UW System’s Move to a New Digital Learning Environment

Our contract with our longstanding learning management system partner, D2L, was nearing expiration.  In order to understand the future learning technology landscape, uncover the needs and requirements for (as well as identify gaps in) academic technologies to support teaching and learning, UW System undertook a multi-step approach.  After an extensive process of exploring the learning technology landscape as it relates to the UW System, including the 2014 UW System Roadmap Project, the 2015 LENA Project, and a rigorous teaching and learning technology requirements gathering process in 2016, UW System issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a Digital Learning Environment (DLE).

The Unique “RFP” Process

The Request for Proposal (RFP)  used by UW System to procure the DLE was very unique in design in two ways:

1) it required proposers to demonstrate (using video) how their product(s) could address the needs expressed in the use cases that were provided in the RFP document and

2) it required proposers to provide access to their digital learning environments in an on-line “sandbox” so that instructors, staff and students from all institutions could test the proposed products and then provide the formal evaluation team with feedback on the proposed systems.

A ten-person evaluation team and fifteen core subject matter experts from across UW System — and from a variety of perspectives — read the proposals, tested the products in the sandbox, and attended product demonstrations. In addition, each institution in the UW System was provided access to the product test “sandboxes,” and feedback was collected from hundreds of students, instructors, and administrators.  The ten evaluators reviewed feedback from instructors, staff, and students from each institution and carefully reviewed how suppliers’ products could address the requirements articulated in the eight teaching and learning scenarios outlined in the RFP.  All of these elements were scored in the RFP process.  Three suppliers provided proposals and the high scoring supplier was Instructure for its Canvas software.

How Does Canvas Support The UW System DLE?

Instructure’s Canvas platform provides the foundation for our UW System DLE, a federated, online environment that includes services and tools purposefully brought together to support the needs of teaching and learning in all modes (i.e., face-to-face, blended/hybrid, and fully-online).  The DLE challenges the traditional role of an LMS as “the” platform for managing course documents, quizzes, videos, and the like.  By shifting our perspective from an LMS-based content platform, to a “digital environment” that creates information we can act upon, UW System can then realize the many benefits of an interoperable suite of services and tools that allow us to maximize student access and success.

The DLE is designed to support student success by creating consistency among institutions along with flexibility to meet institutional needs. The DLE supports “pedagogy first” design that is fully-accessible, thereby supporting increased student retention and improved time to graduation rates.   The initial DLE implementation project will be complete by June 30, 2020.

The DLE, with Canvas as the service and tool “hub,” provides a seamless, accessible student experience, as well as an organized and effective approach to managing digital interactions and information exchanges among the institutions, instructors, and students.  Reliable access to data will provide UW System with greater capabilities to support the data analysis needed to make improvements to our students’ instruction and educational experience.  Data will also be used to evolve our DLE strategy in the future.

Instructure’s Canvas is a “Software as a Service” (SaaS) product, meaning the software is hosted, maintained, and upgraded in Instructure’s cloud-based technology system.  UW System pays for an annual subscription, rather than a licensing fee, to use the system. The Canvas SaaS model provides the opportunity to improve support and training so the needs of students and instructors are met while reducing the overhead of duplicating efforts at each institution. The vendor creates and maintains the training and support materials used for both the initial implementation and the ongoing orientation and training.

Key highlights of Instructure’s “open source” Canvas platform includes a simple and intuitive interface for ease of use, a grading feature that provides an efficient way for instructors to provide feedback to students, and a collaborative “peer to peer” environment for students.  Canvas uses industry standards to integrate with other software tools, thereby reducing the cost of supporting the technology, and encourages collaboration by providing a means for instructors to easily share course materials across courses, departments, college, and institutions.