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A Conversation about Canvas


Ryan Lufkin, of Instructure, talks about the LMS’s growth on college campuses, features students love, and more!

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is in good company when it comes to adopting the Canvas learning management system (LMS).  

The state-of-the-art LMS is in 4,000-plus universities, school districts, and institutions worldwide, including 11 of 14 Big 10 schools and all Ivy League schools.

“We’re now the No. 1 LMS in higher education across North America, as well as K-12 in North America,” said Ryan Lufkin, senior director of Global Higher Education Product Marketing at Instructure, the company that created and publishes Canvas.

Illinois piloted Canvas in the 2019-2020 academic year. It’s ready to officially roll it out for many Fall 2021 courses. (NOTE: Courses will also be in Compass 2g and Moodle until the Canvas migration wraps up in June 2022.)

Ahead of the fall semester, Lufkin talked to the Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning, which is overseeing the migration along with Technology Services, about Canvas’ growth on college campuses, the features students love, and more.

Can you shed some light on Canvas’ start and reasons for its rapid growth?

When Canvas launched in 2010, Blackboard was the market leader, although users weren’t all that satisfied with Blackboard’s level of support, Lufkin said. Canvas launched the first SaaS (Software as a service) cloud-based software delivery model, in which the cloud provider develops and maintains application software, provides automatic updates, and provides software to customers via the internet on a pay-as-you-go, manages hardware, software, security, making it cheaper to customers.

“That makes it much easier to support and evolve the software because you’re not having to fix bugs for highly-customized versions of the software. You’re supporting one version,” Lufkin explained.

Despite that, higher education was somewhat reluctant to adopt SaaS due to security concerns.

“Right about that time, … Hurricane Katrina hit Tulane and wiped out all of their servers and backup tapes. What we’ve seen since then is … schools will have a fire, and all of their systems will go down except for Canvas because Canvas is SaaS,” Lufkin recalled, adding acceptance soon followed.

Lufkin said Canvas has “right around” 50 percent of the market share in North America.

“We continue to grow rapidly,” he said, adding 2020 and 2021 have seen the largest growth yet. He said the company did its second stock launch recently, “which gives our investors more cash to go out and integrate solutions. We bought four different companies in the last two years to expand the functionality we offer, and we’ll keep doing that.”

Also, users say the platform’s ease of use and seamlessness sets it apart from other LMS platforms.

“From the start, our company’s two founders went around and asked colleges and universities what they wanted as teachers and as students,” Lufkin said. “That made a big difference in teacher and student interaction.”

One way the company measures how its design and functionality is by the number of tech support requests it receives.

“Canvas has been able to reduce the number of support tickets, Lufkin said, adding a recent audit showed one institution’s tickets gone down by 50 percent. “We take that very seriously because it’s costly for the institution and it’s disruptive to students. We want to make it seamless so that we can disappear in the background and really have the learning be front and center.”

How easy or difficult do students find learning Canvas?

Lufkin said the time it takes students to feel comfortable in Canvas depends on their background in using technology

“Most students feel comfortable pretty quickly, especially if they used it in K-12, which many of them have at this point,” he said, adding that when students log in for the first time, a series of prompts will walk them through different sections of the product and show them how to use it. “The interface is designed to be very intuitive. Within the first couple of weeks, they should understand where to find things even if their instructors have created their courses differently.”

Lufkin said the Canvas Student Guide provides students with step-by-step instructions for all of their how-to questions.

He also said the online Canvas community has about 1 million active users, mostly educators, who share strategies, tips, and all kinds of how-to videos.

“If a student or educator is struggling, they can simply Google, ‘How do I do this in Canvas,’ and 90 percent of the time, there’s a video showing them how to do it,” he said, adding it’s all Google-search optimized. “I’ve been working in education tech for 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this community aspect. They’re really supportive of each other.”

What features do students love? 

“That’s really one of our best pieces,” Lufkin said, adding 98 percent of undergraduates own a smartphone. “They don’t necessarily want to get emails or text messages. You can get notifications directly within the app. It’s a great way for communicating that way.”

“When we set up our integrations, even third-party apps are plugged into Canvas itself and should populate the to-do list,” he said. “Being able to walk through a cohesive to-do list that shows what’s coming next with your course is a big deal.”

“We just revamped that … making it easier to @ mention people, organize conversation threads, and things like that,” Lufkin said.

  • The SpeedGrader tool

“It’s a teacher-centric tool, but it makes it directly impacts students,” he said. “They don’t have to wait until they’re in back in class to get feedback. They can get it through their app.”

Lufkin also encourages students to check out Portfolium ePortfolios, which allow them to keep assignments and projects in an online portfolio.

“It lives beyond their time at the institution,” he said. “When they graduate, they’ll still have that ePortfolio that they can show to potential employers.

What type of feedback have students given?

“The biggest piece of feedback we get from students in surveys is, ‘Make my teacher use it more … and better,’” Lufkin said with a laugh.

He added that one of the silver linings to the pandemic is teaching remotely caused educators to do more in Canvas. As they became more comfortable, they started using it more fully.

“Suddenly, they’re integrating third-party apps,” Lufkin said. 

“I think we’re going to continue to see more of a hybrid approach going forward,” he continued. “There are a lot of exciting things happening in education, and we’re happy to be a part of it.”

Need help with Canvas? Visit Illinois Online's Canvas webpage.