University expands program to pilot CTools replacement

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By Carly Noah, Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 9, 2015

CTools may yield to a new online learning platform over the next few years, but current students won’t likely be around for the transition.

Created by a consortium of institutions, including the University, CTools launched in 2004 and has been in use since.

However, a new system, Canvas, has seen steady progress toward implementation since it was first piloted at the University in the fall of 2014.

The Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, along with working faculty groups, have spent the past year discussing the switch as part of the NextGen Michigan initiative, which seeks to modernize the University’s Information Technology Services.

A February report from the faculty team responsible for evaluating the switch, the Digital Innovation Advisory Group, cited changes in digital education as the main rationale for the switch.

“CTools development has unfolded around the creation of tools to manage digital assets in a reactive manner,” the report said. “Canvas, in contrast, has been conceived from the ground up to provide a more cohesive learning experience.”

In an interview last month, University Provost Martha Pollack said the University so far has not yet made a formal decision on transitioning, but data from pilots has been promising.

However, she said she expects CTools to remain in use until April 2016 at the earliest.

This semester, the University is partaking in a second round of piloting with a larger audience. Pollack said the pilot includes a total of 123 instructors and 7,000 students in 112 classes throughout 15 schools and colleges.

Pollack said in conjunction with this pilot, DIAG is also conducting discussions about Canvas with University academic units in anticipation of a more formal recommendation.

“At the end of the winter semester, (DIAG) will make a recommendation about the scope and about the pace of moving forward,” Pollack said. “And then we’ll have more pilots over the summer.”

DIAG’s February report on the Fall 2014 pilot found that most users reported positive outcomes.

Among the 33 instructors and 3,000 students in the fall pilot, 75 percent of faculty and 58 percent of students involved in the pilot preferred Canvas to CTools, according to the report.

One issue with larger classes, namely Statistics 250, was cited: the size of the class caused the system to freeze, and in some cases, instructors were unable to upload grades for every student. However, the report concluded that the concern could be resolved.

Information Prof. Barry Fishman, DIAG co-chair, said there were several key distinctions between CTools and Canvas.

CTools runs through servers that are housed at the University. Canvas, on the other hand, lives in the cloud computing system and is managed externally by a consortium of universities called Unizin, of which the University is a founding member.

Unizin is designed to create an open platform for universities to work together on furthering digital education initiatives and sharing content — the first step being Canvas. Universities pay fees to keep the platform running.

“It’s sort of a priority shift for the institution I think — to say yes, we’re going to be in the business of great teaching and learning, supported by great technology, but not necessarily in the business of keeping that technology running every day, which was the case with CTools,” Fishman said.

He added that when another group is managing a school’s learning environment and technology, an issue of ease versus control arises. Because of the collaborative nature of Unizin, this concern is less of an issue.

“When you’re purchasing services from someone else, you automatically have less control over that environment,” Fishman said. “That’s where Unizin comes in. So if we’re one customer of infrastructure using Canvas, then we’re just one customer — and we’re a big customer — but we’re not a majority customer.”

Pollack said through Unizin, and tools like Canvas, more collaboration is possible.

“Unizin was created in large part to be sure the universities lead and influence digital education in the future,” she said. “(It’s) being created in such a way that we can use tools like Canvas, but with interfaces so we’d own the data and they pass through these interfaces to these other tools.”

She added that the choice to consider alternate options to CTools wasn’t motivated by fiscal reasons.

For faculty, Fishman said, there were several advantages to Canvas — namely, additional features, such as SpeedGrader, which he said streamlined grading far beyond CTools’ capabilities.

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“We look for seamlessness,” he said. “You want the different pieces of the environment to feel like they were built to work together and that it’s easy for you to integrate various tools, and Canvas seems to support that as well.”

He added that there were also other possibilities beyond the direct features, such as the capability to partner with other Big Ten schools or other institutions around the nation to share data, or use Massive Open Online Courses.

However, not all students see the need for the updated learning platform.

LSA sophomore Krysten Dorfman said unless there is an advantage she has not found, CTools and Canvas are fairly similar.

“I never had any issues with CTools, so I don’t see any particular need for Canvas right now,” Dorfman said. “The design is cleaner and the interface is a little more organized, but nothing noticeably special. It keeps all of our assignments in one place and lets us know when they are due, but so does CTools.”

Engineering junior Brian Esch said while the interface of Canvas is nicer, it doesn’t seem to do anything that CTools can’t do.

“The only thing that annoys me is having to switch between the two sites for all of my courses,” Esch said. “I would prefer that one site would have all of my courses.”

So far, Fishman and Pollack said, the pilot processes have been smooth. However, both noted that there will be some transition concerns.

“One of the things I need to worry about in any transition is for faculty. If you invest in a lot of energy in building your course material on CTools, how could we make that transition from CTools to Canvas as easy as possible or completely automatic,” he said.

Pollack said there were plans to aid faculty’s transition, should the switch occur, especially when it comes to moving material stored on CTools to Canvas.

Overall, Fishman said a successful transition requires that instructors make the most of any new platform.

“Learning management systems don’t lend themselves to feats of derring-do,” he said. “They’re the plumbing. Good teachers are doing the normally good things that they’re doing around here. Particularly exciting teachers, I have seen no way in which Canvas is holding them back. It’s not about Canvas, it’s about what you do with it.”

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