Content Management or Virtual Learning Environment: A deeper look at Canvas LMS


Learning Management Systems are a hot topic of debate as to whether they function primarily as Virtual Learning Environments or as Learning Content Management Systems. This essay explores this debate by opening up and examining the architecture of one specific case, Canvas by Instructure. Upon closer examination, Canvas seems to be most intuitively used for managing learning processes, albeit with extensibility incorporated for refining deeper learning environments with extra effort and commitment. The approaches taken to arrive at this conclusion consisted of an examination of affordances and conventions presented as part of a socio-technical view of the architecture, paying attention to the major components within a system that is both technical and human. In this way, the essay examines the Cloud Architecture, Stakeholders, Abstraction Layers, and Interoperability potential of LTI standards.


Higher Education Institutions today are tasked with the design, delivery, and administration of learning experiences across in-person and online domains. Students sign up to learn, and institutions seek to facilitate that learning in both the pedagogical and administrative sense. They do so through a variety of software tools and platforms. In their annual review of educational technologies and trends, the New Media Consortium and Educause Learning Initiative defined one of the common types of platforms used for this purpose:

Learning Management Systems (LMS), also referred to as Virtual Learning Environments, comprise a category of software and web applications that enable the online delivery of course materials as well as the tracking and reporting of student participation. Viewed as a centralized location for the ephemera of learning experiences, LMS have long been adopted by colleges and universities worldwide to to manage and administer online and blended courses” (New Media Consortium // Educause Learning Initiative, 2017).

“Canvas” is one such LMS. Created by the vendor company Instructure, adoption of Canvas has increased by a number of higher education institutions. As an aspiring learning designer and technologist, my goal in this essay is to open upsome of the major components and layers that make the platform work in order to better understand the platform contextually, architecturally, and functionally; to outline how Canvas’ design architecture  lends itself especially well to the management of learning processes administratively, but requires extra effort on the part of institutions to successfully incorporate deeper learning in the  virtual environment. The software affords to learning experiences in service of students, however, it’s design features are often more conducive to management and administration in the service of institutional stakeholders.

Why is Canvas designed the way it is, versus some other way? I’ve used a few questions as guiding heuristics or methods to answer that question:

  1. Sociotechnical Systems approach: Technical systems and human stakeholders do not exist in a vacuum, especially when examining core mission-related processes such as how learning is managed and delivered by large institutions such as Universities.
  2. Affordances and Constraints of the Architecture: What action possibilities exist because of these architectures and designs? In particular, as it relates to pedagogical approaches and/or the management of the institution.

The Cloud Architecture creates scalability for IT processes and availability for users and stakeholders.  

Figure 1.1

Image Source: (Serrano et al., 2015)

Cloud architecture makes institutional processes scalable, available, and extensible, easing the burden on institutional stakeholders responsible for the administering learning in blended and online environments.   

The National Institute of Standards and Technology defines cloud computing as “…a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.” (Grance & Mell, 2011).   

Observing Figure 1.1 above, the “client” is best understood as the end users such as institutional administrators, faculty, or students. Canvas is typically implemented as part of a “private” cloud model where a given University has access to its’ own instance or individualized online infrastructure using the service. While canvas is also public in the sense that they have instances open to all users such as Canvas Network (“Canvas Network | Free online courses | MOOCs,” n.d.), the core business model revolves around offering a private cloud setup for a given institution.

It’s important to note that while Instructure interfaces with institutions to develop and offer the software, the infrastructure housing the data lives in data centers offered by other providers such as Amazon Web Services, a seen below in Figure 1.2. The hosting entity offers their infrastructure to the vendor, Instructure in this case, and then that vendor develops and manages their software platform for use by institutions and universities.

