UBC dis-Connects and switches to Canvas platform

UBC is replacing Connect with Canvas, a cloud-based learning management system designed by Instructure. 

The switch will occur over a 15 month transition period where some courses will use the Canvas system while others will remain on Connect. By September 2018, all courses will be located on Canvas.

This decision came 10 months after UBC began their search for a new program to replace Connect. Since the university’s contract with Blackboard Learn — the company that owns Connect — ends in 2019, Connect’s outdated interface and long history of usability issues gave UBC an incentive to look for another platform.

To decide on the system, UBC tested five courses with Canvas and five courses with Brightspace — a learning management system designed by DL — in the second semester of the 2017 winter term. Canvas was then adopted as Connect’s official replacement after UBC reviewed feedback from lecturers and students in these test classes and researched other universities’ experiences with these programs.

What is Canvas?

In many ways, Canvas is similar to Connect as a learning management system. What distinguishes Canvas from its predecessor is that it’s significantly more user-friendly.

As a result, the reception to Canvas’s interface and design was very positive, according to Simon Bates – UBC’s senior advisor, teaching and learning and one of the sponsors in the project to replace Connect.

“We got feedback from students who were in these pilot courses and all of them indicated that the Canvas interface was much better than the interface in Connect,” he said. “It’s simpler, it’s cleaner and it’s easier to navigate.”

Beyond this accessibility, users can also access Canvas via mobile devices — a format that Connect did not accommodate for — and download additional tools and applications to the system.

“The mobile experience is actually pretty good,” said Bates. “You can not just view things — you can actually contribute to discussions, you can take assignments and look at when your deadlines are due.”

What's wrong with Connect?

Over its time serving UBC, Connect has become notorious for its user-unfriendly layout and tendency to crash. The system experiences frequent programming disruptions and undergoes scheduled maintenance on a very regular basis, as demonstrated in professor of geography Elvin Wyly’s anti-Connect document “Disconnect.”

“There were some severe limitations around Connect in terms of usability and the interface,” said Bates. “Certainly students who were on campus a few years ago would remember that Connect went down for almost a week at the start of the 2013/2014 academic year.”

According to him, this disruption occurred due to the large amount of new users that the website had at the time. In contrast, Canvas won't experience these frequent scheduled upgrades and downtime periods because it operates using cloud-based technology – information is stored over the internet and resources are automatically allocated to meet the demands of high user traffic.

UBC Confessions/Facebook

On a r/UBC thread called “UBC has replaced Connect with the Canvas platform,” users also discussed how UBC faculty members have had a lot of difficulties using Connect in their teaching. One particular user delved into the difficulties of grading on the system.

“You need to create the a new grade column for what you're entering [sic], export the grade book as a .CSV file, edit it to include the new grades, then import it back in,” said Reddit user “pikachufan2164.”

In contrast, Canvas offers an additional tool called SpeedGrader, which allows instructors to grade students’ assignments offline and provide them with feedback within a single frame.

As a result, most UBC faculty members are glad that Connect is on its way out, according to Bates.

“‘Well thank goodness you’re actually changing the system, we’ve been telling you for years that it’s not user friendly, it’s click heavy, it’s not responsive’ — there was a lot of that from faculty,” he said.

However, he also noted that some were displeased that UBC was abandoning Connect after already spending many years figuring out how to make it work.

“There were some people who were saying, ‘we’ve now gotten to grips with Connect, we’ve learned to live with it, we’ve got it doing what we need it to do, please don’t change it,’” said Bates. “So as you might expect, there’s a range of opinions in a place as large and diverse as UBC.”

What happens during the transition?

Since the transition from Connect to Canvas will take place over a 15 month period, students will likely be using both platforms over the next year. Bates estimated that fewer than half of the courses will use Canvas in the upcoming winter term's first semester, most of the courses in the second semester and all of the courses by next year’s summer term.

Different faculties are also taking different approaches to when they want to transition. For example, the faculty of arts is hoping to move all of their first year courses onto Canvas by September 2017, while others are planning to get a better grasp on the platform before they make the switch.

Overall, Bates believes that this longer migration period — instead of an eight week period — will give students and faculty more time to adjust to Canvas.

“For a place the size and complexity of UBC, that’s just not practical,” he said. “Plus, that also would mean that people wouldn’t have enough time to learn about some of the features that the new system has that they might want to build into their courses.”

Nonetheless, UBC will still be committed to completing this switch in no longer than 15 months.

“The last time UBC changed its learning management system, it actually took three years to move everything from one system to the other,” said Bates. “That’s just too long in an environment that’s changing this quickly, so we’re absolutely adamant that we’re gonna try and get everything done within 15 months.”