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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern profs pilot potential Blackboard replacement

Source: Canvas screenshot
Several Northwestern professors are piloting Canvas, a learning management system, in their classes this quarter. The system is one potential replacement for Blackboard, which NU has used since 1999.

Northwestern has established a program piloting potential replacements for Blackboard, its course management system since 1999.

In Fall 2012, NU’s Education Technology Advisory Committee discussed the state of the University’s educational technology. According to a report later published by the committee, it “determined that the most pressing need for action is a comprehensive review of the University’s course management environment, currently anchored by the Blackboard Learn system.”

The committee created the Learning Management Systems Review Group, made up of 25 faculty and staff, to issue suggestions for a possible replacement. New Blackboard, LoudCloud, Desire2Learn and Canvas are the four LMS candidates that are potential replacements.

Compared to Blackboard, Canvas has a more Web-based interface. Rather than modules and attached files, each course has one page, with users navigating to different sections — including the course’s syllabus, assignments and quizzes — from the left-hand column. Content displays on the rest of the page instead of moving to a separate page.

Professors Katrin Voelkner and Mitchell Petersen both began using Canvas in their classes this fall. They are two of 14 professors listed as part of the new pilot program.

Voelkner, director of the Weinberg College of Arts and Science’s Multimedia Learning Center, said she volunteered to test the program because it would be helpful to know how the system functions. She is using the program for her 300-level German course.

She said she used to have to use different websites to accommodate the forum-based discussions she assigns her students.

“It has been very positive for me,” she said. “I like to get input from students so I used a bunch of other tools at the same time, and that just became cumbersome.

She said the Web-centered functionality made Canvas “easy and intuitive to use” compared to Blackboard.

Peterson, a Kellogg professor, used a separate website for his class’s discussion groups and had concerns with Blackboard’s other basic functions.

“With some of the online quizzes, if the answer was $1,000 and the student used a dollar sign or comma, Blackboard would count it wrong,” he said. “So I ended up with a lot of frustrated students.”

Peterson said he was concerned the transition to Canvas would be difficult for his students who were used to the old program, but ultimately that was not the case.

“I definitely like the style better,” he said. “If you want to look at the discussion, you click on discussion, if you want to look at grades, you click on grades. It’s just more intuitive.”

He said the ability to integrate calendar items from Canvas into personal systems, such as Microsoft Outlook or Gmail, made it simpler for his students to keep track of assignments and due dates.

Wendy Woodward, director of technology support services for Northwestern University Information Technology, said it made sense for the University to review a system that has been in place for almost 15 years.

“We’ve had Blackboard a long time and innovation in the space is happening at a rapid pace,” she said. “It’s just an opportunity for faculty and others in the University to review learning management systems.”

Although the pilot programs will extend through the rest of the academic year, Woodward said NU has not yet decided whether to replace Blackboard. She said the review group will meet with the advisory committee at the end of the year to make a recommendation, and the University would move forward from there.

“I know it’s a very complex project and there are different things to figure out,” Voelkner said. “Different instructors have different needs. I would embrace and would love to keep using Canvas, but I know there are a lot of different needs to consider.”

Peterson said he knows of other universities as well as some high schools that are already using programs such as Canvas. He said that may be one incentive for NU to upgrade to a more modern system.

“If some students are using it in high school … and they come to Northwestern and it’s not as evolved as what they’re using in high school, we’ve got a problem,” he said.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @paulina_milla

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Northwestern profs pilot potential Blackboard replacement