Students, faculty paint future of learning with Canvas

A side by side comparison of Blackboard and Canvas.

After years of using Blackboard as Pitt’s learning management system, the University is gearing up to give students and faculty a clean slate — a canvas, in fact.

The learning platform also known as CourseWeb at Pitt is being partially faded out this semester while the University gears up to replace it with competitor Canvas next summer. In preparation for this massive transition, a select number of faculty are piloting the platform this semester as part of the Early Adopters Program shaped jointly by the University Center for Teaching and Learning and Pitt Information Technology.

Pitt adopted Blackboard in the early 2000s. The platform was last updated in 2015, allowing instructors to upload videos to their class pages, grade students’ assignments anonymously and delegate groups of students to their teaching assistants.

Bobby Ackerman, the UCTL’s manager for Learning Management Support assistance and consulting, said the UCTL researched many different alternatives for Blackboard and ultimately decided on Canvas.

“We were looking to find the most intelligent and visually appealing platform,” Ackerman said. “Having done that, we found that Canvas was the best option.”

For the limited release this fall, about 100 faculty and 3,000 students across all five of Pitt’s campuses are piloting Canvas. Students and faculty alike have recognized differences in its appearance and functionality compared to Blackboard.

Ackerman said Canvas boasts many features not found in Blackboard, such as a much more modern and easier-to-navigate mobile app, a new speed-grader tool, a more interactive discussion board, a to-do list for students to view upcoming assignments and a 24/7 help button.

Ackerman said that one of the UCTL’s main goals of the rollout was to save professors’ time by presenting them with an easier-to-use platform.

“We don’t want professors wasting time figuring out how to work the computer,” Ackerman said. “We’re excited to see what they can do with that time.”

Some students said their experiences with Canvas so far are much better than with Blackboard.

Amanda Carson, a first-year neuroscience major, said she used Canvas last year in her high school and noticed a huge difference between the two systems when she started at Pitt.

“Canvas is so much better than Blackboard,” Carson said. “It’s much prettier and more inviting.”

But it wasn’t only students who pointed out the change in appearance.

Uwe Stender, a part-time professor in the German department, said he was unable to customize his online courses using Blackboard.

“I felt like I wasn’t able to give personality to the course,” Stender said. “With Canvas, I can focus on teaching the course rather than finding stuff on Blackboard.”

April Dukes, Faculty and Future Faculty program director at the Swanson School of Engineering and adjunct neuroscience professor, said that Blackboard’s antiquated system had made teaching her classes more difficult.

“Canvas is much more visually appealing. I feel like Blackboard just doesn’t make changes to their system,” Dukes said. “It’s nearly identical to when I started using it 10 years ago.”

But while the response to Canvas from faculty and students appears overwhelmingly positive, a rollout of a new learning management system, especially in a one-year time frame, is not without its difficulties.

For the initial rollout, the UCTL provided each professor with two consultants, one to help with Canvas troubleshooting, and another for course design. Opinions are mixed among instructors as to the helpfulness of these consultants, as well as subsequent online and in-person training sessions.

Sean Brigden, the director of academic advising at the School of Computing and Information, who had extensive experience with Canvas through prior work at Penn State and Kansas State universities, said his experience with the UCTL has been great.

“The support we got from the Center for Teaching and Learning has been fantastic,” Brigden said. “They have been extremely helpful.”

Dukes, who had never used Canvas before this semester, said instructors needed more help in setting up courses.

“As someone who does teach workshops, any time you have anything over an hour you start to lose people,” Dukes said. “I think if they’re going to do training for faculty and TAs in the future, they may want to break down the training into smaller pieces.”

Stender, Brigden and Dukes all said even though students preferred Canvas to Blackboard, they were frustrated with being forced to switch between Canvas and the multiple other systems Pitt currently uses to find their coursework.

“Canvas is more straightforward than Blackboard, but teachers bounce between platforms too much,” Carson said.

Despite some complaints about Canvas, faculty and students are optimistic about an expanded pilot program launching this spring. Stender said he is excited for students to get to experience the aspects of Canvas he has grown to love.

“I think if Canvas does the same for students as it does for me, it’s going to be awesome,” Stender said.

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