With 4.5M Users, Instructure Takes On The Courseras & Udacities Of The World With Its Own Open Course Network

Instructure launched Canvas in 2011 to give educational institutions an alternative to the ubiquitous (but much criticized) software of educational giants like Blackboard.

Rather than forcing schools to spend six months integrating and learning how to use inflexible and bloated learning management software, Canvas offers an open source and cloud-native system that is accessible to all students and educators, easy to use (avoids Flash) and mobile, while offering developers a set of APIs and scalable server capacity.

Since then, Instructure has raised $9 million and has seen its LMS adopted by 300 universities, colleges and school districts, serving over four million people (thanks in part to its recent partnership with Cisco).

Today, Instructure is adding another piece to its learning management system with the launch of its own MOOC hybrid called the Canvas Network. Essentially, the network allows schools to define the structure of their online courses and customize the learning experience. They can choose to offer courses in a scalable, open format (i.e. MOOC-style) or pursue a smaller, more closed model, in which courses are taught on the online platform schools already have up and running — and are tuition-based.

Why? Well, as you’ve likely heard, there’s a lot of attention being paid to massive open online course initiatives (MOOCs), thanks to networks like Khan Academy, Coursera, Udacity, EdX and StraighterLine, to name a few. However, in talking with schools, Instructure CEO Josh Coates tells us, they learned that, while MOOCs have seen buzz from national media, institutions still have a lot of concerns about these open course initiatives.

Chiefly, many schools views open course platforms as a feature, rather than the future of education and, while being necessary and integral to the democratization of access to courses and learning content, are not yet sufficient. On top of that, Coates says, schools believe that MOOCs currently privilege a one-size-fits-all approach, which fails to take into consideration the fact that each university has its own needs, and views on how to educate their students.

In reality, universities want flexibility and the ability to run courses the way they see fit, rather than being shoehorned into a specific model or interface. And, somewhat controversially, schools content that real innovation in education is coming not from the vendors serving institutions, but within institutions (and the system) itself.

That’s why the Canvas Network allows schools to offer their courses in one aggregated resource, where students already enrolled in their programs can search for and access their content and where the public (you and me) can do the same — pursue and discover courses that offer open enrollment.

Beginning today, students can view and register for these classes for free, choosing from an initial set of 20 courses from both Ivy League schools and community colleges. What’s available today is basically the network’s initial catalog of courses, which will begin in January 2013, but the company plans to continue expanding that catalog as it goes.

The courses listed today are open to the public and cover subjects like economics, math, engineering, dance, music and business. Participating groups and institutions include Brown University, Colorado State, Ball State, University of Washington, Ball State, University of Central Florida, Utah, XYZ Textbooks and Open Course Library, to name a few. (See the list of courses here.)

Again, the intended benefit of the Canvas Network for learners is a place where they can find courses offered by a range of institutions that are free and available to the public, while students at particular institutions can access content from within their particular curriculum. Now, one might argue that, for those looking for the free, open course option, Coursera offers a way better option, because it only offers content from Ivy Leagues and top institutions.

This will definitely add some friction, however, Coates is of the mindset that, just because Ivy League schools have that lofty status, doesn’t mean they offer the best courses or methodology in every particular subject. Maybe there’s a community college in Colorado that absolutely nails archaeology. The idea, then, is that the Canvas Network allows schools previously unknown to those outside of their communities to reach a bigger audience.

That’s great, but as it fills up with content and adds more institutions, it will have to find better ways for students to find the best content. Sure, Instructure has a reach of four million, but it’s still a fairly unknown entity, so why would someone unfamiliar with its learning software immediately trust it to curate content from random institutions and community colleges few have ever heard of? Maybe it will open the courses up to commenting and student reviews, but my hunch is that will be a problem they’ll need to address at scale, even if it’s not a consideration at launch.

On the flip side, for schools, the Canvas Network proposes to add value by offering flexible course design, advance tools like built-in multimedia, ePortfolios, collaboration, mobile access, analytics, grading — leveraging features of its LMS. On top of the ability to use public enrollment and have their courses, teachers and subjects show up in a public course index, schools can also export their student data for analysis, marketing, research and all that good stuff. The idea is to help them understand how course design and instruction is affecting student outcomes, whether they’re blowing it or turning all their students into Einsteins.

It will be interesting to see how students and schools react to the Canvas Network in comparison to the StraighterLines and Courseras of the world. Each of them has value in their own right (StraighterLine with accreditation and Coursera with Ivy League content, for example), but obviously there could be a lot of value — if it’s able to offer a comparable number of Ivies and community colleges — in Canvas’ ability to offer a blend of MOOCs and accredited courses, especially as it already has a sizable network to leverage. But time will tell.

Although, it is a plus that Stan Lee is teaching a course on comic books.

What do you think?