How Canvas came to unseat Blackboard as the leading LMS

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Earlier this month, an analysis found that Canvas had surpassed Blackboard as the most popular learning management system (LMS) among U.S. colleges and universities, based on the number of installations.

That news traveled far and fast, as Blackboard had long been the leading LMS in higher ed — for the entirety of Blackboard’s 20-year existence, in fact.

Though some, including officials at Blackboard, have contested the data , virtually everyone in higher education recognizes that Blackboard is no longer the only player in the LMS game. And that includes the people at Blackboard.

“Let’s be honest about where we are,” said Phill Miller, chief learning and innovation officer at Blackboard, in an interview with EdScoop. “There’s no doubt Blackboard has lost market share over the last 10 years.”

It was 10 years ago, to be exact, that Instructure, the company behind Canvas, was founded. Launched in 2011, Canvas was designed to be “really, really different” from its competitors, said Jared Stein, vice president of higher education strategy at Instructure.

Stein, who was working at a university at the time, recalls he and his teaching colleagues balked at the learning management system available to them, “either because it was too painful to use or not modern in its capabilities or unreliable when they needed it to be reliable,” he said.

In contrast, “Canvas emphasized simplicity, ease of use and engaging modern tools from day one — all on the cloud,” Stein said.

Setting a tone in the cloud

Hosting everything in the cloud, as it turned out, would give Canvas an edge. At the time, most people didn’t know what the cloud was, and those who did didn’t know what to make of it.

“In hindsight, it was critical we were cloud native,” Stein said. “Cloud has become the standard now, for learning management systems, but it certainly wasn’t easy for us, in the early days. Cloud was really scary.”

Blackboard evolved from an earlier era, when institutions had little choice but to buy and maintain the enterprise software they used. Miller and his Blackboard colleagues acknowledge that building Canvas in the cloud from the start gave Canvas an advantage over Blackboard Learn, the company’s LMS.

“One of the ways Instructure is different is they were one of the first companies to really launch from the ground up in a purely SaaS (software as a service) stage,” Miller said. “You didn’t get to choose upgrade windows; you took fixes as they came. There are real benefits to that. It’s been really complicated to compete with them because clients hold Canvas to a much lower bar than they do with us.”

“When clients say they’re leaving us for Instructure” — which has been a constant refrain Blackboard has heard from colleges in the last few years — “we scratch our heads,” Miller added. “We have more functionality.”

About four years ago, Miller said, Blackboard executives realized the cloud was what they were missing and began to move in that direction, but for a while after it was still “very much delayed,” he said. “But we doubled down 18 months ago and [Blackboard Learn with Ultra] is now a fully functioning system with capabilities everyone needs.”

Blackboard has been successful so far in getting its existing LMS clients to move to Ultra, Miller said, and he thinks a cloud-powered Blackboard experience is just what the company needs to pull the rope back over to its side in the Blackboard/Canvas game of tug of war.

“We’ve started to really attack Canvas,” Miller said. “We think we’ll get a handful of Canvas takeaways between now and the end of the year.”

Expanding beyond the learning management system

Being in the cloud only brings Blackboard Learn up to the level Canvas has been playing at since its inception. Miller knows that. But that’s not why Blackboard officials think they have regained the edge.

Blackboard, in recent years, has been growing out other products and services to help the company break free from its reputation as just an LMS provider.

“We’re really trying not to be just a niche point player of LMS solutions,” Miller said. “We want to offer tools that share data and share a common user experience, that meet a different set of needs than just basic LMS needs.”

That notion gave rise to Blackboard Ally for accessible content, Blackboard Collaborate for conferencing and engagement, SafeAssign for plagiarism detection services, Blackboard Analytics for insights about student learning patterns and others.

“For a long time, Blackboard treated each of those products as individual businesses,” Miller said. Then, about two-and-a-half years ago, the company realized that it should incorporate all of its tools into a single offering — similar to the way Microsoft began offering Microsoft Office as a packaged deal.

That’s why Miller thinks Blackboard can win back its former higher ed clients — the ones that went over to Canvas.

“We show them the next-gen solutions, the platform — they can get an entire integrated suite from one provider,” he said. “When we’re able to tell that story to a CIO and say, ‘You’re going to have a great beautiful suite, but if you stay with Canvas, you’re going to have to license these six or seven other things separately. With us, you’re getting it all in one package.’ When we’re able to make that case to a CIO or a committee, it can be compelling.”

Instructure has begun to expand to other offerings as well. Arc , for example, is a video and audio collaboration tool from Instructure, and Gauge is an online testing and assessment service primarily for K-12. Additional products are being created, piloted and evaluated by Canvas X, the company’s experimentation arm.

Asked about the recent data that puts Canvas ahead of Blackboard Learn, Stein said he and his colleagues don’t pay too much attention to the numbers.

“We want to pay attention to the institutions — our partner institutions, their interests, their desires aligned with technology, and institutions that aren’t using canvas, and why it’s right for them today and built for the future tomorrow,” he said.

Instructure doesn’t have any major strategic shifts ahead, Stein said. They’re going to keep doing what they’ve been doing — “slow and steady, focused on end users” — because, so far, it’s worked.

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