Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Canvas Pilot

Canvas, an online learning management system, successfully supported Yale’s distance and hybrid curricula pre-fall 2015. The Center for Teaching and Learning, and other key stakeholders, identified Canvas as an alternative to Classes*v2. The Poorvu Center led a formal pilot of the platform in fall 2015 and continued the pilot in spring 2016. Yale fully implemented Canvas for all active courses by summer 2017.

Why consider alternatives to Classes*v2?

A survey of Classes*v2 users suggested that a growing number of students and faculty felt that the system was showing its age, and found the core software (Sakai) to be rather non-intuitive and limited in its functionality. As Yale approached the tenth year of using Sakai, the time was right to consider other potential solutions.

Classes*v2 successfully met basic needs for file sharing and course communications, garnering roughly 75% satisfaction in the latest Yale ITS technology survey. Yet faculty increasingly asked for alternative tools for their course activities, citing many of the following shortcomings of Sakai:

  • Difficulty of navigation from one area of the course site to another
  • Insufficient support of mobile technologies
  • Limited ability to annotate and grade student assignments without downloading the documents, modifying them on a local computer, and then uploading them again to the course site
  • Overly complicated system for sharing and downloading multiple files in Resources
  • No easy way to create a dynamic syllabus that links to online learning activities and resources
  • Insufficient statistics on student activity in the course site
  • Limited capability for students to create their own learning groups, both within a course and outside of traditional course boundaries.

Sakai is an open-source platform developed through the contributions of the higher education community, including Yale. The long-term future of the Sakai project became uncertain as many of the core community contributors moved to alternative platforms, most notably Instructure’s Canvas software. With this in mind, Yale decided to consider its options and ultimately select Canvas to replace Classes*v2.

Why Canvas?

While Classes*v2/Sakai supported on-campus teaching, it was found to be a weak solution for Yale’s growing footprint in distance education. A comparative evaluation of learning management system (LMS) options was undertaken in spring-summer 2013 for Yale’s Summer Session. A cross-campus committee selected Instructure’s Canvas platform as the best option. Since then, Canvas has been adopted by other programs including the hybrid (part online, part on-site) Doctor of Nursing Practice degree program offered by the School of Nursing; the School of Management’s Global Network for Advanced Management courses; and a number of initiatives in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

The initial response to Canvas at Yale was extremely positive, with most faculty describing the system as easy to use, very responsive, and in many ways preferable to Classes*v2. In fact, some faculty members who had used Canvas for distance courses asked to use it for their on-campus courses as well.

Supporting two separate LMS environments, one for distance or hybrid courses and another for traditional on-site courses, posed challenges for students, faculty and support providers alike. The distinction between on-campus and online courses is also becoming increasingly difficult to maintain as faculty members explore “flipping the classroom” (sharing lecture materials online, and spending class meetings engaged in active learning activities).

How does Canvas compare to Classes*v2?

Peer schools which have compared Sakai and Canvas—including Harvard, Brown, Dartmouth, Cornell, Penn, Northwestern, UC Berkeley, Michigan and Indiana—found Canvas to be:

  • More intuitive and “modern-feeling” than Sakai
  • Easier to navigate and organize materials for students’ use
  • Much better at supporting mobile users, with native apps for iOS and Android devices
  • Better for file sharing using drag-and-drop functionality
  • Functionally superior in some key areas, including interactive syllabus creation, web content creation, and in-browser grading
  • More supportive of student collaboration, including integration with Google Docs
  • Forward-thinking in terms of learning statistics and analytics for evaluating students’ activity and progress
  • Easier to customize by adding external tools through the Canvas “app store.”

The benefits of Canvas include enhanced ability to give professional schools’ control over the management of their own course sites and enhanced stability and frequency of software updates, through Canvas’s cloud-based service structure.