Canvas may replace Blackboard as Pitt’s learning management system


CourseWeb, Pitt’s learning management system using Blackboard software, may switch to different software as early as April, although full implementation of any change could take two years.

The potential replacement of Blackboard with Canvas — the current top prospect — or another commercially available system was debated at the University Senate’s Computing and Information Technology Committee’s Jan. 18 meeting.

While Blackboard may still be retained, faculty should expect a transition no matter the decision, cautioned committee chair Michael B. Spring, former University Senate president and faculty member in the School of Computing and Information: “The newest release of Blackboard is going to be so different that faculty are going to have to learn it again. That will take some of the sting out of that transition” to Canvas or another replacement, should one be chosen.

Members asked for more data to allow them to weigh in on the eventual choice, and for more faculty input on the decision.

Jinx Walton, chief information officer, assured that there has been faculty involvement to date, as well as that of students, in 11 focus groups studying the issue on multiple campuses.

“Canvas seemed to be top-rated (among these groups),” she said. “It has more functionality. It is easier to use (than Blackboard).” Although multiple factors, including cost, still need to be studied, she added. “We have a number of units, they’ve looked at products themselves, they’re coming to the provost and saying, ‘Can I use Canvas in my school?’ ”

“Blackboard has caused agony to faculty since its inception,” Spring said. And Canvas is more often used by Pitt’s peer institutions, he pointed out.

Walton said implementation of any new software would take only a few months, but that faculty training would require the two-year transition period.

“Blackboard has never been a smooth transition as they upgrade,” she said. “We’ve tried to hang back a semester (each time a new version is released) and watch our fellow schools implode.”

Canvas “is a real improvement,” she said.

Committee members queried Walton about the migration plan for moving existing courses to another learning management system and suggested piloting selected courses, perhaps for a whole semester, to get faculty and student reaction to its use. Faculty adoption of any new system — their knowledge of its inner workings and use of its full capabilities — is crucial for its success, one absent committee member wrote in an email read by Spring.

Committee member Alex Labrinidis, School of Computing and Information faculty member, objected to requiring faculty to take training.

“That was the reason I did not want to use Blackboard (when it was first introduced). I am designing systems like that myself,” he said. “Should there be some training? Absolutely. Should it be required? That’s where I put my foot down.”

Recognizing that the committee has several faculty members from the School of Computing and Information, who may see different issues with learning management systems than most faculty, Spring suggested the University should look at what capabilities different types of faculty members need in their course software:

“If biology, psychology, English don’t see a benefit in it, we’re in trouble” as an institution aiming to replace the software that runs Pitt courses, he said.

“We recognize the pressure to move to a new system,” he concluded, and requested that Walton’s office arrange a briefing on the issue for the next committee meeting. “We don’t yet see the data that lets us make … an endorsement of the system.”

Marty Levine is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.