From CourseWork to Canvas: Stanford embarks on a major transition in learning platforms

With today's launch of a new learning management platform, the university's faculty and instructional staff gain new tools for advancing their teaching.

The Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning (VPTL) is launching a new campus-wide learning management platform, Canvas, that is more versatile than the CourseWork system currently in use.

Stanford faculty and instructional staff are invited to help mark the launch of Canvas at a kickoff from noon to 2 p.m. today (Dec. 8) in Lathrop Library, Room 282.

After a successful pilot program over the 2014-15 academic year, Canvas is being adopted university-wide as Stanford's primary software tool for organizing learning. The event, hosted by VPTL, offers faculty and instructional staff a chance to learn more about the system, talk with Canvas support experts, and hear from colleagues who have already transitioned to the new platform.

"The major impetus for moving forward with Canvas is that it's a truly modern learning management system," said Kimberly Hayworth, an instructional designer manager on the VPTL Canvas team. Canvas, she noted, offers many of the features and functions that Stanford teachers have long wanted in the software they use to organize, conduct, document and assess their classes. "It's also a great opportunity to rethink course design," she said, "since we're gaining many new tools that enable, for example, better peer collaboration and review, new ways to organize group- and project-based learning, and the opportunity to offer richer feedback in assessments."

Developed by educational software maker Instructure, Canvas is replacing CourseWork, Stanford's instantiation of Sakai, an open source learning  management system developed by a consortium of colleges including Stanford, th University of California, Berkeley, Indiana University and the University of Michigan, all of which have moved, or are now transitioning, to Canvas.

"One of the things we really like about Canvas is that it has open standards, so we can plug in different tools and apps that we or others develop to meet our needs," Hayworth said. "The user interface is also much cleaner; there's this wonderful tool called SpeedGrader which makes it much more efficient for faculty to do grading. Canvas has single sign-on, supports mobile users, and it's integrated with Axess, our student information system, so we can automatically support and populate a Canvas course for every class that wants one."

CourseWork, in contrast, requires that faculty create their own courses, isn't mobile phone- or tablet-friendly and offers fewer options for organizing class interactions (a full comparison between the capabilities of the two systems, including what's entirely new in Canvas, can be found here).

Canvas is already in use in two Stanford schools, having been adopted independently by the Graduate School of Education in 2013-14 and the Graduate School of Business in 2014-15. Both adoptions have been a success, which helped inspire the campus-wide migration.

The larger switchover began with a series of pilot adoptions over the four quarters of the 2014-15 academic year that also went well. Some 80 percent of teachers in the pilot transfers reported being either very or somewhat satisfied with the new platform, while 94 percent of students reported it being very or somewhat easy to use.

This fall, the migration ramped up, with a first wave of 300 classes across the university switching to Canvas. The plan is to migrate the other 4,200 university classes still using CourseWork over the next academic year, with the final transfers occurring in the fall of 2016. As of the 2017 winter quarter, VPTL will retire CourseWork and all courses will be hosted in Canvas.

While Canvas offers a much improved experience, a few gaps remain in its functionality. Tools required by language teachers for specific kinds of voice recordings still need to be developed, for example, as does the ability to submit anonymous student papers.

One of the great features of Canvas is having a platform built on open standards, Hayworth said. "We have a development team on campus, so we can respond to those needs." In addition, she noted, Stanford is working with 19 other universities using Canvas to swap tools and share ideas for new features multiple campuses would like to implement.

"With their state-of-the-art learning platform in place, we'll be able to better utilize our resources, directing them towards developing tools that are specific to Stanford faculty and student needs," said Makoto Tsuchitani, VPTL director of platforms.  "We've spent a lot of time with the older system [CourseWork] just getting it to work for people. Now we can focus on adding value."

Tsuchitani and Hayworth hope those interested in knowing more about the switchover attend the Canvas Kick-off event today. For those who can't make it, the Canvas website ( has an inquiry/request form, FAQ, a quick start guide, notices of future events and workshops being held on campus, and many other resources. In addition, VPTL's expanded support team is available for individual consultations upon request.