Cornell will replace Blackboard with Canvas as its main Learning Management System in a transition process slated to begin in spring 2019 and end by fall 2019.
Canvas, one of Blackboard’s major competitors, was chosen for its ease of use and because it is the “LMS for most of our peer institutions,” according to Prof. Julia Thom-Levy, physics and vice provost for academic innovation.
Cornell and Princeton University are the only Ivy League universities currently using Blackboard as its major LMS. All other Ivies and many peer institutions — such as University of Chicago, Stanford University and Northwestern University — use Canvas.
Although the majority of Cornell still uses Blackboard, Weill Cornell Medicine and the executive education programs in the School of Industrial Labor and Relations have already adopted Canvas. The College of Veterinary Medicine also indicated that it may switch to Canvas in the near future, according to the report of the Cornell Academic Learning Management System Evaluation Project.
The migration to Canvas will not deprive students and faculty of the common features and tools currently supported by Blackboard, such as TurnItIn, iClicker and Panopto, according to the Cornell IT website.
The majority of faculty and students who participated in the pilot of Canvas in fall 2017 and spring 2018 showed a welcoming attitude to using Canvas, the report says.
Six out of the ten pilot faculty preferred Canvas to Blackboard, the report shows. Although faculty and students alike are overall satisfied with the current service of Blackboard, according to the results of a previous survey conducted in March 2017, pilot participants applauded the cleaner and more modern design of Canvas.
“The switch is like when you get out of your beat-up car you have purchased during graduate school and sit in a brand new car in an auto salon,” said Prof. Mark Sarvary Ph.D. ’06, who used Canvas in his BIOG 1500: Investigative Biology Laboratory class in fall 2017. “Instructors can feel like they have arrived to the 21st century.”
Sarvary said that he thinks Canvas beats Blackboard in facilitating communication within a large course. For BIOG 1500, Sarvary and the lab instructors once had to set up 13 individual Blackboard sites — one for the entire class and one for each of the 12 lab sections.
“In Canvas, each of our 12 laboratory instructors can have their mini websites within Canvas, which will provide them better tools to communicate with individual lab groups, share rubrics, papers, drop quick emails,” Sarvary told The Sun. “That feature is a game-changer.”
Anisha Amurthur ’20 piloted Canvas in her COMM 2450: Communication and Technology class in Spring 2018. She said that the Canvas’ layout makes it easier to locate different features whereas “it’s everywhere” on Blackboard, which sometimes can be confusing to navigate.
Amurthur’s instructor of the course, Prof. Drew Margolin, communication, also said he enjoyed using Canvas, partly because the new LMS allows him to remove modules from display so that he could “direct students to information and that they would see it more or less the same way I saw it.”
Faculty participants saw the basic features were more intuitive to use on Canvas than on Blackboard, according to the report. However, Sarvary said that it might take some time for instructors — especially if they use a lot of materials in their classes — to readjust to Canvas’ horizontal structure of organization.
“Canvas is more like having everything on the desktop of your computer, which makes it easy to find all of your documents if you don’t have too many files,” Savary explained. “But as soon as you have too much data on your desktop, it becomes cluttered and unorganized.”
At the same time, both the report and Margolin mentioned the need for more granularity of user permissions on Canvas — such as limiting the access of teaching assistants to certain features and allowing instructors to override TA’s actions.
“There were certain actions, if done once by a TA, even by accident, that I could not undo,” Margolin said. “In general, Canvas does not give faculty as much ability to override the system as it should in my view.”
The report also noted that having to use Canvas for some courses and Blackboard for others at the same time can be a challenge, which will likely be the case for some people during the transition period.
“Since I had certain features programmed in my mind from Canvas, to then to switch to Blackboard was confusing,” Amurthur — who already had experience with Canvas at the University of Michigan before transferring to Cornell — told The Sun. “It would take me a few minutes to remember where I had to find certain things.”
“I had to keep reminding myself which platform I was in when making changes. Muscle memory could not take over,” Margolin said.
While the decision to adopt Canvas has not been widely announced, Thom-Levy said that the University plans to share the news with the entire campus at the beginning of fall 2018, by which they can provide more details about the support resources and will “have more specifics to share about what the decision means.”
“Our support plans are developing, but we will be able to point students to resources to help understand Canvas,” Thom-Levy said. “We look forward to continuing to listen to students so we can better understand what support we can provide.”
Cornell has notified Blackboard Inc. of its decision to not renew its current contract, which ended in June 2018, according to Thom-Levy.
Blackboard Inc. was “definitely disappointed” given its “long-standing relationship” with Cornell, Thom-Levy told The Sun, but they expressed understanding of Cornell’s needs to “make decisions based on what is in the best interest of … students and faculty.”
This is not the first time Cornell considers replacing Blackboard with one of its alternatives. In fall 2008, after many of its peer institutions switched to other LMS, the University tested Moodle, a free and open-source course management software.
Blackboard in fact has part of its roots at Cornell. In 1997, Daniel Cane ’98 and Stephen Gilfus ’97 co-founded CourseInfo LLC, a student and alumni company that produced “academic software that helps college educators … put their courses online,” according to the Cornell Chronicle.
CourseInfo was later merged with Blackboard LLC to form Blackboard Inc., the company responsible for the Blackboard Learn system used widely by students across the country today.
Cane got the idea from working on a similar design with Prof. Cindy van Es, applied economics and management, who wanted to build a course management system in 1996 for her Introductory Statistics class that would provide her a “quick and easy way to communicate with students in a large class.”
Much like the Blackboard system today, the CourseInfo software they developed allowed instructors to post announcements, upload course material, record grades and make other resources available to students.
When asked about Cornell’s departure from Blackboard, van Es said that she recognizes the changing academic needs despite her pride for Blackboard.
“While I have continued to use it in all my courses, and I am proud of the solid foundation we built for this type of tool, I know that other products could have moved the concept to the next level,” van Es told The Sun.