85 faculty members will road test Canvas this fall


This fall, 85 faculty members from every Pitt campus will begin using the Blackboard replacement, Canvas, as the online component of a variety of Pitt courses, in preparation for a full Canvas roll out in summer 2020.

This early adopter group for Pitt’s new learning management system (LMS) will each have one current course moved wholesale to Canvas, says Bobby Ackerman, manager for LMS support and consulting in the University Center for Teaching and Learning. Once Canvas is available to everyone, Ackerman notes, faculty members will be able to take advantage of Canvas-specific features to re-jigger or even fully redesign their courses, if they wish. Or, they may simply move them to Canvas without modification.

These first 85 instructors also will receive early versions of workshops and trainings that Pitt is preparing for all faculty. The aim is to make the transition as smooth as possible, Ackerman says. A website with transition information is already available here.

Faculty who will road test Canvas were chosen to represent a variety of course types, schools and subject matters, Ackerman says. In addition to support from the teaching center and from Computing Services and Systems Development (CSSD), all instructors will have a Canvas feature that is unavailable with Blackboard — 24/7 online chat help from the software provider.

Dave Atkinson, service owner for student systems (including Canvas) at CSSD, says the new online course system will be an improvement for faculty because “it creates an environment and platform for innovating in teaching … so teachers can enhance their curriculum.” Pitt’s goal in the switch, he says, is to let teachers spend more time on developing each course’s online presence rather than spending too much time trying to master the class management system itself.

Ackerman compares the move from Blackboard to Canvas to a move from a Blackberry device to an iPhone: “They do the same things … but the experience is very different.” For one, he says, Canvas is more visually accessible for those with sight disabilities and more mobile-friendly.

Plus, he adds, “half of their future product development ideas came from their users. That means they listen to the instructors (to create improvements). The code for the tool is open source,” he notes, which will aid advanced users in developing new tools for their classes. “We’re excited about what that will look like.”

“This was a really ideal time for the University as a whole” to make the switch to Canvas, says Michael Arenth, director of educational technology for the teaching center; an impending Blackboard upgrade was going to force faculty to learn new software and adapt their courses regardless. “Faculty should know that the support … will continue to exist for Blackboard” during the transition to Canvas, he says.

Concludes Atkinson: “When we get on the other side of the transition, we expect the system to be easier to use.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.