As University completes transitions to Canvas, opinions remain mixed among faculty

The new Canvas learning platform, which replaced CTools university wide, prompted mixed responses from students and faculty.

The new Canvas learning platform, which replaced CTools university wide, prompted mixed responses from students and faculty.
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Tuesday, September 6, 2016 - 7:59pm

Starting at the beginning of classes Tuesday, the University of Michigan’s two-year-long transition to Canvas was complete — drawing mixed reactions from faculty over the process and implementation, and overall positive impressions from students.

Canvas is an online learning management system that includes features such as assignments, grades and discussion boards. Moving forward, it will be the class platform for all University classes, replacing CTools. The switch is one part of the University’s NextGen plan — a strategy for investing in the next generation of technology and creating shared infrastructure across campus.

The University piloted Canvas in the 2014-2015 school year with lukewarm responses from faculty and students, using it in 130 courses and engaging more than 10,000 students and 150 instructors. The decision to move forward with the transition was motivated by a decided need to, once the transition had begun, reduce to a minimum the amount of time students were required to move back and forth between the two platforms. By the summer of 2016, 89 percent of courses used Canvas.

Sean DeMonner, ITS executive director of teaching and learning, was responsible for the internal team tasked with implementing the system. He said the switch to Canvas allows the University to move forward on a more efficient version of features like gradebook, assignment submission capabilities and a discussion board. Two thousand universities, school districts and institutions worldwide use Canvas, according to the Canvas website. CTools was the University’s own system.

“The ultimate goal is to take the resources, the dollars, that were going into the development of those capabilities in CTools and reinvest in next generation academic technologies,” DeMonner said.

He added that the transition is also the University’s response to new data analytic possibilities.

“We’re starting to see new things come into play like learning analytics — this idea that we can capture data from various places, analyze it and apply it to different kinds of support activities for students,” he said.

DeMonner said the University hasn’t been able to invest in these new support mechanisms to drive students’ success at the level that they’d like because they’ve been working with CTools.

Among faculty over the past week, opinions on the switch were mixed, with several expressing concerns. Initially, some faculty had discussed prolonging the transition process for another year to allow for a longer adjustment period.

However, the Digital Ecosystem Subcommittee of the Digital Innovation Advisory Group encouraged the provost to expedite the process. The faculty subcommittee no longer exists.

School of Public Health Prof. David Mendez, the former chair of the subcommittee, said it was important for students to not have to go back and forth between the platforms.

“What we recommended was a transition that could happen as fast as possible, but without rushing students or faculty,” he said.

Senate Assembly Chair Bill Schultz, an engineering professor, said though some faculty and students prefer the system, he is still adjusting.

“I find it is not as intuitive as I thought it would be,” Schultz said. “I think this might be better for students, and might take some transition time for faculty.”

American Culture Prof. Lisa Nakamura started using Canvas in winter of 2016. She said she would like to be able to make project sites through Canvas, such as for smaller reading groups within a class or clubs, and be able to make collaborative sites for students to make study guides on their own.

Overall, however, Nakamura said she likes Canvas better than CTools due to better interface and quickness.

“There are some annoying things about it, but I think those were also true of CTools,” she said.

Students also expressed a range of opinions about Canvas, but several said they were happy just to not need to switch back and forth between platforms.

LSA sophomore Clare Shafer said it was an inconvenience using both sites when she just wanted to double check something for a class.

“I had one class on CTools last semester and it was really annoying because I was constantly having to log in and then log back out,” she said. “I just wanted to be able to quickly access my classes and see if I had homework.”

Shafer also said she preferred Canvas because of its layout.

“I think how they have the grade tab and the calendar tab is more efficient than it was on CTools,” she said. “Canvas seems more modern.”

LSA junior Tad Conrado had a similar perspective. He said he preferred the style on Canvas and liked having to only access one platform.

LSA senior Evan David said he preferred CTools because it had a more obvious user interface, but is fine using Canvas.

“Personally, I liked CTools better in general,” he said. “I thought it was more streamlined and I thought the user interface was easier.”

In spite of the big adjustment, DeMonner said the support that Canvas has received has been very important for its integration at the University.

“A change like this, even though it has happened over a period of two years, is hugely impactful for campus,” he said. “It touches pretty much every student, all the faculty, with very few exceptions. We have received a lot of support in partnership from different constituencies around campus. I appreciate that, and I thank folks for going with us on the journey.”