How much does the Community drive Canvas?

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For those reading the title and wondering if I'm going to answer that question -- the answer is no. But if you want to see how the Community influences, impacts, or is related to Canvas, you might benefit.

In the question Idea System Broken? , a comment was made about how much in Canvas was driven by the Community. I'm going to focus on a single word here: driven. I'm probably putting more emphasis on it than was intended, and I often type the wrong words myself, but I want to make a distinction.

In statistics, we talk about the difference between correlation and causation. I think saying the development is driven by the community is akin to establishing causation, whereas a more realistic statement might be that there are related community contributions.

These relationships might even be established after the development was done. I have seen places where Canvas takes ideas from customers that came up through their CSMs and then tries to find related Community content to them, where the related idea is marginally related to what Canvas has done. There may be an idea in the Community that gets a lot of play, but what Canvas turns out is very little like what was discussed or wanted. While I agree that's often a good thing, I wouldn't say it rises to the level of driven.

Several have written here in the Community that they contacted support and were told that it needs to be put in as a feature request in the Community. I think I heard last week that was being worked on, but to send people to the Community and then say that the Community is responsible for much of what's happening seems misleading.

As part of project Khaki, we were given homework with a list of 51 items to consider. 42 (82%) of them had some related feature in the Community. I remember at least 3 of those being nowhere like the description that was provided of the issue, 6 of them only had related ideas or discussions that were archived or in cold storage. We're now down to 33 (65%) that were possibly Community related. Of those, 2 were already in development, 4 were currently open for voting, and 27 were already on product radar (even though one of them had zero votes at the time).

People can spin things however they want to make the case they want. I recently saw where awilliams‌ had used a quote from Charles Babbage saying "Errors using inadequate data are much less than those using no data at all." However, it is a complicated process and although we all have our favorite metrics that we like to use to paint a picture, no one of them represents the entire picture. If I'm picking metrics as to the power of the Community, I kind of like the number of feature requests that are even on the product radar.

From a statistics perspective, there is no randomized experiment here and you can't establish causation, just a relation.

Community plays an important role in Canvas (I can't speak to other LMSes because I've never used one other than to do the equivalent of SIS imports.) Feature ideas are important part of the Community, but having something developed that is related to an idea in the Community doesn't mean that the Community drove that process. It might have played a part, but there are a group of product managers that attend meetings and look at their own research, what the CSMs are saying, what implementation specialists are saying, what the sales team is saying, what the Community Managers are saying, look at the number of users that will be impacted, accessibility issues, technical issues, the cost to implement it, the other things that won't get done if it's implemented, the merit of the idea, the impact doing this will have on things coming down the pipe, whether it will actually help learning, and probably some other things I don't know about, then try to make it all work together in a way that is consistent with the guiding principles of Canvas.

I will fully acknowledge that it is disappointing to anyone who sees good ideas sit and go nowhere. It's extremely frustrating to see "not in the next six months" turn to into "not in the next 12 months" and some requests, after more than 2 years, still look like they're not headed anywhere. We all have our bucket lists of things that we want done and pretty much all of us think our bucket list should be prioritized. Canvas has to consider all of those criteria I listed when deciding what gets implemented.

If our ideas don't get implemented, there are sometimes other avenues like the REST API, LTIs, or custom JavaScript to handle them. When I went to my first InstructureCon in 2013, I went to a hack day. I didn't know anyone and sat at a table by myself. A few minutes later, Brian Whitmer came over, introduced himself, and gave me some pointers and directed me to some people who could probably help. The solution then was that if Canvas didn't do it, you could do it through the custom JavaScript. That didn't help me much since I didn't know JavaScript, but it kind of laid out the plan -- if you don't like it, it's up to you to do something about it. Somewhere over time, that message got lost. I don't know if it's intentional, if Canvas lost their way for a while, if they finally realized that some of the features should really be built-in, or if it's still there but not being communicated well enough.

