Instructure: Easy-to-Use LMS for Immersive Learning Experiences

Josh Coates, CEO “In the LMS world, we’ve got this behemoth that effectively owns the market. They’re ‘bullies’ and not well-liked by customers.” One doesn’t expect Josh Coates, CEO of Instructure, to be politically correct while talking about his competitors. The serial entrepreneur has driven his company to success in merely 4 years, capturing 9-12 percent market share of Higher Education Learning Management Systems (LMS).

When Coates was volunteering as an adjunct professor at Brigham Young University, he would often get annoyed when a student was busy looking at his iPhone instead of paying attention to the lecture. This is one of the many challenges that traditional teaching model faces and LMS acts as a viable option to impart learning.

Interestingly, two graduate students approached Coates with a fledgling idea during his venture startup class. The duo shared transcripts from interviews with 17 university administrators, detailing pain points and the need to overcome the ‘Bully’. Coates was convinced of the idea and wrote checks to begin the journey of Instructure. Coates took over the reins of the company in 2010, and they launched Canvas, a user-friendly LMS for higher ed, in February of 2011. Today, 8-9 percent of Instructure’s customers are companies, and the “nearly 1,000 schools under contract” are split between K-12 and higher-ed.

Innovation to Tackle the Bully

“The Bully really did a great job at capturing the market, but maybe took their eye off the ball on innovation,” assesses Coates. “We have to be careful not to fall into that trap as well. A lot of feedback we’ve received is that people switch to Canvas because we’re easier-to-use.” Instructure boasts of 99 percent retention rate which Coates believes is due to taking proper lessons learned from the past.

Instructure understands that academics only begrudgingly use its LMS. For this reason, an educational LMS must be simple-to-use and eager to interoperate with third-party tools and services. The choice of Ruby on Rails to develop Canvas was a deliberate one along with offering users free access to the API for building their own tools and self-hosting via a commercial open source version.

“Canvas is open source in that anyone can see our source code. Accessibility-wise, individuals don’t need to pay us money to start speaking to our APIs. We also have a free-for-teachers platform. If a teacher in an institution is stuck with an older LMS, she can use Canvas for free in her classroom,” explains Coates.

If a teacher in an institution is stuck with an older LMS, she can use Canvas for free in her classroom


To keep the total cost of ownership minimum for K-12, considering the budgetary constraints of the institutions, Instructure built a native cloud LMS, hosted by Amazon Web Services. “Internally, we have lots of mechanisms for innovation; we have a labs program and a research team. Both are separate from the engineering and product team. They do research on our data and try to figure out what’s working and what’s not,” asserts Coates.

Such a research led Instructure’s contribution to Massive Open Online Course, introducing “Zombies” to teach Science, Math, and Health via the Canvas Network. Instructure also released a Minecraft app for Canvas that allowed students to link their Minecraft account to Canvas and use in-game actions to ubmit assignments. For instance, students can tag locations of their creations for teachers to visit and explore. Book contents students write in Minecraft will automatically be loaded into the Canvas SpeedGrader, a tool that allows teachers to view and grade student assignments. Teachers can even use Redstone, Minecraft's in-game circuitry tool, to create automatically graded assignments.

Taking Complexity out of LMS

Coates in his keynote address for InstructureCon 2015 emphasized on empathy being the cornerstone of effective leadership. According to him, it is being able to make the tough decisions the right way. “There is a reason why Spock wasn’t the captain,” Coates explains. “Spock would always make logical decisions. But the reason why Kirk was the captain was that he had to factor in empathy and emotion and passion into decision-making.”

"A lot of feedback we’ve gotten is that people switch to Canvas because we’re easier to use"

Such an empathetic approach brought about simplicity in Canvas LMS that Blackboard failed to offer. Moreover, Canvas makes course creation an inviting and open-ended process. Users begin with a setup checklist with items such as importing content, adding students, choosing a course homepage, and entering calendar events.

Canvas fairly accommodates existing content. In addition to support for SCORM files, the system ingests files from other vendors, including Blackboard, Moodle, D2L, and Angel. Many organizations are increasingly replacing Blackboard with Canvas. Once such is the case of Hillsborough Community College (HCC). When faculty and students alike complained of the complexity in the Blackboard, the administration had to look for alternatives for the incumbent. Too many folders in Blackboard made looking for files difficult for both students and professors. With that in mind, HCC sought to find a new and simpler way to connect students with their classes. The Canvas dashboard displays frequently looked for pages including recent activity, courses, grades, calendar, and a link to the students’ Hawkmail account. From the dashboard, a student can navigate just about anywhere in his Canvas account. So far, HCC has yet to run into any major problem with Canvas, but if any problems arise, Canvas has all the answers to most frequently asked questions under the help tab. The help tab gives students access to the student guides and walks students through every possible function in Canvas and features a feedback option to send to Canvas.

Canvas shares its features to those of the frequently used social media sites that have taken over everyone’s life. Canvas allows students to fully customize their Canvas account to their liking. Students can add a profile picture, connect the Canvas account to one of their social media accounts, and control their notifications. Unlike Blackboard, Canvas has a unique calendar that reminds students what assignments are due, when they are due, and color codes the classes to eliminate any possibility of confusion. Students can also either wait for professors to upload the due dates, or can plug them in themselves.

Other features that have been built into Canvas are direct access to Smarthinking Tutoring, the Academic Success Center, and all library databases from each campus. Before Canvas, a student had to visit the Hawknet page to reach these features.

The Road Ahead

Disruption, decision-making, and collaboration are the three complementary skills that have helped Coates take Instructure to the top of the learning market, and they can be a boon to many entrepreneurs. The plans of going public are out there, with Securities and Exchange Commission, with the company gauging the potential of the “Wild West” K-12 arena. In the K-12 market, “schools have yet to widely adopt learning management systems,” adds Coates. In K-12, the company plans to increase revenue from this customer base by selling additional applications and services. The company has also introduced Bridge, a corporate LMS, and is witnessing much traction in the market. Coates emphasizes on being impactful, open, and innovative in order to maintain the status quo in the days to come. “As our product matures, we will have to deal with our own feature bloat and complexity. But we’re now able to attack that challenge internally,” concludes Coates. While the ‘Bully’ is still leading the LMS market, Canvas is reaching out to a wider adoption in K-12 and Higher ed.

- Ankit Tripathi
    August 22, 2015