By Marcus Lavergne

Students and faculty can expect an overhaul of the current WebCampus learning management system at the University of Nevada, Reno, as early as next summer. Blackboard, UNR’s current operating software for WebCampus, will become another piece of the school’s academic past in 2016 when its competitor, Instructure, begins its tenure with the university.

Canvas, Instructure’s new software, is set to become WebCampus’ new operating platform. Students can expect the change next fall, while faculty will learn the ins and outs of the program in spring.

This past year, UNR’s Office of the Provost approved the transfer to Canvas after receiving a large amount of preferential feedback toward the program. The provost went to Ed Huffman, the director of teaching and learning technologies at UNR, to organize a committee of students, faculty and administration to decide the new WebCampus operator.

The final decision to change was made in response to multiple factors, including an expiring five-year contract with Blackboard as well as multiple complaints regarding the software.  According to Huffman, a shift has been overdue.

“For the last couple of years we’ve had some technical issues with [Blackboard],” Huffman said. “We’ve come to find out that [the issues] are part of the software, and there are glitches within the software.”

The provost and committee looked at several LMSs, but ultimately, conformity among Nevada’s learning institutions was a large factor in choosing Canvas. According to Huffman, UNR and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, are the only campuses within the Nevada System of Higher Education that aren’t using the software.

Huffman says the later transition is just a result of being a large institution, and he doesn’t think UNR is playing catch-up.

“The larger the school the more complicated it is to transfer like this,” Huffman said. “Cal State’s system just recently switched over to Canvas. The two major Oregon schools are in the process of switching right now, so a lot of schools are in the same position we’re in right now.”

Huffman isn’t positive about when Nevada’s most populous institution, UNLV, will make the change. Their contract goes through 2017.

But at UNR, faculty training programs for mastering the system will be implemented in mid-February. Next year’s summer courses will be the first to receive the technologic makeover, but most students won’t see the program until fall, according to Huffman.

“Aside from the name, everything else will be different about the system,” Huffman said. “The interface, the software behind it, where it’s hosted, all of those things will be different. The name is the only thing that will stay consistent.”

The committee’s observations showed an abundance of positive feedback toward changing systems rather than keeping Blackboard. But the feedback wasn’t only due to the flawed software. According to Huffman, there was a convincing optimistic outlook toward the new features Canvas has to offer, including a free mobile app and greater flexibility in selecting how to receive notifications for different courses.

“There’s a number of other small things,” Huffman said. “Mainly it was reliability of the system and ease of navigation. Those are two things the students and faculty indicate will likely be better in Canvas. The stability of the system we can base on what other schools have seen on campus  and company reports as well.”

According to Instructure’s Aimee Hugo, who works in marketing and development, Canvas is used at roughly 1,600 schools ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade and into higher education. That being said, Instructure was founded in 2008, making it relatively new in comparison with competition like Blackboard, founded in 1991, and Desire2Learn Inc., founded in 1999, which brought eLearning products to the market.

Capterra.com, which lists and rates numerous business and educational software, gave Canvas an overall rating of 3.8 stars — the aggregate of just five reviews so far, which included mixed responses.

Bob Young, an associate professor of mathematics at Eastern Florida State College, was not fond of UNR’s next system, stating, “It’s no Blackboard,” in 2014.

Darren Mallett, an ICT coordinator at Hillcrest College, called it “a comprehensive new player on the market to take seriously,” in 2013.

Regardless of the critical opinion of Canvas, Huffman believes the program is a smart leap from Blackboard.

“Canvas has just risen to the top as one of the better LMSs that’s available right now,” Huffman said.” They made a lot of headway in market share, and I think that’s partly what we’re seeing.”

Marcus Lavergne can be reached at mlavergne@sagebrush.unr.edu and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.