5 The Evolution and Diffusion of Learning Management Systems: The Case of Canvas LMS

By Caglar Sulun


Learning management systems are actively used by instructors, students, and institutions in order to provide better learning environments for teaching, learning, and administration in higher education. This e-book chapter explores Learning Management Systems (specifically the Canvas LMS) with the support of recent technologies, new design criteria and essentials of 21st-century course delivery. The chapter firstly focuses on the history of course delivery, the transition process to digital course delivery, and the history of learning management systems. Next, this chapter explains the current use of learning management systems and trends in the LMS market share (a specific case: Canvas LMS), and the next generations of learning management systems. Finally, this chapter explains the process of the adoption and diffusion of learning management systems in higher education and how such adoption influences course design.

The Evolution and Diffusion of Computers in Education

Nowadays, computers are being used in all areas of our lives and the use of the Internet in courses is increasing. The interaction between the teacher, the student and the course material is often facilitated or supplemented by the Internet in these courses. Due to the use of technological tools and the Internet, greater continuity in education can be ensured and the connections between both individuals and the course materials can be strengthened in the online environments of the digital revolution.

Learning Management Systems

There are several definitions for learning management systems in the scholarly literature of educational technologies. Based on the basic description by Ellis (2009) in  Field Guide to Learning Management Systems, an LMS can be defined as a dashboard or web-based platform that enables instructors to plan, evaluate, automate administration, report training events and implement the learning process (Ellis, 2009). In addition to this brief definition of LMS, the author includes a list explaining what a robust LMS is able to assist with: automating administration, using self-services, conveying the learning materials, including scalable web-based platforms, portability and standards, and personalizing the learning content in order to use it again (Ellis, 2009). In other words, an instructor, using any type of LMS, should be able to prepare and manage the educational content in electronic format, as well as allow the learner to use the course materials and participate in their performance. Additionally, a LMS can provide support for instructors to use the curriculum to achieve learning goals, plan class activities for course delivery, as well as to monitor, analyze and report student participation. From the standpoint of students, an LMS can help them to plan the process of their learning according to their individual progress, communicate with their friends and classmates, and collaborate together on the assigned tasks.

The history of Course Delivery

Integrating technological devices, like computers, into the educational process has been done in various ways at different times in the fields of education under distinct yet similar teaching approaches: Computer Based Instruction (CBI), Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI), Computer Assisted Learning (CBL), and Internet-Based Learning (IBL) (Ozan, 2008). Since the features of technological devices used in education have evolved over time (for example, the switching from overhead projectors to smartboards), these changes have also affected the adoption and diffusion of those devices throughout the history of educational technology. Because these teaching approaches had a widespread rate of adoption, the adoption period has led to new definitions for teaching and learning approaches in curriculum. Before the Internet was commonly used in education, the curriculum was named CBI or CAI because the focus for these types of curricula was on using computers only in the classroom rather than using the Internet for distance education. Educators started to realize the benefits of the Internet, such as fewer limitations of time and distance. Additionally, the perceived attributes of using innovation through the Internet was growing, so educators started to think about how to utilize these formats more widely for the purposes of teaching and learning. As a result, this realization by educators led to significant changes in curriculum design. The teaching and learning approaches used were also renamed in the courses as the technology used in classes changed.

Furthermore, these changes that disseminated the benefits of incorporating Internet use at various levels of the education system have led to the development and transformation of the learning management systems, which serve to facilitate the administration of educational content and the monitoring of learners and teachers.

The Transition Process to Digital Course Delivery

As mentioned earlier in this chapter, courses of higher education have been offered in different ways throughout the history of educational technology. Before moving to computer- and Internet-assisted learning environments, course delivery was often limited to being offered only in the classroom. Now, course delivery has been diffused widely to other platforms or places (such as attending an online course from a different country) by means of the Internet. Especially with the spread of distance education, the necessity for instructors and students to share the same environment, the same time-zone, and the same working hours has started to diminish. Technology offered a new option for teaching and learning to take place at any time and from any place, provided that these activities are kept within a specific platform called a learning management system.

The History of Learning Management Systems

The history of the use of learning management systems in education dates back a few decades. Learning management systems were first introduced in the late 1990s, and their adoption has been accelerated by the development of multimedia and the expansion of the Internet (Coates, James, & Baldwin, 2005). With each passing day, these systems become even more developed and are adopted by many universities around the world. In the first stages of their expanding use, there was no common name for these systems as there is today. They were referred to as learning platforms, distributed learning systems (DLS), course management systems (CMS), content management systems (CMS), portals, instructional management systems (IMS), and finally learning management systems (LMS) (Coll, 2015). Their main purpose was to facilitate the design of course arrangements, delivery of course content and learning tools, and management of course processes in asynchronous and synchronous learning environments. Since different course delivery methods have been created by diverse populations in various universities around the world, there arose a need for guidelines and standards for creating and developing LMSs. Therefore, some standards and models were designed for course management systems such as the Instructional Management System Standards (IMS 2003) and Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM 2003) by the Advanced Distributed Learning community (Coates, James, & Baldwin, 2005).