Sometimes we can't do what we want to do because Canvas doesn't have the API support to do what we need. I'm working on a project like that now where the information just isn't available through the API and I can't even scrape it off an existing page. I know I could make a feature request in the Community, but I'm not going to because the number of people impacted by it is probably going to be small (admins with more than 50 global announcements). Fixing it would likely be a matter of changing two words in a single line of Canvas code. But there would be a debate that would ensue about whether or not that was the best way to do things, what impact it would have, and it might be decided that it's not worth messing with because announcements are going to be reworked at some point in the future anyway. If I had to make a call as a product manager, I would probably down vote it as there are more important things -- and it's my idea.

All of this is to say that there's a whole lot that goes into Canvas that most people don't consider. As frustrating as it is to see your idea not developed, at least we know those things on product radar are being heard. There are others ideas that get mentioned, but we know they're at least thinking about and considering those on the product radar list, which is why I said I like the number of items on product radar as a good metric. While I wouldn't say we drive the process, I do believe we make a valuable contribution and at least feel like I was heard.

18 Comments
Adventurer II

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Community Member

What a great post, james@richland.edu‌, and THANK YOU for taking the time to do that.

I'm not a programmer, although I think there is something similar in the way that, as teachers, we are all supplementing Canvas by the things we do as teachers. Of course, that is not as visible as writing a script or using the API to bring new features to Canvas, but it's still similar in the sense that Canvas can only "do" a very limited number of things out of that huge array of activities that constitute teaching and learning. Canvas is never going to "do it all" for all teachers. It's ultimately up to us.

And that's why I value the Community here, more than anything having to do with the software. Sure, I appreciate the fact that some of the things we talk about here could potentially have an impact on the software, and that's great when it happens (it definitely did NOT like work like that for the LMS my school had prior to Canvas). But what I really appreciate is the way people at the Community explain how Canvas fits into the bigger picture of our teaching overall, the things WE do with Canvas that come from us, things that meet our students' needs... and which might be useful to others and meet their needs too. So, that might mean scripts and technical workarounds like James's Canvancements, or it might be presentations to show people th tools that play nicely with Canvas (like the "hot tech" presentations by snufer, or the presentation today on Hypothes.is and pedagogy), or it might be awesome blog posts like kristin.lundstrum@delasalle.com  post on self-reflection habits today that really have nothing to do with Canvas, but everything to do with the success that her students are going to experience.

It's great if/when there's a feature request that moves ahead and leads to an improvement in Canvas, absolutely. But in terms of improving our classes, improving our teaching, well, most of that is going to come from us ultimately, not from software, and we need a lot of help to be the best teachers we can be. The software helps up to a point... but the more important help, IMO, comes from teachers sharing their practices and helping each other, and I remain incredibly impressed that Canvas devotes valuable resources to sustaining this Community for that purpose, and I really appreciate everyone's contributions here. 🙂

Community Team
Community Team

"All of this is to say that there's a whole lot that goes into Canvas that most people don't consider."

Very true...  I worked in the community college world for 13 years before coming to Instructure 4.5 years ago.  During my time at the college I worked with three LMS companies before transitioning to Canvas.  To put it in simplistic terms if a technology company is going to survive they have one job - listen to the user, apply what they ask for to an overall strategy and then build software as efficiently and quickly that gets people what they say they want while advancing the overall strategy - simple, right?

Product managers get information about what people say they want that comes in from many sources, official and unofficial. Not only do they have to evaluate and rank competing ideas but they have to cooperate with each other and the greater organization to prioritize larger initiatives or project over those that would affect other areas of the product.  A process blindly driven by individual requests would quickly lead to feature bloat, slower development cycles and less favorable up time numbers.

Oftentimes I seem to hear about problems with the software or weaknesses that get communicated via several channels concurrently. Often it isn't a question of whether an idea was driven by the community or by input from CSMs or Implementation or Sales.  Its a needed improvement that is made evident in several variations via multiple channels.

