Props are owed to companies like Blackboard and Moodle for being early movers in the educational software space, particularly in helping catalyze innovation in learning management systems (LMS). The problem is, of course, they began over a decade ago and there haven’t exactly been a flurry of raving reviews since. Blackboard has continued to expand its suite of tools, and the ever-growing-features of LMSes Sakai and Desire2Learn are finding bigger and bigger audiences. The Salt Lake City-based Instructure launched Canvas in 2011 to give colleges and universities a more modern, cloud-based alternative.
Taking cues from Moodle, Instructure designed Canvas to be open source to let third-parties contribute to create more rapid development and bug fixes, while going one step further by avoiding Flash, offering a mobile product, APIs and scalable hosting. But, traditionally, the problem has been that EdTech has yet to become an ecosystem, CEO Josh Coates says, and integrations and APIs are few and far between.
Meanwhile, schools want to know what learning tools are out there, but they don’t want to do the work themselves. In response, Instructure is today announcing Canvas App Center — an app library built around its LMS that will allow teachers, administrators and students to install third-party apps in Canvas with one click that will be widely released in June. But what seems to have broader application is its independent open apps site, which is available now, offers over 100 apps, including WordPress, Khan Academy, Dropbox and Evernote, and allows users to install them on a slew of learning platforms and tools.
The apps are free to install, though some may require a subscription with the publisher or vendor, but Instructure won’t be brokering that relationship in any way — or taking a commission, Coates says. The App Center, in the familiar way of app stores, gives students and teachers an easy way to find, install, rate and review apps. The other nifty feature of the App Center is that includes an algorithm that recommends apps based on user preference, the institution and their previous activity.
Today, more than five million teachers and students at over 350 institutions use Canvas as their LMS, which immediately provides scale to the App Center and gives those third-parties a whole new distribution system and potential audience. They also have to be compelled by the fact that Instructure won’t be taking commissions on App Center installs — as will schools. The less teachers and schools have to worry about pricing and cost, the less friction there is, the more installs.
Business-wise, it may not seem like the best strategy, but Coates says that Instructure is focused on building an educational platform — not a one-dimensional product, but a service that includes integrations, APIs, a community and an ecosystem. That’s why the company has made its open library LTI extensions available to the public — now any third-party can add apps to the open resource which should work in most learning management systems.
How many other educational software providers can say that? Not many. InBloom is trying to do this for educational data, but they’re a non-profit, almost a consortium of public/private/startup interests. Not only is it unusual to see a for-profit company take the high road like this (a wink to Google), I think most would agree that it’s the right move for education — in that it helps the sytem take steps toward becoming an ecosystem. That is, if all parties involved in education could ever make a decision collectively, beyond “we need more money and teachers and maybe technology” or “you need to help my child.”
A perfect example: Here’s open educational data initiative InBloom. Here’s a description of people/parents not even being able to agree on InBloom. Yes, startups, someone in education will fight you and the medicine you’re trying to put down its throat. Smile and do it anyway.
“We want to tear down the walled garden that has plagued the LMS market,” Instructure co-founder and CPO Brian Whitmer said. “Third party integrations have existed, but they’ve required the IT
department to make them work. With Canvas App Center, we want to let anyone install an app with one click and begin personalizing their learning experience with these tools.”
I’m sure someone will find a reason to object, though. Because, hey, no good deed goes unpunished. Especially in education.