InstructureCon 2019: A study in contrasts

This year’s InstructureCon LMS users conference was a difficult one to cover, largely due to contrasting messages that I heard – whether from interviews with company executives before the conference or from staff presentations during, whether from large established clients or from smaller or newer clients. On one hand, I was surprised the extent to which I heard about a company on edge, not understanding or knowing how to deal with recent pushback from clients and analysts. On the other hand, I heard from clients who were very happy (if not giddy) about being on Canvas and enjoying the community. 1

Overlaying these contrasting views was the presence of investor pressure on the company, best exemplified by activist Praesidium Investment Management, whose public thesis is that Instructure stock would be more valuable if they shed their corporate learning business built around the Bridge LMS and instead focus on their strength in academic markets built around the Canvas LMS.

A lot has changed since last year’s InstructureCon. Dan Goldsmith replaced Josh Coates as CEO, with a mostly new executive team surrounding him (some of these changes pre-dated Goldsmith’s appointment). Canvas overtook Blackboard last summer as the top academic LMS in North America both in terms of institutional adoptions and number of student users, while remaining the fastest growing in much of the rest of the world – they are now more of a market leader than a scrappy upstart. Instructure outgrew the Keystone conference facilities and had to move to a traditional conference center for the first time, and they also moved the Bridge portion of the conference to a separate event in June. There had to be differences in the tone of the conference. The issue is discerning which changes and contrasting messages matter in terms of future company performance.

Product “News”

I put news in scare quotes as Instructure went out of their way to minimize expectations on product announcements and even on roadmap. The company went so far as to cram the main product keynote into the same slot shared by one of the external speakers, leading to a rushed but useful discussion and demo from SVP of Product Mitch Benson and colleagues. I personally could have used more information and less inspiration.

Benson described a redesigned Rich Content Editor (RCE) that includes drag-and-drop capabilities and more intuitive menu items, and they also shared more of their platform vision, emphasizing the importance of MasterConnect and Portfolium acquisitions. The long-delayed Quizzes.Next was briefly mentioned, with the current roadmap targeting full production (ready to become the default quizzing engine and replace the original tool) sometime next year as shown in the Canvas Community page.

As I have described before, Quizzes.Next is late. After being announced in summer 2016 with promises to be “made available to you over the course of the next several months”. It is now two years later, and the chart above shows, the product won’t be fully ready until 2020.

This update captures some of the contrasting messages. Besides executives being on edge, there is also some confusing messaging around Quizzes.Next. When I asked during interviews about this tool’s progress, I got a concerning answer talking about Instructure not ever promising to offer feature parity with the previous quizzing engine. Whatever the case of previous promises, I know that there are a minimum set of features that Instructure must deliver for true replacement of the old quizzing tool. Informal conversations with clients at lunch and outside of sessions seemed to confirm that this replacement is indeed in the future and not here today.

On the positive side, however, I think the current chart and roadmap appear to be realistic, and what seems to be most important about Quizzes.Next is not at the feature level. The bigger news is the re-architecture into a more scalable and more accessible toolset – mostly happening behind the scenes. Instructure is investing in Canvas, and much of that investment is along these lines of modernizing and making systems more accessible, supporting assistive technologies through out.

Below are some of the key product updates to Canvas coming out this year.

Data, Data, Data

The most significant product news continues to be the evolving description of their Data, Analytics and “Dig” plans (scare quotes here and below as Instructure folks keep saying the name will change but no replacement name has been shared yet).

Data, Analytics and "Dig" header

Instructure started re-investing in data & analytics work over two years ago after initial phase of work in the 2013 – 15 time frame. The primary result from the earlier efforts was Canvas Data – the ability for schools to access data from the LMS and do their own data analysis work – along with several visualizations that were lightly used by faculty. During this year’s InstructureCon there were several schools (e.g. UC Berkeley, Stanford, and Seminole State College) presenting their own analysis tools and results – mostly basic analysis of grades and participation measured by discussion posts, assignments, and page views. While these stories largely were not sexy or truly innovative, per se, it is interesting to see real schools consuming data and figuring out how to improve their student success initiatives.

The biggest product showing for the whole conference was the new Analytics tool in Beta (schedule for full release by the end of the year).

View of Canvas Analytics in beta, showing faculty view of a course with drill down into one assignment.

The focus of this tool is to improve faculty visibility of student performance within courses, with ability to compare results (e.g. section to section, or even section to student) or to drill down into specific assignments or students, as shown in this video.

Beyond the Analytics tool, “Dig” is touted as a set of AI and machine-learning tools (or products to be sold separate? the details are not clear) with the goals of:

  • Help faculty and staff gain deeper insights into student success

  • Help institutions support best practices in usage and course design

  • Help students stay focused and succeed

The only tangible example of Dig mentioned at the conference was a nudge system to be released later this year where the machine learning is to build a profile of each student using their historical course data – not just the current course. The idea is to better understand individual student habits to let the system know whether, when, and how to send a nudge about a late / missing assignment or poor course performance. I’ll have more to share on this subject in a separate post.


The reason that the issue of contrasting messages matters is that it takes thick skin to stick to a strategy while also understanding pushback coming from analysts or customers. I have talked to several schools who are frustrated that it does not appear that Instructure executives fully hear what they are saying about delayed or missing functionality, or are concerned about company direction in data & analytics or consistent customer service. And when I or Jeanette asked questions in interviews, we got some answers that were almost dismissive of the unique challenges around educational data usage, or sounded like mischaracterizations of customer sentiment. That matters, especially in a company like Instructure, as I described two years ago:

While Canvas is a market-changing platform, that is not really Instructure’s primary strength. Instructure as a company is the real strength.

But Instructure’s competitors should not pop the champagne yet. Even for the frustrated clients, I am not aware of any who are thinking about leaving Canvas, and the company’s win rate for new LMS implementations has not dropped. The current re-architecture of Canvas to improve scalability and embed accessibility support throughout is making Canvas a better platform. And I heard many examples backing up Goldsmith’s claims that investment in the Canvas product is increasing.

There’s a lot to watch here. Instructure is the market leader in the academic LMS space and continues to perform well. It will take some time to see if the contrasting messages I heard will adversely impact the company’s future or if their company culture will continue to prove their biggest advantage.

Disclosure: Instructure is a subscriber to our LMS Market Analysis service.

1 Disclosure: Instructure is a subscriber to our LMS Market Analysis service.