First Phase of Transition to Canvas Exceeds Expectations

Author: Laura Cira

Nd Studios Blog Post 2

On the surface the transition from one learning management system (LMS) to another might not seem a headline-grabbing project. However, the reality is that an LMS is the basis for content delivery, communication and documenting student learning for many classes at Notre Dame. Instructors use it for posting readings, assessing student work, and securely displaying grades and feedback. So when the decision was made to replace Sakai with Canvas as the next learning management system, the Teaching and Learning Technologies (TLT) team knew the scope of this project was more than just moving course content.


A Faculty-Driven Decision

As Associate Provost and Chief Academic Digital Officer, Elliot Visconsi’s focus is on providing a solid learning platform that could support pedagogically solid course design with ease of use. In a letter to faculty dated October 14th, 2020, Visconsi wrote, “The next LMS should amplify student learning, increase efficiency, and work seamlessly with the wide range of teaching and learning tools now available.” 


In January 2021, a faculty committee was assembled to drive the pilot of two systems. The successor platform was to be chosen by May 2021. Led by David Campbell (Packey Dee Professor & Chair of the Department of Political Science) and Michele Whaley (Teaching Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences), pilot faculty volunteered to use the candidate LMS platforms in 40 classes involving approximately 2000 students, meeting frequently to compare results. After a spring term trial with live classes, the faculty committee overwhelmingly chose Canvas to replace Sakai. 


Campus Collaborations

Switching learning management systems is no small feat. For a system such as an LMS, which handles student content and records, the project requires collaboration across campus, including faculty, project and communication management experts, OIT technology teams, academic departments, the Registrar, and support from the Provost’s Office. These groups worked together to configure and test the new platform.


Professional development was also needed to help faculty learn to use the new platform and/or adjust from their previous experience using Sakai.  Presentations and workshops were created in collaboration with Notre Dame Learning. Online resources were written and curated to provide additional resources, and were provided to the university’s Help Desk to help them provide support. Consultations with faculty were conducted, and visits to departments helped to foster relationships and provide assurance of the support that was available. Feedback surveys were also launched to gather feedback to improve upon processes, and guide the creation of new professional development opportunities for anyone teaching on Canvas.


Surpassing the Goal

To prepare for Canvas’s premier in Fall of 2021, the LMS Transition team spent the summer moving content and coaching roughly 10% of the fall’s teaching faculty in their switch. But requests to move to Canvas pushed the initial user group to over 30% of the teaching faculty, representing 732 courses, that first semester. 


By the first day of classes in August, enthusiastic faculty were set up, trained and ready to teach with their new platform.  Steven Varela, director of the Teaching and Learning Technology team, stated that “The amount of preparation, research, testing, and moving content over was a heavy lift, but the team was ready. They worked all summer to get things in place so that faculty and students returned in the Fall to a system that was ready to go.” Varela added, “The project team is to be commended not only for their expertise and successful migration process, but also for their collegiality. The team is quick to support one another and bring humor and positivity to every interaction.”

Looking Toward Spring 2022

Student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and affirmed that the selection made was the correct one. Some students found it easy to use: “Canvas is much more intuitive than Sakai, and my instructors have used many of the tools to teach more effectively.”  Others commented on the benefits of using a learning management system like Canvas making academic life easier on them: “I have one class that has five different ways of distributing information, so having a class be completely in one place is amazing.”


There is still more to accomplish as the team continues to move more classes onto the Canvas platform, as well as integrating additional tools and functionality, but Canvas has already shown many new possibilities for teaching and learning at Notre Dame by offering an intuitive, accessible platform. The transition from Sakai is scheduled to be completed by Summer 2022.