The Berkeley Beacon

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Students and faculty welcome new learning management system

By Christopher Gavin / Beacon Staff
January 24, 2013 at 2:12 am

The campuswide transition from WebCT to Canvas, Emerson’s new online learning management system, was well-received by faculty and students, according to Jennifer Stevens, director of the Instructional Technology Group (ITG). Emerson had been using WebCT since 2002. 

Since the change, Stevens said there have been no major issues with the website. 

“I keep pinching myself because I keep waiting for the shoe to drop,” she said. “I keep waiting for people to be negative about it, but the response has been really mostly positive.” 

Canvas is designed to be student-centered, Stevens said, and has a more user-friendly experience compared to WebCT. 

Students can receive updates about their classes through text messages, emails, and notifications on Facebook, according to Kurt Beer, a sales employee at Instructure, the company that develops Canvas. Students and faculty can create personal profiles on the system similar to those on Facebook and Twitter. 

Canvas also has iPhone, iPad, and Android apps.

“It’s still basically a place to have discussions, view files, [and] take quizzes,” Stevens said. 

Emerson decided to make the switch from WebCT to Canvas because of problems in WebCT’s security and because Blackboard — the company that has owned WebCT since 2006 — stopped maintaining and upgrading the system, according to Stevens. Emerson faculty complained about the site’s outdated appearance and complex organization, she said.  

In an Oct. 4, 2012 Beacon report, students and professors expressed frustration about WebCT frequently crashing.

“It wasn’t a choice even for us to stay with WebCT,” Stevens said.

Last spring, Emerson chose Canvas to replace WebCT after students and faculty from various departments met to discuss the options the college had in deciding a new learning management system, according to Stevens. 

“We identified four systems that could be possibilities for Emerson and invited those vendors to come to campus,” she said.

Those companies conducted presentations and demonstrations on campus; afterward, students and faculty members were able to try out and rank each of the systems, Stevens said. 

After compiling surveys from students and faculty, Emerson chose Canvas to replace WebCT, according to Stevens.

Stevens said 20 Emerson professors used Canvas last semester; starting this semester, the entire college is using it. 

Many of the other systems besides Canvas are designed primarily for professors so they can track student progress, according to Stevens.  

“They were kind of built for the convenience of faculty and administrators,” Stevens said.

Canvas, however, was created in 2008 by Brian Whitmer and Devlin Daley, who had just finished graduate school at Brigham Young University, according to the Canvas website. 

“They basically built the learning management system they wish they had as undergrads,” she said.

Stevens said that Canvas allows students to view previous courses in a read-only format. In WebCT, access like that would be denied.

“Their default is that information should be open, versus information should be locked up,” she said.  

Small differences between Canvas and WebCT add up to make a better experience with Canvas, Stevens said.

Stephen Iandoli, a journalism professor who has been at Emerson since 2006, said in an email interview that he has not had any issues with Canvas.

“I didn’t have prior experience with [Canvas], but I haven’t had trouble learning it because it’s fairly similar to WebCT or Blackboard, which I’ve also used in other places,” he said.

But he said he hasn’t had enough time yet to learn about specific features on Canvas.

“I haven’t gotten too deep into Canvas to see what, specifically, I like or don’t like,” he said. “My classes use it on a surface basis. Posting [a] syllabus or links [that are] good examples of things we’re discussing.” 

Mia Buchsbaulm, a junior performing arts major, said she thinks Canvas is better than WebCT.

“It’s a little easier to navigate in terms of finding the documents you need and things like that on it,” Buchsbaulm said. 

Zachary Fox agreed, and cited email updates about assignments he receives from Canvas as one of the more helpful tools for him.

“It helps me keep track of things easier that way,” said the senior visual and media arts major. “That’s definitely a plus.” 

Fox also said it is hard for him to form an opinion about Canvas, since he has only been using it for a short amount of time.

“But, so far, it’s got some advantages to it that WebCT didn’t have,” he said.

Funding for Canvas comes from a portion of the information technology department’s budget that supports the college’s digital education tools, Stevens said. She declined to comment on the exact cost of the system.

In Canvas, Emerson professors must explicitly choose to put their courses online, which could be considered a small hiccup, Stevens said. On WebCT, every course had a page, even if there was nothing on it, according to Stevens.

“In Canvas, if the professor doesn’t publish their course, it’s like it doesn’t exist,” she said.

This can result in students not being able to see some of the courses they enrolled in, according to Stevens. The ITG has received concerns about this from students, she said. 

Stevens said the ITG has sent several emails to faculty members informing them that students cannot see their courses unless they are published. Representatives from Canvas said it is planning to fix this issue, Stevens said in an email to the Beacon.

“The more [professors] use the system,” she said, “the better it’s going to be for the students.”


Gavin can be reached at chris_gavin@emerson.edu.