Why Instructure’s News Matters: Market history

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10 replies
  1. Bill King
    Bill King says:

    Good read as always. One market dynamic that I’m sure you are aware of, but is worth including here, is why Canvas could take off so quickly (I was in sales at WebCT, and then a non-LMS edtech vendor, who moved from on-prem to cloud deployment, and then Canvas, before leaving academic IT system sales). While the ease of use and faculty-friendly interface and design was important, so was AWS (Amazon Web Services). CIOs by nature are conservative — generally, they don’t like change, because all the change falls on their shoulders, with limited staff, and usually with a bigger demand that they get the SIS, ERP and other admin systems correct. This left little time for academic systems. Even when there was a strong academic tech department, Academic tech was usually classroom tech. The area of servers (and network traffic) still had to go through the CIO office. Which reminds me – at the time, another big IT project was upping the bandwidth capacity across campus. IT had LOTS to do.

    Canvas came along with a cloud-based deployment scheme that eliminated the need for the CIO to source servers and stand up instances (let alone fail-over and backup systems). Even when early vendors moved to “managed hosting” (where a third party ran your server license for you), often times the CIO required proof of the safety of the data — at rest and in transit. You also had to prove the up time commitment (I remember early boasts of 93%, which is laughable today). So, you had to sell your product AND you had to sell the hosting service. With Canvas, you could just point to AWS’s terms of service, and EVERYONE knew Amazon was rock-solid reliable and secure. Whether that was true or not (I generally think it is), the point is that Amazon was like IBM from a few decades ago. Everyone trusted them and, even if AWS went down, it impacted everyone, so your IT group would not be blamed.

    This, to me, is the key why faculty and academic technology were free to choose their LMS platform. The entire IT services equation was taken care of, and AFAIK, Canvas had first mover advantage here. Then you throw in their culture at the time, and the product, and it was never a question of “if” – it was always a question of “when.” (e.g. I remember talking with one major private research university in 2014, that had planned their Canvas move for 2017, once all their legacy contracts expired and a few other internal issues were taken care of.)

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    • Rob Gibson
      Rob Gibson says:

      You raised several great points. Certainly one of the determining factors for our migration to Canvas was the cloud hosting. You didn’t have to be Nostradamus to see that staff and budgetary reductions were going to make the decision inevitable. Although Canvas was nowhere near its rivals in regard to features, the sprints (then every two weeks – later every three weeks – now monthly) that didn’t disrupt service availability made it a no-brainer. (I’ve been a member of the BLK-BRD list at ASU since its inception in the 1990s, and I still see institutions struggling with upgrades and patches. I’m really glad all that is in the rear-view mirror.)
      We’ve had one or two AWS outages in the past five years. (One that garnered quite a bit of attention because it brought down so many web services.) It’s not perfect – and not much cheaper, all things considered – but the ‘hassle-factor’ is greatly reduced.

      I agree with your comments regarding CIOs (and their conservative approach to change). That’s playing out right now in plain view with the back-and-forth tussle over cloud-based SIS systems. Another inevitability, but likely no where near as fast as the LMS migration.

      In conclusion, I was a little surprised by Instructure’s meteoric rise. I think it was all about timing. Blackboard was fresh off the Angel acquisition which really turned a large number of practitioners against them. (That’s about the time the “Blackborg” meme was propagating listservs.) There was a significant ‘anti-Blackboard’ movement afoot. Along comes Instructure. The first time I saw the product was a presentation by Pittsburg State University (Kansas) who was among the very first clients outside of Utah. So new, in fact, that Devin and Brian personally flew out to little Pittsburg to pitch the product. (That Midas touch ended a few months later.) Moreover, Blackboard was becoming TOO feature rich. (Everything and nothing as they say.) A reset was in order.

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  2. Bill King
    Bill King says:

    One other comment – we lost a lot of low-end market when I was at WebCT, but it wasn’t because of open source vs commercial (academics generally loved WebCT, it’s culture, and what they were trying to do from a product), it was because of the then-perceived price, i.e. “free” though later, people came to realize that open source “free” is not actually free – there’s a lot of cost-shifting. The question later, before cloud solutions, was did you have staff. I think the emergence of AWS and cloud is something that put a big damper on open source. The academic was free to pursue a product that fit them, and budget might even be non-IT, which helped in the decision making.

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  3. Jeff Alderson
    Jeff Alderson says:

    I find it interesting that this article didn’t attribute Instructure’s early and broad support of industry standards, such as LTI and their creation/hosting of the EduAppCenter as part of their success. LMS platforms today are seen as a commodity. I always viewed Canvas’ primary differentiator as their openness to support an ecosystem of apps, as well as fostering that ecosystem by including the EduAppCener marketplace directly within their own product.

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  4. Phil Hill
    Phil Hill says:

    Jeff, the post is not intended to lay out all the reasons why Canvas took off; rather, bigger issue is to point out that Canvas taking off changed the market. But to your point, I think the standards approach was very important, but even more important was openness in general (culture, messaging). Sometimes that standards approach is more important to observers than to actual end users, but important nonetheless.

    I disagree with the LMS as commodity argument, however, as switching LMS can make a very big difference in adoption of the LMS and integrated tools, and for helping faculty get over the hump to engage in digital learning and associated pedagogical considerations. Basically, LMSs are not fungible, despite the large overlap in feature check-boxes.

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