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.