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BYU grads introduce education-savvy software

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LEHI — Now even homework can have a status update.

Relying on the already popular Web technologies like Facebook, Twitter and Google Docs, two BYU graduates designed a learning management system that allows the online part of education to be just as Web savvy as its users.

Canvas is computer scientists Devlin Daley and Brian Whitmer's answer to slow educational software and their offering to what they called a "broken market."

"The hurdle was trying to make things as simple as possible," Daley explains. "A teacher or a student is not necessarily a technologist. They need to be able to focus on what they're trying to do, not the tool itself. Anyone familiar with Web applications, knows how to use Instructure (Canvas)."

Learning management systems, the most well-known being Blackboard, are often used by students and teachers as classroom supplements. Teachers can post grades or announcements, and students can download a syllabus or supplemental readings.

But those systems are isolated from powerful tools on the Internet, the co-founders explained. On the other hand, Canvas embraces the opportunity to integrate and use systems already familiar to students and teachers.

To start, the Canvas home page contains a master news feed for all classes, eliminating a student's need to check classes individually for updates or changes.

Students can also start discussion groups, submit Google Docs or check their grades, while teachers can post documents, webcam comments or YouTube videos, grade papers with an electronic rubric, and send comments to the students. If a teacher changes something on the master calendar, Canvas automatically notifies the students of the change via text, e-mail or feed-reader.

"Students have this appetite," Whitmer said. "They just want to be more engaged with their education, they wanted to know what was going on, not just while they were in class."

It's only about 2 years old, but Canvas is already being used on a large scale in a few schools, such as BYU-Hawaii, where it's handling its online classes.

Two dozen to three dozen other schools are actively evaluating Canvas, Whitmer said, but any professor can use the program for free on an individual basis.

Jared Stein, director of Instructional Design Services for Utah Valley University, has been experimenting with Canvas on his own and, while not promoting it, called it a "new and surprisingly formidable contender in the LMS market."

"The usability of Canvas is better than most other LMS I've examined," he said, "as is its ability to integrate with other … systems, such as Google Docs and spreadsheets or student-owned blogs."

But for Whitmer and Daley, they're most concerned about how well the technology meshes with individual students' needs.

"Education is more than a market," Daley said. "It's really the future of our country and the world."

More about Canvas

For more information, visit www.instructure.com.

e-mail: sisraelsen@desnews.com