As with media, in edtech it's better to be a platform than a publication

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on October 16, 2013

From The News Desk

The company behind the Canvas learning management system and the widely covered "Walking Dead" MOOC class, Instructure, is moving into money giving. The company announced that it's offering $100,000 in potential grants to educators with ideas for edtech applications. Five $10,000 grants will go to projects for higher ed, and ten $5,000 grants to projects targeting K-12.

Why does this matter? Canvas' move is an attempt to push itself into the platform space. But while it's a learning management system where students can handle their assignments and professors can provide course materials, Canvas doesn't see itself as a learning management system.

"The term LMS is pretty outdated," says Instructure co-founder Brian Whitmer. "It's not about management, it's about the education experience. Getting rid of the management part has made sense for a long time."

Instead, the company sees itself as a platform, a network for individuals, content, and information. "Canvas is not going to solve the world's problems, but it's going to be an enabler, a connecter, the glue that brings educational experiences together," Whitmer says.

As we've covered, media companies that are platforms for others to provide content -- like Reddit -- make more money than companies that are publications and create their own content. The latest wave of media companies, like Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and Medium, are precariously straddling the middle ground, trying to make the money of a platform with the prestige of a publication.

It looks like platformization can benefit edtech companies too. If Canvas positions itself as the place where educators can use a variety of programs, like Adobe and Web Ex, then it becomes the hub without needing to invest money in developing its own versions of these offerings. That certainly makes it easier to scale the features of the company and the potential audience to use it.

But in order for Canvas be a platform, it needs two things: other applications built on top of it and educators to see it as a platform. Thus, it is giving out Canvas Grants to encourage educators to dream up potential applications. Canvas doesn't pick the winners: the judges selecting projects come from backgrounds ranging from Learn Capital investment firm to the Inside Higher Ed publication.

Applicants can dream up a wide variety of projects from tools to techniques to content, but Instructure co-founder Brian Whitmer hopes to see some applications that use Canvas as a resource for gathering learning data. After all, it has plenty of information coming into it, like students' activity, performance, and engagement. So why not provide outputs too?

For example, if a student frequently posts to discussion boards are they more likely to succeed in the class? The analysis of data can give teachers an understanding of the trends that matter. Instructure wants applications to mine the data coming through Canvas, analyze it, and provide that feedback.

In the same vein, the company needs educators to think of Canvas as more than just an LMS: it's a system that allows them to extra data and information about their students. "This is a learning platform. How do we make sure people understand that?" Whitmer says. "We need to make sure there's solutions developed on top of Canvas."

The company wants outside developers to start working with Canvas, much like iPhone app developers work with iOS to build useful functions for users. "It's been obvious to us for more than a year now that we alone can only do so much," says Whitmer.

Furthermore, educators often get shut out from edtech developments because they're busy being educators -- no time to go start companies. So the Canvas Grants invite experts to explore ideas they want to see built. "It's to get the ball rolling," Whitmer says. "We're expecting we'll get teachers who say 'I've had this bee in my bonnet for three years,' and maybe this grant will tip the scales and give them the resources to go find the answers to how their students are learning, how they can streamline the learning process."

Instructure is targeting educators as recipients although anyone can apply. "The goal of the grant is to help educators innovate inside the industry," Whitmer says. "The people on the ground trying to improve education are going to have an idea of the right questions to ask and the right problems to solve."

Applicants don't have to come up with applications only for Canvas. They could pitch other types of programs too. "We're leaving it open intentionally to let innovation happens where it needs to," Whitmer says.

It's a smart move. Instructure is investing back, with the hope that whatever advances the progression of edtech will benefit Canvas, even indirectly. It's similar to the moves of bigger edtech corporations like Kaplan, which are running accelerators to encourage and fund edtech innovation. Companies are helping other companies, trying to build a sustainable ecosystem for all to thrive.

"We want to provide a grant to allow this research to happen," Whitmer says. "To help them develop those skills or make the connections they need to take it to the next level."

[Image courtesy: Hallie Bateman]