Interview with Jared Stein, VP of Research and Education at Canvas by Instructure

About Jared Stein

Jared Stein is Vice President of Research and Education for Instructure’s Canvas learning management system (LMS) where he and his team work with higher education and K-12 institutions nationwide to uncover the impact of educational technology on online teaching and learning. These insights drive Instructure’s efforts and contributes knowledge to the broader field of online learning technology. Stein frequently speaks at industry conferences, including InstructureCon, and contributes to various online learning publications and blogs. He is also co-founder and director of the Teaching With Technology Idea Exchange (TTIX).

Prior to joining Canvas, Stein served as Director of the Innovation Center and Director of Instructional Design Services at Utah Valley University where he helped teachers design effective blended and online programs by emphasizing real-world learning, openness, student engagement, and usability. He also held adjunct and associate professorships. Additional higher education efforts include planning for present and future challenges through grassroots, faculty-driven initiatives and top-level leadership strategies like the Hybrid Teaching Initiative. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Utah State University.

Interview Questions

[] The Internet revolutionized higher education and the concept of educational accessibility. Advances in learning management systems like Canvas push those boundaries even further. Can you discuss general trends shaping your field right now?

[Mr. Stein] Educational technology is continually advancing, and in waves. On the perimeters, educational technologists themselves push the limits of what modern technology can provide for learners, both in terms of automating instruction and enabling communication and collaboration between learners. In the past few years, we’ve seen growing development in adaptive learning technologies that automate content delivery based on a growing database of information on students. We’ve also seen an emphasis on using real-world tools by learners for the creation of work, especially collaborative work (for example, the steady rise of Google Docs and Office365). These examples just scratch the surface, but they do represent the ability of technology to facilitate learning across the cognitive domains, from knowing and understanding to synthesizing and creating. It remains up to educators to decide which technologies to use when, and for what outcomes.

It’s important to note that educators’ fluency in educational technology is changing, too. To use the language of Rogers curve of innovation, for the first two decades of the web, fluent use of online technology was limited primarily to innovators and early adopters. In the last decade, we’ve seen mainstream instructors take up digital tools. As long as education technology continues to address the fundamental needs of the majority of educators with easy-to-use, time-saving features, we can expect that trend toward technology fluency to continue.

Educators’ increasing fluency in educational technology means that we can expect more conversations about the practice of teaching with technology to happen. Institutions that encourage those conversations can develop communities of innovation that are self-perpetuating and lead to new discoveries in teaching and learning practices. This potential is amplified in our globally connected world, as educators engage beyond the walls of their institution to discuss and collaborate regionally, nationally, or internationally, thus gaining from a range of perspective challenges and solutions.

[] You have written extensively about online course design and instructional methods. What advice might you offer instructors and instructional designers converting traditional coursework to online coursework for the first time?

[Mr. Stein] The same fundamentals of instructional design should apply when developing learning experiences face-to-face or online. Begin with the end in mind: What do you want learners to have accomplished at the end of the course? How will they have changed? Then, as you figure out how you will assess learners and engage learners in relevant activities, you can begin thinking about technology. You will want to choose the tools that provide the best opportunities to learn, practice, and socialize with the least amount of technical overhead.

In the end, you should keep your online course design simple: Always strive to get technology out of the way of the learning experience as much as possible, for both yourself and your students. Don’t adopt a difficult technology if an easier one will do the job. Start small, with tools you are familiar with. Don’t reinvent the wheel; reuse open educational resources as much as possible. Give students opportunities to rely on each other as much as on you. At every turn, you should seek to understand when people interacting with people enhances a learning experience, and then provide ample time and room for those interactions to happen.

[] What do you consider to be some of the most significant advantages of online learning? Do you think students and institutions recognize and exercise those benefits, or is this an ongoing process?

[Mr. Stein] Online learning increases access to education for more people in more places. This is due primarily to the asynchronous nature of online environments and the flexibility that it provides. The “always-on” nature of the web allows for learners to move at different paces, and to review and practice learning experiences as much as needed. Online systems can provide both instant, automated feedback from the computer as well as opportunities for in-depth personal discussions within a class community. Because online activities produce trackable data, learning analytics may be used to give both student and teacher greater insight into what kinds of teaching and learning practices lead to success.