Since learning management systems have now been developed by multiple groups and have various features differing from each other, one fixed general model for all LMSs may not include all the features of different systems. Thus, a typical LMS has not been identified to define the essentials for a learning management system. However, there have been common features across LMSs: asynchronous and synchronous communication, content development and management, formative and summative assessment, and classroom and student management (Kabassi et al., 2016). Moodle, an online open-source course management system, is one example of an LMS that has been developed by the different groups mentioned previously. Moodle has released Dougiamas and Taylor’s studies about creating successful open source development and Internet software development (Dougiamas & Taylor, 2003).

The Need for Learning Management Systems

From the past to the present day, researchers have studied how to expand education beyond the limitations of time and place. Both letters and books in distance education and videotapes have been used to generate location-independent educational environments. In this way, new ideas have been developed by researchers for open learning. The rapid change in the Internet and technological tools has naturally affected the structure in course design. LMSs have also begun to develop in multi-dimensional ways along with the use of the Internet in courses. When LMSs were first used in classes, the purpose was to share the main content of the courses; since then, they have become increasingly more comprehensive by incorporating traditional classroom activities into those learning management systems. The most commonly used features of LMSs include checking participation, quizzes, examinations, and discussions, and these features are starting to be used in online settings through Internet (Paulsen, 2003). The rapid increase in Internet technologies and computer technology has caused people to become intertwined with media elements. These media elements, which are used in almost every field, have also penetrated into education. Both visual and auditory elements have begun to be used in course content which led to the inclusion of these elements in LMSs.

There is one essential advantage of using learning management systems: students, teachers and administrators can contribute and work together. Because of this advantage, LMSs have become more attractive for collaborative educational activities. Another important advantage of learning management systems is to keep track of all activities in courses including sharing course-related resources, conversations in discussion portals, and the progress of the course and students. Last but not least, another objective of learning management systems is to be used for course management in both traditional in-class education and distance education. Today, learning management systems are used for both synchronous and asynchronous delivery methods in educational settings. Additionally, LMSs have been used in the following different course types and course delivery types such as, Lecture, lab, lecture and lab, practicum. Course Delivery Types: Synchronous, Asynchronous, Hybrid.

Although there are many definitions about learning management systems by different researchers in the literature, there are only a few studies that include the definition of a well-designed LMS.  One of those definitions, which is by Ellis (2009), is the most inclusive, explaining that learning management systems are computer software that perform management, monitoring and reporting related to teaching and learning activities. According to Ellis (2009), a well-designed LMS should:

  • centralize and control management processes,
  • be able to do self-service (registration to classes etc.) and use guided services,
  • help to create and distribute learning content quickly,
  • secure learning activities through scalable web-based platforms,
  • support educational standards,
  • allow users to create personalized and reusable content,
  • be able to work in an integrated manner with other institutional practices.

Canvas LMS

Next, we will review a particular case of a learning management system called Canvas. Canvas is built on modern web frameworks for use on computers, smartphones and mobile devices. The Canvas LMS user interface is well-designed for both instructors and students and allows the use of different technological systems on their own. There are some features that distinguish Canvas from other LMSs which has many options that enable it to interoperate with open source application programs developed by trusted resources in the area of education. For example, it allows instructors to integrate Google Docs, which is used for productive and collaborative projects in education (Kandemir, 2013). By using such leading educational resources that facilitate collaboration and allow changes to be instantly saved, the limits of teaching and learning can be further extended.

Instructure, the creator of Canvas, was founded in 2008 by two graduate students from Brigham Young University, Brian Whitmer and Devlin Daley (Instructure, 2018). In 2011, Canvas was developed as a new generation learning management system built to work on cloud computing and virtualization environments by Instructure.

Here are some quick facts from the company’s website (Instructure, 2018):

  • Founded in 2008
  • Launched Canvas in 2011
  • Launched Canvas Network in 2012
  • 1,100+ employees
  • Used by more than 3,000 universities, school districts, and institutions around the world
  • Selected by Cisco Networking Academy to power “the world’s largest classroom”

Current Use of Learning Management Systems

Learning Management Systems are continuously used by institutions in order to provide a better learning environment. Edutechnica, a diversified data services company, has created annual reports about learning management systems since 2014. The company annually reports current LMSs in the market and LMS usage statistics. According to Edutechnica annual reports from 2013 to 2018, 2,835 institutions in higher education were using some type of learning management systems for facilitating blended and online courses. ANGEL, Blackboard Learn, Canvas, Desire2Learn, Moodle and Pearson are most commonly used LMSs in higher education institutions (Figure 1).

Figure 1- LMS usage by hosting management in 2013 (image from: https://edutechnica.com/2013/10/26/lms-by-the-numbers).

