The University of Technology Sydney has kicked off a three-year program to unite its digital education spaces through a multi-stage shift to Canvas’ learning management system.
Although Canvas has already been used in a limited capacity for the last two years, namely for some post-graduate degrees, the university will be progressively moving all of its staff and students from Blackboard and onto the new LMS.
Academic lead for the project and associate dean (Teaching & Learning) in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, professor Maryanne Dever, told iTnews the project is a once-in-a-decade opportunity to reinvest in UTS’ digital spaces in the same way it’s been investing in its iconic physical learning spaces.
In fact, short of a new building, Dever said the transition to Canvas is probably the single largest teaching and learning project investment the university has undertaken.
She said such a decision wasn’t taken lightly, and that investigations into learning management systems started well before some post-graduate courses adopted Canvas in part because it was well configured to those use cases.
Having two learning management systems was never ideal or efficient, Dever said, and with their current Blackboard provider moving a new cloud-based product labelled Blackboard Ultra the time was right to make a choice to go with a single LMS, given staff and students would be effectively adjusting to a newer system anyway.
Not just a lift and shift
Rather than try and simply swap one LMS solution for another, Dever said the university is taking the opportunity to completely start over again in the digital world - hence the three-year timeline.
“We decided that the introduction of a new learning management system was a kind of once in a decade opportunity for us to look at what we're doing in that space,” she said.
“We really wanted to take the time to reimagine, for the point we're at now in the 21st century, how a learning management system can best support the teaching that we do and the students’ learning, regardless of the mode of delivery.”
But, she warned, that’s not to say the university is going to preference digital learning spaces over their physical counterparts - not after such significant investments in architectural masterpieces built on prime Sydney real estate that have broken the mould on what face-to-face tertiary education looks like.
Instead, the university is looking to match that investment and innovation that has been placed in its buildings.
“A lot of energy has gone into reimagining what face to face learning looks like. So the new Building Two that fronts onto Broadway, for example, has no conventional lecture theatres in it.
“Its large learning spaces, which can take approximately 300 students, are actually collaborative learning spaces with no front of the room. So what we’re doing with Canvas complements what we’ve already been doing in really disrupting what learning looks like, whether it’s face-to-face or online.”
“Champing at the bit”
After an intensive scoping-out period in the second half of last year, UTS is now engaging staff to get involved in the staggered deployment of the new LMS.
Rather than staff being hesitant to put the time into setting up and learning a new system, Dever said most academics are looking forward to a consistent, university-wide approach to LMS use.
“Previously, the way in which academic staff have approached, the learning management platform has really been quite individualised, working at the subject level, with not a lot of reference to what's happening in other subjects in the online space, and how all of those subjects aggregate to be a meaningful learning experience for students across the course.
“So we decided that, rather than look at this at the subject level, we should start by looking at it at the course level and have course teams come together to think about what are they aiming to deliver in their particular course, and how we can design across different subject sites for a more consistent and meaningful experience.”
A high-level group has been looking at how to achieve that through the lens of human-centred design, working with students and staff to achieve a consistent look and feel across individual subject sites so that students can immediately recognise that it’s part of the same course as other subject sites they’ve participated in.
The group is also examining how to ensure the scalability of the system to ensure it’s going to be fit-for-purpose down the line, incorporating more active and interactive practices that the university is still developing.
The major challenge with such an ambitious project, Dever said, was the timeframe.
“If we’ve got any issue at all, it’s because we’re taking a staggered approach to the rollout of this and staff are kind of champing at the bit.
“There’s plenty of people who really want to get into Canvas now and start working, but we’ve got other plans, things we want to take place before that happens,” including the extensive design period and the work with teaching teams.