Sometimes I hear from people who believe the Canvas feature prioritization/product development process should be more closely driven by input and voting in the community.  I have heard suggestions that by voting in the community users should be given direct control over available dev hours.  As Director of Community you might think I would be in favor of this philosophy - after all when you have a hammer all the world is a nail....  But, as time has gone by I have come to believe that we are all better off with a diversity of voices giving input and a strong product team that listens and then applies what they hear to an underlying strategy that also evolves over time.

Community Team
Community Team

YES, YES, YES!

Thank you, Laura.  We must have both been composing responses at the same time as I saw your reply when I posted mine.

Responding to one thing you said; one of the main purposes of the Canvas Community is to try to collect feedback from users in the most efficient way possible on how we can make the software better for everybody.  That is our whole job, why institutions are willing to enter into a contract in the first place and if we lose sight of that we are lost.  However, we think we can also provide value if we make a platform that allows you to communicate with each other about how and why you do what you do as educators.  We are very very happy when we see presentations, discussions, blogging, etc that has nothing to do with Canvas.  If we can be a part of you sharing your craft with each other we are doing what we were tasked with as a community team.  Even if you choose to use Canvas as one tool in your kit with specialized and limited application, we are very very happy to have you here in the community, hopefully learning and growing stronger while you share.

Community Coach
Community Coach
To put it in simplistic terms if a technology company is going to survive they have one job - listen to the user, apply what they ask for to an overall strategy and then build software as efficiently and quickly that gets people what they say they want while advancing the overall strategy - simple, right?


Yep, seems totally straight-forward and simple...

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Community Member

Ha ha, it makes teaching look easy by comparison! 🙂

Community Coach
Community Coach

This is normally how I feel when I ask James if we can do something (that I think should be "easy") in Canvas. LOL!!

Community Coach
Community Coach

This a very thoughtful discussion by the ever Awesome james@richland.edu , and it triggered many variant thoughts in my own mind. There have been, currently are, and will long continue to be many discussions in this Community about Product Development, the Feature Idea Process, and their relationships to each other. I find myself thinking that this is a very small picture of the Canvas Community, and this in no way denigrates what James has written above, because the focus of what he has so well articulated above is intended to be about that single aspect of the Community.

I personally see the Canvas Community as a learning community, perhaps the largest learning community in the world, although I have never bothered to do the research to determine if that is true or not - I mean, really, who cares! And I see the Community's influence on product development to be just a side benefit to our participation in this community. Personally, I think I have only proposed two feature ideas in all my time here, and seldom vote on the ones others have submitted. But I read them all, and contribute to the discussions for way too many of them. You might ask "why?" Because in reading these feature requests I learn how others use Canvas, how they apply their online pedagogy to the Canvas environment, how K12 and HE differ and yet are often the same, how others work through or around the limitations inherent in any LMS including Canvas; the multitudes of varying approaches to delivering online instruction in Canvas, the work-rounds, the uses of third-party applications and third-party websites, and much, much more. Sometimes I even contribute my own thoughts and practices on all of these topics. So then, what is the Feature idea process to me - it is descriptions of how we work in Canvas, how we would like  to work in Canvas, how we would like Canvas to work for us and our students, and how we will and do adapt when Canvas doesn't meet those needs. Awesome stuff, and way more important than some simple immediate gratification of seeing a feature idea achieve fruition!

And still, the Canvas Community is so much more than just that! Also within this Community are the

