Thursday 20 February 2020

Open Source Canvas as an Educational Institution Innovation Platform

I’m spending a lot of time with Instructure’s Canvas at the moment. To be honest, I don’t much care for VLEs, and certainly have little interest in Instructure, who seem to be on a corporate path to datafying the university (although I strongly suspect this won’t work, so I relax). But Canvas itself – as software, interfaces, services, analytics, etc – is really interesting. My university has bought the top-of-the-range all-singing hosted version. But Canvas is open source, and you can download and install it from

It’s a bit fiddly to install, but it does work – all it requires is a Linux machine, and you follow the 
instructures… sorry, instructions 😉

It actually works very well. What you get is not just a VLE. You get a service-oriented framework for education, upon which the VLE interface sits. Theoretically, you could build your own interface.

But then look at what the services do:

It’s really cool – I was able to automatically generate content, delete stuff, create accounts, generate users.. in fact, anything that can be done from the interface can be done programmatically.
Then there’s the LTI integration. New tools, new integrations, huge possibilities.

And then there’s the Graphiql query language for analytics.

This is very impressive. I’ve been trying to think what this is like.

It’s like a standardised platform for doing all the kind of administrative things that we want to do in education, but having a coherent and standard set of web-services for hooking in cool stuff behind the scenes. So run machine learning services in the background, or agent-based models, or new analytic tools which spit their results straight back to learners, or personalised learning which self-adapts to user engagement. But whatever you do, you can exploit the standard Canvas ways of communicating with students, including mobile notifications, apps, etc.

I think (although I’m not sure) Canvas feels like the first time we have had educational technology which is effectively a standard service-oriented platform that tunes in to the way educational institutions work. It’s like an Eclipse Rich Client Platform (remember that?) for educational institutions.

Am I getting carried away? I don’t know – but I want to find out!

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