Figure 1.2

In practice, users can access the software with corresponding shared resources, databases, and artefacts from anywhere as long their digital device is connected to the internet. In this manner Canvas delivers its’ software as a service, where the institution does not have to host any servers or computers locally on their campus to make it work. It operates entirely through their internet connection. Computing infrastructure such as memory, storage, processing, and networking are paid for by scale with the rate of consumption, instead of buying hardware outright. This is distinct from physical hosting, where customers purchase a physical service in a data center or host servers locally.

Serrano et al. describe some of the organizational advantages of a cloud-based solution: “Besides the economic advantages from a cost perspective, the main competitive advantages are the flexibility and speed the cloud architecture can add to your IT environment. In particular, this kind of architecture can provide faster deployment of and access to IT resources, and fine-grain scalability.” (Serrano et al., 2015).

At its heart, cloud computing is all about providing Information Technology resources and management at a distance. The most obvious affordances for this architecture involves the ability to off-load the management of IT onto another organization so that institutional stakeholders can focus more on managing content and learners. Instructure continuously updates the software platform, and those updates trickle down to the institutions where beta testing can be handled in their test environments, making repeated transitions to update software a much simpler process. With this infrastructure hosted and managed off-site, it also creates a scalable solution for universities. If there is a surge in new users for the platform, the model allows for easily purchasing new licenses from the vendor.

At the end of the day, if Instructure is facilitating all of the back-end infrastructure, institutions need much less overhead in the form of certified IT administrators specific to the platform. The focus can remain on funding the salaries of individuals who can focus on implementation, training, and the design and delivery of learning content.

Stakeholders, affordances of the software, and convention.

Figure 1.3

Stakeholders will default to ease-of-use and convention despite advanced features for learning included as extras.

Content Management is the Trend for Faculty and Students using Learning Management Systems

Key stakeholders typically interface with the canvas platform as part of a socio-technical system. These stakeholder categories typically also have other responsibilities as part of their job description, but often fit into the following categories in relation to the Canvas Platform:

  • The Cloud Hosting Platform: The organization hosting the software platform and its corresponding data and servers, in this example Amazon Web Services.
  • The Vendor: Instructure is the company developing the software, relevant updates, and facilitation of back-end data.
  • The Administrator(s): Institutional and/or program level administrators paying for the service and responsible for the university organization.
  • The Faculty: The instructors facilitating blended and online environments for classes as end-users for the platform.
  • The Students: The learners taking classes as end-users and participants in the platform.
  • The Technologists: The staff members supporting regular implementation of updates and training for faculty, students and staff on a technical level
  • The Learning Designers: The staff members who are helping to design and developing online courses, online course components, and online programs.

Canvas implements many of the typical functions of the LMS, and is often at the forefront of in developing and implementing new features. That being said it functions similarly to many of the other leading LMS providers in that users are primarily inclined to manage the learning process versus catalyzing learning for the individual student. There is data for this kind of use on a wider scale, albeit for how Learning Management Systems are being used generally. Having surveyed upwards of 17,000 faculty and 75,000 students as well as evaluated data and metrics related to IT practice from more than 800 institutions; the Educause Center for Analysis and Research put out a report (Dahlstrom, Brooks, & Bichsel, 2014) with the following statistics:

  • 99% of participating institutions have an LMS in place
  • 85% of participating faculty in the survey use a Learning Management System
  • 56% of faculty reported using it every day.
  • 74% of Faculty say it is a useful tool to enhance teaching.
  • 83% of surveyed students reported using the LMS
  • 56% of surveyed students said they used it in most or all of their courses.
  • 41% of surveyed Faculty said they used it to promote interaction outside the classroom.  

These numbers speak to widespread adoption rates across institutions that are using learning management systems. But adoption isn’t the same as impact, and that final statistic speaks to some important nuance in how the LMS is being used. Examining this same data set, Brown et al. speak to how these statistics showcase how the LMS is actually being used:

“Despite the high percentages of LMS adoption, relatively few instructors use its more advanced features: just 41 percent of surveyed faculty report using the LMS ‘to promote interaction outside the classroom’ …… What is clear is that the LMS has been highly successful in enabling the administration of learning but less so in enabling learning itself. Tools such as the grade book and mechanisms for distributing materials (e.g., the syllabus) are invaluable for the management of a course, but these resources contribute only indirectly, at best, to learning success.” (Brown, Dehoney, & Millichap, 2015).”

