Canvas: In the Know

By: Tzipora Baitch  |  October 2, 2016

canvas_6268005After thirteen years of dutifully serving the Yeshiva University student body, the learning management system ANGEL Learning has been discontinued. Beginning this past June, students enrolled in Yeshiva University courses have encountered its replacement, Canvas. The new system offers more modernized graphics and easier navigation features with which to download course readings and upload assignments.

Developed in the late 1990’s, ANGEL was once the hottest learning management system in its day. It even won industry awards, including the national Parature Legend Makers Award for customer service and support in 2008. But in 2016, student support is synonymous with technology that pleases the eye.

Enter Canvas, YU’s new learning management system. As it debuted in the days approaching the fall semester, many returning students were surprised, some even confused. In the schoolwide Facebook group “Stern College: In the Know,” one startled student wrote in August, “WHAT?? They are replacing Angel???,” encapsulating the sentimental feelings that many students have for the older system. Some reluctant teachers, similarly attached to the learning website of yore, have been rumored not to recognize Canvas when it is mentioned in class. Such professors and students are not alone. Though Canvas has overwhelmingly been welcomed into the fold of YU’s technological offerings, many are still not yet settled in completely with the new program, though it promises to be a good fit for the student body.

Jay Savage, Director of Technology Planning at YU, emphasized that the idea of switching to Canvas has been years in the making. “The decision to move to Canvas was the result of a lengthy collaborative process that began almost five years ago, before I even came to the university. During that time, Information Technology Services (ITS) and Academic Affairs at YU worked with faculty and students to develop a comprehensive set of requirements for the new learning management system, and faculty and administrators reviewed proposals from a number of different companies.” With the switch formally prompted by ANGEL’S discontinuation, “Canvas emerged as the best fit for YU at the current time.”

Announcements about the switch from ANGEL to Canvas were emailed to faculty starting last spring. There were both live and online training sessions offered to professors who needed help with the new learning system. They were also able to make appointments for ITS to visit professors’ offices on campus to help with personal inquiries.

Despite all this training, teachers are still learning on the go, as are the students. Though all students were automatically enrolled in an online “Orientation to Canvas” course through Canvas itself, the first-time experience of using Canvas for an actual course has disoriented some students.

Tony Alucente of Academic Computing shared that the main issue students had was just logging in. “You can login with your Stern email address & YU password, a strange combination, or with YUADYU username & YU password,” Alucente explained. “Having two options was confusing, I believe, and I had limited success using the later combination of credentials. Once everyone got used to it, though, I think they were happy, or happy enough, with Canvas.”

Aware that many students fear change and are clinging to the familiar, Savage indicated a number of reasons why Canvas is superior to ANGEL. To start with, he points to its speed and reliability. Unlike ANGEL, which was tied to very outdated versions of the Windows Server operating system and the Microsoft SQL database, Canvas is based in the Amazon cloud. While ANGEL performance suffered noticeably over the years, Canvas is very brisk.

When it comes to tech support, YU had always only had one part-time employee supporting ANGEL. With Canvas, though, students can click on the “?” help icon on every page to access a 24/7 helpdesk that is available via email, phone, or live chat. Canvas is also much more mobile friendly, and is specifically designed for mobile use. It has both iOS and Android apps, but even regular web interface displays well on iPads and Surface tablets.

The new system is also far more personalized. With customizable notifications, Canvas allows students to choose when and where they receive course information and updates, based on what is important to them. On the faculty side of things, Canvas’ multimedia capabilities make it much easier to incorporate audio and video elements into courses, and also makes it easy for students to include multimedia elements in assignment submissions and discussion boards.

There are many who have noticed these improved changes and are embracing Canvas. Bible professor Deena Rabinovitch said, “I much prefer Canvas to ANGEL. I actually boycotted ANGEL all these years. ANGEL never made sense to me, never appealed to me in what I was able to do. It was easier for me to just email students directly if I needed them to have any readings.”

Many students similarly appreciate Canvas, and just feel that they need some time to get used to it. So enjoy Canvas before a new technological marvel comes along in a decade or two. As Yeshiva University develops, we want our learning systems to develop too. Until then, we should appreciate the loading icon of the panda riding on the unicycle.