What WordPress Jetpack can Teach Instructure Canvas

Instructure Canvas is the new hotness in the LMS market, but for many it remains out of reach. For many schools who need an LMS on a shoestring budget, their best option is to contract for an open source Moodle install from a 3rd party hosting company. This is a common service available from many hosting vendors, so the prices are rock-bottom since there are no licensing fees, high competition, and minimal costs to maintain such a solution.

For this same reason, the WordPress.org open source content management system is the most popular blogging platform in the world, powering 25% OF THE WHOLE INTERNET (!!!), mostly powered by independent hosting companies — the same ones that will power your Moodle instance.

Five years ago, WordPress’ parent company Automattic (which also hosts the free WordPress.com blogging platform) introduced a tool called Jetpack. Jetpack is a plugin for all those open source instances of WordPress that were out there, powering people’s websites, and not contributing any revenue or data back to the company that developed it. In exchange for access to the richer set of features available to WordPress.com users (like enhanced analytics, spam protection, site optimization, image hosting, and LOTS MORE), the open source users contribute valuable usage data back to Automattic, and have the option to purchase other value-added services. It’s a classic win/win — the company gets to harvest data, generate revenue, improve user experience, and understand their user base better while users get a premium experience for free. As a result, the free open source WordPress.org experience is competitive with the premium paid (or ad-supported) WordPress.com experience, and clearly superior to the experience provided by competitors like Squarespace, Wix, and Weebly.

How Instructure Could Revolutionize Self-Hosted Canvas

I’m working on a project now where we wanted to use Instructure Canvas, but our budget is squarely in “self-hosted Moodle” territory. I would’ve preferred to work with Instructure but the budget for this project wouldn’t allow it. We found an independent hosting company that offers open source Canvas hosting. That is, we’re using the same Canvas software that people can get from Instructure, but it’s hosted on this other company’s servers, with their people powering it. Sounds great, right? There are drawbacks….

I’ve learned that the Canvas iOS and Android apps do not work with 3rd party installs of Canvas — this is one of a small set of features that you can only get when you contract Canvas directly from Instructure. Without it, the mobile Canvas experience is OK (not terrible) but the apps really add a significant level of convenience to mobile learning. I’m sure many people running their own instance of Canvas would be open to purchasing a license just for the mobile apps, if only that was allowed.

Instructure has the opportunity to connect with the institutions who choose to run their own Canvas installs rather than contracting service from Instructure directly. By following the Jetpack model, they could bring more institutions under the company’s tent, offering value added services and improving user experience while growing the user base and stabilizing the brand. Though right now few schools run Canvas themselves, a Jetpack-style approach may make it easier and more appealing for schools to get the full experience while minimizing costs.

It remains to be seen if Instructure sees strategic benefit in supporting open installs of Canvas, or if they prefer to have as many customers on the Instructure platform as possible. The original move to open source the codebase was seen as a defensive move against Blackboard acquisition, and not necessarily to encourage open installs. If they chose to support a more distributed model, the Jetpack approach would help connect them all to the mothership.

From a Friend at Instructure

The Canvas Community Version is the same core code base as the Cloud version with a few exceptions. Instructure provides additional capabilities on the Cloud, for example…

• Multi-tenancy extensions• Mobile integration • Proprietary SIS integrations • Migration tools for commercial LMSs • Other minor customizations that only apply to our hosted environment • Chat Tool • Attendance Tool (Roll Call)

Additionally, Big Blue Button should not work in the open source version, but there’s a bug in Canvas right now that makes it work (4/1/15).” —

Full disclosure: I am a shareholder of Instructure. I bought stock in the company after having worked on Canvas for years and grown confident in the platform and the people behind it.

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One Comment

  1. Russ

    Great article, Ted. Canvas has some real opportunities if it acts as a visionary, as you say. In particular, offering mobile access to self-hosted Canvas students would be a tremendous opportunity.

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