There are alternatives to Blackboard and Moodle: Instructure Canvas goes open source

There are alternatives to Blackboard and Moodle: Instructure Canvas goes open source

Summary: Can the open sourcing of a sophisticated LMS finally break the log jam in the LMS market caused by the ubiquity of Blackboard and the easy "free-ness" of Moodle?


Instructure, creator of the Canvas learning management system (LMS), took an incredibly bold step to disrupt the LMS market today when they open sourced the code for Canvas. In a market dominated by Blackboard and the companies it buys, it's sometimes hard to look elsewhere. However, many schools, students, and teachers end up using Blackboard because either that's what's installed or because everyone else is using it.

Sometimes it seems that your only choices in the LMS market are to either pay Blackboard for a relatively turnkey solution, pay a full-time Moodle developer who can really take advantage of the open source system and make it everything it needs to be for your institution, or pay a host like Moodlerooms and miss out on the deep customizability of the LMS. Canvas, though, provides an elegant solution that can be either hosted or supported on-premise (both for a fee) and supported internally with its now free Community Version.

For those not familiar with Instructure Canvas, here's a brief video explaining how to create a course in the LMS:

The audio is a bit low on this video, but it gives a very good sense of the elegant user interface and broad feature set in Canvas. While there are other open source learning management systems (Moodle, for example, has about 10% of the market), Canvas looks like something you'd pay for. This isn't a slight against Moodle (or Sakai, for that matter) in any way. Moodle is incredibly easy to install and will run well on just about anything. However, teachers are hardly dragging and dropping or taking full advantage of full Ruby on Rails implementations in Moodle.

Speaking of Ruby, I had a chance to install the free, Canvas CV (Community Version) both on my Mac and on a Linux test box. The Linux server was a standard Ubuntu LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) setup and the Mac was running MAMP. In both cases, I was wishing that I had some Ruby experience. I've installed Moodle several times, run many websites on LAMP servers, and have no problem administering these systems.

However, when I hit some Ruby errors for which solutions weren't readily apparent in various forums, it was definitely a stumbling block. Point being that, while setup isn't incredibly difficult, it isn't for the relatively savvy teacher who just wants to toss up a site and may have used Moodle or another CMS (content management system, e.g., Joomla! or Wordpress) at some point. That being said, anyone with some reasonable experience with modern Web 2.0 technologies should have no problem getting the Community Version up and running.

So why, aside from the user interface, would you want to pick Canvas over the other LMSs out there? Because it's a solidly integrated system with a variety of useful features to support teaching and learning that is easy to pilot for free and cost-effective to scale up with supported versions from Instructure. Features include everything from fast and innovative grading (see the video below) to video chat. Click here and scroll to the bottom of the page for a complete list of features.

I'll leave you with one last video from Instructure. Remember the 1984 Mac Superbowl commercial? If you liked that, you'll get a laugh out of this. Canvas really is different, though, and needs to be on the short list for anyone considering implementing an LMS. I'll be writing more about Canvas as I pilot it side by side with a Moodle instance I'm putting together for some classes I'm teaching. I'm looking at ways to integrate the virtual classroom technologies in WizIQ with the two LMSs (there's already a Moodle plugin, but Canvas is open source and has an open API, so we'll see what we can do). For now, enjoy the show and go download Canvas CV. Share your thoughts in the talkbacks.

Topics: Open Source, Linux, Operating Systems, Servers

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • RE: There are alternatives to Blackboard and Moodle: Instructure Canvas goes open source

    THANK YOU.... THE TIMING COULDN'T BE BETTER. I'm just in the process of coordinating efforts with a local church to set up a small technology center with about 12 stations to offer free technology training for the area. I was having a hard time dealing with which LMS would be best between Moodle or some implementation of WordPress or Joomla. I will definately check this out (read: download and install today!). Looking forward to seeing how it can make my life easier given that this effort will be in addition to my 2 full time jobs and home based business. Thanks Again.
    • RE: There are alternatives to Blackboard and Moodle: Instructure Canvas goes open source

      @teknicalservices That's why unemployment is so high - you're taking up all the jobs! :-)
  • Interesting

    I may have to look into this as an alternative to our Moodle system. From what I see in the video the UI looks cleaner in Canvas.
  • The CV version

    Chris, is the CV version the same as the 'full' version or it it crippled or cut down in some way?
    I cannot tell from the Canvas site - Derek
    • RE: There are alternatives to Blackboard and Moodle: Instructure Canvas goes open source

      @derekcx It doesn't integrate with their mobile apps and only has community support, but is otherwise the full app (and you have the full source code, released under AGPL, so you can do as you please with it).

