Preparing Your Canvas: Starting a new LMS

*Editor's note: Northern Kentucky University just announced its official switch to the Canvas learning management system. In this blog series called "Preparing Your Canvas", instructional designer Nicholas Jones documents that transition.

In the Beginning...

During our research phase, I learned that our situation isn't unique; according to Ovum, 30% of institutions would significantly alter or replace their platform for online learning by the end of 2016. On top of that, NKU has been looking to increase its online learning presence. Internally, we've had an ongoing dialogue about what has worked for us and what would continue to work for us in the future. Part of staying relevant and effective is having the will to examine where the path of a product is headed. Eventually, we were able to begin piloting LMS options to see what implementation could look like. Canvas presented us important questions we needed to address for ourselves:

  • SaaS: With Blackboard, we ran the LMS from our own servers. Downtime wasn't a major issue because we controlled and supported the whole system. How would we handle a transition to a SaaS-based LMS model?
  • Folders: Our faculty love using folders. Loooooooove them. This became a repeated sticking point. Canvas relies on a fundamentally different information architecture than Blackboard, and enforces a different navigation, too. How would faculty handle the paradigm shift?
  • Budget: 'nuff said. 

The Pilots take off!

We ran a number of pilot courses, with some professors testing multiple LMSs at the same time. Canvas came out as the overwhelming favorite amongst faculty. The only hiccup we experienced was when the internet effectively shut down because of Amazon. As Canvas relies on Amazon Web Services (AWS), Canvas was unusable for that period of time. Of course, the other LMS we were piloting also went down with AWS. And a number of learning technology tools not tied to either LMS. So that was fun.

Working with the pilots, I noticed two patterns: 1) Switching from "Blackboard thinking" to "Canvas thinking" could be an awkward, difficult process. 2) Actually learning how to use Canvas was incredibly intuitive once faculty were introduced to the software. Most of my time working with the pilots was spent making the conceptual shift necessary to think about how their course would be organized in Canvas versus Blackboard, not so much which buttons they needed to click.

Based on feedback from the pilots, and other factors, Canvas was selected! With the decision made, the instructional design time faced the task of preparing an entire institution to migrate to a new LMS.

The Art of War

Maybe that's melodramatic — colleges can make their own plans for the transition, and some even have their own instructional designer. Its not literally up to just our instructional design team to make it all happen. At the start, though, I was definitely caught up in just the sheer volume of what we were attempting to do. What would it take to shift from the pilot program and bring Canvas to scale? We will be able to stretch our transition out for an entire academic year, which helps immensely, but that's still ~1000 faculty and their associated courses. And this doesn't say anything about acclimating the students to Canvas.

It can be easy to say "Well, they're digital natives, they'll take to it like a duck to water!" But that's not the case for several reasons, some of which are beyond the scope of this blog. However, preparing faculty, and leaving the students for themselves just means faculty will be bogged down answering questions outside the scope of their subject expertise. Moving from students, our old LMS was utilized by staff for purposes completely removed from a classroom. How do we avoid disenfranchising the staff during the transition?

Currently, here's our game plan:

  • Summer Faculty Institutes (SFI): We are offering stipends to faculty who volunteer early to develop a course in Canvas. We are also using this as an opportunity to create embedded Canvas experts in every college, and as many departments as we can.
  • Extended Workshops: We are taking the content from the SFI's and delivering a lighter version of it as individual workshops. Faculty can attend the ones they wish, and skip others. We have them scheduled so they happen on different days of the week. That way, even the instructor who is never available Tuesdays can, in theory, attend every session.
  • Web Session: We are also conducting a WebEx-based version of the workshops for faculty who work remotely.
  • Public Course: The SFI, extended workshops, and web session are all pulling material from the same source, a course we built that we're calling Canvas 101 (we're still undecided if the name is too subtle ). This course is also being made public, that way faculty that just cannot attend anything can still get all of the information from us.
  • Student Course: One member of our group is also building a student-oriented course about successful online learning. At this point I'm not sure if that will be adopted by every college or not.

And... I think that's everything so far. In my next entry, you'll see how our first Summer Faculty Institute plays out and dive into a big question that's been looming in mind: 

What does it mean to build a Canvas Orientation course?

Keep Learning,

Nicholas Jones
Instructional Designer, Northern Kentucky University