Tables 1 and 2 show the growth of LMS usage among different institutions in 2014 and 2017 in terms of enrollments.

Table 1

Spring 2014 LMS usage statistics for US higher education, greater than 1,000 FTE (image source: https://edutechnica.com/2014/05/26/lms-by-the-numbers-spring-2014-updates).

Table 2

Spring 2017 LMS usage statistics for US higher education, greater than 500 FTE students (image source: https://edutechnica.com/2017/03/12/lms-data-spring-2017-updates).

According to Edutechnica’s Spring 2018 update of LMS market share data (as shown in Table 3), there are mainly seven LMSs, with the exception of a few others, used by faculty in all accredited higher education institutions (over 3500 schools) in the United States with greater than 500 full-time equivalent students. The update reports that over 3500 institutions in higher education are using some type of learning management systems for facilitating blended and online courses. ANGEL, Blackboard Learn, Canvas, Desire2Learn, Moodle, and Pearson and Sakai are most commonly used LMSs by both faculty and students in higher education institutions. Furthermore, Canvas is one of the most popular learning management systems in the United States with greater than 500 full-time equivalent students.

Table 3

Spring 2018 LMS usage statistics for US higher education, greater than 500 FTE students (image source: https://edutechnica.com/2018/03/04/lms-data-spring-2018-updates)

Canvas’ Differences from Other Learning Management Systems

Compared to other LMSs, Canvas has unusually increased its usage by institutions with a high number of adoption rates when previous years are taken into account in the comparison of the tables above. Since Canvas’ modern framework was created for both computers and mobile devices, such as tables and smartphones, using Canvas with different devices was an important adaptation for early adopters in terms of flexibility. According to Edutechnica Report in 2015, the user interface of Canvas for both instructors and students has well-designed elements that are easy to access, understand, and use when facilitating educational activities in the learning management systems. Another reason why Canvas obtained higher market share in educational software was that it allows instructors to integrate trusted third-party applications such as Google Docs, which is used for productive and collaborative projects in education. According to the “About Us” section of Canvas’ website (2018), the Canvas Network provides a platform that is designed for students, instructors and institutions in order to utilize some features of Canvas for professional development and academic inquiry worldwide. Since Canvas allows its users to collaborate on the same document simultaneously and save instant changes, it has been adopted more easily by teachers and students.

The Future of the Learning Management Systems

An improved and simplified technology integration may include multiple devices, allowing both instructors and students to make multimedia presentations, share, and collect data for projects with high level technology integration. There will be some key points in the future of the LMSs such as interoperability, automation, personalized learning, and collaboration.

Interoperability is the tendency for LMSs in order to be able to aggregate, integrate, and analyze student learning data (Brown, Dehoney, & Millichap, 2015).

The Society for Learning Analytics Research (SoLAR, 2011) describes learning analytics as the measurement, data collection, data analysis, and reporting of data about learners and their contexts. Automated and advanced learning analytics might be used for educational purposes in the future of learning management systems.

Personalized learning methods are increasingly being used in the field of education (Abbott et al., 2014). As individual differences are considered, a more complete learning experience is likely to result from this personalized learning. The new educational technologies like learning analytics may allow personalized learning methods to be used in learning management systems.

Since collaborative tools were key elements in why the Canvas LMS was successfully adopted, future LMSs should also focus on teacher-teacher, student-student, and teacher-student collaboration within courses at multiple levels. Future LMSs might interactively adopt Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality especially in online courses in order to establish more realistic and applicable solutions for educational contexts. Instant and automated feedback might be used in future LMSs, because this feedback is very important for enabling students to know the extent to which they achieve their target achievements, what they are missing, and what resources they need to reach after getting in-app feedback.

In Conclusion

In the previous few decades, some institutions and universities wanted to widely use computers in their organizational structure to adopt technological changes. Using technological tools reduces the workload for both instructors and institutions and contributes to having enhanced and more successful management in education. These changes in technology have led to new developments and opportunities in the field of education. Thus, online learning management has been used in multiple ways in the field of education, such as class enrollment, delivering content, course management, evaluation, reporting and data storage. Online learning platforms have disseminated education to a global level. Since most of the course contents are transferred to the learning management systems, this allows more time for activities and collaboration between student-student and student-instructor interaction not only in classroom activities, but also on online discussion boards.

Since Learning Management Systems are becoming more and more indispensable in education, LMSs will continue to be increasingly used for improving the quality of teaching and learning in higher education. Since LMSs will be unavoidable tools in the near future, it is very important to select a suitable LMS in higher education institutions to improve teacher and staff education when it comes to keeping up with the modern innovations.  As a result, according to the summary report in 2017 that was published by the Center for Educational Innovation at the University of Buffalo, many universities are trying to implement or regulate LMS subscriptions for the next few years.


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Correspondence concerning this chapter should be addressed to Caglar Sulun at sulun.1@osu.edu



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