      It's good stuff - obviously plenty of incentives to use a full hosted and supported version, but if you have the inclination and a reasonable skill set, it works very well. Apparently there's an updated download from what I experimented with pre-launch over the weekend that is more stable and easier to install as well, so I'll be reinstalling and reporting back.
  • RE: There are alternatives to Blackboard and Moodle: Instructure Canvas goes open source

    There is certainly a competitor to Blackboard (written specifically because of the limitations of Blackboard) and it's Moodle. Fully open sourced, well written code and it's been around and updated for a long time.

    I'd be more interested in tech detail - like which version of SCORM does Canvas support?

    However, I'm happy with Moodle and given the errors you've already experienced, I see no need to change. I don't even use the standard Moodle UI (which of course is easily skinnable) as we've written our own.
    • RE: There are alternatives to Blackboard and Moodle: Instructure Canvas goes open source

      @tonymcs@... I agree that Moodle is outstanding. I think that my issues were really reflections of my own naivete. Moodle has a well-earned market share.

      However, like the background in Ruby for Canvas, many in ed tech (or even educators) simply lack the ability to really tweak Moodle. How many teachers do you know who can just "write their own Moodle UI"?

      Just saying...Moodle is great, but it needs someone solid onsite to really make it everything it can be. Canvas needs someone relatively solid onsite to setup and maintain, manage SIF connections, etc. More tech details will definitely follow...good questions.

      • RE: There are alternatives to Blackboard and Moodle: Instructure Canvas goes open source

        Here's the problem. Moodle should have seen Web 2.0 integration as part of the core. They missed it, and Canvas got it.

        Students will like this much better than Moodle.
  • RE: There are alternatives to Blackboard and Moodle: Instructure Canvas goes open source

    I visisted instructure website and nobody is talking about the WAMP installation, only LAMP and MAMP, windows may not be open source but majority of would-be users of Canvas LMS use windows, to me this is a showstopper!
    • LAMP v WAMP?

      @banky77ng@... I use LAMP with Windows machines. Not sure why you are having problems.
    • This is a server install, not a client install

      Most server installs of the LMS would probably end up on a *NIX box. However, your clients would interact with what-ever-browser of choice from Windows machine to the CANVAS web interface. Thus, I think the comment about "but majority of would-be users of Canvas LMS use windows" wasn't making distinction about this installation. The clients, which will be mostly Windows users, don't have to install anything - they just use a browser.

    Here's a new LMS to consider:
    It's still in Beta but already functional.
    Kamal Bouskri
  • Importing Blackboard course material

    Will Moodle or myVLE accommodate the importing of course material from Blackboard?
  • Blackboard:Model-T with a new heating system

    Do you still drive your great great grandparents' Model T? It's got a new stereo and heating system but the some old dated platform? How is it working for you? That's just like Blackboard. Built in the computer dinosaur age and never rebuilt, it may have a few new buzzers but, as I am sure you know by now, it's a LOUSY program. It is dated, cumbersome, not intuitive, not user friendly and problematic in ways that can really disrupt a class for the entire semester. Even the answers to help questions are so poorly written and displayed that it is worthless (or worse) to try to seek answers from Blackboard itself. It is a dated platform and their updates are lousy patches but do nothing to make the program more useable. it's as if it were designed by someone with an inability to take the perspective of anyone using the program (a deficit in that ability is not unusual among people who are very very tech savvy but lacking in basic communication and people skills-spectrum disability). Clickable arrows >>> pointing here and there rarely do what you would think they would. Problems in clarity about when various "tools" are viewable and to who make it likely that instructors believe certain things are not displayed to students are viewable by them (and that can really screw up the morale in a class), the same terms are used in different places to mean different things and different terms are used in different places to mean the same thing. A big round circle with a slash across it would appear to indicate a column is not visible to students using the program. Surprise, it is. What does the big round circle with a slash through it mean? who knows. Multiple click-able tags pertaining to the same features allows competing codes-so that one screen can indicate something is viewable and another that it isn't. Nowhere is there any way to tell what is visible to who. Need I go on? How many ways is there to tell you that using Blackboard will screw you? Get yourself a program that was developed in this century-you'll be doing yourself and your company or organization a huge favor!!
  • Custom branded private LMS in less than 30 seconds

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