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U.’s final transition to Canvas causes controversy

The change has revealed campus concerns about the efficiency of the University’s various online resources

The end of this semester marks the completion of the University’s two-year transition to replace MyCourses, the Blackboard-based learning management system, with Canvas. The transition to Canvas comes amid concerns from some faculty members and students that the functions of the University’s digital platforms overlap with each other.

Blackboard programs will still be available for professors who choose to use them in the future, but the University will no longer maintain the sites, said Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron.

“The reason why we moved to Canvas is that the Blackboard product was going to have a big (software) upgrade,” and students and faculty members would have had to learn how to use the updated version of MyCourses, Bergeron said. Administrators chose to switch to Canvas, a cloud-based software program, because it automatically updates weekly, Bergeron said. The University will save money that would have been spent on Blackboard updates, Bergeron added.

Canvas joins a host of other digital platforms the University uses for academic and administrative purposes, including Banner, the advising website Advising Sidekick  and the syllabus and course information website

Some students and faculty members expressed concern that the University’s multiple web platforms are inefficient and wasteful.

David Weinberger ’16 said he found the multiple websites “annoying” and that he has trouble recalling which of his courses have made the jump to Canvas and which ones continue to use MyCourses.

“Why can’t we have it all in one website?” said Matthew Min ’15, adding that he does not see much value in ASK, an advising website designed by the University.

Yukiko Watanabe ’16 said she rarely uses ASK but accesses Canvas to find assignments’ content and grades. She said that though Canvas is easy to navigate, the site has “too many tabs” and could be simplified.

“I’m less confused and more inconvenienced” by the University’s use of multiple digital platforms, said Audrey Chang ’15. The University should consider expanding its use of Google for interacting with students, since community members already have Brown-run Gmail accounts, Chang said. She added that the multiple websites may benefit faculty members by giving them more flexibility in organizing their courses.

But Bergeron stressed the key differences between the University’s websites. ASK is used by advisers to access student information like Brown ID pictures and internal transcripts, she said, and it is constantly being developed.

Banner serves a distinctly different purpose, Bergeron said. Banner is an information sharing system that addresses all aspects of student life, from meal plans to enrollment details. The site acts like a “physical plant,” Bergeron said. “It helps the University run.”

Some faculty members said they have experienced difficulty using the different platforms.

“ASK is fantastic — the rest suck,” said Professor of Computer Science Shriram Krishnamurthi.

The problem with Canvas is that it “locks down information so people (outside of Brown) can’t use it,” Krishnamurthi said. One of the benefits of posting course material online is the ability to share information with colleagues, he said. Instructors can improve their courses by looking at syllabi for similar courses at other schools, but Canvas makes these resources inaccessible to anyone outside of the University, Krishnamurthi said.

In fact, instructors have the option to make their courses publicly visible under the Settings tab on Canvas.

“It shouldn’t be that complicated,” said Barrett Hazeltine, professor of engineering emeritus, adding that it takes a while to access various course materials on the websites. “Students can find things fairly quickly,” but accessing materials in Canvas  “still requires a certain amount of searching,” he said.

“It’s good for posting information,” Hazeltine said. “Just make it a little easier to work through.”

Hazeltine said he currently receives help from a junior in his class to operate Canvas.

“People go off and make bad software decisions,” Krishnamurthi said, adding that he thinks the same set of administrators continue to push through misguided software choices. Krishnamurthi said he currently has his own web page for course material on the computer science department’s website.


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