  • Guides: the documentation that  teaches us how to use Canvas. Guides I still reference almost daily after five years of using Canvas. Guides that I refer my faculty and students to on a regular basis, and hope they also learn to use them regularly. Guides that I daily refer other Community members to when they need answers to their own questions, and I refer them with the same hope that they become regular users. Guides that contribute greatly to the Canvas Learning Community. Thank you erinhallmark‌ and the rest of the jivedocs+unfederated@instructure.com‌! Wow! What a job you have.
  • Answers: That same major area that includes the Canvas Guides, also includes a feature that is perhaps even more powerful than the Guides themselves - the ability to ask a question of 160,000+ members in this Learning Community. OMG! Maybe the answer to your question is not in the Guides. maybe the answer to your question is not even in Canvas. Maybe the answer to your question is in the creative minds and experiences of the Community's members who have tried, experienced, encountered, tested, practiced, even regularly used more resources and techniques than you ever could in your long life time as a solo practitioner. A Learning Community to be sure!
  • Groups: 138, and growing, focus groups that encompass everything from single schools, to large consortiums, to single topics, to levels of education, to instructional or geographical focus, very special educational topics and themes and much more. If just being able to post a question out to the Community at large is huge, then consider how powerful it can be to participate  and collaborate with with like minds engaged in similar environments and practices. Wow! Focused learning communities, within a larger learning community.
  • The Community Team: Community Managers, Coaches and documentation specialist here to greet and welcome members, serve the members by guiding them to resources, or using their collective expertise to answer questions. A Community Team that is often supplemented by other members of the Instructure staff including product managers, and product engineers who often offer members an opportunity to participate in product development testing. Our facilitators of the learning community.
  • CanvasLive: Wow! What can I say about Community members offering up their time and expertise to help teach fellow community members.
  • Fun: there must be fun! Learning and play are not mutually exclusive concepts; and in fact, many studies have demonstrated that learning is more effective when combined with play, that we become more engaged with our learning when it is fun. And the same is true of teaching! As teachers we become more engaged and creative with the delivery of instruction when we and our students are having fun. A fun learning community indeed.

So those are my thoughts on this thing called the Canvas Community, and yes I do think that the Community "drives" Canvas, but not just through the limited function of the Feature Idea process; but rather, but through its entirety as a learning community of Canvas users and developers all working towards a common goal in both their individual and gestalt ways.

Point and counterpoint.

Thank you, James, for starting this conversation.

Kelley

Navigator

Thank you kelley.meeusen@cptc.edu for clarifying that I was speaking about feature ideas and not the broader community as a whole. You are absolutely correct.

Navigator

Why is it whenever someone wants to show how not simple something is, the pull up a concocted picture with a bunch of unrelated math stuff on it? As a math teacher, I take offense. Maybe we should show a picture of a Canvas product development cycle instead.

On the back of my office door is a newspaper clipping from a long time ago. It's a picture with the title "Disaster Aftermath" and I stuck it there with the question why math always gets blamed for things. I've always wondered why it couldn't have been "Disaster After English" instead.

Community Coach
Community Coach

james@richland.edu 

LOL!

Disaster After English.

I have had a lifetime of those.

Kelley

Community Team
Community Team

lol

Community Coach
Community Coach

james@richland.edu‌, I actually picked it because of the random stuff all over the place. In my mind that's how I envision the Canvas product development cycle. A meeting where all sorts of random things that may or may not be related all need to be taken into consideration.

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Community Member

Then there are the animated gifs too 🙂

animated gif of complicated system

Community Coach
Community Coach

kona@richland.edu  and  laurakgibbs 

Rube Goldberg in action!

11 Brilliant Rube Goldberg Machines

Community Member

Mwahahahaha.

Community Advocate
Community Advocate

Thank you james@richland.edu‌ for this blog post. Every day it seems I find another reason to appreciate the Canvas Community and all the wonderful people that are part of the conversations here. My college is in the middle of a yearlong transition to Canvas and I have extensive experience teaching and administering two other systems, and neither had such an easy and effective way to communicate with other users from around the world. I agree kelley.meeusen@cptc.edu‌ that the size of the community is less important than the value it brings to its members, and there is a *ton* of value here. As my fellow faculty learn and use Canvas I expect to get questions on making changes, and I now have a easily shared blog post to teach them the process and to encourage their active participation.

Community Team
Community Team

I could spend waaaaaaay too much time looking at this GIF, Laura.  Smiley Happy

About the Author
I'm James Jones. The new Community software Khoros doesn't seem to like people using real names, but I think that names are important part of building community. I'm here trying to make Canvas a better experience for people. I hate repetitive tasks and will spend 13 hours writing a computer program to automate something that takes 5 minutes to do. The last two statements often benefit others in the form of Canvancements, which are my Canvas Enhancments that I contribute to the Canvas Community.