This year, Instructure held their annual Canvas conference, #InstCon 16. The consciously kitschy summer camp theme drew from and heightened the stunning beauty of the host town, Keystone, Colorado. I attended with my colleague Keegan Long-Wheeler, and, over the course of the week, the two of us walked something like 35 miles along stream-side paths going from one conference site to the next—I nearly ran out of eggs in Pokemon Go.

As a PR event, the conference was clearly designed to build brand loyalty. The food, housing, and surroundings were fantastic, and both Keegan and I quoted Jurassic Park’s John Hammond repeatedly:

Spared No Expense meme from Jurassic Park

Along with the luxurious summer camp, the Panda, the unofficial icon of the Canvas brand, was omnipresent and further promoted the branding purpose of the conference:

While the setting and the branding will be the most memorable aspects of the trip, the conference itself was also very successful. I met a broad range of educators including everyone from Australian boarding schools, to large American K-12 systems, to Canadian techs working on self-hosted LMS solutions, to Big 10 edTech types. The talks were generally good (more on that below) and I got a lay of the land in terms of what people are doing with Canvas, what the key challenges are, and how both programmers and instructors are expanding the boundaries of what Canvas can do as an LMS.

I blogged about most of the presentations I attended. Most of these are simple summaries of the presentation with a few connecting thoughts or reflections:

The talks were a bit uneven. About 70% of the talks I attended at InstCon were well done, which puts it inline with almost every other conference I’ve attended. Sage-on-a-stage is never my favorite presentation format, and the 50 minute talks were too long for my attention span. Part of the reason I blogged so much was create a note-taking challenge to force myself to stay engaged.

As the Atlantic continually reminds us, lecture is an art-form and some of the presenters were more gifted than others. Terence Priester’s gave an excellent presentation on reflective student blogging at Newington College, Sydney, and he held the audience’s attention throughout. The presentations on Design Thinking and Role-Play, two subjects that I’m extremely interested in, failed because they failed to connect to Canvas in the first case and failed to identify a broader impact/application in the second.

For me, the most interesting talks were those that focused on Canvas’s API and LTI integrations. The ability to pull basic information about student activity through the Canvas API and use that to trigger notifications to the teacher and/or students is really exciting. For example, you could pull the data for a course to see which students had logged in over the last week or accessed the various pages related to a specific lesson. You could then use code to trigger an email to any students who hadn’t logged in for a few days or weeks to remind them about the importance of consistent activity. Alternatively, you could create a dashboard to visualize activity, grades, textual analysis, etc. from a course. The talk on Google Scripts demonstrated how to do this data analysis with lightweight apps while user groups for Tableau showed how to do this on a larger scale.

Going into the conference, I wanted to know more about what people were doing to help students transition into Canvas. Here at OU, we had already built a Canvas module with introductory material that can be added to any class. We are also planning open office hours, tutorials, class visits, and walk up support. At the conference, I was hoping to hear about more creative answers that offered insight into making something as mundane as LMS migration interesting to students. However, I couldn’t find anything outside the box. I talked to several people about complications and solutions, but almost everyone is following the same set of best practices that we were already developing. I would like to continue to think about how we could use fun topics (pop culture, sports, trivia, University History/Culture) and interesting mechanics (gamification, BuzzFeed style quizzes, etc) to familiarize students with Canvas.

The conference on the whole was memorable and fun and served as a great orientation into the Canvas ecosystem. I hope that next year, they will offer or I will find more in-depth discussions of some aspects of Canvas. I think they did a great job with the Code Hacking night to let programmers get their hands dirty, and I would like to see that applied in other places in the program. A few more seminar style discussions of the role of the LMS in broader pedagogy, its varying uses based on whether classes are traditional face-to-face, flipped, hybrid, or online would be useful. More discussion of the role of the LMS in an increasingly open and online information environment would be great. More participatory and hands on technical discussions (rather than sage-on-a-stage) would be useful. Ultimately all of these are normal complaints for any conference. As I get embedded in this affinity group, I can make InstCon 2017 more successful by simply arranging meetings with the people I want to talk to and having the targeted discussions and explorations that I want to have. Hopefully, I’ll still stumble into some good talks, and I’m sure I’ll still enjoy the festivities.