In other words, users are defaulting to the most basic functions in order to manage and facilitate standard pedagogical practice. For the users who are most in touch with the LMS on the ground, the system is being used to manage content and solicit content rather than to engage learners in a more collaborative virtual learning environment. Now these statistics are speaking to the LMS generally, and are not specific to Canvas. But they are helpful to keep in mind as a heuristic when opening up the design of a specific case like Canvas, which does contain features both built-in and available from third parties that can help facilitate better learning practices and collaborative engagement.

Affordances vs Convention

This relationship within the boundaries of a specific case, Canvas, is pertinent to this discussion because of the disparity between what is offered and what is actually used for most learning management systems. End users will act on what they see as the most useful and actionable functions based on what they are intuitively seeing as possible. Faculty will run courses that feel most natural as extensions to their teaching process, despite the online environment offering very real differences in both what is possible and what is not. Canvas offers the option to incorporate advanced features for collaboration and deeper learning, but because that involves extra steps, it is likely that a majority of users will fall on what is most natural; the content management, the pushing and absorbing of documents and multimedia as described above.

Don Norman describes this disparity in terms of affordances and perceived affordances, or the inherent action possibilities and those that are seen as possible action possibilities because of convention. Speaking to the importance of distinguishing between these two concepts, he asks the reader to “Please don’t confuse affordances with perceived affordances. Don’t confuse affordances with conventions. Affordances reflect the possible relationships among actors and objects: they are properties of the world. Conventions, conversely, are arbitrary, artificial, and learned.” (Norman, 1999).

Canvas’ built environment offers both, however, most users will stick to what is basic, built-in, and obvious. In most cases, that correlates to managing procedures and processes simply because they are the least common denominator. This emphasis ultimately makes it less conducive for experimenting with new approaches for learning, barring a concerted and combined effort to integrate these approaches pedagogically and technically.

Using Accounts to Manage Learners & Artefacts

Figure 1.4

Accounts and Subaccounts are used to manage people and permissions within the system, differentiated by roles and permissions.

Instructure offers a variety of Canvas Guides for learning how it is organized, but some of the main building blocks include accounts, sub-accounts, courses and modules. They are defined therein as follows: 

The terms account and sub-account are organizational units within Canvas. Every instance of Canvas has the potential to contain a hierarchy of accounts and sub-accounts but starts out with just one account (referred to as the top-level account). Accounts include sub-accounts, courses, and sections, all of which can be added manually in Canvas, via the API, or via SIS imports (“What is the hierarchical structure for Canvas accounts? | Canvas Admin Guide | Canvas Guides (en),” n.d.). 

Accounts and subaccounts comprise the main skeleton upon which the instance for an entire institution, program, or school is then built out from. They are separate from individual user accounts, which are the what an individual person uses to log in to the platform and participate. The top-level account is usually defined by the largest overall organization using the account, typically the university as a whole or an individual college or school that decides separately to use the LMS. Sub-accounts then account for the branching units of that organization as shown above in in Figure 1.4 and below in Figure 1.5.


Figure 1.5

Image Source: Canvas Guides 

As you continue to go down that chain, courses and modules exist as sub-units, typically housed within sub-accounts for departments, programs, or other tiers most affiliated with faculty and classes at the institution.


Figure 1.6

“Permissions” and “roles” are the designation given to individual user accounts that let them either participate in or modify accounts, sub-accounts, courses, sections, or even their own settings. Students typically have limited permissions, as their “role” as a student is limited to participation in whichever courses and sections they are a member of. Faculty and designers might have increased permissions to modify and build out the courses they are attached to, and administrators at differing levels can make more changes for the administration of upper-level sub-accounts depending on their role at the institution.