[] What makes Instructure/Canvas unique from other learning management platforms and developers?

[Mr. Stein] Canvas emphasizes ease-of-use over quantity of features and options. We believe that the best way to grow a community of innovative teachers is to make the system intuitive, usable, and relevant to the entire faculty, not just those who are technologists. We designed Canvas to give users the maximum benefit for the least amount of effort at every turn.

Canvas is also student-centered. We believe that students should find value in the LMS—even independent of their instructors’ use. We designed most of Canvas’s features to benefit students as much as teachers, and a number of features specifically to empower students. For example, Canvas allows students to start their own groups with their own collaborations, discussions, even calendar events so they can self-organize and take responsibility for their own learning.

Finally, Canvas is extremely reliable, consistently beating our own guaranteed up-time of 99.9%. Canvas was built as a cloud-native application on the largest, most stable cloud provider, Amazon Web Services, and we ensure that data is secure and redundant across geographies. This reliability is increasingly important as educational communities come to depend more on technology to facilitate learning experiences.

[] Are there any LMS features you find particularly innovative or useful?

[Mr. Stein] [High-impact] features on Canvas:

  • SpeedGrader – Allows you to view and grade student assignment submissions in one place using a simple point scale or complex rubric. Canvas accepts a variety of document formats and even URLs as assignment submissions. Some document assignments can be marked up for feedback directly within the submission. Teachers can also provide feedback to students with text or media comments.
  • Open Platform (API, EduApp Center, General Oppenyness) – Canvas code is OS, so school can host it yourself (but we think you’ll want our cloud native service and support). It also means we adhere to open standards, we have an open and transparent community, and we support open education goals
  • Outcomes Assessment – Magic Marker and Learning Mastery show the range of assessment types supported by Canvas. We’re not just multiple choice; with Canvas, teachers can assess everything from in-depth, collaborative outcomes to real-time, performance outcomes.
  • True Cloud – Our true cloud architecture means 99.9% uptime (at least), scalability and capacity to handle regular growth and sudden surges, and distributed hosting across various geographical regions to ensure even natural disasters can’t take down Canvas.
  • Mobile Apps (in General) – For many LMS companies, mobile is an afterthought. Instructure designed Canvas to be a great user experience regardless of the user’s device. We four native mobile applications free for download on both phones and tablets (Canvas, Speedgrader, Magic Marker, Polls). Oh and students actually like the Canvas App!


[] What can students new to online education do to prepare for and succeed in online courses?

[Mr. Stein] Students should get into the learning environment as early as possible, then find ways to develop—and keep—good learning habits. Part of that is simply that students need to self-assess their own strengths and weaknesses in order to be best prepared to succeed online, as in any learning environment: Are you a procrastinator? Are you able to engage easily with your classmates? Do you struggle using online technology?

Students also need to find and then use tools that help them stay engaged and connected. With Canvas, for example, students can subscribe to class calendars via their own personal calendaring tool, like Google Calendar or Outlook. If they use cloud-based file sharing services like Dropbox or Google Drive, they should figure out how to easily share saved work to the LMS ahead of time. If they use a tablet or smartphone, they should download apps that will make their online work easier—native mobile apps for the LMS (Canvas Mobile, for example), as well as time-management tools that will help them stay on task.

[] What about faculty and administrators? What can they do to make sure they are getting the most out of an LMS and other online learning tools?

[Mr. Stein] Faculty and administrators should always work from their goals to the use of technology. Make sure that you have clearly identified what you hope to get out of using technology, whether time or cost savings, or a clearer picture of how learning happens. Then, have a plan to reflect on and self-asses. Be willing to change your practices if things aren’t turning out as planned. One of the cardinal lessons I’ve personally learned teaching with technology is that often, less is more; students can have an engaging and successful learning experience without elaborate multimedia or complicated technology.

Finally, avoid the mistake of assuming that adopting technology by itself will improve learning outcomes; instead, consider technology in terms of how well it supports new ideas or initiatives in teaching, learning, or advising.