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Case Study

Flagship Institution Finds a Match to Its Structural Needs With Switch to Canvas

Minneapolis-Saint Paul, MN

55,000 Students

Started 2017

University of Minnesota

A big change requires a big solution. For the University of Minnesota, a leading public research university in North America with one of the largest student enrollments in the United States, change was highly strategic. The university was a longtime user of the Moodle learning management system (LMS), but said the evolving market and students’ and teachers’ needs had changed. Technologists also started to notice the self-hosted system’s inability to scale beyond current levels.

UMN has multiple campuses, but operated all of the hardware for the LMS centrally. Information technology staffwould spin up a new version of the system each academic year, which created a heavy maintenance burden with less time than desired for projects that advanced teaching and learning. The school also experienced an increase in unplanned outages. Because of these issues, the disruption they caused, and the desire for maximum uptime, the university wanted to look into switching to a cloud-based platform that could handle the university’s structure, promote innovation, deliver an “exceptional learning experience,” and carry out the university’s academic mission.



Senior Director, Academic Technology


With several of its peer institutions having already adopted Canvas, the University of Minnesota started to pilot Canvas in 2015. Each semester, the number of participants and variety of departments included in the pilot expanded, and administrators gathered feedback from faculty and students.

Initial feedback was positive: Over 90% of instructors found Canvas useful, and over 90% of students felt comfortable with Canvas within several weeks of using it.

IT staffconducted a full technical evaluation and found that Canvas met all of its functional requirements, including those for course migration, support, integrations, and analytics and reporting. They gave teachers access to a “development site” where they could start to learn about and build courses in Canvas. Everyone who tested the new LMS received support from a dedicated transition team. Many saw aspects of Canvas that made it stand out—for teachers, robust rubrics and the ability to better respond to students, and for students, a discussion space and Canvas’ “what-if grades” feature.

One professor who piloted Canvas said she preferred Canvas because it offered better learning analytics and displayed all of a student’s information in one dashboard that helped her see which students needed extra support. Other instructors in large lecture courses said that Canvas made grading easier.

Minnesota’s pilot of Canvas stretched more than two years—but the extensive test gave them the data they needed. The university said Canvas would be the most cost-efficient and effective LMS to provide students the key digital learning features of accessibility, collaboration, personalization, and universal design. In the spring of 2017, administrators recommended that UMN adopt Canvas, with the transition starting immediately.


A Successful Transition

Administrators at UMN say the transition to Canvas is going better than expected because they have greater developmental support from Instructure, the maker of Canvas, and can run ideas by a responsive technical staff. The transition began with systems integrations and workshops to train users, as well as the identification of courses by teachers for early migration to Canvas.

Administrators recognize that in addition to ease of use, Canvas offers superior ease of management and greater return on investment. Their previous LMS, Moodle, required teams of people to manage the self-hosted infrastructure. Because Canvas is cloud-native, IT staff can now spend the bulk of their time supporting instructors, students, and special initiatives rather than supporting servers. Additionally, administrators say the change means better architecture for mobile design, easier integration with tools that don’t have LMS-specific plugins, and access to a larger community of users who can share best practices and offer technical advice.

As adoption of Canvas gets deeper, all users at UMN—thanks to built-in accessibility tools—can take advantage of an open, flexible, customizable platform that facilitates innovative learning opportunities and provides a stable, reliable learning ecosystem for their renowned research university.

Key Findings

  1. Canvas scales to meet the size and complexity of UMN’s online system.
  2. Two-year pilot included consistent polling of faculty and students.
  3. Beneficial features for UMN include: cloud-based functionality, intuitive user interface, comprehensive grading tool (SpeedGrader), and features that support distributed administration.
  4. Students reported a preference for Canvas over previous LMS when asked which LMS helped them better succeed in their classes.

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