2017 in Review: Learning Management Systems (LMS)

By Henry Kronk
December 27, 2017

With other subjects, eLearningInside News has sought to recap 2017 with articles that compile various stories reported throughout the year. With K-12 and higher ed learning management systems (LMS), however, there is just one story: Blackboard is on the way out while Canvas by Instructure is taking its place. The third most popular LMS, Moodle, is an outlier among the crowd as it is a free, open-source technology which schools can adopt (and set up the hosting situation) on their own.


A vast majority of educators and administrators involved in K-20 education have heard the name Blackboard. It is one of the few holdovers from the EdTech boom that preceded the dotcom bubble of the ‘90s. Beginning as a server-based platform in 1997, they survived the crash and, when the dust cleared, few other competitors posed a direct challenge to their market share. Throughout the aughts, they grew larger and more powerful. When any company sought to compete with them, they characteristically bought them out, sought a partnership deal, or drove them out of business by aggressively snapping up patents (many of which were later revoked). By 2012, Blackboard was well on the way to creating a K-20 LMS monopoly.

Enter Canvas

But in the year that has proven so fateful for online education (see MOOCs), a company called Instructure launched Canvas, an open-source LMS that sought to fundamentally disrupt the market. The big initial difference between Canvas and Blackboard lay in how the hosted their systems. Blackboard had traditionally used either a school’s existing servers or their own. Canvas, however, has been cloud-based from the start. Cloud computing and storage was, after all, relatively new at its inception.

lms“At Instructure, we’ve adopted a simple model. We own the technology – but we have open-sourced it,” Instructure CEO Josh Coates wrote in a blog post. “This is managed by maintaining and developing one source code tree, but offering two licenses. The open source license is out there for the world to audit, use and augment, but the commercial license is what we sell and support. With the commercial license, we are able to migrate your courses, we integrate with your SIS and we advance your institution into the 21st century of learning management technology. The commercial license is the basis for the Canvas Cloud solution as well, which is the easiest, most scalable way to utilize our technology.”

“This dual-licensing model allows us to make a serious commitment to openness, but at the same time have a stable and profitable business to support real change in the industry. Ask yourself – would you rather have a closed system owned by a commercial entity, or an open system not owned by anyone? It’s not an obvious choice – both approaches have their positives and negatives. So, to us, it make sense to take the best of both worlds.”

While Blackboard soon followed, it could not offer the same user-friendly and intuitive design. It also seems that it could not compete with Canvas’ aggressive rates, its cutthroat sales team, and its daring business model. Since it went public in 2015, the company has yet to report a net profit. “As an unknown start-up going up against well-established incumbents, it was critical in the early days that Instructure invest a lot of money in sales and marketing in order to tell our story and create brand awareness,” said Jared Stein, vice president of Canvas higher education product and strategy. “That’s less important for us in the U.S. market today, but still very important internationally.”

Blackboard, meanwhile, from 2012 to today, has been put up for sale multiple times.

Canvas and Blackboard in 2017

Throughout the year, Canvas has scored numerous clients, like the Utah Education and Telehealth Network, many universities, and the entire (K-20) public education system of Wyoming.

These acquisitions did not come out of the blue. Instructors have begun to realize in earnest the possibilities that Canvas affords them. Take, for example, the LMS’s video streaming platform, Arc. It greatly expands the possibilities of distance learning and teaching by allowing students and instructors to infuse their experience with recorded video.

This summer, furthermore, Instructure announced another huge development: Guage, or software that allows teachers to track student performance. Many applications like this existed previously, but they only reported student progress to administrators, who did not necessarily share the findings with teachers.

The wind is clearly still blowing in one direction.

Honorable Mentions

Truth be told, this is not the only story of 2017. Moodle—which operates with a strict non-profit ideology, provides their technology free and open-source, but does not have the same hosting options—found an investor who shares their views and does not expect any kind of ROI in a traditional sense.

Schoology, another LMS startup, also made important gains throughout the year.

But these are outliers. By and large, the LMS market continues to be dominated by a glacial clash between Blackboard and Canvas.