Canvas Network: Instructure takes on Coursera, et al, with a unique approach to MOOCs

It seems as though every company offering a MOOC can get millions in venture funding lately. Can Instructure's new approach to public online courses shake up the market?
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

In April, Coursera grabbed $16 million in venture capital on its way to dramatically shifting the nature of higher education with its Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Kirsten Winkler and I had the opportunity to interview its founders later that month and I couldn't help but be impressed with their vision and drive.

Udacity, a key Coursera competitor, announced a $15 million round of financing last week, bring their total for the past 12 months to $21 million and change in venture capital. 2U (formerly 2Tor) raised $26 million. CodeAcademy? $10 million. To be clear, 2U is a platform on which universities can offer online degrees and isn't focused on MOOCs, specifically, but you get the idea. There's big money being invested here, even if the returns aren't 100% clear.

Most of these companies share similar missions of bring high-quality education to the masses, whether or not they can afford degrees from Stanford, MIT, or any of the other institutions with which they partner. Some are designed as for-profit enterprises; others are mission-driven non-profits. Some grant degrees while others just provide learning opportunities to hundreds of thousands of students worldwide.

Time recently featured a story called "College is Dead, Long Live College," about the MOOC movement and what appears to be the powerful leveling effect these courses can have worldwide. It offered a moving portrait of diverse students from around the world coming together to find ways to ensure that an 11-year old girl in Pakistan could complete a college-level physics course on Udacity after the Pakistani government blocked access to YouTube. The girl ended up acing the course thanks to fellow students she'd never met finding workarounds to her government's censorship (talk about empowering women with education!).

Clearly, these sorts of courses and the companies that are making them possible represent at least one aspect of the future of education and are poster children for the democritization of education. Enter Instructure, the LMS vendor co-founded by ex-Mozy CEO Josh Coates with the intention of disrupting the LMS market dominated by Blackboard. So far, Instructure has found rapid success in that aspect of the education market. In just two years, they have brought over 4 million students onto their Canvas LMS and are signing on new institutions at a lightning pace.

Today, Instructure announced its own courses platform called the Canvas Network. Although the Canvas Network (which runs on the Canvas LMS) can support full-blown MOOCs, the company brings a different philosophy to the table. In a press release, the company explained,

Canvas Network allows institutions to define the structure of their courses and the approach to teaching that makes the most sense to them. Some institutions have chosen to pursue a massive open online course format (MOOC), and some have chosen to pursue a smaller online course format with more interaction. Often the courses are taught on the same platform the institution uses to teach tuition-based courses, which means students have a seamless experience as they progress through their academic journey.

I talked with Brian Whitmer, Instructure's co-founder and Chief Product Officer, on Wednesday about the Network. His message was somewhat refreshing when the ed tech community has been so focused on MOOCs. Not all classes lend themselves to a massive online format. The Canvas Network is about open online courses. The massive part is at the discretion of the institution offering the course.

That said, when courses begin in January, I expect that more than a few of them will fill to capacity (whatever capacity the institution decides) very quickly. Where else could you hear Stan Lee (yes, the Stan Lee) among others talk about gender studies in the context of comic books?

Interestingly, it isn't just colleges using the platform. Lumen Learning is using the Canvas Network to make an English Composition curriculum available for free, primarily targeting students at risk. As they note on their Network course page, 

Lumen supports institutions to use open education models to improve student success.

  • Eliminates textbook costs as a barrier
  • Ensures quality instructional design
  • Supports faculty success and development
  • Analyzes and improves learning results

The whole course, taken asynchronously and on-demand, is Creative Commons 3.0 licensed. Canvas is just the platform in this case on which written and video materials are hosted.

The takeaway here is that one size doesn't fit all in terms of open online education. And I'm not just talking about MOOC vs. "not MOOC." I'm talking about using available platforms to deliver many types of educational content in many ways, whether replacing books and supplementing work by K12 instructors or introducing game design to countless aspiring geeks. Instructure has demonstrated with the success of Canvas as an LMS that they have the platform. It will be interesting to see how they continue to leverage the technology to improve the delivery of online education.

From a business perspective, it will also be interesting to see what these courses do in terms of building out an already robust sales pipeline for the Canvas LMS as thousands of new students and institutions are exposed to the platform. This isn't meant to be cynical. This is actually social entrepreneurship at its best. I've already signed up for the Applied Business Communication course from Flatworld Knowledge. Maybe I'll see you there.

Editorial standards