On A Continuous-Learning Mission

A top edtech company’s CEO offers insight into where education may be headed.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

The pandemic transformed the way schools use technology. Recently, Instructure, the makers of Canvas, sat down with EdTech Digest to discuss this transformation, the current state of education and technology’s role, and what’s ahead. As the 1,200+ person company has been at the heart of helping schools adapt their way of teaching with remote learning, CEO Steve Daly offers up his perspective in moving this leading edtech company—and education— forward.

Steve has spent his 25-year technology career building businesses organically—and has seen companies through 20+ acquisitions along the way. Before joining Instructure, Steve was the CEO of LANDESK/Ivanti for 13 years. Prior to that, he was the SVP of corporate strategy at Avocent after they acquired his startup, Soronti. Steve also spent 10 years directing marketing for Intel. He has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and an MBA in strategy and finance from Brigham Young University.

Read on as Steve helps us learn more about how the company helped educators navigate the pandemic, technology’s role in education especially in current times; the company’s strategic approach to acquisitions and growth, new data around COVID’s impact on schools—and what’s just ahead for education.

How, generally and specifically, has your company helped schools navigate the pandemic?

Instructure has been a trusted partner to thousands of districts and schools for over a decade, and in fact today we support 30 million teachers and learners worldwide. So when COVID hit, we were basically at ground zero in the effort to keep students learning.

Most people know us for Canvas LMS, which is the market-share leader in higher ed and in paid K-12. Canvas is used by thousands of universities and colleges, from all of the Ivy Leagues to more than 100 California Community Colleges. We’re used by districts in 50 states, including 13 statewide systems with another 7 state-level deals in areas like professional development.

To give you a sense of the impact, in those early days of the pandemic our volume of concurrent usage (users accessing Canvas at the same time) spiked from 2.2 million in spring of 2020 to nearly 6 million in fall of 2020. It was all hands on deck, and I’m pleased to say that even during that heightened demand we were able to provide our customers 99.9% uptime. 

‘It was all hands on deck, and I’m pleased to say that even during that heightened demand we were able to provide our customers 99.9% uptime.’ 

Like all education organizations, the past 18 months have been a time of unprecedented demand, change and rising to meet new and unexpected challenges. One area that I care deeply about, and I think as a company Instructure excels in, is listening closely to our customers and iterating based on their needs. We learned a ton, and that includes the actual customer service we provide but also the types of tools and functionality we offer.

For example, based on direct feedback, we built and recently launched new Canvas for Elementary, a setting to support our littlest learners and more closely mirror their classroom experience. It includes many new features like a homeroom dashboard and more pre and early-literacy, visual cues.

On the higher ed side, we just completed a redesign of our Discussions feature to improve student engagement when our college and universities needed it most.

So while we certainly hope we‘re not in the situation where schools are forced to shut down again, we know they hope to maintain that flexibility, deep integration and generally just modernization of approach to instruction and classroom management. 

What is technology’s role in education?

Technology has many roles in education obviously, but the pandemic created unparalleled demand for solutions that help educators spend more time engaging students and improving outcomes.

Our mission is to elevate student success, amplify the power of teachers everywhere, and inspire everyone to learn together. We want to connect students and teachers to meet the needs of every student, to put learning experiences front and center (not tech), and to ensure every student has equitable access to curriculum—whether in the classroom, at home, or in a hybrid environment.

Our role is to facilitate those essential learning needs between teachers, students, and parents, to enable connection, and to facilitate teams working collaboratively. 

I think as an industry, we’ve doubled down and made great strides in the face of tremendous challenges. As you know, the digital transformation for higher ed was already pretty far along when COVID hit, but K-12 was moving at a less accelerated pace.

‘I think as an industry, we’ve doubled down and made great strides in the face of tremendous challenges.’

You can imagine that you had all of these fantastic career educators with 20 years of lesson plans in a four-drawer filing cabinet, who had to turn to remote learning on a dime. That transition was steep for many, and so the pandemic accelerated a lot of momentum that was slowly building around transitioning to using a learning management system either for the first time, or more consistently. 

Technology automates a lot of the manual tasks that are necessary but distracting to teachers and allow them to do what they do best – teach, mentor and inspire learners.

You continue to acquire other education companies. In light of these moves, tell us more about your products and general approach.

Even though we’re most widely known for Canvas, as you mentioned, over the past couple years we’ve added a number of solutions and new technologies to our arsenal. Today we’re focused on building out the Instructure Learning Platform. What that means is creating an open, reliable, and extensible learning ecosystem that enables a digital learning environment for educators, students, and institutions. ​​We want the Instructure Learning Platform to deliver all the elements that leaders, teachers, and learners need – from a next-generation Learning Management System, robust assessments for learning, actionable analytics, to engaging, dynamic content. 

Canvas LMS for example, is the heart of the learning management pillar of the platform. Canvas helps you create a custom, fully SaaS learning environment to provide equitable access to all stakeholders—streamlining classroom interaction, building digital literacy and fostering strong relationships between teachers and students. It also includes popular solutions like Canvas Studio, which makes video learning more engaging and interactive, and Canvas Catalog, which streamlines and modernizes course registration and enrollment. 

Assessment is emerging as a critical area for K-12, as the pandemic has really catalyzed a long-coming movement towards more innovative assessment approaches.

‘Assessment is emerging as a critical area for K-12, as the pandemic has really catalyzed a long-coming movement towards more innovative assessment approaches.’

