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SMS: A love / hate relationship

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“The thing that we are trying to do at facebook, is just help people connect and communicate more efficiently.                                                                                                                                                                                - Mark Zuckerberg


What is an LMS? Is it just a collection of courses and students and grades? A place to do school work? That’s how LMSs are traditionally viewed—a repository of learning artifacts. Canvas is more than that—it’s a learning system and a platform to communicate ideas and communicate. 


What is learning but communication? Thoughts, ideas, discussion, relationships. Learning IS communication. It’s the transfer of knowledge and ideas from one to another. As Canvas has grown and evolved through the years, our educators and their students, and the way they learn and communicate are evolving as well. 


Communication: a Memoir of Sweaty Horses and Lasers

The way people live, work, and communicate is evolving at breakneck speed. Last Saturday I spent a few hours riding a motorcycle down the old Pony Express trail in the west deserts of Utah, not far from Instructure headquarters. 


This deep trail was originally worn into the western desert floor by horsemen riding at a blistering pace with leather bags full of mail tied to their horses. Then settlers started following the trail, and more recently, moto riders trying their best to socially distance from everyone. This trail was the backbone of communication across this continent for a couple of years in the late 1800s.


Then, evolution happened again, and this dusty trail was replaced by a trans-continental railroad that was faster and more reliable. It also had the benefit of being less likely to kick you in the teeth unexpectedly.


The railroad was replaced by telegraph lines, which are now plastic tubes carrying pure light and Star Wars–style satellite communications. Which, even though I understand it, still seems like magic. 

Communication is constantly evolving, and we are evolving with it. As people have moved away from email toward more convenient forms of communication, SMS (Short Message Service, or Text), was one of the ways we have delivered information to students.


SMS Messages and Canvas Notifications

SMS messages have always been limited as a means of communication. Originally conceived to utilize the spare bandwidth used to manage telephone calls, SMS messages were a way to test the phone system and deliver very short, text-based content with the spare capacity in the telephony system.


Due to the low cost to carriers, and convenience, SMS messaging was made available to customers and added to Canvas as a notification option, and its use exploded in popularity. The original Twitter limitation of 140 characters in a tweet was largely based on the original limitation of 140–160 characters in an SMS message, depending on the carrier.


As SMS use has ramped up, so have the bandwidth requirements for the providers. The limitations in the SMS protocol became obvious fast. Everyone has experienced multiple text messages that arrive out of order, or dropped messages that never get there at all. (How many critical texts were claimed to be “dropped” that never were?—a modern day “the dog ate my homework” excuse). I know I have used that excuse to get me out of trouble with my wife once or twice.


These limitations of SMS have made text messaging a relatively clunky way to interact with Canvas. We have always wanted a better way to interact with students, without having to log in to the web portal.

Enter the Canvas Mobile apps! FINALLY, a better way to both communicate with students and give them a way to interact with the system. Students can get the data they need and react to it right in the app, without having to go to their web browser to do anything.


Mobile Apps Transition

The arrival of the Canvas Mobile apps, with its richer interface, the ability to interact with Canvas right in the app, and ability for users to manage their messaging preferences in a much better way, is giving us an opportunity to refine how we communicate with students inside Canvas.


Communications vendors are also charging increasingly higher costs to move data over the SMS system—especially large amounts of data—the improved functionality of the Canvas mobile apps is making this the right time to change the primary way we communicate with users in Canvas.


In this time as we are being forced to evolve even faster with the emergence of COVID-19 and schools moving online at lightning speed, we want to make messaging easier, more responsive, and make the most important messages easy for user response.


On Saturday, 2 May, all types of Canvas SMS notifications except announcements will be disabled within Canvas. Announcements are a good fit for the SMS model as they communicate information without requiring action and are usually of high importance.


Any schools that specifically rely on text alerts for communication and cannot transition to mobile apps should contact their CSM to discuss their situation. 


Instead of using SMS notifications, we want to encourage users to install the Canvas mobile apps for their user role and use it as their main source of communication and notifications from Canvas. Recent updates to the mobile apps and the Canvas web allow users to more easily log in to the apps using a QR code, which makes logging in as simple as using your mobile device’s camera. The Upcoming Canvas Changes page includes various resources to help everyone learn how to use the mobile apps, including full how-to documentation and videos.


The evolution of education and how people interact with their teachers and peers and learning environment is constant and never-ending. We are looking forward to a better way to communicate with students and teachers who are communicating thoughts and ideas in the Canvas framework, and we will continue to evolve with our educators, students, parents, and administrators to make learning as easy and efficient and even as fun, as possible.


As always, thank you for your feedback, your ideas and your passion for learning. Our users are the most important thing to us as a company, and making your jobs easier and making learning better is why we get up in the morning.


Matt Meservey

Canvas Product Team