Administrators will typically have permissions to modify or add to sub-accounts depending on which tier of the organization they are managing, as differentiated by the permissions they are given. Unique schools, departments, and programs will often have unique configurations of apps and integrations associated with the courses managed by their sub-account. This enables these sub-accounts to manage the affairs of students and faculty that are unique to those subunits in the organization of the institution, in the form of courses that are designed by the what those students are learning unique to that organization, or attached to other software platforms and databases that corresponding  to that unique organization as well.

File management is an important part of the structure as well, as each of these building blocks and individual users also have a designated amount of storage space to store digital media to be associated with these building blocks as well. There are storage folders associated with students, faculty members, courses, going on up.

Abstraction layers designed for managing the complexity of the institution

So why take the time to lay out these building blocks for Canvas as an instance for the institution? By examining how these units exist in nested layers of abstraction, you begin to see how the software is build to manage the complexity of administering the learning process for the institution. Learning experiences for students only exist on the course layer and below,  

Professor Martin Irvine, a faculty member at Georgetown University describes this method for organization in terms of layering, abstraction, and/or black-boxing. BEcause learning in higher education is managed across multiple levels both horizontally and vertically, a software platform that purports to manage that process needs to be designed such that it can account for varying degrees of permission and access across those layer. For that reason,   “the details of complexity in a module or subsystem can be “hidden” (black-boxed) from the rest of the system with only”interfaces” (structures that create interconnections) to the module as needed by the system.” (Martin, 2017). From a student’s perspective, all they are seeing is their list of courses, with the relevant information being communicated to them through their view of the system.

In this manner, Canvas allows institutional leaders and stakeholders to manage student learning at the micro level on up to organizational structure for courses and departments at higher tiers of the organization. It is a structure that is very good at managing and administering that learning process. But because student learning is taking place at that course level and below, any assertion for the relative importance of management vs quality of the learning experience will need to be discussed with a deeper look at the functionality of those units in the larger structure.

Courses and Modules define where a learning experience is either managed for utility, for learning, or both.

Modules organize the flow for learners and learning experiences within a course

Figure 1.7

Image Source: Canvas Guides


Modules are what give flow and direction to an online or blended course by grouping individual pages and assignments into a cohesive unit. The folks at Instructure define these modules as the organizational unit for courses, saying that:

“Modules allow instructors to organize content to help control the flow of the course. Modules are used to organize course content by weeks, units, or a different organizational structure. Modules essentially create a one-directional linear flow of what students should do in a course. Each module can contain files, discussions, assignments, quizzes, and other learning materials” (Canvas Doc Team, 2017).

The elements contained within these modules are the pieces that determine what kind of experience students will have, and Canvas natively has some of these as standard available templates to design components for a module and course.  

Pages accommodate text, images, and video as the most direct method for delivering video. These media elements can be organized using HTML to position and format where they fit, as well as to include tags that guide screen-readers for disabled learners who cannot see the content. Discussions are basically mini message boards centered around a given topic, but where the discussion is limited to that conversation, on that board, specifically with users who are in the course and have the permissions to participate. Quizzes offer templates for assessment within the module, etc.

All of these elements are standard, and none are particularly engaging. All of them do a good job of streamlining the learning process, the grading process, and containing it into a neatly wrapped experience inside of the learning management system. The screen-reader tags even help make sure that content is accessible to users who need it. These qualities are excellent for administering a course but are not particularly inspiring for experimenting with pedagogical approaches outside of models that emphasize the delivery of content by explaining, demonstrating, then assessing through a combination of rich-media, writing prompts, and quizzes. 

But these modules do allow for flexibility experimentation for those who put in the time to design for it, especially once they begin looking outside of the LMS for additional tools. In conversations with 70 thought leaders in the LMS space, The New Media Consortium concluded that “Overall, a “Lego” approach to LMS was recommended to empower both institutions and individuals with the flexibility to create bespoke learning environments that accommodate their unique requirements and needs” (New Media Consortium, 2017).