MasteryConnect is our assessment management system used in districts nationwide and is the core of our assessment pillar. MasteryConnect came to us through an acquisition in 2019. Last December we announced that we were acquiring Certica, which also expanded our assessment offerings with standards-based assessments and item banks. Earlier this year we developed and launched our own collections of formative assessments, MasteryView Assessments. These are short, expertly-created formatives that clearly and efficiently reveal students’ mastery of key learning standards.

Analytics is another pillar of the platform, and also increasingly important. As part of the Certica deal we also acquired Videri, a powerful analytics solution for K12 that integrates district data from multiple sources into one place, making the data more actionable in the moment. 

A couple recent additions in 2021 are the acquisitions of EesySoft and Kimono. In July, we announced our acquisition and rebranding of EesySoft as “Impact by Instructure.” Impact is designed to help schools maximize edtech tool adoption and ensure students and teachers are taking advantage of all their functionality, including any third-party tools. This month we acquired Kimono, a solution built specifically for education that enables secure sharing of student, staff, and learning data across applications within a school environment. We’ll be rebranding Kimono as Elevate Data Sync. 

You have new data around COVID’s impact on schools. What are the key takeaways?

When you look at K-12 and higher education, we notice some similarities but also some differences based on the communities. 

We released our K-12 report at the end of June and a couple things really stuck out. To start, hybrid learning is here to stay even as students return to the classroom. 81% of educators believe that technology will become increasingly important in teaching and learning moving forward, specifically around organizing instruction, engagement and communication.

‘81% of educators believe that technology will become increasingly important in teaching and learning moving forward…’

Second, equitable access remains a critical issue. Funding for hardware acquisition is a top priority for districts, including access to technology devices and internet connection. Low income households were more than twice as likely to report difficulty in helping their children remain engaged.

The report underscored the need for a fundamental shift in how we measure learning. The pandemic reignited the battle to ditch high-stakes testing for a “formative assessment” approach that’s part of the regular instructional cycle. Although half of educators and parents feel students have significantly fallen behind due to COVID-19, only 29% of parents and teachers felt high-stakes testing was an important measurement of learning. Whereas 76% of educators delivered formative assessments to check students’ understanding during the pandemic.

On the higher ed side, we saw similar expectations around hybrid learning continuing in our latest October 2021 report and identified some areas that institutions can improve, like instructors’ usage of technology and designing courses to support mobile users. We also found that mental health is increasingly critical, with 92% of administrators, faculty, and students viewing student psychological well-being as an impactful socioeconomic factor influencing student success. Students are more than grades; administrators, faculty, and students are defining success more holistically and adjusting campus support to match that definition.

Some of the areas schools are most focused on are around improving engagement, especially online / hybrid courses, and additional supports for students.

And finally skills-based learning emerged as a priority in year-two of the COVID-19 crisis, especially in North America. 70% of respondents say that having definable skills is more important than course titles or a degree.

What can you share about your revenue, growth—and what’s ahead?

As you know we filed our IPO in July and just completed our most recent earnings report. We had a strong quarter, with revenue of $107.2 million, an increase of 31% year-over-year. Going private has allowed us to return to a much more laser focused approach on education which is what so many of our customers and investors were asking for. Our growth reflects that renewed focus. We feel like we’re well-positioned at the center of the teaching and learning ecosphere, have a strong growth trajectory, and see considerable opportunities in front of us both domestically and internationally as we continue to execute our platform strategy. 

‘We feel like we’re well-positioned at the center of the teaching and learning ecosphere, have a strong growth trajectory, and see considerable opportunities in front of us…’

We’ve had some great wins that I think really demonstrate how the education community is responding to our products. Johns Hopkins University and Miami Dade College announced they are replacing their LMS provider with Canvas, and we added a new statewide assessment contract with Vermont.

And overall, we’re seeing continued utilization of our tools at significantly higher levels than pre-pandemic, even after many students returned to the classroom.

This strong usage further increases our confidence that we will remain the core platform for teaching and learning and a cornerstone in the digital transformation of education, regardless of whether education is delivered in an in-person, virtual, or hybrid context.

Congrats and thanks for all your insight, Steve! Anything else you care to add or emphasize concerning edtech, the role of your company in particular, or the future of education?

I think you can’t underscore Instructure’s commitment to both integration and openness enough. So many schools standardize on Instructure’s solutions as their core learning platform because we bring together all of the tools needed to create an accessible and modern learning environment.  We’re fortunate to have one of the most active online communities in edtech, with more than 1.4 million members.

‘We’re fortunate to have one of the most active online communities in edtech, with more than 1.4 million members.’

We strive to be that connected hub between teachers, students, parents, content providers, and an always growing ecosystem of partners. This summer we launched our EdTech Collective, which currently has over 500+ partner organizations ranging from large tech companies like Microsoft, Google, and Zoom, to educator favorites like Classcraft and Nearpod. In fact in Q4 of 2020, students utilized our partner-integrated products 2.7 billion times. 

A key element to that is our ongoing work with the educational standards bodies like Ed-Fi and IMS Global to ensure interoperability. We believe that no matter which solutions a district chooses to use, their data should move securely and seamlessly.

For example, we just announced that Videri became the first product to attain certification with Ed-Fi for three critical use cases—chronic absenteeism, assessment and equity.

Instructure has long supported data integration and its use at scale for education organizations of all sizes. Our Academic Benchmarks solution has been certified since 2018, and MasteryConnect was the very first assessment management system to become Ed-Fi certified in 2019. We also work closely with IMS Global on their key initiatives for the future, such as Comprehensive Learner Record.

Victor Rivero is Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: [email protected]

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