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USF trades Blackboard for Canvas

Published: Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, September 19, 2012 14:09

Every USF student uses Blackboard to access course information, grades and class material — but some students have noticed a change when logging in to their courses, and soon all students will.

After more than 12 years, USF will be transitioning from Blackboard to a new online learning management system called Canvas, which is a product of the educational software company Instructure.

 
The USF System Learning Management Committee made the decision in 2011 to start evaluating other options rather than keep using Blackboard. 
 
“We were in a position to upgrade Blackboard from 9.0 to 9.1,” Dennis Walpole, director of Information Technology (IT), said. “There would be training required and there would be an impact on the faculty, so we decided to take a look at other systems that could be an improvement over what we have.”

 
A review committee of students, faculty and institutional technologists was created to review three online learning management systems and make a recommendation, Walpole said. Blackboard 9.1, Canvas and another system, Moodle, were reviewed, and Canvas was ultimately selected.

“Canvas is more flexible and easier to use. It has tools that make it easier for students,” Walpole said. “For faculty there are a number of areas that they will find exciting. … It will a better experience for all.”

 
Some courses have already begun using Canvas. The university purchased a small license to try the software, so some USF professors have used it since spring.

 
Mark Walters, associate professor and director of digital journalism and design at USF St. Petersburg, said he has been using Canvas for his courses since last semester.  
 
“Canvas is making online teaching fun rather than a battle against technology,” Walters said. “It centralizes communication across courses … Communication with students is streamlined and posting different types of material is really easy.”

 
Walters said there are some common difficulties professors have with Blackboard.

 
“I had an enormous number of problems with students viewing videos in Blackboard,” Walters said. “I haven’t had problems in Canvas.”

 
Some of the Canvas’ benefits include a more consistent user interface, mobile accessibility and flexible communication, and notification options and updates will not be as interrupting as they were with Blackboard, Walpole said.

 
Blackboard was hosted using on-campus servers, but Canvas is hosted through Amazon Web Services off campus. Therefore, Canvas will not have to be taken offline to upgrade. Upgrades will be done every two weeks.

 
“Major changes, they do subtly over a long period of time, whereas minor changes they do behind the scenes,” Walpole said. “With Blackboard, every time we did an upgrade we had to do it between semesters.” 
 
Mike Canfield, a senior majoring in history, works at the IT Help Desk on campus and was part of the review committee that selected Canvas.

 
“They wanted people who were both students and in the IT profession,” Canfield said. 
 
The review process of the different systems, which took about 10 weeks included accessing a development site in which committee members could access tdifferent features from both the student and administrator points of view, as well as presentations from each company on using the software, he said.

 
“The biggest benefit to me is the centralized point of access for each student,” Canfield said. 
 
He said he also is excited about the customizable profile, calendar and notification system that Canvas features.

 
Canvas is also accessible on mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, and students can choose to be notified of grades, due dates and assignments via both email and text messages on their cell phone. 
 
“Blackboard is not designed for it,” Canfield said. “Canvas works really well on my phone and tablet.”

 
Through his position at the help desk, Canfield has also witnessed faculty frustrations with Blackboard. 
 
“I’ve had professors just not use it at all, because it is easier to just email material,” he said. 
 
Though some courses are already using Canvas this semester, the majority of courses will transition to Canvas officially in spring 2013, Walpole said. Training sessions will begin later this fall for faculty and the various departments and colleges, Walpole said. 
 
“We are using this semester to work through some of the transition gaps. … Faculty can attend training sessions and we will have one-on-one with faculty who need special assistance or have very complex courses,” he said. “It will be a very aggressive information flow.”

 
Use of Canvas at the St. Petersburg campus has already been implemented through the new digital journalism and design master’s degree, which is offered online fully through Canvas.

 
“We are the first to put a whole degree in (Canvas),” Walters said. “There is no way we could offer this on an outdated platform.”

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