Blackboard, Canvas, and Moodle are the learning management systems (LMS) of choice for many of the colleges and universities offering online classes. If your institution is thinking of offering online classes or upgrading its LMS, chances are, you’re looking at one of these three systems.
Have you ever wondered how these systems compare? Which one works better for the students? Which one works better for the faculty? Is there an overall best choice, or does the answer depend on the unique characteristics of your program?
I recently had the opportunity to simultaneously teach three different online classes for three different colleges using Blackboard, Canvas, and Moodle. What appears in this blog is my analysis of the usability of each of these systems.
Some background. I taught classes at each of these colleges as an adjunct, so I’m taking an adjunct’s perspective on the usability of the system. I’m not concerned with the cost of the LMS or the ease or difficulty of maintaining the system from the IT or administrative perspective. I want to know how usable it for the professor.
My experience with each of the LMS before this semester varied. I’m extremely familiar with Moodle, having used if for a number of years teaching at some colleges, and actually having installed and built classes with Moodle for some commercial applications.
For those not familiar with Moodle, it’s a rather robust open source LMS. You can download it to a directory on your own website if you want to offer classes commercially (which I have done for my own classes and for clients), or for you can get access through a service bureau who will handle the servers and maintenance (which is the model many providers use).
I’ve also used Canvas for a number of years. Canvas is also an open source LMS created and administered by Instructure. Canvas is available both via the cloud and as a local installation on an institution’s servers.
I began using Blackboard in earnest for about 6 months ago. The Blackboard LMS is a product on the privately held Blackboard, Inc. company. Blackboard is similar to Canvas in that it’s available via the cloud or installed on an institution’s servers.
Blackboard, Canvas, and Moodle all compete in the LMS for higher education market, and collectively command much of the market.
So how usable is each of these systems?
This is a question I’ll focus on answering in this series of blogs.
Part 1 Course Content
I’ll start off this first blog talking about course content.
The standard structure for almost any course is that it’s divided into a series of modules or other forms of discrete units. For a college class, the modules might be the content and activities for a given week. For a certification or continuing education class, each module might include the content and assessments for a given subject area.
I was teaching these classes as an adjunct. One common characteristic of adjuncts is that they tend to be busy. They’re either teaching multiple classes, teaching while holding a day job, or teaching while running a consulting or coaching practice. They’re really no different than students. They need to be able to see the modules in the course at a glance, and see what’s in those modules with a second glance.
I created two of the three classes that I was teaching, so I was familiar with the details of those classes. The third class had standardized content created by others, so I had to become familiar with the structure and content in order to stay ahead of the students. Figuring out the details is not always the easiest thing to do with these LMS.
Each of the classes I taught was structured as a series of discrete modules. In each case, the first ‘module’ contained a course introduction, an introductory video, and some introductory forums. The next module had the week 1 content and activities, followed by week 2, and so forth.
The difference between each of these systems lies in how these modules are presented. Both Canvas and Moodle display the modules in a linear fashion on a single page (typically the home page for the course). To see the next module, the user simply uses the slide bar to scroll down the page.
In contrast, Blackboard has a Weekly Activities tab. You click on the Weekly Activities tab, are shown a list of the available modules, and then click on the weekly module you want to view. If you want to then view the next module, its back a page and then another click onto the next module. I personally found this feature very annoying. It made it hard to move from week to week (particularly when I was learning the class and trying to assure consistency from week to week). Blackboard’s at a glance functionality took too many mouse clicks in comparison to Canvas and Moodle.
Both Canvas and Moodle excel at presenting the course to the professor and to the students. Classes are a little harder to figure out in Blackboard.
Score: 2 points Canvas and Moodle, 1 point Blackboard
In an online class in an academic environment, it’s important to keep the students progressing through the class as a cohort, rather than having some breeze through the course while others lag. In order for the discussion forums to work, everybody needs to participate at the same time. As the instructor, if I’m going to post additional or clarifying content, I need to be able to post the content one step ahead of the students.
Both Blackboard and Canvas allow the professor to restrict access to a module until a given date, bringing the faster students back to the cohort and allowing an instructor the opportunity to craft needed content as the course progress. For instance, in my Canvas class, the module ran from Monday until Sunday, and I restricted access to next week’s module until the Friday before it started.
Within Blackboard and Canvas, you can also set the system to restrict access to specific pieces of content until a certain date. I used this feature to set up Canvas to post solutions to the exercises in a finance class the morning after the assignment deadline submission.
Trying to restrict access in Moodle is more complicated. Moodle does allow you to manually click a button to hide a module, or edit an individual piece of content and change the view settings from hide to show. This works, but its manual. If you want next week’s module to appear on Friday morning or the exercise solutions to appear on Sunday evening, you have to go in and change the settings. The system is not going to do it for you.
Both Blackboard and Canvas excel at giving the professor ability to automatically the stage the content. Moodle’s staging process is manual and not as robust as the other two.
Score: 2 points Canvas and Blackboard, 1 point Moodle.
One of the things I like to add to the set up of the modules in my online classes are topic headings.
A typical module might include some content (readings, lectures, videos, etc.), discussion forums, exercises and assignments, and perhaps a “questions for the professor” thread.
The trick is setting up a class is include some topic headings and line spacing to clearly define the content of each area to the user.
Both Canvas and Moodle allow for the inclusion a topic heading into a weekly module. Moodle calls these ‘labels,’ while Canvas calls them ‘text headers.’ Blackboard, however, is a different story.
When I initially received the Blackboard course, I thought the display of the content was a bit choppy. Sometimes assignments came before the discussion boards, sometimes after, often with video content mixed in the middle. When I set out to straighten out the presentation details, and logically group the content, I discovered there is no ‘add a header’ feature in Blackboard. Instead, I improvised and created ‘module pages’ with big, bold text and dragged them to the necessary positions on the page.
Adding a text line should be no-brainer in an LMS, yet this feature is lacking in Blackboard.
Score: 2 points Canvas and Moodle, 0 points Blackboard.
The one drawback I found in managing topic headings and content in all three LMS is that there is no global add function. If you want to add a “Weekly Reading” header or “Questions for the Professor” forum to each module in a 15 week class, it must be added or copied and pasted 15 times. There is no function that says add this to all the modules.
One of my recommendations is to try to create the same look and feel in all the classes a program so students don’t have to learn a new structure with each class. If you’re trying to create this look and feel, chances are your instructors and course design staff are going to spend a fair amount of time with the cosmetics of the course set up. The capability to add an item to all modules would be great time saver.
Score: No points for Canvas, Blackboard, or Moodle.
Results for Course Content: 6 points for Canvas, 5 points for Moodle; and 4 points for Blackboard.