricing agreement with Instructure, which will reduce our overall costs. Also, Canvas is a system that has significant advantages in features and ease of use over all other learning management systems, Blackboard included.

What’s missing from those Canvas advantages? Educational value, of course. Yes, I know that the folks who made this decision undoubtedly believe that CSU can offer better classes through Canvas rather than Blackboard, but shouldn’t faculty be the ones to play the most important role in making that decision – particularly if you want them to buy into this decision by using that new system once it’s in place?

Instead, those technologically-sophisticated faculty are left with more work to do:

“That said, this change requires instructors and students to learn the new system. We know this will take time, effort, and patience. And we know that it will take a great deal of support from the larger campus community. With that in mind, our colleagues at ACNS, TILT, and OnlinePlus have collaborated to develop a Canvas website ( that hosts a rich set of resources to smooth the transition to Canvas. You’ll find a workshop schedule replete with training sessions beginning October 15, online guides and videos, and information about one-on-one work sessions and a Canvas Information Center in Morgan Library. You’ll also find, over the coming months, lists of short courses, PDI sessions, and summer workshop sessions as well as a growing collection of videos, tutorials, and web guides.”

IHE reported the other day that the US LMS market is saturated. As a result, you can expect the same kinds of classes coming to your college as providers drop prices to entice cash-strapped administrations into changing systems for budgetary reasons rather than educational ones.

But there is another option. Be your own LMS. Learn and use those open Internet tools that react to the much-vaunted market faster and more effectively than any giant corporate entity that only contracts with administrations rather than individual faculty members ever can. It’s faster. You’re guaranteed that the tools you pick will gibe with your teaching style (because you’ll pick them) and – here’s the kicker – it’s almost certainly cheaper for your employer:

“Please know that we are making every effort to ease the transition from Blackboard to Canvas. In addition to our pilot studies this semester and next, this includes the development of software tools to import existing course content from Blackboard to Canvas. Finally, it involves a significant allocation of staff resources to help instructors make the move to Canvas.

[Emphasis added]”

I gotta crazy notion: How about reallocating those resources towards faculty? Think how many adjuncts could get an exceptional work environment with all that money, Tony.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Historiann

    Thanks for this, Jonathan. I only used the CSU blackboard program to post a copy of the syllabus and occasional PDFs of documents or articles, and I asked the students to submit their papers electronically through the anti-plagiarism software. I never post grades there, and pretty much ignore it otherwise. Looks like I’ll just be ignoring this new system even more aggressively!

    I hear tell that you can send attachments through email to your students, or post stuff on a class blog! So that’s where it looks like I’ll be headed come fall 2015, FTW.

  2. Andrew Roderick

    I like the reverberating discussions around LMS futures and the here and now. D’Arcy was right to chime in on the institutional needs for LMS (predictable workflow and interface for fac/students; available; integrated with Univ systems; meets Univ requirements – accessibility for one – these are my points on that point). Phil Hill fairly juxtaposed the two-sides (

    Thanks for this post and its insight into the Unizin phenom and process.

    One big point I wanted to make is that while LMS adoption may be low on some campuses, it’s reasonably high on others. How well an LMS (whichever LMS) is operated and delivered to a campus is a big component of adoption and effectiveness of use. I find the operational side of things getting lost in more false dichotomies (BB vs. Moodle vs. Canvas; open vs. closed; innovative vs. enterprise). Let’s face it, a lot of folks are crap at running their LMS. They lack capability to address local institution needs (or can’t see the needs). Their operations suck (sys = downtime; helpdesk = bad service; dev = unresponsive bug fix/no customizations; ID’s = no pedagogical support).
    I see a lot of preaching to the small pocket of early adopter faculty who want to play with the shiny toys of innovation or want to ride the wave of the latest “thing”. But instead of issuing blanket statements about how faculty don’t like the LMS and postulating on the post-LMS world, let’s consider all of the factors about what’s actually not working under the current paradigm.
    [Full disclosure includes that I’ve developed, delivered and fought the good fight on outside the LMS tools and love talking about Post-LMS.]

  3. The LMS system are getting popular now a days. Many universities and colleges are adopting this system to improve their student learning and great content and course material. Also many large and medium scale business are using LMS for measure and improve their employee performance through various course material.

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