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For many years, Penn students used Blackboard and webCafé as their primary means of getting course materials from professors. But two new learning management systems may begin to rival the original two systems this fall.

This semester, Canvas, which is challenging webCafé in the Wharton School, will be used in over 150 classes — a quarter of those offered at Wharton. Coursekit — an educational social network started by three Penn students who left school after last semester to develop their product — will be used in 23 classes across the four undergraduate schools.

Both Canvas and Coursekit emulate social media sites such as Facebook and Google where students can post content and engage with their professors and classmates in a way that brings life to the academic community online.

*Increased engagement *

What sets Canvas apart is that it allows professors to download mobile applications and administer online mini-quizzes, Vice Dean of Innovation wrote in an email.

Students can also control how they receive updates from Canvas by setting up text message notifications when professors have changed syllabi or posted new content.

Ulrich — who used Canvas in a class last spring — said the program helped him to use class time more effectively.

Options such as the mini-quizzes helped students prepare material for class and stimulated in-class discussion, he added.

Coursekit, on the other hand, aims to generate more class discussions online by allowing students and professors to create their own profiles, post interesting links on the course home page and comment on them. The professor can also post lecture notes and homework assignments.

Coursekit Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer Joseph Cohen left Wharton after his sophomore year in 2011 to pursue the project full-time. He was partly inspired to create an education social network after taking an Engineering class called “Networked Life.”

The class, taught by Computer and Information Science professor Michael Kearns, examines how the world is connected by networks. This semester, he told his students to sign up for a Coursekit account.

“If a former student from my class took the risk to leave school and commit himself to something so directly related to the course, and I’m not willing to give it a try, then who is going to give him a chance?” Kearns said.

With Coursekit, Kearns hopes to make his class more interactive.

“The underlying theme of the class is social media and how people interact, so this seems like a natural match for the class,” Kearns said.
Positive feedback*

“WebCafé is arcane and completely outdated,” Wharton Marketing professor Americus Reed said. He compared webCafé to a file-storing system, whereas Canvas is a communication platform for professors and students.

Reed also compared the shift from webCafé to Canvas to the transition from VHS to DVD. While some might resist the change, he believes the decision will not be questioned in the future.

“The great teachers are going to adopt it,” Reed said, adding that habits will “change or die.”

In addition, the 450 students who tried Canvas last spring responded “extremely positively,” Wharton Senior Information Technology Project Leader Ben Adams said.

Students in “Networked Life” have likewise responded positively to Coursekit. Engineering and Wharton junior Parth Doshi especially likes the site’s interface.

“You actually want to go and use it, instead of Blackboard and webCafé, where you generally don’t want to go visit it,” he said.

Doshi only spent about five to 10 minutes getting used to the site, explaining that his familiarity with Facebook was helpful.

Future adoption

Although it is uncertain whether webCafé and Blackboard will be phased out completely, many are excited for alternatives that offer a social aspect to online learning.

The Graduate School of Education, for example, will use Canvas in its Teach for America Urban Teacher Program this fall and plans to replace all of its Blackboard interfaces with Canvas by Spring 2012.

This academic year marks the expanded pilot of Canvas, as it is available to any Wharton faculty who choose to use it.

“Wharton [IT] sees that Canvas is a worthy successor to webCafé … we expect that it will be embraced and adopted” by those why try it, Adams said.

Coursekit plans on releasing their product to the public later in the fall. They are currently looking for more professors to use the program and hiring developers and designers to build more features.

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