While modules and the standard elements that can be incorporated do offer some flexibility for moving pieces around, Canvas does offer the ability to integrate third-party tools that can be incorporated into modules, courses, and even up into other building blocks such as sub-accounts. These outside “lego” pieces are where Canvas gives more options for accommodating learners, or for some institutions, reinforcing the administrative strengths of the platform.

LTI is used for interoperability, allowing administrators, designers, and faculty to integrate third-party applications unique to their sub-account or course.


Figure 1.8

Image Source: imsglobal

LTI, which stands for Learning Tools Interoperability, is a means for Learning Management Systems such as Canvas to integrate third-party tools using agreed-upon standards that allow software systems make connections with each other,  establish secure connections, and then allow for these systems to interact with the relevant corresponding digital resources and databases (whether learning objects, documents, or records for users and participants, etc.)  – similar to an API or Application Programming Interface.  

In this case, as with other similar standards, there is an organization that helps facilitate agreement on how this interoperability can take place and through what kinds of protocols. From their website: 

“Learning Tools Interoperability is a standard developed by IMS Global Learning Consortium. LTI prescribes a way to integrate rich learning applications (often remotely hosted and provided through third-party services) with platforms like learning management systems (LMS), portals, learning object repositories or other educational environments managed locally or in the cloud. In LTI, these learning applications are called Tools, delivered by Tool Providers, and the LMS or platforms are called Tool Consumers” (“Learning Tools Interoperability | IMS Global Learning Consortium,” n.d.).


Figure 1.9

Image Source: Canvas Guides


LTI enables Canvas to act as an open-source “Platform” where third-party vendors can sell or give their integrations for use with the LMS. In some cases, these integrations are standalone additions developed specifically to operate with the LMS, and in other cases, they allow for synergy between the LMS and another platform, such as Google Drive or Social Media. The app store is a tool-rich environment where software developers can create, customise, test, and deploy new applications, but the LTI format also gives institutions the option to incorporate their own customized solutions. For those institutions without the resources to build standalone integrations, they can strive to mix and match those available in the app store. 

While LTI allows for many combinations The limitation in Canvas’ ability to be interoperable with other systems lies with its’ limited utility with other standards and channels – essentially limiting pool of integrations and use-cases to apps and integrations in the canvas app store. This is what makes it difficult to completely distinguish Canvas from a “Content Management System” model, or CMS, as these systems operate off similar cloud-based models that channel users into proprietary app-stores. CMS have users, often giving you the ability to organize and deliver content as well. What would differentiate it more is the ability to incorporate additional standards that allow for increased interoperability and synergy with existing and emerging elearning formats; SCORM, Tin Can, etc.


By opening up the basic layers and building blocks of the system it becomes apparent that Canvas does its job well as a Learning Management System. It can also offer powerful and extensible options to create unique learning experiences, however, not without bucking convention and putting extra thought into design, implementation, and training.  

I’ll conclude by going back to the Horizon Report’s insights on how these adjustments might be taken into consideration for anyone seeking to implement or rethink their approach to Canvas as a Learning Environment, and not just as a Management System:

“The overarching goal of next-generation LMS is to shift the focus of these platforms from enabling administrative tasks to deepening the act of learning. Traditional LMS functions are still a part of the ecosystem, but reimagined incarnations deviate from the one-size-fits-all approach to accommodate the specific needs of all faculty and students.” (New Media Consortium // Educause Learning Initiative, 2017).

Canvas is a streamlined “one-size-fits-all” platform, however, it achieves that in large part by enclosing its users within the platform. Institutional stakeholders are in a position to enhance the learning experience by consciously taking that aspect of the platform into account when seeking out integrations and training stakeholders such as Faculty and Designers who can “open up” increased options for deeper learning.



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