Sunday, June 23, 2013

InstructureCon 2013 and the LMS

Quick disclaimer:  I'm sitting the the Bloggers' Cafe at ISTE 2013 right now, which is an awesome feeling. I had an fantastically productive time at HackedEd 2013 yesterday, with a lot of new PD ideas, and this morning's Epic Leadership workshop on game mechanics with Jane McGonigal was just as good.  But I promised myself I'd reflect on last week's InstructureCon before I get too deep into ISTE.

Instructure, the company who builds Canvas, hosted their third annual conference devoted to using the LMS (a Learning Management System, or a tool for organizing a course around online materials). "InstructureCon", as they call it, gets rave reviews from participants in prior years, and I wholeheartedly agree. The conference was entertaining (lots of swag and great social events), bizarre (MC Hammer was the keynote performer), and it was additionally very useful to learn what others are doing with the system.

I have to admit that I've been a skeptical LMS user for many of the reasons Audrey Watters mentioned in her keynote. I was afraid that an LMS could stagnate course development and "sandbox" thinking too much, but after using Canvas for a year, I now see how powerful and useful of a tool it can be. It's entirely possible to build a de-facto LMS with GAFE, but one of the advantages an LMS can allow students to focus on the learning in a course, rathern than the technology. It also gives teachers who aren't otherwise interested in learning to wield technology a versatile tool to build a digital course. Despite some of my reservations and personal goals, I'm eager to move farther with Canvas next year and help our faculty to do new and engaging things with our students.

A particularly striking thought offered by Richard Culatta (@rec54) is that we shouldn't "put a thin coat of awesome-colored paint on top of something that is structurally flawed". Most participants at InstCon seemed to be aware of the idea that we need to be working toward change by pushing engagement and collaboration, lest Audrey Watters' fears be realized. This idea was clear in two ways, as I saw it.

  • First, Canvas pushes modular design to courses, in that it creates a clearly-organized system for students to move through a course. Moreover, the modules are (or should be!) interactive, starting with a hook and proceeding through interactive and collaborative activities that the system offers (e.g. discussions, collaborations, pbl and inquiry-based work etc.).
  • And second (and of particular thematic importance at this year's event), was the focus on API and LTI use. One of the advantages of Canvas over others LMSs, as far as I've seen, is its openness and ability to be customized by users. Instructure debuted their "App Center" last week, which promises to allow users to integrate third-party apps into their courses more easily.

With that, I'm looking forward to building clearer and more useful modules next year, especially now that we have mobile access to them, while integrating apps more easily (and hopefully writing a few of my own, too). I think we have an opportunity to do a lot of innovative things next year not only with Canvas, but with other online tools and most importantly, with the ideas that were in circulation next week. Richard Culatta also reminded us that, at the end of the day: "No one cares what courses you've taken. They care what you can do." It's time for all of us to "build our own awesome". Can't wait for InstructureCon 2014!

My more-detailed notes from #instcon 2013; comments/questions welcomed, of course. In particular, I'm very interested to hear how language teachers are using Canvas.