The LMS Instructure Enters the MOOC Fray

Not content with being the young upstart in the LMS industry taking on the aging giants of Blackboard and Desire2Learn, Instructure has now decided to enter another market and take on some of the upstarts there, namely Coursera and edX. That is, tonight it launches the Canvas Network, which in the words of CEO Josh Coates, is “our answer to the whole MOOC hype.”

It’s an answer that Instructure’s current clients have helped devise, too, Coates says, noting that many of the schools that run its LMS Canvas are pondering that hype and weighing whether they should join the Coursera or edX platform (or fear being left out of the MOOC race entirely). In many cases, these schools already offer online classes to their own students, but simply don’t have the reach — the marketing reach or the instructional reach — that the xMOOCs promise.

The Canvas Network

So with the new Canvas Network, Instructure has compiled a catalog of free, open online classes run on the Canvas LMS by Canvas customers. The network launches with participation from a dozen institutions, including Brown, the University of Washington, and the University of Central Florida. There are 2 dozen courses, including “Introduction to Openness in Education” taught by BYU’s David Wiley and “Gender Through Comic Books” with lectures voiced by Stan Lee. (Yes, that Stan Lee.)

Registration opens now, with the first classes beginning in January.

Outsourcing Online Education

“Coursera is one size fits all model,” Coates contends, and he insists that schools and professors should be able to decide themselves how to teach their online classes. In other words, what appears on the Canvas Network isn’t just video lectures, multiple choice quizzes, and robo-graders. Importantly here, instructional design, the course content, and the technical support for running the online classes occur on the institutional level and are not outsourced or licensed to Instructure.

But Instructure does have some experience on the MOOC front, having been the platform used for the MOOC MOOC run by the Hybrid Pedagogy folks back in August. Coates said that the company was able to learn a lot during this week-long MOOC about how it would have to tweak the LMS features to account for open participation at a massive scale.

But some things needn’t be tweaked. “We don’t have to make up a weird business model” to offer these open online classes, Coates quips, as the schools who offer them via the Canvas Network are already paying Instructure clients. Not surprisingly considering the sales approach that LMSes have traditionally taken, this new network is aimed at “institutional buy-in” and it seems clear that — much as with its competitors Coursera and edX — this is about marketing the school to prospective students, all that lip service to “democratizing education” aside, of course.

“MOOCs are a feature of, but they’re not the only future of education,” says Coates. That might be quite a reassuring message to universities worried about how they should respond to this latest MOOC craze. With Canvas Network, they’ll be able to respond using tools they’re familiar with — tools they’ve paid for. That places them in a very different relationship with their open online course offerings than does the agreements schools are signing with Coursera.

And yet in both these cases (as with edX and Udacity, and with its LMS competitors that are also hosting open courses) we still find open online courses contained and "managed" within the LMS.

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