One of the founding concepts of the United States Sports Academy in 1972 was that it would be a “university without walls.”

Today, those walls and other barriers to delivering a high quality, dynamic learning environment continue to disappear.

The latest improvement: Academy students will be able to take online courses in Canvas beginning Sept. 1. This computer platform, commonly referred to as a Learning Management System (LMS), is replacing Moodle, the platform used by the Academy for the past few years.

More than 300 colleges use the Canvas online educational platform.

Thanks to students’ feedback and the commitment of the university’s faculty and staff to deliver the best sports education in the world, the new online education platform was recently chosen from among three other finalists that included Blackboard, Campus Cruiser and Adrenna Academic.

Dr. Stephen Butler, who led the Academy’s team that chose Canvas after a four-month review, says everyone should be excited about the transition from Moodle to Canvas.

“It’s like a one-on-one basketball game between Michael Jordan [Canvas] in his prime and an average high school player [Moodle],” says Butler, Dean of Instructional Design and Technology. “With Canvas, we want our students and faculty to start thinking that anything is possible.”

How does Canvas benefit students, faculty and the university? Among the biggest enhancements are:

• Students can access their sports courses on any computer device, including smartphones or tablets through Mobile Apps. Through the Apps, students can view grades, check course progress, participate in discussions and post and receive text, audio or video messages.
• Students can choose how to receive notifications or messages from faculty, other students and the school, such as through texts, Facebook, Twitter or emails.
• Canvas’ SpeedGrader allows students to receive better and quicker feedback on assignments from faculty because there are more tools and the system is integrated with the rubrics. All this is done without downloading or uploading files.
• Students will never have to worry about Canvas shutting down Academy courses for maintenance or upgrades because the company hosts the system.
• Canvas employs a modern, intuitive design that is easy to navigate and use for the Academy’s students, faculty and course developers.

“At the Academy, we are always looking for ways to improve our educational programs for our students,” says Dr. Thomas P. Rosandich, the Academy’s President and CEO. “Students are our No. 1 priority. We’ve been an innovator and leader in sport education for more than 40 years, and Canvas allows us to continue that tradition.”

In the fall, the Academy embarked on a journey to find a better LMS for its students. The selection committee included Butler; Matthew Ellis, Coordinator of Student Information Systems; Joshua Walker, Web Master; and Katie McCleary, Interaction Information Designer. The group attended conference calls and webinars with each of the potential providers and then narrowed the search to the final two—Canvas and Campus Cruiser.

Both high-tech companies traveled to the Academy to show off their systems and to give the Academy the opportunity to see how their technology would interact with the university’s educational programs.

Canvas, a rapidly growing startup begun in 2008, boasts an industry-pushing platform that now counts 300-plus colleges, universities and school districts as users. The Utah-based company employs more than 200 people.

Canvas CEO Josh Coates calls what the company does “revolutionary.” The company highlights several higher education successes, including:

• At Pasadena City College, a steering committee of faculty, students and staff gave Canvas an overall 9.0 ranking, compared to 7.4 for Moodle and 6.3 for Blackboard.
• At Bowling Green State University, the university conducted a pilot using Canvas that involved 94 faculty teaching 140 classes to 3,400 students. About 75 percent of faculty and students said they wanted to continue using the Canvas application, so Bowling Green replaced Blackboard and Epsilen.
• At Lower Columbia College, more than 1,000 faculty, students and staff judged Canvas on 15 essential and 11 important criteria, including the grade book, calendar, integration with social media, mobility, usability, communications and more. The responses were 99 percent positive.

“I’ve had teary-eyed hugs from people who use Canvas,” Coates says. “That kind of weirded me out the first time it happened, but the fifth time it happened, I’m like, ‘Oh it’s cool. It makes a huge difference in the teachers’ lives and their students’ lives.’ And that matters. They get passionate about it, so I think that’s awesome.”

From the start, the Academy has used distance learning. In the beginning, the program included correspondence study courses that eventually evolved to primarily a web-based delivery in January 2001. A recent national survey pointed out what Academy leaders have long known: 77 percent of chief academic officers rate online education as the same or superior to face-to-face instruction.

Today, the Academy, which is the largest graduate school of sport education in the world, is 100 percent online 24/7/365. Known as “America’s Sports University,” it provides even more flexibility to students by offering rolling enrollment that allows students to start their courses anytime from anywhere.

The Academy’s online courses are regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) and approved by the North American Society for Sport Management (NASSM). They have also earned recognition from the U.S. Department of Education Distance Learning Demonstration Project, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) and the U.S. Distance Learning Association (USDLA).

Butler points out that the Academy will offer a tutorial and training on Canvas for faculty and students. Moodle will remain running until the last student finishes his or her course in that platform. However, all students who register for courses after Sept. 1 will use the new Canvas platform.

“I believe our faculty and students will be as excited as we are once they start using Canvas,” Butler says. “It was pretty obvious that Canvas was the best choice.”