Instructure, I confess, I was unimpressed. Even though I try to be supremely supportive of education technology startups - particularly those taking on giants in the industry - I just couldn't get excited about yet another LMS.When I first heard of the new learning management system
To be sure, there are a lot of problems with many of the current options on the market. Blackboard, the dominant player in the higher ed LMS sector, is not well-loved by any of the students or professors I know. It's a monster to implement, to upgrade, to use - and an expensive one at that.
Instructure promises an LMS that addresses those key pain points, and its software, Canvas, is open source as well. But then again, all the LMS competitors promise ease-of-use and simple migration, and there are a number of open source offerings on the market already, including Moodle and Sakai. So my first reaction to Instructure, despite a lot of buzz in the tech world, was that it was really no big deal.
But I'm willing to admit that my first reaction was wrong.
The company announces today that it's raised $8 million in Series B funding from OpenView Venture Partners, Epic Ventures, Tomorrow Ventures, and Tim Draper of Draper Fisher Jurveston. But investors' interest in the product isn't what has made me change my mind.
It was the simple sentence the Instructure team uttered when they gave me a tour of the product: "We want to get rid of the walled garden."
That walled garden approach to learning management systems means that whatever content students and instructors upload - whether it's handouts, homework assignments, discussions, tests, syllabi - is all trapped within a particular course. If you aren't registered for a class, you can't view it. When a course is over, you can't view it. When you graduate, you can't view it. As having a strong online portfolio is rapidly becoming far more important than a resume, that's no good for students. It's no good for education either, which despite the rising cost of tuition, should be about sharing, not restricting knowledge.
The Canvas LMS is a browser-based, cloud-based tool. It's offered as software-as-a-service rather than as a piece of software that schools download and manage. Its interface is clean and simple, with a look and feel of a contemporary Web app. In other words, we're talking social streams here. There are no radio buttons. It doesn't look like Windows 3.1, or worse yet, a BBS. Canvas has all the features you'd expect in an LMS: a gradebook, assessment tools, chat, discussion rooms.
It also has some other nifty features too, including its SpeedGrader, an iPad app that will reduce the amount of time instructors spend grading assignments. Everything is connected to other Web services, including Google Docs, Facebook and Twitter, and students are notified when something changes in a course - whether that's the deadline for an assignment or a grade that's posted. Those notifications come via email, Facebook message, or text. Finally, students and teachers both have data portability - schoolwork isn't trapped in that LMS walled garden.
The Promise of Open
Moving a school to a new learning management system is no easy task - in terms of technology or in terms of contracts and licensing. But that hasn't stopped Instructure from piquing the interest of a lot of schools since the startup launched in February - something that really is a testament to the problems with the other options on the market.
Canvas is offered free as an open source tool or as a paid version with enterprise support. Even though that open source option might be what's touted in some of Instructure's marketing materials, most schools are unlikely to go that path and will probably opt to buy the commercial version.
Some 4000 schools have already expressed an interest in Canvas, and the round of funding will help scale the startup's operations.