Improving the UW Student Experience: Canvas Pilot Underway

This academic year, 108 UW faculty on all three campuses have been involved in piloting Canvas, a feature-rich learning management system (LMS). (For more information about LMSs, see "What is an LMS?" below.) They've been teaching nearly 6000 students in 88 courses--from chemistry to sociology--using the new tool. Canvas simplifies course management activities like calendaring and grading, while providing ways to collaborate and deliver materials to students. UW-IT and the Office of Educational Assessment are evaluating Canvas as part of a broader effort to improve the student experience. 

Purpose of the Pilot

UW-IT has heard for several years that students struggle with using different tools in different classes to support their learning. In fact, learning management systems, such as Moodle and Blackboard, have been used at various UW campuses and schools. The choice to pilot Canvas is part of a broader effort to improve the student experience at the UW by providing them with a very usable, centrally supported system. The recent launch of Canvas also created a timely opportunity. Its modern Web architecture offers a set of features and integration points that significantly surpasses what competitors offer.

The goal of the pilot is to understand how well Canvas meets the needs of instructors and students at the UW, what types of support are effective for these users, and what technical infrastructure solutions are necessary to offer a learning management system successfully across the UW. All of this information (as well as cost) will be considered in deciding if, when, and how Canvas is adopted at the UW.

Pilot Demographics

Pilot participants represent a range of teaching and learning contexts (e.g., seminar/small discussion, large discussion, small lecture, large lecture, online courses), familiarity with other learning management systems (e.g., Moodle, Blackboard, Catalyst), instructors working with TAs, etc. We have also been able to observe instructors teaching the same course using Canvas in Autumn and Winter Quarters, as well as the same course taught by a different instructor. (For more information about Catalyst in the context of Canvas, see "How does an LMS differ from the Catalyst Web Tools?"

The goal of the research portion of the project, conducted by UW-IT in collaboration with the UW Office of Educational Assessment, is to evaluate how well Canvas meets the needs of users at the University of Washington and to identify ways to improve the user experience. Other parts of the project will evaluate Canvas in regard to needs for user support and technical infrastructure solutions. The research team is currently conducting exit surveys with Autumn Quarter participating instructors. Quantitative analysis is underway. Instructors participating represent all three campuses, as well as a range of disciplines including the Information School, English, Chemistry, Sociology, International Studies, Business, Economics, Communications, Engineering, and Health Services.

Canvas users in the Autumn Quarter added up to 24 courses, 19 instructors, and 2,453 students. In Winter Quarter, 64 courses are being taught using Canvas by 89 instructors, to 3,250 students. (These figures include those officially participating in the research study as well as users not closely assessed.)

Why Canvas?

While the goal is to provide a usable, centrally supported learning management system, the diverse needs across the UW cannot be met by a single system. We are striving to create a more flexible and useful eLearning ecosystem that integrates the course management basics of a system like Canvas with cloud tools (e.g., Google) and discipline-specific software from various vendors. Campus clients can choose from this integrated set of tools the constellation that best meets their needs. Unlike Moodle or Blackboard or other learning management systems, Canvas is the first to be designed as a native cloud application that can be easily integrated with UW systems and other cloud tools. In addition, Canvas provides rich course management and collaboration functionality, and the user interface is designed to maximize efficiency.



What is a Learning Management System (LMS)?

An LMS is an online integrated software package that (1) enables instructors to manage and deliver a variety of educational materials and resources to students, and (2) allows instructor-to-student communication for online discussion, quizzing and submission of assignments, sharing of files, and for assessment and grading. 

How does an LMS differ from the Catalyst Web Tools?

While an LMS is specifically designed to support facilitation of a course, the Catalyst Web Tools were designed to meet the needs of staff, students, and faculty for a variety of purposes. The Catalyst Tools are a modular suite of Web applications that can be used on their own or in combination to support the work (and individual workflows) of different members of the UW community. While they do support teaching, learning, and course management, they also support research, group projects, and collaboration more generally.

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