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Canvas To Replace iSites as Course Platform

By Meg P. Bernhard, Crimson Staff Writer

UPDATED: March 24, 2014, at 2:28 a.m.

Canvas, a web interface currently piloted by dozens of Harvard courses, will replace iSites as the University’s platform for course websites by the 2016-17 academic year.

The system, launched in 2011 by a company called Instructure and used by more than 600 educational institutions nationwide, is part of a new Harvard University Information Technology initiative called Teaching and Learning Technologies, which hopes to utilize several open-source technologies like Canvas in order to promote educational innovation.

According Kristin Sullivan, the program director for Teaching and Learning Technologies, Canvas will allow Harvard faculty to customize features on their course websites, like calendars and gradebooks.

We have been able to contribute to the platform,” Sullivan wrote in an email, noting that Harvard has piloted Canvas since the fall semester and recently decided it will universalize the system. “We are participating in their open-source community and have built custom tools supported by the platform."

Some faculty members said that Canvas’ flexibility, even in its less-functional pilot stage, will enable them and their teaching fellows to grade assignments and manage their courses more efficiently.

iSites, the platform that most Harvard courses currently use, has been at the University for more than ten years. Brown University has transitioned to Canvas from their previous system.

“The problem with iSites is that it is a fairly rigid, costly way of developing a platform,” history professor Daniel L. Smail said. “We are excited about the possibilities for Canvas, but it will be much better once it can develop the full functionality we are looking for.”

Smail, whose course “Culture and Belief 51: Making the Middle Ages” currently uses Canvas, also said he thinks students seem most excited about Canvas’ gradebook, which allows Smail and his teaching fellows to simultaneously view and grade student-submitted assignments. The students can then view their assignments’ scores, along with their other grades.

“Everything is integrated right into the architecture of the system,” Smail said.

Students, however, said they are skeptical of the platform’s functionality.

“I think while it might look nicer, it’s really hard to use because it’s hard to find things,” said Rachel E. Halperin ’16, who uses Canvas for Life Sciences 1b. “It’s not as intuitive. Some things are listed on the side or hidden behind each other.”

Julius G. Bright Ross ’17, a student in Smail’s Culture and Belief class, agreed that sometimes the platform can be confusing to navigate.

“It’s a fairly good website as far as I can tell,” he said. “I think teachers can go way too out of control with it though. They create way too many mini sites and pages.”

Even still, many students expressed hope in Canvas’ innovative goals, so long as administrators continue developing the platform’s tools and functions.

“It seems to me that [Canvas] is pretty new, and its implementation is in the infantine stages,” said Ansel B. Duff ’15, whose course Physical Sciences 11 is piloting Canvas. “In order for it to be University-wide, it really needs to be fleshed out.”

—Staff writer Meg P. Bernhard can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Meg_Bernhard.

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