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Case Study

Canvas Allows Innovative Canadian Institution to Focus on The Future of Higher Ed


British Columbia, Canada

Started Using Canvas


Number of Users


Simon Fraser University

In 2012, the renowned Simon Fraser University, located in British Columbia, Canada, began a major project to replace its aging LMS. With almost 27,000 students, Simon Fraser was one of the most innovative and diversely programmed institutions in Canada, and the LMS the university had been using for years was no longer sufficiently serving the students. SFU needed an educational technology platform that would facilitate its ambitious goals and outfit the university for the future of higher education.

Open source is the answer. Why would we solve yesterday’s problems as we proceed into the future? We need to do more than respond; we need to anticipate change.


Associate Professor, School of Communication, SFU

Simon Fraser University assembled a comprehensive committee that included representatives from a wide range of constituencies and communities throughout the university. Together, the team agreed on a process that would treat the enterprise as a “teaching and learning” initiative rather than a “technology” initiative and advance the university's commitment to achieving a future-facing learning environment. As Dr. Martin Laba of SFU’s School of Communication and Director of Academic Community Engagement for the project described it: 

“Simply stated, the approach taken here was teaching- and learning-driven, and was a search for a system that would be nimble, versatile, adaptable, customizable, and especially open. ‘Future-facing’ meant a system that could smartly adapt to new technologies (and the social and cultural currents of those technologies) and the dynamism of emerging teaching and learning approaches, digital and face-to-face contexts alike.”

Initially, the committee was leaning toward a proprietary LMS. Some felt that proprietary software would lessen risk, allowing staff to rely on 24-7 hotlines and developer support should anything go wrong. But as they researched LMS after LMS and conducted thorough interviews with staff and students, they discovered that the proprietary offerings were rather rigid and not entirely consistent with the bold and dynamic approaches typical of an institution as forward-thinking as Simon Fraser University. “New and emerging educational approaches today are about experiential learning, boundless classrooms, community-based engagement, and social change—all these things depend on openness and accessibility,” said Dr. Laba.

An open-source LMS would provide the opportunities for innovation and customization that SFU needed. Given its open API and like-minded mission, Canvas was the clear choice.

It truly feels like Canvas was made at SFU in partnership with Instructure.

Simon Fraser University was up and running on Canvas within a year. “It was quickly popular,” said Laba. “Integration was very smooth. And the malleability, openness, and capacities of Canvas were brilliant to work with and enabled this accelerated adoption.”

There’s a collective cheer from the student body, as well. “The engagement and freedom students feel is palpable,” said Laba. “Students are no longer passive recipients of knowledge. They want to co-create content, deeply and actively engage with course material, and even at times revise course content and direction. Canvas substantially supports and facilitates student aspirations. It’s been hugely successful for us.”

Laba’s own fourth-year course, Applied Communication for Social Issues, demonstrates the ways in which Canvas has enhanced and elaborated SFU’s mission of engagement. Students choose their own issues and dedicate the entire semester to addressing each issue through the design and development of communication.

“We’ve opened up a lively public sphere in Canvas, a space of discussion and debate for students. It’s a space that gives depth and substance not only to the content, but to the quality of the student experience in the course. So it’s more than a discussion forum. Students guide the course by bringing in new material they find. They can send the course in new directions each week. They can urge classmates and colleagues to not just analyze, but engage through real-world actions of consequence. They can critique anything I’ve said, or offer up new resources that should be on the syllabus. They can also put up work in progress and get feedback as they move forward,” said Laba.


Key Findings

  1. Ease of use and seamless integration enabled accelerated migration process
  2. Students and faculty became more active and engaged
  3. As an open-source LMS, Canvas provided the opportunities for innovation and customization SFU urgently needed

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